"A choral with fugues is the best" – even in old age, Johann Walter thus confessed his preference of polyphonic choir compositions, which became typical for Protestant church music. The choirmaster, who was born in Kahla in Thuringia, is considered to be the father of Protestant church music.
His name is intrinsically linked with church music
After his student years in Leipzig, where he became a follower of Martin Luther, Walter joined the Saxonian court orchestra under Elector Frederick the Wise in 1520. Soon afterwards, Walter must have been in touch with the Reformer himself: in 1524, the first edition of his "Geistliches Gesangbüchlein" ("Spritual Songbook"), which later was just called "choir book", was published. Martin Luther had written the introduction. This collection of choral music was revised and re-edited by Walter several times during his life. It marked the beginning, as well as the development, of Protestant polyphony, and also as the introduction of new melodies to church music, carefully maintaining the traits of German spiritual choral music.
In Wittenberg in 1525, Luther and Walter co-operated closely in the revision of the German Mass. Finally, the new order of the church service was tested in October 1525 in the City Church of Wittenberg. It was the beginning of setting the monophonic liturgical songs to music while using the German language. After the court orchestra was dissolved, Walter began to organise the choir of the city of Torgau. The court orchestra was replaced with the choir of the school and the citizens of the city, which was in charge of the church music for the whole city and thus maintained a double function. Johann Walter's name is intrinsically linked with the establishment of this choir and the new organisation of church music, which elaborately unfolded in the city as well as at court.
With Martin Luther, Johann Walter gained much fame
The choir of the city of Torgau became the original model for Lutheran choir culture. Walter's time in Torgau also saw the development of the responsorial passion in German, based on the new text by Luther, for which Walter created a special German recitative. Around 20 years later, Johann Walter became director of music of the court orchestra in Dresden. There, as well as during the time after his retirement, when he had gone back to Torgau, he incessantly worked on polyphonic arrangements, for example the Magnificat or the collection of German motets from 1566.
During his lifetime, Johann Walter gained much fame together with Martin Luther. They were both significantly involved in the development of Protestant music, supported the coherence of theology and music, and became pioneers of Protestant church music. The faint memory that is left of Johann Walter is all the more incomprehensible. At first, his merits as a composer, theoretician, poet and organiser did not receive the appreciation they are now slowly gaining again – even if the only portrait of Walter, which was kept in Torgau, has gone missing in 1945.
The text "Johann Walter" was publihed in "Reformation und Musik". The magazine (DIN A 4, 84 pages, in german language) is available as a PDF download or can be ordered free of charge at the church office of the Evangelical Church in Germany(Herrenhäuser Str. 12, 30419 Hannover, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).