(b Kahla, Thuringia, 1496; d Torgau, 25 March 1570). German composer and poet. According to a document dated 12 February 1599 which supplements his will of 1 April 1562, his surname was Blanckenmüller and as a penniless schoolboy he had been adopted by a citizen of Kahla and had pursued his studies under the name ‘Johann Walter’. He claimed that he had been educated in music from his youth; he was probably a choirboy during or after his schooldays in Kahla and Rochlitz. Between 1521 and 1525, he was a bass in the Elector of Saxony’s Hofkapelle, which was usually centred in Altenburg, Torgau and Weimar. After the death of Elector Friedrich III (5 May 1525) he was threatened with dismissal. In 1525 he spent three weeks in Wittenberg with Luther, who was in favour of continuing the late elector’s Kantorei and, with Melanchthon, of Walter’s receiving adequate financial support for it. Walter had been in contact with Duke Albrecht of Prussia in Königsberg from 6 February 1526 but did not gain a position there. Relying on an offer of security in his Torgau post, he settled there and married in June 1526. In 1527 he matriculated at Leipzig University.
Walter’s transition from the court to service in the town and church seems to have been gradual. He still called himself ‘choirmaster to the Elector of Saxony’ in editions of his Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn from 1534 to 1551. In December 1527 he was awarded a vicarship in Altenburg. In 1529 he was living in the school building and in 1531 the Torgau inspectors decreed that he should instruct the boys in music and organize the singing in the parish church. In 1532 he was given a house in Torgau and citizen’s rights. In 1535 the elector authorized an annual grant of 100 thalers for Walter’s new Kantorei. The singers were apparently able to perform the demanding repertory of the so-called Torgau Walter Manuscripts and to mount important festivities, such as the dedication of the renovated Schlosskapelle (5 October 1544).
When the electoral title was transferred from one branch of the family to another after the Schmalkaldic War, Walter’s allegiances took him away from Torgau to the Dresden Hofkapelle, which he directed from 1548 until he retired in 1554. He remained a strict Lutheran and resisted the Leipzig Interim of 1548 and all theological and liturgical change. His concern for the continuation of the pure Lutheran doctrine is reflected in his letters from Dresden and in some of his late works from Torgau, where he lived in his old age.
Walter’s importance for music history rests on his Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn (first published in 1524) and on his organization of ecclesiastical music for several towns and residences in Saxony, especially Torgau and Dresden. He organized, revised and even wrote part of the music in the Torgau Walter Manuscripts. By 1524 at the latest he was personally acquainted with Luther, whom he advised (with his colleague Conrad Rupsch, also from Kahla) on the draft of the German Mass in autumn 1525. Luther, for his part, lent authority to Walter’s hymnbook, with its early use of the Protestant Tenorlied, by writing the preface, which mentions Walter only incidentally. This first Lutheran collection of choral music appeared in the same year as Luther’s famous appeal to German cities to maintain Christian schools: the hymnbook was intended for young people, who were encouraged to use a spiritual repertory instead of secular songs so that they would become practised in the Christian way of life and in its music. The hymnbook’s success is confirmed by its many new editions and continuations, and by contemporary reports: as early as 20 June 1526, when it contained 38 German settings and only five Latin ones, Melanchthon wrote that Walter had ‘created the hymn which is so much in use today’, and on 7 July 1547 he said that Walter’s music was the most sung in Wittenberg.
Walter’s German hymns were probably sung at first by the Saxon Hofkapelle in Dresden, but soon also in daily school prayers; manuscript and printed music for Latin services, particularly festal Vespers and masses, shows that the principal composers of this type of music were pre-Reformation, or unaffected by the reforms, or were Walter’s contemporaries.
Walter was regarded as the master of the music and words of the German hymn. He attempted to overcome this specialization by using a wider range of texts, by a greater technical display in pieces for five to seven voices and by composing the somewhat old-fashioned Magnificat settings of 1557. His free use of dissonant suspensions attests his increasing ambition as a composer. But the future of German church music lay in the hymn, and Walter’s song settings and simple contrapuntal sections prepared the way. Like all his German contemporaries, Walter was influenced by Josquin, most notably in his seven-voice homage motet of 1544. The timbre of his German settings, with their emphasis on 3rds and 6ths, may be derived from Isaac, while his increasing tendency to use clausulas corresponds to the style of the period. His song motets of 1566, however, show how he paved the way for succeeding generations of German musicians.
