Did Luther use a drinking song as the
basis for "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God?

(from Public Service Librarian at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN)


Did Luther use a drinking song as the basis for "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"?

This is a common misconception, but the answer is an undeniable "no."

Martin Luther wrote both the words and the tune for "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (in German "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott"). Carl F. Schalk, a well-known contemporary hymnologist, writes in Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1988) as follows:

"Luther also set his hand to the task of writing hymn melodies. It is generally acknowledged that at least three hymn tunes are from Luther's own pen. "Wir glauben all an einen Gott", "Ein feste Burg," and the Sanctus hymn from the German Mass, "Isaiah dem Propheten das geschah." Considering his own musical experience and training, and living at a time when the Meistersinger tradition prescribed that poet and tune writer were one and the same person, it would be strange had he not attempted to give musical expression to his own texts" (p. 26).

Leonard Woolsey Bacon, in The Hymns of Martin Luther Set to Their Original Melodies (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1883), refers to a near contemporary of Luther's in reporting that the tune is by Luther:

"It seems superfluous to add to this testimony the word of Sleidan, the nearly contemporary historian, who says expressly concerning "Ein' feste Burg" that Luther made for it a tune singularly suited to the words, and adapted to stir the heart. If ever there were hymn and tune that told their own story of a common and simultaneous origin, without need of confirmation by external evidence, it is these" (p. xix).

In contrast to these definite statements attributing the tune to Luther, one can note that there are scholars who question this. For example, William Barclay Squire in his article on Martin Luther in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., edited by Eric Blom (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1959) says:

"The following are the hymn-tunes which have been ascribed to Luther, though none with any degree of certainty: ... 'Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott'" (v. 5, p. 447). One should note, however, that if Luther himself did not write the tune, absolutely no source is given for the tune.

The idea that Luther adapted his tune from a drinking song is probably from a misunderstanding of the tune in "bar form." It is easy to see here that "bar" is a technical term, because it is precisely the same word in German. For example, in Liederkunde, 2. Teil, edited by Joachim Stalmann (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990), we find the statement "Luther baut einen neunzeiligen Bar" ["Luther builds a bar of nine lines"] (p. 61).

Willi Apel in Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969) says the following on p. 80-81 about "Bar form." Of particular importance is the connection of the form with the Meistersingers, as seen also in the first quotation from Carl Schalk:

"The name is derived from the medieval German term Bar, a poem consisting of three or more Gesaetze (i.e., stanzas), each of which is divided into two Stollen (section a) and an Absegang (section b). ... [The Bar form] found its way into the repertory of the troubadours ... and ultimately into that of the minnesingers and Meistersinger, who called it Bar and used it for nearly all their lyrical songs. It is equally common in the German ... Lutheran chorales and the various compositions based on them (organ chorales, chorale cantatas, etc.). ... Of particular importance is the type of Bar in which the Stollen recurs complete at the end of the Abgesang, thus leading to the form a a b a. An appropriate designation for this is rounded Bar form. Several hymn melodies show this form."

 "A   Mighty Fortress" has the "bar form" A A B A'. One can diagram it thus:

A    A mighty Fortress is our God,
       A trusty Shield and Weapon;

A   He helps us free from ev'ry need
      That hath us now o'ertaken.

B   The old evil Foe Now means deadly woe;
       Deep guile and great might Are his dread arms in fight;

A'   On earth is not his equal.

Despite the analyses of musicologists, one could still claim that Martin Luther "knew a good tune when he heard it," and adapted it for his own purposes. To think that Luther adapted a drinking song for "A Mighty Fortress," however, goes completely against the practice of the Reformer. This is amply stated by Richard C. Resch, "Music: Gift of God or Tool of the Devil," Logia 3 (Eastertide/April 1994) no. 2: 36, where he makes reference to Markus Jenny, Luthers geistliche Lieder und Kirchengesaenge (Koeln: Boehlau Verlag, 1985):

"Martin Luther is one of the most misunderstood church fathers with respect to the use of music in the church. Claims that he used tavern tunes for his hymns are used in defense of a music practice that freely accepts worldly associations. Such conclusions bear no resemblance to Luther's writings on the subjects of worship and music. In fact, Luther's actions teach us quite a different lesson. In his search for the right tune for his text "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her" ["From Heaven Above to Earth I Come"] , Luther learned about the power of worldly associations. According to the Luther scholar Markus Jenny, Luther's first wedding of this text with a tune was "a classic example of the failure of a contrafacta." He set it to a secular dance song that begins, "I step eagerly to this dance." The dance and tune were closely associated with a Christmas wreath ceremony that was often held in taverns. Luther found the secular associations to be so strong that he eventually wrote a fresh tune that was free of worldly associations. He then indicated on the manuscript that this new melody was to be used in the Sunday service and with children. Luther's modification of this beloved hymn is indication of his sensitivity to the harmful power of worldly associations in the worship practice of the church."

-- Rev. Richard Lammert, Public Services Librarian Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN


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