Luther and Bach

Today is Reformation Sunday and marks the fifth and final post in this series. We’ve been celebrating the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation by learning about Luther’s musical legacy.


I mentioned last week that the Wartburg castle (where Martin Luther translated the entire New Testament into German in an amazing eleven weeks) is located in the town of Eisenach .

Two decades earlier, Luther atten­ded St. George’s Latin School in Eise­nach (1498 to 1501) to prepare for the Uni­versity of Erfurt.  More than 100 years later, Johann Sebastian Bach was born (1685) and raised in Eisenach, attending the same school. Both men were also choirboys at St. George’s.

Luther’s Influence on Johann Sebastian Bach

In parts two and three of this series, we learned that Luther was convinced that music was a vital part of worship, composing hymns and encouraging music for congregational singing.

Two centuries after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg (1517), Johann Sebastian Bach began working for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen from 1717 – 1723. Before this, Bach had been an organist for more than a decade and had started composing.  Bach’s employer followed the teachings of John Calvin who taught that worship songs should only be simple, without instrumentation, and strictly from the Word (mainly the Psalms). Bach composed most of his secular work during this time.

After working for the prince, Luther held a significant position in Leipzig from 1723 until his death in 1750. Many of his compositions were composed during his time in Leipzig when he oversaw the music for four churches.

Bach, whose Lutheran faith shines through his work, penned “Soli Deo gloria” or “SDG” (Latin for “Glory to God alone”) on the bottom of his musical scores and also on some of his secular compositions. His personal library contained about eighty-three religious books, including Luther’s greatest works.

Bach is known for composing some of the world’s finest sacred music. I didn’t research when Bach composed all of these, but a few of his greatest sacred works are the Mass in B minor (I’m listening to it now), the St. Matthew Passion, Cantata No. 140, the Magnificat in D major, the St. John Passion, and Cantata No. 80, which was based on Luther’s own words from A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (or “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott”).

Performances of Bach’s Works

I’ve been a fan of Bach’s works most all of my life. Here’s a small sampling for you:

  • Cantata No. 80 was written for Reformation Sunday and may have been first performed in Leipzig.
  • If you’re like me, you’re used to the grand performances, but Bach would’ve used just a small group of singers and instruments. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen re-enact Bach pieces so we can experience them as people first heard them. You might enjoy their video of J. S. Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm.

From the Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee

For today’s video, I found one of Luther’s powerful hymns which he based on Psalm 130:

Lyrics of From the Depths of Woe (from

From depths of woe I raise to Thee
The voice of lamentation;
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication;
If Thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?

To wash away the crimson stain,
Grace, grace alone availeth;
Our works, alas! are all in vain;
In much the best life faileth:
No man can glory in Thy sight,
All must alike confess Thy might,
And live alone by mercy.

Therefore my trust is in the Lord,
And not in mine own merit;
On Him my soul shall rest, His Word
Upholds my fainting spirit:
His promised mercy is my fort,
My comfort, and my sweet support;
I wait for it with patience.

What though I wait the livelong night,
And till the dawn appeareth,
My heart still trusteth in His might;
It doubteth not nor feareth:
Do thus, O ye of Israel’s seed,
Ye of the Spirit born indeed;
And wait till God appeareth.

Though great our sins and sore our woes,
His grace much more aboundeth;
His helping love no limit knows,
Our utmost need it soundeth.
Our Shepherd good and true is He,
Who will at last His Israel free.
From all their sin and sorrow.

The posts in this series, celebrating Martin Luther’s Musical Legacy

On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  I’m using the five Sundays of October 2017 to celebrate Luther’s five centuries of influence through music.


The last in this 5-part series on The Sovereign blog


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