Today, October 31, is Reformation Day, commemorating the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The day is associated with Martin Luther’s Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences which became popularly known as the 95 Theses. Luther sent this document to the Archbishop of Maenz, Albert of Brandenburg, on October 31, 1517, and a few days later, posted it on the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, Germany. This event is considered to be the spark that led to the Protestant Reformation, a major reform movement in the Christian church.
In our church’s worship service yesterday morning, we sang Luther’s great hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, usually translated into English as A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. The image above shows the original version of the tune in the handwriting of Luther’s friend, Johann Walter. Luther composed the words and melody sometime between 1527 and 1529 and it has been used in churches around the world since that time, in particular since Frederick Hedge made his English versification in 1853. It was also used by Johann Sebastian Bach in his Cantata for Reformation Day, BWV 80.
When I was a student at Wheaton College, I memorized the four verses of this hymn for extra credit in a class, Christ in Culture, taught by Dr. Herbert Jacobsen. While I was grateful for the extra credit, I’m very glad I took the time to memorize A Mighty Fortress. I call it to mind every day.
Translations of texts into English that originally appeared in other languages help us to sing songs with understanding. But in the case of A Mighty Fortress, the standard English translation of the fourth verse has always struck me as being overly pleasant; it does not truly reflect the seriousness of Luther’s original text.
Here is what we often find in English hymnals for the fourth version of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God:
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still:
His kingdom is forever.
This is all well and good, but the phrase, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” sounds like we should simply let things go – let go of things, even our own lives, since they are, in the big scheme of things, not as important as knowing that one is a Child of God.
But Luther’s original German text includes something very important. A better, more literal rendering of this verse in English looks something like this:
That word they must let stand, no thanks to their own efforts.
He is with us indeed according to the plan, with his Spirit and gifts.
Though they take from us our body, possessions, honor, child and wife,
Let them have all these things; they gain nothing from them:
There still remains for us the Kingdom.
Do you see the difference? It’s not a matter of just “letting things go.” No, THEY TAKE FROM US OUR BODY, POSSESSIONS, HONOR, CHILD AND WIFE. They will come for you and all that you hold to be dear. Persecution WILL come. The things that are most valuable and important to us – including our own lives – are not simply things that we will have to let go of. No. They will be taken from us. Yet God, who rules over this fallen, messed up world, reminds us that even when you have lost everything, you still have the most important thing: the Kingdom of God. This is a tremendous comfort for the Christian.
Luther’s first verse, as it usually appears in English, is a good translation that captures the original intent of the text even as it is in rhyming verse, and it is a great reminder for those who know and follow Christ. Amidst the craft and power of the ancient foe, the evil one, Satan himself, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble (Psalm 46:1):
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe –
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Likewise, the second verse – and this is the verse I call to mind every day – tells us who it is that will conquer this evil one:
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same;
And he must win the battle.
Today, the 499th anniversary of Reformation Day, reminds us that in the midst of the trials and tribulations of life, God is there, our mighty fortress.
Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, published by Josef Klug, 1533.
It has often been said that there are three rules about buying real estate:
OK, it’s an old joke. But it happens to be true.
Recently we’ve been traveling and have visited two places that are in spectacular locations. And they have the hallmarks of important, memorable buildings that stay in our minds in the midst of the chaotic, frenetic pace of life. One is simple and rough hewn. The other is modern and sleek. Both speak to timeless things. Both are reminders for us to take moments in our busy lives to find places where we can stop, think, reflect and, after renewal and a deep breath, push on.
The Chapel of the Transfiguration in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, shown above. Location. Location. Location. This simple Chapel was built in 1925; it is a survivor made of lodge pole pine. Through decades of ice, wind, sun and snow, through the cycle of the seasons – death and new life – it has stood as a place of worship and contemplation in the midst of the exceptional beauty of the Grand Teton mountain range. The altar frames this spectacular view:
I’m sure every visitor to the Chapel of the Transfiguration takes this photograph. And why not. With the Grand Teton centered above the altar cross, our eyes go up. Up. It reminds us of the words of Psalm 121 (KJV):
I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
As soon as you enter the Chapel you are aware of two stained glass windows – one on the left and one on the right – beautiful, artistic reminders of the natural beauty you see ahead through the window behind the altar:
The Chapel of the Transfiguration in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. Stop, think, reflect, renew, push on.
