On Martin Luther…and Music

“Monday Musings” November 11, 2013

Volume III, No. 44/138

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Martin Luther, A Formidable Child of God Worth Emulating

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Yesterday November 10, was the natal anniversary of one of the most formidable children of God, Martin Luther of Eisleben, Germany. He was born 520 years ago, nine years before Christopher Columbus discovered America, and 21 years after the birth of Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. Martin Luther was not a rip-roaring revolutionary. He did not set out to usher Protestantism in Europe and challenge the well-established Catholic Church and  the papacy. He was a scholar, a rather reclusive and obscure Augustinian monk and a university professor. In 1517, he posted 95 questions on the door of the church, a common practice when disputation (discussion, exegesis, and examination) was routinely used to clarify a philosophical or theological issue. He innocently posed 95 questions of the established church. The questions caught on fire and from that humble beginning, by 1521 he was catapulted to such prominence that even most peasants would recognize his name. Indeed, he was feared by the Pope and the Catholic establishment. He was openly defying the papacy and the Emperor. 1521 was the year Protestantism and the Lutheran Church were established.  Martin Luther’s argument was simply the issues of corruption in the Catholic Church– selling grace, selling salvation, and implementing other slanderous devices to raise money to build Saint Peter’s Basilica. Being an Augustinian monk and well grounded in Augustinian theology of grace, Martin Luther insisted that grace is given freely– It is not sold…Martin Luther maintained his steadfast Augustinian stand “sola fide, sola scriptura” which means by faith and scripture alone (not by purchase of redemption and grace) one may find the pathway to salvation. He wrote about a quarter million words about faith. He concluded that faith must be “living”, expressed in concrete actions of altruism and love for one’s fellow humans. To exercise faith requires discipline, vigilance and sacrifice

History of Protestantism

1.   Before Martin Luther, many “protestors” had questioned the practice of selling grace by the Catholic Church. Among these protestors was John Huss (1369-1415), the Czech theologian, and founder the Hussite Church. Papal Inquisition which was a common practice of the 15th and 16th century condemned Huss as a heretic. He was burned at the stake. He is recorded in history books as the first martyr of the Hussite Church. Meantime, the air of dissatisfaction and malaise generated by the Catholic Church was prevalent among European peasants which constituted the vast majority of the European population. There was no middle class. The societal structure consisted of a few super rich land owners, those who worked in the government, and those secure in the hierarchy of the church and priesthood. The remaining 95% of the population were poor farmers and peasants. Historical demography suggests these people suffered illiteracy and servitude with no hope for advancement or opportunity to break loose from the shackles of slavery.

2.   Another factor which complicated matters was the general public had not recovered from the devastation of bubonic plague, 1347-1350.  The plague wiped out three forth of Europe’s population, while the papacy to protect itself against the plague moved from Rome to Avignon, southern France, a safer territory.  The public felt abandoned and neglected by the church, breeding much anger.  The European public continued to carry for some 70 years its pent up hostility against the Catholic Church.  All these factors helped ignite and sustain the fire of protestant reform.  From 1240 on, there were many voices raised in protest of the church practices but often, if not always, silenced by the force of organized papal inquisitions with the ultimate punishment of death by hanging or burning at the stake.  But in 1521 the reform succeeded

The influence of non-theological forces

3.   In addition to the lingering effect of Black death seventy years earlier, other social injustices generated immense pent up anger in the vast majority of peasants. The unequal distribution of wealth, where 93% of wealth was controlled by less than 10% of the people, helped the maturation of the notion of Protestantism. Other factors included high infant mortality which in Central Europe was between 15 to 35%, with another 10 to 20 percent of children dying before age 10 years, helped inflame the public dissatisfaction and anger. Other forces were exposure to famine, epidemic diseases and the ravages of wars. These factors collectively made people lose faith in the authority of the government, the church and priests. The people were numbed by societal injustice.  And finally by the time Martin Luther started publishing his theses, thanks to Guttenberg, the magical printing press became available enabling Martin Luther to disseminate his work widely through throughout northern Europe. All these forces pushed our birthday hero to pursue answers to his original 95 questions, setting the world on fire of protestation.

Martin Luther, a musician and polymath

4.   Besides his theological and philosophical contributions and writings (his collected work exceeds five million words), Martin Luther was a hymnologist and an accomplished musician.  The number of hymns the authorship of which is contributed to Martin Luther is in the hundreds. He encouraged return of music to church services. Martin Luther was a polymath.  He was trained in law (he did not finish law school as his father wanted him because he found studying law to be boring!), theology, philosophy, epistemology, rhetoric, linguistics, political organization and music. He was the formidable author of more than five millions words, among them some 3000 letters he wrote to friends, colleagues, students, fellow Augustinian monks, and fellow parishioners. I view Martin Luther as a representation of God and a role model in achieving one’s maximum potential. Happy Birthday Brother Luther!

 Olli Mustonen, A Superb Omen

These days under the leadership of Sandi MacDonald, President and CEO, and Grant Llewellyn, Music Director, NC Symphony is producing magic. Recently, we had pianist conductor Jeffrey Kahane leading the symphony in Beethoven Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op 36, and Mozart Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major for piano and Orchestra, K482. We were happy to see Maestro Kahane back at the podium, this time both conducting the orchestra and playing solo piano.   For decades, going back to 80’s, Kahane has been a welcome NCS guest artist/pianist. He was one of 11 auditioned when NCS was selecting a new conductor in 200-2001, a position that went to Maestro Grant Llewellyn. So, those with NCS institutional memory were happy to see the lovable and hugely talented Maestro Kahane back. As an aside, the 3rd movement of Mozart’s piece, if one listens carefully mimics the tune of festive fraternal song “For he is a Jolly Good fellow, nobody can deny.”  The whimsical insertion has to do with Mozart’s exposure and indoctrination to Masonic rituals and songs. Free Masonry was established in England in 1717.  Mozart became a Mason along with his librettist friend Schekineder who wrote the libretto, and played the first Papageno for Magic Flute, a 1791 opera devoted to Masonic ritual. It was Mozart’s last opera.

This past weekend, the audience was privileged to watch the brilliant and incomparable Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen, a superb omen, for Raleigh and RTP, playing the technically demanding Johannes Brahms’s Concerto No. 1 in D minor op. 15. The performance was brilliant. Olli took me on a 43 minute journey in the ether of tomorrow. Every note of the complex composition was articulated superbly pushing the listener higher and higher into the stratosphere of transcendence. The height of enjoyment was unforgettable and celestial. At age 81, NCS has matured to a degree to make traveling to NY Philharmonic, Paris Palais Garnier and Vienna unnecessary. Bravo!

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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