for full sources see edition
Edition: Johann Walter: Sämtliche Werke, ed. O. Schröder (Kassel, 1953–73) [S i–vi]
Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn (Wittenberg, 1524; 2/1525/R in DM, 1st ser., xxxiii, 1979; enlarged 3/?1528; 6/1551); S i–iii
Cantio, 7vv (Wittenberg, 1544); S v
Ein schöner geistlicher und Christlicher Berckreyen … Herzlich tut mich erfrewen (Wittenberg, 1552)
Magnificat octo tonorum, 4–6vv (Jena, 1557); S v
Ein newes Christlichs Lied, 4vv (Wittenberg, 1561/R1953); S iii
Das christlich Kinderlied D. Martini Lutheri Erhalt uns Herr, 6vv (Wittenberg, 1566); S vi [9 Ger. hymns, 3 Lat. motets]
Verbum caro factum est, 5vv (Eisleben, 1568); ed. in Blankenburg (1991)
8 Magnificat, 4vv, 8 psalms, 4vv, 15405; S iv [simple harmonized settings of chant]
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O.Taubert: ‘Geschichte der Pflege der Musik in Torgau vom Ausgang des 15. Jahrhunderts’, Torgauer Gymnasialprogramm, i (1868); ii (1870)
O.Kade: Ein feste burgk ist unser got: der neuaufgefundene Luther-Codex vom Jahre 1530 (Dresden, 1871)
H.Holstein: ‘Der Lieder- und Tondichter Johann Walter’, Archiv für Litteraturgeschichte, xii (1884), 185–218
J.Rautenstrauch: Luther und die Pflege der kirchlichen Musik in Sachsen (Leipzig, 1907)
A.Aber: Die Pflege der Musik unter den Wettinern und wettinischen Ernestinern (Bückeburg and Leipzig, 1921)
W.Stammler: ‘Johann Walter als Verfasser des Epitaphiums Martini Lutheri’, Braunes Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur, xlviii (1924), 326–8
W.Gurlitt: ‘Johannes Walter und die Musik der Reformationszeit’, Luther-Jb, xv (1933), 1–112
W.Ehmann: ‘Johann Walter, der erste Kantor der protestantischen Kirche’, Musik und Kirche, vi (1934), 188–203, 240–46
K.Ameln and C. Gerhardt: ‘Johann Walter und die ältesten deutschen Passionshistorien’, Monatsschrift für Gottesdienst und kirchliche Kunst, xliv (1939), 105–19
O.Michaelis: Johann Walter (1496–1570) der Musiker-Dichter in Luthers Gefolgschaft (Leipzig and Hamburg, 1939)
O.Schröder: ‘Zur Biographie Johann Walters (1496–1570)’, AMf, v (1940), 12–16
C.Gerhardt: Die Torgauer Walter-Handschriften: eine Studie zur Quellenkunde der Musikgeschichte der deutschen Reformationszeit (Kassel, 1949)
H.J.Moser: ‘Martin Luther und Johann Walter’, Musikgeschichte in hundert Lebensbildern (Stuttgart, 1952), 77–97
W.E.Buszin: ‘Johann Walther, Composer, Pioneer and Luther’s Musical Consultant’, The Musical Heritage of the Church, ed. T. Hoelty-Nickel (Valparaiso, IN, 1954), iii, 78–110
A.Boës: ‘Die reformatorischen Gottesdienste in der Wittenberger Stadtkirche von 1523 an’, Jb für Liturgik und Hymnologie, iv (1958–9), 1–40; vi (1961), 49–61
K.Brinkel: ‘Zu Johann Walters Stellung als Hofkapellmeister in Dresden’, Jb für Liturgik und Hymnologie, v (1960), 135–43
E.Schmidt: Der Gottesdienst am kurfürstlichen Hofe zu Dresden: ein Beitrag zur liturgischen Traditionsgeschichte von Johann Walter bis zu Heinrich Schütz (Berlin, 1960)
A.Forchert: ‘Eine Auflage des Walter-Gesangbuches von 1534’, Jb für Liturgik und Hymnologie, vii (1962), 102–04
J.Stalmann: ‘Die reformatorische Musikanschauung des Johann Walter’, GfMKB: Kassel 1962, 129–32
M.Jenny: ‘Ein frühes Zeugnis für die kirchenverbindende Bedeutung des evangelischen Kirchenliedes’, Jb für Liturgik und Hymnologie, viii (1963), 123–8
J.Stalmann: ‘Johann Walters Versuch einer Reform des gregorianischen Chorals’, Festschrift Walter Gerstenberg zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. G. von Dadelsen and A. Holschneider (Wolfenbüttel, 1964), 166–75
E.Sommer: ‘Johann Walters Weise zu Luthers “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her”’, Jb für Liturgik und Hymnologie, x (1965), 159–61
W.Blankenburg: ‘Johann Walters letztes Werk von 1566’, Musik und Kirche, xxxvi (1966), 249–53
W.Blankenburg: ‘Die verschlungenen Schicksalswege des Codex Gothanus Chart.A.98’, Quellenstudien zur Musik: Wolfgang Schmieder zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. K. Dorfmüller and G. von Dadelsen (Frankfurt, 1972), 35–40
W.Blankenburg: ‘Überlieferung und Textgeschichte von Martin Luthers “Encomion musices”’, Luther-Jb, xxxix (1972), 80–104
U.Asper: Aspekte zum Werden der deutschen Liedsätze in Johann Walters “Geistlichem Gesangbüchlein” (1524–1551) (Baden-Baden, 1985)
W.Blankenburg: Johann Walter: Leben und Werk (Tutzing, 1991)
K.Ameln: ‘Ein Standardwerk über Johann Walter’, Jb für Liturgik und Hymnologie, xxxiv (1992–3), 132–8
U.Asper: ‘Der Kantor Johann Walter, die Stadt Torgau und das Jahr 1996’, Musik und Gottesdienst, l (1996), 213–21
M.Richter: ‘“Ein gut Neue Jar zur Seligkeit” von Johann Walter (1496–1570)’, Jb für Liturgik und Hymnologie, xxxvi (1996–7), 244–6