Closer to home is a very different kind of Chapel in a very different kind of location.
The Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona, shown above. Location. Location. Location. The Chapel was built in 1956, perched high on a promontory of rock. It appears to be emerging out of its surroundings and in fact, until you get right up to it, you’re not even aware that it is there, so well does it integrate with all that is around. Here is a view of the Chapel from the Bell Rock/Courthouse Butte trail, below; the Chapel is in the exact center of the photograph:
Can you see it? Just a tiny speck of tan colored rock, but it is the Chapel of the Holy Cross, disguised as part of nature’s landscape. Inside, its altar frames a dramatic scene:
Secure on the rocks, the Chapel stands as a sentinel, looking out at the massive red rock formations of Sedona, not far from the Grand Canyon, majestic, solid, immovable. We are reminded of the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 93:1-2, NIV):
The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and armed with strength; indeed, the world is established, firm and secure.
Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.
Stop, think, reflect, renew, push on.
Paul Hindemith had it right with the closing words of his poem, The Posthorn:
Your task it is, amid confusion, rush and noise,
To find the lasting, calm and meaningful and, finding it anew,
To readers of The Last Trombone: Since I wrote this article in October 2016, I have continued my research on this subject. This has led to publication of a follow up article, written on April 25, 2017, to the comments that appear below; I urge you to read Rethinking Mozart’s Tuba mirum – part 2 when you finish reading this article.
• • •
The trombone solo in the Tuba mirum of Wolfgang Mozart’s Requiem is one of the most important solos for trombone in the orchestral literature. It appears on nearly every tenor trombone audition – whether an audition for college or a professional symphony orchestra. As most trombonists know, Mozart (1756-1791) did not live to finish the Requiem and many people have stepped in to put the piece in a playable form since Mozart’s wife asked Franz Süssmayr to finish the piece shortly after the composer’s death. A look at Mozart’s manuscript shows us that he made very few markings to guide how the solo should be played.
Over the years, a type of settled wisdom came to define how players should approach the solo. Süssmayr added dynamics and many slurs, and most conductors ask players to, after the initial opening seven note “fanfare,” to play the solo in a legato, beautiful style. Audition committees seem to expect this style as well.
But I wonder if it isn’t time to revisit how we play this solo. I think it’s possible that we have been approaching it all wrong.
The “historically informed performance practice” movement (HIP) of recent years has helped us to revise our thinking about this in some important ways. First, many reproductions of the trombone solo of Mozart’s Tuba mirum, including its inclusion in many orchestral excerpt books, have shown the movement’s time signature to be common time, or 4/4. But when we look at Mozart’s manuscript, we see that the composer clearly intended the movement to be in cut time, or 2/2.
Here is a detail of the beginning of the Tuba mirum in Mozart’s manuscript; the cut time marking is unambiguous:
Here is the beginning of the Tuba mirum as found in Orchestral Excerpts from the Symphonic Repertoire for Trombone and Tuba, ed. Keith Brown, Volume 1, p. 83; the meter is given as common time:
And here is the beginning of the Tuba mirum as found in Moderne Orchesterstudien Für Posaune und Baßtuba, ed. Alfred Stöneberg, Vol. 1, p. 3; the meter is given as common time:
So, we have our first question: what is the tempo of a late 18th century Andante in 2/2? In fact, if you look carefully at the first page of Mozart’s manuscript above, he underlines the word Andante in the tempo – he could not be more emphatic that he wanted this tempo. Until recently, most conductors have conducted this movement in 4/4, with a tempo of approximately quarter note = 82. Or slower. Herbert von Karajan’s recording of the Tuba mirum with the Berlin Philharmonic clocks in at about quarter note = 66 and he has all three trombone players play the solo in unison. Copyright restrictions do now allow me to embed von Karajan’s recording in this article but you can hear it by clicking on this link (the recording will open in YouTube in a new window).
