Listeners will confront the story of the Reformation deeply within themselves—a unique and powerful way for Lutherans to take on thinking about the Reformation for the 500th anniversary.

Luther’s famous affirmation from the Small Catechism, “This is most certainly true,” has been set to music and will be performed by 27 Lutheran colleges and universities, including 24 of the 26 ELCA schools, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

James Ripley, director of instrumental music activities at Carthage College, Kenosha, Wis., coordinated this inaugural partnership of the school bands to commission James M. Stephenson, a widely known Chicago composer, to write a piece for the Reformation. Throughout the fall and on Reformation Sunday, the schools’ instrumental groups will perform the piece, titled “this is most certainly true.”

“James Stephenson is one of America’s truly exceptional composers. His first works were largely holiday arrangements for orchestra, but in the past 10 years he has been recognized for several outstanding concerti and some large-scale works for both orchestra and band,” said Ripley, who had long sought an opportunity to work with the composer.

Some of Stephenson’s works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, U.S. Marine Band, and the Boston and New York Pops orchestras, Ripley said.

Though the piece has no words, Stephenson clearly makes Luther’s case through music. “After reading up on it, the two things that resonated with me were Luther’s struggle and the phrase ‘this is most certainly true,’” Stephenson said. “Musically, this revealed itself to me as one note—a B-flat, which would represent ‘truth’ and would sustain throughout the piece.”

Stephenson said he liked the challenge of conveying Luther’s difficulty and dissonance. “I liked the idea of trying to do this technically, as a composer, so that it would challenge me artistically at the same time. This, I think, is always important—that the composer challenges him—or herself in an effort to create something that has depth.”

The St. Olaf Band at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., happily participated in the commission. “When Jim Ripley approached us, it was a no-brainer,” said Timothy Mahr, conductor of the St. Olaf and Norseman bands. “Jim [Stephenson] is a highly respected composer and has been turning his attention more and more to the band and our field of music-making, and we’re always interested in expanding our repertoire.”

While the Lutheran schools have discussed working together before, Mahr said this is the first time.

Contributing between $250 to $750 each, the participating schools all chipped in to pay for “this is most certainly true.” This type of crowdsourcing has a historical precedent in music circles, said Mahr, adding, “Composers from 100 years ago were approached by three or four orchestras to write a piece.”

The performances are for both campus and community audiences.

Miranda Aldrich, an oboe student at Carthage, was excited to perform “this is most certainly true” at the school’s Sept. 30 concert.

“Overall, I think I can speak for the Wind Orchestra when I say that we couldn’t wait to premiere this piece and to work with James Stephenson to bring ‘this is most certainly true to life,” she said. “The nuances he has put into this work to pay homage to Martin Luther and the Reformation—the 95 chime strokes to represent the 95 theses and the big hammer hit to represent Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the church door—are so exciting to play.”

Stephenson used chimes and the hammer to programmatically depict Luther’s struggles and actions. For the program note, he wrote: “The piece first opens with a mystical medieval setting, setting up space for the opening Martin Luther theme. One might imagine an isolated Luther (low clarinet measure) quietly getting angry about the way things are going with the religious practices around him—namely the selling of indulgences in return for the forgiveness of sins—and that his frustration builds until, finally, he nails the 95 theses to the door.

“After this, the work grows quiet again—but only briefly, as his rebellion gathers followers and grows in strength and numbers, bringing us into the present day of celebrating 500 years. Finally, the piece removes all dissonance and ends in the key of B-flat, with the last of 95 chime strokes.”

Even without words, the music is powerful, Mahr said. “Sometimes music has a way of speaking to a listener in such a way to convey a new level of understanding on a subject without words getting in the way,” he said. “Listeners will confront the story of the Reformation deeply within themselves—a unique and powerful way for Lutherans to take on thinking about the Reformation for the 500th anniversary.”

Participating colleges:

Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.
Augustana University, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Augsburg College, Minneapolis
Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kan.
California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks
Capital University, Columbus, Ohio
Carthage College, Kenosha, Wis.
Concordia University, River Forest, Ill. (LCMS)
Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn.
Grand View University, Des Moines, Iowa
Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn.
Lenoir-Rhyne University, Hickory, N.C.
Luther College, Decorah, Iowa
Gettysburg (Pa.) College
Midland University, Fremont, Neb.
Newberry (S.C.) College
Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Wash.
Roanoke College, Salem, Va.
St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.
Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pa.
Texas Lutheran University, Seguin
Thiel College, Greenville, Pa.
Valparaiso (Ind.) University
Wagner College, Staten Island, N.Y.
Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa
Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee (WELS)
Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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