A Mighty Fortress

Today is the Sunday closest to 31 October, the date on which, in 1517, Luther began the Reformation by nailing the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther wrote this text in 1529 and early in his career as a reformer.  Based on Psalm 46, (“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. . . the Lord Almighty is with us;  the God of Jacob is our fortress”) this text exhibits a stability in the solid assurance in the gospel of Christ.

First, note its poetic and musical form.  The first phrase (“A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon”) is the same musically as the second phrase—we call this the A section.  With the next phrase a new melody is introduced (“The old evil foe now means deadly woe. . .”), which we will call the B section.  The final phrase (“On earth is not his equal”) is short, not long enough to have its own designation, but it might simply be called a coda.  (Meaning “ending.”)  This AAB/coda form was known in medieval music as the Bar form and was quite common in folk music.  A misunderstanding of this term has resulted in that heresy being spread that “Luther used bar tunes in worship.”  Such nonsense!  Luther sets this hymn in a C major tonality (and, unlike us, he had more than simply two modes, major or minor, from which to choose), typically the key of happiness and assurance.  The last phrase is simply a descending C major scale, a typically-Lutherian motif which is also evidenced in the final phrase of “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”

The fact that he could not think up a better ending to his hymns perhaps demonstrates Luther’s amateur status as a musician.  He was said to have been a good singer and played the lute (a stringed instrument) and flute.  He commissioned some of the best musicians of the day to compose music for liturgical use, so important did he find hymnody and music to be in the liturgy. Here is his original tune:

What is the meter?  Unlike such standard march hits as “Onward Christian Soldiers” which displays a martial and predictable strong/weak pattern, or the waltz-like “Come, Holy Ghost, in Love,” whose triple-time bars are marked by a strong downbeat and a weak two and three, Luther’s melody alternates between duple and triple meter.  In essense, every quarter note (the black ones) is weak and every half note (the white ones) are strong;  the point of the black notes is to move straight to the long values, which seem to want to dwell even longer in time. But this is not the version we sing today:

Here is evident a familiar time signature—4/4.  We know that this tune has a predictable strong/weak/strong/weak pattern, never deviating from meausure to measure.  This music perhaps gives us more stability and grandeur—it can be sung at a slow stately tempo—but it lacks the energy and vitality of Luther’s original tune.  How did this change come about?

A modern hymnologist, Joseph Herl, proposed in his recent book, Worship Wars in Sixteenth Century Lutheranism, that the hymns of the early Reformation, including Luther’s, were not immediately sung with enthusiasm by the average person in the pew.  After all, they were not used to the idea of congregational singing, and Luther was a very conservative reformer in terms of the liturgy.  He wanted to abolish the heretical elements of the mass whilst still leaving what gave people comfort.  Demanding that they sing new and difficult music while at the same time pointing out heresies in their long-held belief system was a political and social mistake that Herl says Luther was too smart to make.  Yet, Luther definitely believed in congregational singing, and he wanted people to learn these hymns, but such didn’t happen for many decades in some places.  In fact, Herl notes that early Lutherans really only sang the Nicene Creed every Sunday.  Hence, many of these hymns would have been sung by a choir which has rehearsed and practiced them.  A seasoned and experienced choir with hours to practice a week can easily sing “A Mighty Fortress” with the crispness and rhythmic vitality Luther intended.  But, as the years progressed and Lutherans not only became comfortable singing in church but became ravenous about it, it is natural that this music would lose some of its intrinsic rhythmic character.   What happens when one gets a congregation of several hundred singing Luther’s original “A Mighty Fortress?”  Very naturally, the tempo tends to slow and the long and short values will naturally tend to even out.  This type of performance practice eventually led to most of the early Lutheran hymns becoming less rhythmic, eventually finding an official Lutheran imprimatur with the evened-out rhythms finding their way into most hymnals by the 18th century.  (Herl’s thesis is not universally accepted, and Christopher Boyd Brown’s new book, Singing the Gospel:  Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation argues pretty much the opposite—that common people sang these hymns with alacrity and from the beginning, although even he does not argue that they would have been sung liturgically in corporate worship.)

Either way, this hymn conveys the solidity and assurances of God’s promises.