Did Martin Luther actually nail his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago last week, sparking the Protestant Reformation?
The story may not literally be true, but Philadelphia composer Kile Smith assumes that it is in his new work "Fanfare on Ein feste Burg."
Smith's piece exploded into life on Friday evening at the beginning of "Welcome the People," Rose Ensemble's new program marking the Reformation's 500th birthday.
A slew of heavy thwacks on a tabor (a Renaissance snare drum) launched Smith's "Fanfare," mimicking the bang of hammer on nail in Wittenberg.
The rasp of shawms and the splendid snort of a quartbass dulcian (a bassoon-like instrument) intoned Luther's great hymn melody as Smith worked bristling variations on it.
It was a bracing opening gesture, made spatially startling by placing the musicians of Piffaro, a band of Renaissance instrumentalists from Philadelphia, in the balcony of the Hoversten Chapel at Augsburg University.
The 12 Rose Ensemble singers also started at an unusual location, delivering a buoyant unison rendition of "Ein feste Burg" from the rear of the chapel.
You could hear the shock of the new in the music — the sudden elation, enabled by Luther's revolution, of singing praise to God in German, the language of the people, not Latin, the arcane tongue of priests and prelates.
Two four-part settings of "Ein feste Burg" by Johann Walter, a friend of Luther's, illustrated how swiftly the great reformer's catchy hymn tunes were assimilated into more complex musical structures.
At heart, though, they were melodies for ordinary people to sing, outside church as well as within. Baritone Jonathan Woody's warm, artless account of "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein" to Grant Herreid's lute accompaniment recreated how Luther's hymns might have sounded at home, in a domestic setting.
Piffaro plucked out a pair of tartly voiced Renaissance bagpipes to riff instrumentally on "Nun freut euch." The sense of joy was palpable: Have fun with hymns, it seemed to say, they're not all necessarily serious.
Darker colorations surfaced in a set of vocal works by Michael Praetorius, a composer from several generations after Luther, who took his predecessor's musical ideas further.
A clutch of chirpy pieces by Hans Leo Hassler (a contemporary of Praetorius) dissipated the introspection and closed the first half of the program. Buoyantly projected by the Ensemble singers, they benefited from the superbly nimble annotations of Greg Ingles on sackbut (a trombone prototype).
The second half of the evening contained a reconstruction of a Protestant christening mass from 1616, a century after the Reformation started.
Five composers were featured in a spangled mosaic of post-Lutheran composition, mixing plainchant, vocal works and instrumentals.
Gregor Aichinger's "Laudate Dominum" particularly caught the ear — light, lilting and sluiced with the delectably piquant sound of crumhorns squawking.
The Piffaro-Rose Ensemble hookup was a special collaboration for this Reformation project, and the two groups dovetailed with remarkable unanimity in phrasing and articulation. Another joint initiative would be warmly welcome in the future.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.