It didn’t seem like a day for an incredible concert. The weather in Germany had been cold and rainy. That morning, the 100 CUI students and 50 companions in our group had taken a city tour and now everyone was tired. One girl lost her dress. Another student misplaced a folder of music. Another left his trumpet in a hotel. Things felt a bit chaotic.
It was our second concert of the tour, and after a successful performance at the Berliner Dom—the impressive Lutheran cathedral in the country’s capital city—I’m pretty sure the students thought nothing could top it. The Dom concert had been extraordinary. The church’s impressive architecture and ornate art transported us into a transcendent sense of timelessness where we felt connected with the multitude of saints who had worshipped there in ages past. From the very first notes of our rehearsal, I loved watching the students’ astonished faces as they heard their beautiful sounds radiate through the church, offering back a five-second reverberation at the end of each phrase. The applause following our performance seemed to never end, and the audience wanted encore after encore.
Now we felt ragged—some hungry, some worn out. But as we walked through the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the same ones to which Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses, things seemed to settle into place. People arrived as we rehearsed, sat down, and didn’t leave, which was unusual. Typically people come and go, as tourists do.
I had hoped that the Castle Church concert would be meaningful, but I had no idea it would be so overwhelmingly emotional. To be in Martin Luther’s church singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a hymn by his very own pen, was a highlight of my career.
By the time of our performance the entire church was full. Just like in Berlin, no one left. They sensed that something meaningful was happening. From the memorable first notes of the Concordia Choir male voices singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” to each successive piece, the spiritual experience seemed to escalate. As our choir and orchestra performed the soaring lines of Mendelssohn’s “All that hath Life and Breath” in German, while the church’s mighty pipe organ erupted in large chords, it seemed our audience could barely contain themselves.
For our Reformation 500 Tour, our university had commissioned the leading church music composer, Dan Forrest, to write a new setting of “A Mighty Fortress is our God” for the Concordia Choir and Sinfonietta. The music is triumphant and dramatic. He begins with the sounds of hammer blows and a solo male baritone singing the opening phrases of the hymn, as if Martin Luther is singing it himself.
I had hoped that the Castle Church concert would be meaningful, but I had no idea it would be so overwhelmingly emotional. The brilliant orchestral colors inspired loud, heartfelt singing by both choir and audience. It was a tremendous moment for all of us as national borders seemed to evaporate and cultural divisions disappeared. We celebrated our combined faith in Christ and the unity we share through Him.
Following the performance, audience members and performers gathered outside, surmounting language barriers to express how special the music was to them. Many students were in tears. To be in Martin Luther’s church singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a hymn by his very own pen, was a highlight of my career.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised after all.