When Martin Luther sparked a radical reformation in the church, he also had a huge impact on the evolution of church music. Luther knew that polyphonic music was a powerful tool in spreading his ideas. Chorales – hymns sung by the congregation – were created, often composed by Luther himself, to fit new German texts. Hundreds of these chorales were harmonised by Johann Sebastian Bach and were typically used to conclude each of his cantatas. The 2017 Bach Academy Bruges is devoted to the Reformation’s riches, at which Johann Sebastian is firmly rooted at the centre. Spanning just five days, the festival combines traditionally authentic performance styles alongside more improvisatory music which takes Bach as its inspiration.

Philippe Herreweghe © Michiel Hendryckx
Philippe Herreweghe
© Michiel Hendryckx

Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent place the chorale at the centre of the festival, with three concerts which each feature a key cantata from Bach’s prolific output. Their first programme includes Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (God the Lord is sun and shield), BWV79, composed for 31st October 1725 – the anniversary of Luther’s revolutionary declaration of 1517 where he hammered his 95 theses onto the oak door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church. That hammering motif can be detected in the insistent drum rattle in the cantata’s opening movement. Two chorales are included: "Nun danket alle Gott" (Now thank we all our God) – still a popular hymn – and the uplifting "Erhalt uns in der Wahrheit" (Uphold us in the truth) which closes the work. Either side of this, Herreweghe pairs the Orchestral Suite no. 4 with Bach’s Missa brevis.

Herreweghe’s next programme features Bach’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (Our God is a secure fortress), BWV80, which was also composed for “Reformation Day” and is based on a hymn by Martin Luther himself. It opens with a dazzling contrapuntal chorale fantasia rich in vocal polyphony. Herreweghe includes Martin Agricola’s Ein feste Burg, the first composer to harmonize Luther’s chorale in four parts. Collegium Vocale Gent’s third concert includes Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s version of his father’s Ein feste Burg, including trumpets and timpani, alongside two other JSB cantatas.

Ensemble Encantar also sets out to explore the world of the chorale before Bach – what it calls “the cradle of the chorale” – including works by Martin Luther’s contemporaries Johann Walter, Lupus Hellinck and Ludwig Senfl, before closing with excerpts from Bach’s German Organ Mass.

Ensemble Masques © David Samyn
Ensemble Masques
© David Samyn

Period instrument performance practice has challenged regular ways of presenting Bach. Ensemble Masques strips away the varnish for two of the Orchestral Suites, given with chamber forces, performing one-to-a-part as this, it is argued, is how Bach intended them to be played. This increases the sense of buoyancy, though arguably at the expense of grandeur.

Bach doesn’t have to mean period instruments though. Bach Academy Bruges includes a number of concerts where Bach collides with other styles and artforms. Saxophonist Robin Verheyen uses Bach’s Musical Offering as his inspiration for his The Bach Riddles for jazz quartet, commissioned by Concertgebouw Brugge and receiving its world première at the festival. Bach was given a musical theme by King Frederick II of Prussia and invited to improvise upon it. Improvisation being crucial to jazz, the Musical Offering is Verheyen’s starting point.

Not one, but four saxophones take to the stage of the Concertgebouw for a programme which mixes Bach with contemporary composers. Signum Saxophone Quartet performs the Italian Concerto, then use the model of theme and variations as the inspiration for a contemporary second half featuring David Maslanka’s Recitation Book and Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint.

Scottish Ensemble and Andersson Dance in <i>Goldberg Variations</i> © Hugh Carswell (2015)
Scottish Ensemble and Andersson Dance in Goldberg Variations
© Hugh Carswell (2015)
The most adventurous fusion of art forms takes place at the Stadsschouwburg, where the Scottish Ensemble is joined by members of the Swedish company Andersson Dance to interpret Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Players and dancers interweave on stage, in what our reviewer in Aberdeen called “an exciting blend of movement and music”.

If you prefer your Goldbergs performed “straight”, then Jean Rondeau tackles the Aria and its 30 variations at the harpsichord. The Frenchman, who one of our Parisian reviewers describes as “a breath of fresh air in today’s classical music scene”, has also studied jazz though, so perhaps expect the unexpected… Bach never fails to surprise.

Click here for a complete listing of events at the Bach Academy Bruges. 


Article sponsored by Concertgebouw, Brugge.