The Thirty Year' War was, and remains, one of the worst conflicts in human history. The fighting was savage; soldiers killed not only other soldiers, but innocent civilian bystanders as well. Mercenaries switched sides readily, lacking any loyalty to nations or causes, and sometimes amused themselves by torturing harmless noncombatants. In the wake of the bloodshed, famine and disease swept through the area. Entire towns disappeared - the population killed by fighting or disease, valuable and food plundered by soldiers, and buildings and fields burned. The total population in central Europe was reduced by 25% to 40%, and individual kingdoms and regions sometimes lost over two-thirds of their population.
The horror was compounded by hypocrisy - both sides were motivated primarily by greed, yet put forth propaganda which claimed that they were fighting for religious motives. Their rhetoric fooled few: it was clear that the real goals were land, money, and power. It would be those with truly spiritual motives - a collection of Lutherans and Roman Catholics - who would create peace in 1648, negotiating a settlement between worldly monarchs. It was a religious war in name only; those with no spiritual interests starting and fueled the conflict. The truly religious leaders were those who brokered the peace.
In the midst of this horror, amazingly, a series of brilliant thinkers kept the arts alive. During the harshest of times during these three decades, from 1618 to 1648, composers like Michael Praetorius, Melchior Franck, and Michael Altenburg kept the musical and spiritual life of Europe alive. Perhaps the most significant and influential composer of the era was Heinrich Schütz. Heinrich Scheidemann laid important musical foundations for the work of Dieterich Buxtehude. Buxtehude, who would be only eleven years old at the war's end, was able to achieve his stellar successes because men like Scheidemann had kept the arts alive during the war (Buxtehude's first name is variously spelled 'Dietrich' and 'Diderich').
Another creative thinker who endured the suffering of this era was Paul Gerhardt. Professor Uwe Siemon-Netto writes:
For most of his childhood, youth, and maturity, Paul Gerhardt, who was born on March 12, 1607, in Gräfenhainichen, Germany, near Wittenberg, lived through one of the worst calamities of Central Europe - the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). Yet "the religious song of Germany found its purest and sweetest expression" in his hymns, wrote Catherine Winkworth (1837-1878), whose English translations of Gerhardt's verses reflect their purity of thought, beauty, and elegant iambic meter.
While Winkworth's nineteenth century translations now suffer from archaisms, paradoxically, Gerhardt's texts and melodies, two centuries older, strike the eye and ear as fresh. Gerhardt, born in 1607, lived through all thirty years of the war's horrors. While his music reflects the suffering of those years, it also contains a hope which looks beyond them.
A remarkable mix of Trost und Trotz (consolation and defiance) lends Gerhardt's hymns their unique allure, according to Heidelberg theologian Christian Möller. This defiance is directed against pain, while consolation comes from his trust in God's governance and goodness and the knowledge that all torment will pass. Gerhardt's genius lies in his insight that one would not work without the other.
This same thought lies in the works of the other composers who lived through, and composed during, the war. This notion applies also to the decade or two after the end of The Thirty Years' War - the destruction was so great that the region did not recover quickly.
Paul Gerhardt ranks the second-most important crafter of hymns in German Protestantism, after Martin Luther, but he had worthy contemporaries. As the Swedes laid siege to the town of Eilenburg, fellow Saxon pastor Martin Rinckart wrote, "Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices" - and this while burying an average of 50 plague victims every day!
Four hundred years later, works like Rinackart's Nun Danket Alle Gott, Mit Herzen, Mund, und Händen and Gerhardt's Befiehl du deine Wege and Nun ruhen alle Wälder remain frequently performed. The suffering during this era did not end with the peace treaty of 1648. Because the secular aims of the leaders who started the war had been hidden behind empty religious rhetoric, the postwar milieu was bitter. While the real Christians, both Lutheran and Roman Catholic, had worked to end the war and bring peace, the non-Christian leaders who proclaimed themselves to be Christians caused anger and resentment among the public. It was difficult to distinguish between the true peace-seeking Christians and the warmongers who called themselves Christians but were not. Thus the war's misery was followed by a bitter and resentful peacetime. Gerhardt's beautiful music grew out of all this misery and suffering.
There was the Thirty Years' War when Gerhardt lost his parental home. There was the loss of his wife and four of his five children to disease. There was his personal illness. There was the loss of his powerful pulpit at St. Nicholas Church in Berlin due to the political war between Lutherans and Calvinists. Ministers of both attacked each other ferociously in their sermons. In 1665, the Elector Frederick tried to put a stop to that, insisting that Lutheran pastors sign a document pledging not to criticize
the Calvinists, also called the "Reformed" theologians, in contrast to the Lutherans who were "Reformation" theologians. Because both groups were Christian, they shared quite a few common beliefs. But tensions between the two were accented by worldly leaders who saw religion in terms of political influence. Thus an allegedly 'religious' debate was actually amplified by non-religious political leaders, who nudged it from friendly disagreement into societal conflict.
Likewise, the well-intentioned but heavy-handed attempt by the Elector Frederick to resolve the tension resulted merely in a loss of the freedom of religious expression. Preachers were figuratively muzzled. The Elector, so-called because he had a role in selecting the Holy Roman Emperor, lacked both the instinct for religious liberty and the nuanced approach required to deal with sophisticated theological distinctions.
Until that point, Gerhardt had been restrained in his public disapproval of Calvinism. But after the elector's edict, Gerhardt became very outspoken. Though ill, he assembled Berlin's Lutheran pastors at his sickbed, imploring them to remain steadfast in asserting their right to free speech.
Gerhardt was ultimately transferred out of Berlin to work at a church in Lübben, a few miles outside of Berlin.
He later called the loss of his influential position "a small sort of Berlin martyrdom," which was all the more egregious as he was separated from his organist, Johann Crüger, who had put many of Gerhardt's poems to music.
Crüger and Gerhardt collaborated on numerous compositions. Their joint efforts are regarded as some of Gerhardt's best work. An ironic twist revealed to the world the truth about the allegedly religious tensions of the era - that they were not at all rooted in religious, but in worldly power politics - when the value of Gerhardt's hymns was recognized by the Roman Catholic church:
There was also a fascinating ecumenical side to Gerhardt's work. Only 30 years after his death in 1676 in Lübben, then Saxony, Gerhard became perhaps the first Lutheran poet to have a song published in a Roman Catholic hymnal: "O Sacred Head Now Wounded"
was included, a song still considered today to be "perhaps one of Gerhardt's most haunting verses." The inclusion of Gerhardt's work in Roman Catholic hymnal manifested clearly the underlying commonalities between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and exposed as a fiction the claim that religious differences had led to the war. The misery during the war's thirty years, and the misery in the decade or two afterward, although caused by worldly greed, although falsely labeled a religious war by those who needed an excuse for the conflict, nonetheless served as a spiritual incubator in which enduring works of music were composed.