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No. 163 December 2017


More and more often we hear that we are living in times of anxiety. On the one hand, there is a threat of nuclear conflict with North Korea, and on the other hand, in some cities, there is a threat of terrorist attacks, and let's not forget about the dangers of a hybrid war that a decade have nobody even heard of. The whole situation is “spiced up” by increasingly tense discussions about sudden technological advancements in areas such as genetics or robotics. Of course, there are much more "hot topics", I just mentioned the ones that came to mind first. As you can see, we live in "interesting times".

As a historian (by trade), I have to disappoint all those who treat this type of perturbation as a kind of pause in periods of peace. The history of human civilization proves rather that it was the last dozen or so years in Europe that was an anomaly, something unprecedented. Normally, the reality of the Old Continent was equally chaotic and dangerous, as today, if not more so. Just look at the history of wars in Europe. After reading about them you can lose a desire to live. Our ancestors waged war with each other all the time, bringing this “art” to perfection.

I do not want to be just a bearer of bad news. The positive news in this context is that, even in these "interesting times", cultural, social and scientific life flourishes. We do not need to live in a safe bubble to be able to create, explore, and ask important questions. I will say even more: it is hard to resist the impression that humanity is in need of something endangering it. Let's take the first example: renaissance Italy. Probably no one will deny that this era in the Italian Peninsula was extremely lush both in terms of art and philosophy. It is rarely mentioned, however, that, for most of that period, the Italian city-states were in state of brutal wars with each other and with outside powers such as France and the First Reich. In spite of this, the anxieties did not interfere with Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina composed dozens of his Masses, hymns and motets.

| The 500-th Reformation Anniversary

I am mentioning all this because yesterday, on October 31, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther, a modest Augustinian from a rather provincial area compared to Rome or Paris, presented his famous theses (although he did not nail them to any door), which - as it turned out later - shook the world. As a result of the activities of Luther, Philip Melanchthon and their associates, there was a peculiar "accumulation" of important and often bloody events that forever changed the face of the Old Continent. But it was also the beginning of the necessary changes in many areas. It would be hard to list them all, so I'm referring only to one, which High Fidelity Readers will find most interesting: music.

It, obviously, did not change overnight, especially from the point of view of theoretical assumptions and their practical application. Modern scholars point out that a truly revolutionary moment in the history was the work of the Florentine Camerata, that proposed to move away from medieval perception of music, that is the love of polyphony, and to turn to the principles proposed by the ancient Greeks with the key role of monody. Me - I do not know about you – I am not a great fan of music theory. I am much more interested in the part this field of art played in the everyday lives of people - and that did undoubtedly change with the spread of Luther's teachings.

So, in order to celebrate the anniversary, after all we rarely have an occasion to celebrate any 500th anniversary, I decided to offer readers of the "High Fidelity" some information on Protestantism and music in this fraction of Christianity. It took me some time to decide how to present this topic. Finally I decided to describe the place and role of Protestant music in the lives of people in modern Europe.

This text is supplemented by two others. The first one is an interview with Dr Rafał Szmytka, an employee of the Department of Historical Anthropology at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, who specializes in the history of modern Europe, with a special focus on the contemporary areas of Belgium and the Netherlands. The idea is to bring you closer to the climate of that era, which - of course - also reflected clearly on the music. In the second one you will read a review of two anniversary music releases, which have been marked with a special logo of the Reformation Anniversary (Germ. reformationsjubiläum).

I hope that reading the whole thing will give you the same joy as working on it gave me. I believe that this text will be comforting to all those who are tired of living in "interesting times." These can be and are difficult, but at the same time ... interesting.


Department of Historical Anthropology
History Institute at Jagiellonian University in Cracow

Mr Rafał Szmytka in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in the background the Rembrandt's Night watch; photo: Rafał Szmytka

Few people realize that the roots of Protestantism are to be found not in Germany or the Czech, but in the Netherlands – one can refer to the Franciscan William Ockham or Gerard Groot. Why was it there where this new spirituality in the Middle Ages was born?

