Mission & Ministry - Book Review: Luther and Bach on the Magnificat

The Bishop's Institute Book of the Month: April

"Luther and Bach on the Magnificat" by Hendrickson, Jenson, and Lundell; reviewed by Gray Hodsdon

From services such as Roman Catholic Vespers to our own Evening Prayer and Evensong, the Magnificat, or "Song of Mary", has been a fixture of daily liturgies for generations. Many famous composers have written music to its words: Antonio Vivaldi, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Thomas Tallis, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Charles Villiers Stanford, and many more. The Magnificat is so striking and impactful that it has captured the minds and imaginations of heralded churchmen for centuries, including such notable Lutheran figures as reformer and theologian Martin Luther and great musician Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Peter A. Hendrickson, Bradley C. Jenson, and Randi H. Lundell take us through Luther's famous Commentary on the Magnificat, as well as one of Bach's most heralded masterpieces, the Magnificat in E flat major. This year, as many Christians celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there are perhaps no figures more influential in their respective fields than Luther and Bach, and perhaps no more original and impactful interpretations of the Magnificat than theirs. Among its achievements, this book breaks the stereotype that all Protestants under-emphasize the Virgin Mary. For as Hendrickson, Jenson, and Lundell reveal, particularly in their concluding chapter, the Song of Mary was of clear importance to Luther and those that followed in his teachings.

Luther and Bach on the Magnificat: For Advent and Christmas moves seamlessly back and forth between Luther and Bach's works on the Magnificat, beginning with introductions to Luther's Commentary and Bach's Magnificat in E flat major. It then follows with a new translation of Luther's Commentary-a true treasure that, while obviously protestant in its theology, unpacks the Song of Mary with unfettered clarity and depth. Going through each verse individually, Luther gives a description so rich and dense that one cannot help but come away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the Magnificat, regardless of the obvious Lutheran lens through which it is conveyed.

Of verse 53 ("He has filled the hungry with good things, he sent the rich away empty") Luther says, "And what kind of barrier is wealth today to those with great status or wealth as long as they do not lose their hearts to it or seek self-sufficiency in it? 'But,' says Solomon in Proverbs 16:2, 'the Lord weighs the spirit,' meaning that he does not judge based on external appearance or form, whether rich, poor, high, or low, but according to the spirit and how it behaves within the person… As it says in Psalm 7:9 and 11: 'you test the minds and hearts, O righteous God,' and: 'God is a righteous judge.' People, however, judge according to outward appearances and that is why they are often wrong" (p. 68).

The reader then gets to sift through the inspiration behind Bach's musical masterpiece and his intentional, meticulous compositional process. The authors say of Bach, "There is little doubt, as well, that he was thoroughly Lutheran in his theology. If Bach might be thought of as a spiritual heir to Luther; some would even go further and stress an almost father-son relationship. As one author put it, 'Luther clarified the faith and Bach set it to music'" (p. 15). In the books fourth chapter, the authors take us through each movement of Bach's Magnificat, first recalling Luther's perspective on the verse, and then detailing the sound of the music. The side-by-side comparison reveals just how closely Bach paralleled Luther's interpretation, essentially setting his great Commentary to music.

Luther and Bach on the Magnificat concludes with a broader look at Luther and Lutheranism's perception of the Virgin Mary, and reveals some of the similarities and differences between Luther's perspective and other branches of Christianity. One also can see how Luther's own approach to the Virgin Mary changed over time. For example, the authors say, "in Luther's Commentary on the Magnificat  the saints do nothing; God does it all. But Luther had not yet jettisoned the tradition of invoking the saints. At the very end of Luther's Commentary, he still appealed for Mary to intercede on behalf of believers" (p. 109).

As we commemorate the Reformation throughout this anniversary year, there are perhaps no better figures to highlight than Martin Luther, the chief pioneer of the Reformation, and Johann Sebastian Bach, one of history's most lauded composers. Their interpretations give life to the Magnificat and together convey its beauty and awe. Do not be misled: While especially appropriate for Advent and Christmas, Luther and Bach on the Magnificat: For Advent and Christmas  is a relevant and worthwhile read for any time and season.

Luther and Bach on the Magnificat: For Advent and Christmas by Peter A. Hendrickson, Bradley C. Jenson, and Randi H. Lundell. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015 is available for purchase on amazon.com. Click here to see the page on Amazon.