But is that kind of tempo REALLY Andante? A tempo of quarter note = 82 would be a tempo of half note = 41, or Lento, or in von Karajan’s case, quarter note = 66 is the same as half note = 33, or Grave. We first must examine whether the “traditional tempo” is too slow. I think it is. Listen to this performance of the solo by trombonist Susan Addison with John Elliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists. This tempo is about half note = 50 (and do not be thrown off by the fact that this performance is in A major rather than B-flat major; the performance is at Baroque pitch, A=415):
Even this tempo seems a little slow for Andante, a tempo that is often defined as “walking tempo.” From a correct understanding of Mozart’s intentions regarding the tempo flow other questions.
Here is a larger point that I think bears some consideration: the text of the Tuba mirum and its implication on the musical character of the movement.
Tuba mirum is part of the Dies irae of the Requiem mass. In the Requiem, Mozart combines five sections of the Dies irae into the movement he titles “Tuba mirum.” These are Tuba mirum (baritone solo with trombone), Mors stupebit (tenor solo), Liber scriptus (tenor solo),Judex ergo (alto solo) and Quid sum miser (soprano solo and vocal solo quartet). For the sake of this discussion, I am limiting myself to talking about the first part, Tuba mirum, with the three lines of text reproduced below. Its text is in Latin, in trochaic meter, and it describes the day of judgment when all mankind is called before the throne of God. This is not a text that is gentle in any way:
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchral regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.
A “standard literal” English translation of this text is:
The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
through all the sepulchers of the regions,
will summon all before the throne.
A fuller translation that gives the Biblical sense of the text runs something like this:
The trumpet, blowing its amazing sound to all of the corners of the earth,
signals to all of the dead in the world
to rise from their tombs and come before the throne of God for judgment.
Here is how Michelangelo pictured the moment described in the Tuba mirum, in his famous fresco of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Trumpets sounding, the dead being raised before the throne, in fulfillment of these words from John 5:28:
“The hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation.”
Here, below, is a detail of the lower left of Michelangelo’s work, showing the dead rising from their tombs. Certainly this is a moment of exceptional drama:
The point I am making is this: does the text of the Tuba mirum support a gentle style of music making, with the soft dynamic and generous legato that has become so commonplace in our performances?
Listen, for instance, to how Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) set the Tuba mirum text in his Requiem. He required four brass bands – one for each corner of the earth – to call the dead from their graves to judgment:
It’s easy to argue that Berlioz was French, a 19th century Romantic-era composer and it is unfair to compare him with Mozart. But can it really be disputed that Berlioz didn’t capture the character of the Tuba mirum with the drama of dozens of brass players being the summons of God to judgment?
If we go to Requiems of contemporaries of Mozart, we find that many treat the Tuba mirum with more drama than we traditionally give to our interpretations of Mozart. Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), Mozart’s contemporary, uses trumpets and three trombones to loudly proclaim the call to judgment, while the chorus alternates between a breathless declaration and a loud summons. In it you can hear a foreshadowing of Berlioz’s brass bands:
In his unfinished Requiem in B-flat major, Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806) employs three trombones in dramatic fashion at the presentation of the Tuba mirum:
The same can be said for the Requiem of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), whose setting of the Dies ire begins with a loud brass fanfare, the crash of a gong, and a brisk, dramatic treatment by chorus and brasses. The audio clip below contains the whole piece and the Tuba mirum is at 9:04:
It should be noted that this issue – the editorial dynamics and phrasings that have been added by editors other than Mozart that cause the Tuba mirum to be performed in a way that is rather disconnected from the character of the text – is not discussed in any of the Mozart literature that I have read. There are many editions of the Requiem and many completions of Mozart’s incomplete score. Most contain extensive front matter and a discussion of editorial decisions. Yet none speak to this issue. Among those I have examined are those by Alfred Schnerich (first publication of Mozart’s manuscript in facsimile, Gesellschaft for Graphische Industrie, Vienna, 1913), Leopold Nowak (Bärenreiter edition of Süssmayr’s completion, 1966), Franz Beyer (Beyer’s instrumentation, Edition Kunzelmann, 1971) and Richard Maunder (Maunder’s instrumentation, Oxford University Press, 1987). Nor is this discussed in The Mozart Compendium (H. C. Robbins Landon, G. Schirmer, 1990), Mozart (Maynard Solomon, HarperCollins, 1995), or Constanze Mozart: After the Requiem (Heinz Gärtner, translated by Reinhard Pauly, Amadeus Press, 1991). Neither it mentioned in Alfred Einstein’s important study, Mozart: His Character, His Word (Oxford University Press, 1945). In short, the Mozart literature is mute on this subject.