Devotio moderna, is the movement you're referring to, actually originates from the Netherlands - the homeland of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas a Kempis, who alongside Gerard Grote can be identified as the main representative of this trend. The path for the lay societies of Friars and Sisters of Common Life founded by him, seeking the spiritual renewal of the Catholic Church has already been laid down by the secular assemblies of Beguines and Beghards , which the papacy recognized as hatcheries of the heresy. To this day Béguinages – oasis of calm from the urban hustle - can be found in the full of tourists Bruges or in Leuven. Not surprisingly, shortly after Martin Luther's announcement of 95 theses, the statements contained in them fell on the fertile ground in the Netherlands, and in 1520 the first edicts against heretics were published and a year later, the first stake was burned - this time only with books.

Historians often point to significant differences in the mentality of people in the Middle Ages and in modern times. How much influence on this change had the new faction in Christianity?
I think that in this context, the very emergence of the possibility of choosing religion, especially in areas like some provinces of the Netherlands and the Republic of Poland that offered such possibility, has played its part, and it was used it to justify people's own way of life. This is perfectly illustrated by the wealthy Dutch bourgeoisie who scrupulously collected wealth - after all, according to the Calvinist predestination, the one who succeeds will surely be saved. Similarly, the difference can be seen in the approach to helping the poor, who in the Protestant countries were to be rehabilitated through work in closed factories such as Bridewell in London or Rasphuis in Amsterdam.

Religion in the everyday life of people of the Middle Ages played a very important if not key role. How does something that today can be called "slow life" influenced Protestantism? Did it promote in some way (if so: how?) specific forms of rest? Or maybe it just focused on banning some forms of it, such as dancing?

There is no better contemporary example of slow life than Mikołaj Rej's Żywot człowieka poczciwego. We find there a whole paragraph about how much pleasure a rest in the bosom of nature or conversations with friends offer. Let us not forget that the author of this Arcadian vision of the Polish village of the mid 16th century was a true Protestant, whom Catholic opponents accused of the Church desecration calling him a "lusting Satan."

How did Protestantism influence artists, their lives and work? Did it allow - by emphasizing the freedom of every Christian - to lose the limiting corset of rules that governed medieval art? Or did it impose limitations itself, just of another kind?

Let me answer with question: can this metaphorical "medieval corset" be seen in the paintings of Flemish masters of the fifteenth century such as: Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and little later of Hieronymus Bosch? With the passing of time, painting techniques (which Johannes Stradanus emphasized in his graphic depictions of contemporary times) and fashion changed - just look at the works of great Italian artists.

Let's get back to the Netherlands: from the late Middle Ages there a trend in painting develops that serves to initiate convivium - conversation (not only) at the table. Such was the task of Wedding portrait of Arnofilich (1434), Babel's Tower (1563) by Pieter Breugel but also of paintings by Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, such as coming from the Catholic South Netherlands Pieter Paul Rubens (Descent from the Cross, 1618) and Jacob Jordaens (King drinks, 1638) and from the Protestant Northern Netherlands such as Rembrandt (The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburgh, 1642) and Jan Steen (Crazy Farm, 1660 ).

Luther Rose, a symbol of Protestantism; (source: Wikipedia, public domain)

What's more, artists painted what the client wanted them to - the patron or simply the person who ordered the painting according to the artist's portfolio - and let us not be surprised, because since the medieval times sculpture based on the so-called patrons, or patterns were "produced" in the Netherlands. As a result, in almost every Dutch home in the modern era one could up to several dozens of paintings of varying quality and value. These manifestations of "wealth" along with the goods flowing from the colonies contributed to the rise of the golden age myth.

European historians point to the period of Reformation as the time when proto-propaganda was born. What role did art play in it? This aspect is interesting to me particularly in the context of music, but also of painting and sculpture.

