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"Musica Dei donum optimi” - Music as a gift of god.
by John Axelrod©2016

As the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation is celebrated around the world in 2017, there will be no doubt countless toasts of beer and wine made to the philosopher preacher who changed the world. And perhaps some prayers to the millions who also died during the wars related to that religious revolution.

There were many a composer, from Luther’s Saxony-Anhalt and surrounding regions, who made musical revolutions during the Baroque period which followed the Thirty Years War. Telemann came from Magdeburg, Praetorius from Kreuzberg, Handel from Halle. Bach also lived and worked in the region, most notably in Leipzig. There seemed to be an inclination among these composers, especially Bach, to pursue the very dictum of Luther’s attitude on music, that music be a gift from God, "Musica Dei donum optimi,” not a human invention, as stated in his Forward to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae, a collection of chorale motets published in 1538:

“In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits.... when man's natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

Surely no one in their right mind would want to be a clodhopper!

Bach certainly was not one (though he did take fatherhood to an extreme). His music manifested the wisdom of God in his mastery of polyphony and counterpoint. With such seriousness in their souls and sober songs in their hearts, it might be surprising that Luther and other Puritan preachers might have taken the biblical command to enjoy wine (presumably only with the Eucharist) to a greater degree.

Luther’s love of beer can be clearly summed up in his well known phrase: “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!” Let it also be known that Luther’s wife, Catherine, brewed beer in their bathtub. And John Calvin’s annual salary included 250 gallons of wine! I have heard that some musicians get paid in wine when working in Bordeaux, but 250 gallons!

How did all this happen? Since when did alcohol become so prominent as Christianity developed? It has been said of distilled alcohol “the sixteenth century created it; the seventeenth century consolidated it; the eighteenth popularized it.”

While it makes most sense while talking about the Protestant Reformation to focus on the music of Bach, this chronological quote brings us now to the nineteenth century. Many changes occurred. In 1869 Pastor Thomas Welch made a “Christian drink” called grape juice and replaced communion wine with it. And in 1829 at a concert of the St. Matthew” Passion in Berlin, a largely forgotten Bach was reintroduced by a Jew, Felix Mendelssohn, whose Grandfather Moses started the enlightened equivalent of the Reformation in Judaism. As Heine wrote: "As Luther had overthrown the Papacy, so Mendelssohn overthrew the Talmud; and he did so after the same fashion, namely, by rejecting tradition, by declaring the Bible to be the source of religion, and by translating the most important part of it. By these means he shattered Judaic, as Luther had shattered Christian, Catholicism; for the Talmud is, in fact, the Catholicism of the Jews…”

Felix, the grandson, was a devoted Christian, following his baptism at 7 upon his banking father Abraham’s conversion of convenience and name change to Bartholdy (also due to Moses not believing his own son to be capable of religious righteousness). Felix’s oratorio “Elijah” is his masterpiece “Bachesque” testament to his faith. And despite the discrepancy of his father’s Protestantism and his famous family’s Judaism, Felix believed in the unity of both faiths and continued till his untimely death to imbue his music with this religious statement.

After all this fascinating sequencing of history and religion, what wine goes with the Reformation and which piece of music? Naturally, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony No. 5, composed in the same year Mendelssohn returned Bach to Germany conducting the St. Matthew Passion (and also the same year Felix’s father urged his son to legally change the name to Bartholdy and drop Mendelssohn and embrace the Lutheran identity available to him in order to avoid the problems developing in an increasingly anti-Semitic Germany). This emphatic work was meant to commemorate the establishment of the Lutheran faith on the 300th anniversary of Luther’s approved Augsburg Confession which triggered the wars of religion. To honor Luther, Mendelssohn included in his finale Bach’s hymn Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God) that Luther had written while the Augsburg Confession was in session. (A century before Mendelssohn, Bach composed a cantata on Luther’s hymn for the Augsburg bicentennial.)

And what better than a wine from Luther’s own Saxony-Anhalt to go with this Symphony? This most northern wine region of Germany is known for its unique grape, the Müller-Thurgau, named after its Swiss founder, who bred the Riesling and Madeleine Royale grapes to create a delicious apricot, green apple taste with peach aromas of Riesling, and the early ripening of the Silvaner. This hybrid grows in large quantities in a dry, riverbed climate with sandstone Triassic soil, under abundant sunshine to become Germany’s most planted grape in the late 20th century. The balance of its fresh, crisp and acidic nature with sweetness makes for an easy ingestion. It offers none of the complicated and complex structures found in aged wines, but instead is very approachable. Much like Protestantism must have been.

It also shares with Protestantism its European Old World appeal. The gospel message and immediate consumer success of the grape has spread far and wide. Some of Washington’s Müller-Thurgau, as well as Slovenia and Luxembourg's Rivaner, and New Zealand and Switzerland's rather naughtily-labelled Riesling-Sylvaner, and even Rizlingszilvani in Hungary, demonstrate an attractive fruity aroma and crispness, and some of the better and more expensive producers of Alto Adige and Friuli (most notably Pojer & Sandri) can make really rather exciting, even sought-after, wine from it. The variety has also grown quite widely in England.

But for this anniversary of the Reformation, and staying in Luther’s neighborhood near Eisleben, I recommend the inexpensive Kloster Pforta Müller-Thurgau, which is owned and run by the State Government of Sachsen Anhalt. The Pforta Kloster history parallels German history, with origins dating back to the Pforta Abbey, founded in 1137 by Cistercian monks. In 1154 the monks started to plant vines in the Pfortenser Köppelberg vineyard which still today is one of the six vineyards of the winery, producing excellent wines.

As the anniversary is celebrated, it might be best to recall the Protestant adage: Alcohol is not a sin, but drunkenness is. And when enjoying a chilled bottle of Müller-Thurgau at an open air performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony 5, raise your glass to “The Philosopher” and repeat after him: “Let’s Drink!

by John Axelrod©2016

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