Monday, February 20, 2017

Lutheriana: Martin Luther in Jazz

Photo © Falk Kulawik

If, like me, you didn't know that Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of Protestant Church, had a role in the advancement of western music, then the concert Lutheriana, held at the Church of Jesus Christ in Berlin, would have a revelation, not only for its historical and musical lessons, but because of learning it the most cheerful way: the jazz way.

On February 11, in a bitterly cold Berlin evening, I skipped a Berlinale screening at the Potsdamer Platz and instead headed off to the quiet neighborhood of Dahlem to catch a concert by my friend Ekkehard Wölk who has contributed to this blog since it was started.

Ekkehard Wölk (Photo by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

The occasion for the concert was the 500th anniversary of Reformation, when Luther, the rebellious monk from Thüringen in East Germany, nailed down his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Schloßkirche in the town of Wittenberg, condemning the oppressive practices of his times. That was not only the inception of, if I may borrow from John Coltrane, a "new thing", but also the beginning of many battles and bloodshed between the two major Europeans branches of Christianity. If these facts we all know, what we probably don't know about is Luther as the musician.

Ekkehard told me that Martin Luther strongly believed in the power of music for religious purposes and for attracting the masses to the church, therefore he himself composed numerous church songs for his newly formed theological community.

"With this, he established a completely new and long-lasting tradition of so-called Protestant chorals," Ekkehard said, "sung in German during religious services, these chorals happened to provide the musical base for some of the most glorious cantatas and other compositions by some of the greatest German composers, like Johann Walter, Heinrich Schütz, Johann Sebastian Bach, and later even Felix Mendelssohn."

From right: Walter Gauchel, Andrea Marcelli, Jörn Henrich, Ekkehard Wölk (Photo by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

Back to the Church of Jesus Christ, famous for its fine acoustics and subtle reverb leading to being a favorite place for recordings classical music (even by the Berlin Philharmonic), what Ekkehard Wölk did was to translate this particular historical and musical background into the language of jazz. The arrangements were based on well-known chorals from 1523 to the mid 18th century which somehow seem to represent the core of the musical side of Protestantism.

Excerpts from Lutheriana

The music was performed by an ensemble, featuring Ekkehard on piano, Jörn Henrich on bass,  Andrea Marcelli on drums and clarinet, with guest star Walter Gauchel switching between reed instruments and providing a climax reminiscing of the "sacred" outcries of John Coltrane. The other guest, Kristoff Becker on cello, brought both modern textures and a baroque feeling to the ensemble.

Photo by Ehsan Khoshbakht

The concert was recorded by Deutschlandradio Kultur and it will be broadcast on Monday, March 6 at 8:05 PM.


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