First of all, we have to talk about propaganda without the prefix "proto". In the sixteenth century, it was a well-developed field that benefited all parties of religious, social and state conflicts. It is often said that the French revolution or the industrial revolution marked the end of the modern age. In fact, it has produced several other "revolutionary" changes. One of them was the printing and the ability to spread content, written word on an unprecedented scale.

Great artists – painters and graphic artists – were involved in spreading the idea of reformation and in religious or political propaganda. Their works were reproduced as woodcuts and later copperplate engravings. These could be purchased at the markets of the Dutch cities, but also in Paris, in Bremen or even in Gdańsk within one month and most importantly - at a small price. Due to the high percentage of illiteracy among European society, iconography, on par with oral content, played a significant role. The written word should be given only a secondary role. RS


Not many know this, but Martin Luther - as the sources tells us - was musically talented. And educated in music, at least to some degree. The future reformer of Christianity explored the secrets of liberal arts (septem artes liberales), which also included music. It is worth adding - because you will need this information later - that in the Middle Ages it was perceived as a science, not an art per se.

The theory of music, however, can be explored for years, and still have absolutely no talent to perform it. Dr. Luther was supposed to, however, delight people with beauty of his voice. Hans Sachs, one of the most important German meistersinger of the sixteenth century, author to around 4300 (!) religious and secular musical pieces (to which, in the meantime, he added 2,000 more poems and fairy-tales) was impressed with Luther's skills. The artist wrote even in 1523 a poem in honor of Luther, entitled Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall. It is true that the author as fertile as Sachs could have used any topic (after all these 6,000 works had to be based on something) and significantly "magnify" Luther's talent, however, he is not the only person who succumbed to the Luther musician magic. It is worth adding that Martin Luther not only sang but also played the lute.

The Reformer of the Church was a lover of music, but also - which is even more important in our deliberations - was well aware of its power. In her article Przepędza diabła, dostarcza radości. Luter, reformacja i protestantyzm w muzyce i o muzyce (in: Pomocnik historyczny „Polityka”) Dorota Szwarcman cited - extremely poetic - Augustinian opinions on this type of art:

I love music […]. And music is, firstly: God's gift and it does not come from man; secondly: cheers heart; thirdly: drives the devil away; fourthly: it provides innocent joy. Thanks to music anger passes, temptations and pride disappear. The first place after theology I give to music.

It is not surprising, given the high position of music (the second one) in Luther's eyes, that the Protestants from the beginning treated it as something more than just a science. It was a source of emotion (not scientific excitement), but also a priceless tool: both in affirmation of the new principles of faith and in the struggle with Rome.

Magazine's cover Marcin Luter i reformacja. 500 lat protestantyzmu, „Polityka”

This - nomen omen - instrumental approach to music in Protestant churches has appeared on several different levels. Above all, they tried to give up complicated and elaborate polyphonic songs, which often lost the meaning of the words being sung. Songs were characterized by syllabic (so one note contained one syllable) and a simple structure. The Protestants wanted the music to be the source of the desired information (for example, the rules governing new religion or propaganda news), so that - in that form – it reached everyone, even the people of the lowest social status. As Dr. Szmytka mentioned in the interview, in the 16th century "the written word should be given a secondary role"; very few people could read and write at the time, but everyone could listen to and say/sing (I mean of course, the ability to produce sounds accompanying music, not the vocal talent). Although Luther, while alive, could not quite decide what order should a service have, the music never lost its importance.

But where did Luther and other Protestant clergy take so structured and, in addition, with the corresponding text, songs from? First of all, they wrote them themselves. It is Martin Luther who is credited for writing the lyrics, and sometimes also the music, to the famous song Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. The Reformator, as a person with great knowledge of the Scripture, referred in this case to Psalm 46 under the same title, which probably greatly accelerated and facilitated his work. (Nota bene, this practice - taking the words of individual psalms and composing the corresponding melody - is a particularly popular practice in the new Protestant factions, such as the Baptists and Pentecostals).

