Pop Hymnology

Pop Hymnology: A Mighty Fortress is Our God

When I started at seminary seven years ago I didn't really have any experience in the 'contemporary' worship style.  I was a pretty traditional guy then; I was even going into seminary to focus primarily on the traditional side of things.  My MSM focus is in choral conducting; that's all I thought I was going to do.  But when I needed a job as I started grad school, my home church had an assistant director's opening running their children's choirs and contemporary service.  Two things I knew next to nothing about.  But my home church had faith in me and since then in the ministry positions I've served I've been able to plan and lead worship in both the traditional and contemporary contexts on Sunday morning.  It has been both an education and a blessing.

It's also put me often in the position of having to defend the 'contemporary' genre of worship.  It might be hard to believe to some of you, but yes, there's still plenty of disdain for having guitars and drums in the 'traditional' worship space.  And I do mean disdain.

Truly, though, I don't mind having to defend it.  I find I'm able to use my education often in defense of contemporary music trends, because for nearly every genre of hymn in the hymnal (of which there are many), there is a popular style of music that runs along side of it.  I find it fun to open people's eyes to this fact, because it wasn't that long ago that church music wasn't allowed to even be in the language of the people, much less the styles heard on the street.

This is the first blog in a series I'm calling "Pop Hymnology", where we'll focus on the root styles of many of the hymn genres in today's hymnals (we'll be focusing on many of the classing hymns of the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal).  Our first hymn study will be focused on what one of my sacred music professors called the "Battle Hymn of the Reformation": A Mighty Fortress is Our God, by the Reformer, Martin Luther.

"Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world."
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Much like the Wesley Brothers, Martin Luther had an intimate and profound understanding of music as a way to connect us to God in worship.  Martin Luther also had a deep belief in bringing the Word of God to the people of his native Germany in their own language.  We could go all day here in discussing the life and passions of Luther, but we'll just focus here on his pastoral musicianship.

Luther was an avid (and intentional) church music composer, there are at least thirty-seven chorale (a German protestant hymn) texts and just as many tunes to go with them.  Source material to inspire Luther's tune writing can be attributed to many sources from Gregorian chant melodies, cantios (a medieval unison-style hymn), religious folk songs, and secular folk songs.  Much of his texts were also paraphrases or translations of existing material, but regardless of the material for his inspiration, Luther's main concerns were to communicate good theology and to get the people singing.

A Mighty Fortress is Our God (UMH 110), written to the tune EIN FESTE BURG was wholly composed by Martin Luther, somewhere between 1527 and 1529.  We should note that the hymn was composed after his famous posting of the Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and subsequent excommunication by the pope (1521).

The tune was written in the extremely popular barform, in which an initial music phrase, A, is sung, then repeated, then the tune is concluded with the B phrase, we note this form as AAB.  With A Mighty Fortress we define it further as a variation of the barform called "repetition-serial-barform", where melodic material from the A phrase is borrowed at the conclusion of the tune.  I'll illustrate this, breaking down the first stanza, using the translation by Frederick Hedge found in the UMH.  Sing the tune in your head!

A    a    A mighty fortress is our God,
       b    a bulwark never failing;

A     a   our helper he amid the flood,
        b   of mortal ills prevailing.

B     c   For still our ancient foe
       d    doth seek to work us woe;
       e    his craft and power are great,
       f    and armed with cruel hate,
       b   on earth is not his equal.*

That Luther used the barform for this, his most famous hymn, is significant for many reasons.  As a priest, Luther would have been afforded an incredible education not just in theology, but in the arts (music), history, mathematics, and science.  But he was also, as shown in his heart for the poor, a student of humanity.  He knew that the barform was a musical form for the traveling pop singers of the day, the Minnesingers and Meistersingers.  These characters were the traveling poet-musicians of the Medieval and Renaissance periods.  You know the traveling minstrel in the medieval movies with his trusty lute?  That was what the minnesinger was ... Only German.

As these traveling musicians went from town to town, singing in pubs and on the street, their hope would often be to teach their songs as they went.  The barform, with it's repeated musical phrases, is a very simple form for a non-musician to learn.  It's actually a form that's been popular for centuries, and is still pervasive in America with blues music.  The American National Anthem is also in barform.

As a pastoral musician, Luther would have known intimately what the caught the attention of the community around him in terms of musical style.  Luther at his heart was a rebel and wasn't afraid to take a peasant, popular form of music in what was at the time a modern-minstrel style of pop and use it to glorify God and get the people of his land of Germany singing.  Participation in the ministry of the church was of utmost importance to Luther as the Reformation took flight.

Need I also say that A Mighty Fortress is Our God was also originally sung in German?  The English Translation we use (there are actually more than 100) was translated by Frederick Hedge in 1853.  The fact that it was in German (not Latin) is another key part of Luther's purpose in ministry - the word of God was meant to be brought to the people.

Martin Luther took the vernacular - the German language, and the most basic popular music style of the barform and he elevated them to glorify God.  He showed us that it's OK to take the secular, music of the people and use it to expand the Kingdom.  Thanks be to God!

*A great deal of the facts in this post (including the hymn stanza breakdown) are found in the article "Martin Luther: A Model Pastoral Musician", found in Ritual Music: Studies in Liturgical Musicology, by Edwin Foley, a wonderful volume on the history of music in worship.  I also frequently used my Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Carton R. Young, ed.  The Companion should be a required buy by anyone professing of liturgy nerdiness.