There are two recordings of the Requiem that are of particular interest to me and show that some conductors ARE thinking about this.
The recording below, by Christoph Sperling with Das Neue Orchester, contains a complete recording of the Süssmayer edition and also a recording of the Requiem as Mozart left it, without any editorial additions. The instrumentation of Mozart’s manuscript is very thin and the trombone soloist (who is unidentified in the liner notes but the three trombone players are listed as Robb Tooley, Katherine Couper and Uwe Haase) plays with strength and clean articulation. Note, too, the tempo, which is faster that we are accustomed to hearing:
Another interesting recording for comparison is that by Boston Baroque, conducted by Martin Pearlman, in the completion of Mozart’s manuscript by Robert Levin. The trombone soloist is Cormack Ramsey and the tempo and interpretation seems to better reflect the character of the text. Copyright restrictions do not allow me to embed that recording in this article but you can hear it by clicking this link (YouTube will open in a new window).
As with the presentation of any idea that is outside the established box, people will raise questions. I’m good with that. Let me answer some questions here:
Yes: I know that Mozart did write three slurs at the end of the Tuba mirum trombone solo; these are verified to have been Mozart’s own instruction in his own hand (they are the only slurs for trombone that were written by Mozart in the Tuba mirum). But does the inclusion of slurs necessarily mean the phrase should be played softly?
Yes: Mozart wrote several dynamic markings in the Tuba mirum but the first one, forte-piano, doesn’t occur until measure 18, where the tenor begins singing Mors stupebit natura. Mozart wrote no dynamics during the entire trombone solo (measures 1-18; we must keep in mind that the “second half” of the trombone solo, that in some editions appears starting at measure 24, is entirely a creation of Süssmayr, not Mozart). As well, keep in mind that for the entire Tuba mirum, the only music that we have in Mozart’s own hand is written for cello/bass, trombone solo and vocal soloists. He wrote no parts for violins or violas or any wind instruments apart from trombone. Mozart left the movement, as he did most of the Requiem, as an uncompleted torso.
Yes: I know that the way the Tuba mirum is traditionally played is quite lovely, and it makes for a very nice musical presentation. Mozart had previously used a trombone solo as an obligato to a vocal line to great effect (with a very different kind of text) in his Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots. My point is that the way we traditionally the Tuba mirum doesn’t seem to fit with the message of the text.
But none of this prevents me from asking: Can we start a conversation about the way in which we are interpreting the Tuba mirum of Mozart’s Requiem? Does our traditional way of playing the Tuba mirum – with its soft dynamic and gentle legato – fit the drama of the text? Have we added too much to the sparse instructions Mozart left in his unfinished manuscript? Knowing how conductors somehow overlooked the correct meter and tempo for this movement for so long, have we overlooked the fundamental character of the movement as expressed by the text? Have we gotten into a habit of how we interpret this without considering other options might open new doors of understanding?
I am posing an idea, a theory; I am not presenting this as a settled thought in need of adoption. Certainly more research and study needs to be done. I am simply posing the question. Let’s keep thinking.