Sometimes, however, a curious and very ingenious procedure called contrafactum was used. It consisted of replacing well-known words of Catholic songs while maintaining a perfectly recognizable melody. This way the faithful - for the most part, uneducated people - did not have to try too hard to get to know the "new" song. Therefor such "covers" could be very quickly memorized, which of course helped to spread the teachings of Luther and other Protestant clergy. It also provided a sense of stability and longevity of the Protestant religion, which, in comparison to the more than 1000 years of Catholic tradition, fell, at least in this respect, short. It is also worth adding, that Luther's desire for text to play the key role, succeeded. A few years after the death of the Reformator, the already mentioned Camerata Florentine, will seek the same thing, though with a completely different motive.

The Protestant music in the sixteenth century was to be a source of joy, but also (and perhaps even above all) a flexible propaganda tool. The most important part in it was played by the text, and the melody itself was to be as simple as possible. Protestants tried to get rid from it - for the sake of their cause – of the scientific element, which for the simple people (but also for some educated ones) was most often incomprehensible. What is interesting, however, is that the most remarkable composer of the Baroque period (and perhaps, as I strongly believe of the European civilization in general), Johann Sebastian Bach, has emerged and worked in the realm of German Protestant music. The same Bach, whose songs are refined to the limit (for example: Die Kunst Der Fuge) and most demanding for performers.

Hymn Nun freut euch by Martin Luter (source: Wikipedia public domain)

Let us not be surprised by this apparent contradiction. Everything that last over a sufficiently long period tends to get complicated, and remember that Johann Sebastian was born 1685, almost 140 years after Martin Luther had left his home town of Eisleben. At that time Protestant music was subjected to various influences, which of course did not leave it “untouched”. Still, many references to the music of the first Protestants can be found in the works of the most famous member of the Bach family. Like them, the Leipzig cantor considered music a great gift from God and the most perfect instrument in praising his glory. Moreover, thanks to the mastery of the principles of harmony and counterpoint, he could adequately emphasize the text, which was never indifferent to him.

Dr. Luther's speech, which I have tried to honor in this text, has triggered countless changes in different fields, and the intentions of his actions have nothing to do with it. Some aspects of life in 16th century Europe had to evolve (because of the stagnation) - and it concerned also the music. The work of Protestant artists remains highly revered even today, and even the most ardent adversaries of this faction can not refuse the excellency of such works as Bach's St Matthew Passion or V Symphony in D minor by Mendelssohn. All the more so today we should be proud of our common European heritage, forgetting about old disagreements and enjoying what - often in great hardships and nasty conditions - our ancestors had achieved. There is a lot to enjoy and to listen to.

Round anniversaries always feed our imagination. For some reason, people like to remember a historical figure or an important event when 10, 50, 100 or 200 years passes. For example, for three years (and it will lat for another year) we've seen arrival of numerous publications concerning the First World War. Not surprisingly, as it is now, over the years 2014-2018, that it is 100 years since this massive clash of events, including its beginning and end.

Of course, the same is true of the Reformation - the more so since its beginning, which happened on 31st October 1517, not “just” 100, but 500 (say: half a thousand!) years has passed. However, unlike in the case of the devastating European war between the Second Reich and its allies and the Entente, such a gratifying theme as undoubtedly the Reformation is, could be celebrated not only by organizing scientific conferences or publishing books, but also by releasing music albums. After all, as I tried to demonstrate above, in this faction (factions) of Christianity it played an important role. Below you can read reviews of two such anniversary publications.

Reformation 1517-2017
Graham Ross & Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

Harmonia Mundi, HMM 90226)
CD (25.08.2017)

I decided to start with a new proposal, released this year. This item - released by a well-known label specializing in early music: Harmonia Mundi - is a 73-minute compilation of the most associated with Protestantism pieces. Of course, it has to include Johann Sebastian Bach and his cantatas (BWV 79 and BWV 80), as well as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's (MVW A7) and Johannes Brahms' (P. 74, No. 1). These compositions were complemented by five short (no longer than 50 seconds) compositions - for example, this album starts with the Luter Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott hymn, it also includes a longer piece of Ralph Vaughan titled Lord, thou hast been our refuge.

Unfortunately this release is quite… disappointing. Don't get me wrong: the Reformation 1517-2017 albums is a really good one. The problem is that 90% of its content is well known – most of us listened to this music hundreds of times before. Why would I need yet another, almost identical performance of Bach's cantatas, since I already know dozens of others? What's the use of yet another recordings of Brahms and Mendelssohn?

The more so, that Graham Ross and his Choir of Clare College in their profession (at least on this album) are not at their best. Technically it is very good, but it is hard for me to pretend there are no better Bach specialists in the world (I mean Rene Jacobs). The above mentioned works of lesser known composers are the exception here. These, though most of them are very short, are extremely interesting and allow me to feel “the spirit of the epoch”. And see its musical rendition from a new, broader, unknown perspective. It's just a pity that in order to reach them, one has to listen to material that one already knows so well.

Luther und die Musik

Christophorus Records CHR 77403
9 x CD (2016)

A complete opposite (I mean in terms of the quality of the performance, and the excitement inspired by this release) is the nine-disc box prepared by Christophorus Records. It's a small German label founded in 1935, which specializes in the "unknown repertoire and historical interpretation", as we read on its official website. It seems that the people working there have an extensive knowledge of the topic, because they prepared the release that I can highly recommend.

It includes, as already hinted, as many as nine discs filled with curious, rather unknown material. There is no - luckily! - space for any of the well-known compositions. Instead, we receive a decent dose of 16th-century music, whose diversity and freshness should be admired even by those who know the works of the Renaissance and Baroque very well.

Moreover, the contents of the whole box has not been chosen accidentaly. In the included booklet, Mortiz Kelber describes exactly what can be found on each disc and why. For example, the silver disc number two (titled Ein Musikabend im Hause Luther) contains the music that Martin Luther could listen to and perform at home for his entertainment. In turn CD no. 5 (Der Gegenspieler Albrecht von Brandenburg) attempts to familiarize listeners with the musical climate of the powerful House of Habsburgs and the German Reich 16th century elites. Each album is a separate story in this publication, but they all together create a larger, inner-coherent story of Luther, Protestantism, the German Reich and the 16th century man.

The quality of the Luther und die Musik box itself does not raise any objections. It looks really good, and the booklet with a description of the content (in two languages: German and English) gives us in a simple way, an idea of the philosophy behind the choice of certain music pieces. The envelopes in which the silver discs are packed (typical ones, costing about 2 cents, white envelopes with transparent center) are not that elegant. I wish such a cool release featured some other, better looking (and not so obvious) cover: a Luther's silhouette with the musical notation in the background is not particularly impressive. However, this is the only element in which the Harmonia Mundi release betters that of the Christophorus Records.

| Logo

At the very end, (I hope I still have your attention, as it was a long ride on the meanders of the 16th century), I would like to draw your attention to one interesting matter related to the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. They, as it is usually the case for the modern event in the 21st century, have its own logo with which we started this text. You can see it on the Luther und die Musik publication in the upper left corner, both on the box itself and on the accompanying booklet. This logo helps to tie together all the important events celebrating this anniversary and the different publications, providing a kind of signpost indicating interesting, worthy ones.

The logotype has been leased to „High Fidelity” by Staatliche Geschäftsstelle „Luther 2017". We hope that we have been able to fit in nicely into the celebration of this very important event, which, undoubtedly, the beginning of the reformation in Europe was.

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