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A Mighty Fortress


“Luther, Beer, and that Mysterious Bar Tune.”  Today’s music notes deals not with a specific hymn, but with a concept ubiquitous in importance to all hymnody.  The writer of music notes occasionally runs across a parishoner, pastor, church leader, or even a scholarly professional theologian or educator who holds an erroneous view of Luther and music.  Namely, the person in question usually says, “Martin Luther used bar tunes in church—in fact, ‘A Mighty Fortress’ is a bar tune!”  Usually this absurd statement is followed by a prescription for curing all the church’s musical ills, a prescription often as dubious as the statement which occasioned the discussion.  But, did Martin Luther use bar tunes?  Is “A Mighty Fortress” a bar tune?

               First of all, one can probably accurately state that Luther knew plenty of beer drinking songs, as he was 1) German and probably 2) spent time drinking beer, probably with others.  Lutherans, while perhaps not as intemperate as the average Polish Catholic, have never been as teetotalling as the Baptists, believing that there is nothing inherently wrong with imbibing alcohol moderately.  So, there can be little doubt that Luther probably had a full repertoire of drinking songs!  But, how does this translate to his approach to church music?

               Luther has written, “Next to theology no art is equal to music;  for it is the only one, except theology, which is able to give a quiet and happy mind.”  He goes on to say, “I greatly desire that youth, which, after all, should and must be trained in music and other proper arts, might have something whereby they might be weaned from the love ballads and, instead of these, learn something beneficial and take up the good with relish, as befits youth.”  Luther was particularly concerned with good church music.  He commissioned some of the best musicians of the day, such as Heinrich Walther, to composer original music for the liturgy.  Luther even kept some of the great chant tunes from the medieval Church and altered the texts and tunes slightly for congregational singing.  His own musical compositions are crafted with care and, although they betray a 16th-century German ethos, they can hardly be considered bar tunes.

               In fact, this confusion has arisen from the misapplication of a term for poetic and musical form.  In medieval Germany, the folk songs sung by the Meistersingers and Minnesingers were composed in what is known as “Bar” form.  This means that a song is in “AAB coda (ending)” form.  So, the first two lines of music repeat exactly.  The third line is a new phrase, and the whole thing is capped off with a brief ending.  Luther, in some of his hymn tunes, employed this form so as to increase familiarity to his congregation.  In “A Mighty Fortress,” the first two phrases are exactly the same:  “A mighty fortress is our God, A trusty shield and weapon” followed by the mirroring, “He helps us free from every need That hath us now o’ertaken.”  Some new melodic material occurs, followed by the coda (a musical term for “ending”) of a descending octave scale (characteristic of Luther—hum the final phrases of “A Mighty Fortress” and “From Heaven Above!”)  This same AAB/coda form is found in Luther’s “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee” (LW 230, TLH 327), but is not found in all of Luther’s compositions.  “From Heaven Above,” for example, does not follow this Bar form.  In fact, musicologically speaking, the Bar form teaches music wonderfully—by the time one finishes singing all four stanzas of “A Mighty Fortress,” one has sung the “A” section eight times!   This repetition ensures that the next time one sings this song, it will be quite familiar.  Think how important this would be to Christians of the early Reformation, who generally were not accustomed to singing hymns in church.  In fact, many hymns in our hymnal from later times and of other nationalities follow this same Bar form because it is makes for such easy singing.  The writer of music notes does not know why musicologists call this “Bar” form.  The word is an odd choice for a technical term.  But, the connection between the musicological term and its misapplication is evidenced by the fact that you seldom hear people saying that Luther used “drinking songs,” “tavern songs,” or “beer hall tunes.”  The term was and is solely a musicological one.

               Now, your blissfully-ignorant antagonist will say, “Ok—but Luther did say, ‘Why should the devil have all the good tunes?’”  Your antagonist will follow this statement with the logical conclusion that Luther used bar tunes because he liked them so much and wanted to appropriate them for church use because of their beauty.  Despite the fact that you have addressed the bar room question, you can simply reply that Luther never said such a thing.  Much like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, both of whom have supposedly come up with the most witty sayings much to their own surprise, it was Rev Rowland Hill of Surrey Chapel in London in 1844 who made this statement in response to the sorry state of Anglican church music at the time.  His was a call for quality liturgical and hymnological compositions of great quality in their own right.  He was not calling on the Church to use the “devil’s tunes,” but for the Church to come up with better ones in the service of God!

               Indeed, the power of music in general and the importance of music used in the Divine Service was clear to Luther and should be clear to us as well as we proclaim with Luther that music “. . . might be put to proper use and serve its dear Creator and His Christians, that He might be praised and glorified and that we might be bettered and strengthened in the faith through His holy Word, driven into the heart with sweet song.  May God the Father, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, help us to this end.  Amen.” 


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Let Children Hear

“Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds” In today’s Gospel lesson from Luke 18, Jesus exhorts the disciples to “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the great English hymnist, echoes a similar sentiment when he implores in this hymn to “Make to them His glories known, His works of pow’r and grace. . . O teach them with all diligence the truths of God’s own Word, to place in Him their confidence, to fear and trust their Lord.” This reflects Moses’ admonition in Deuteronomy 4: 9b when, referring to the “commands” or “statutes” of the Lord, he states “Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” The Old Testament is replete with examples of instructing children in the ways of God. Consider Psalm 78: 5-8:

He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded to our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.

Isaac Watts was the great “Father of English Hymnody.” Prior to Watts, English “hymnody” consisted of metrical paraphrases of psalms, often poorly rendered. There were no “hymns” dedicated to the liturgical year, particular seasons of life, or even to New Testament topics as existed in the German Lutheran Church. Watts paraphrased the psalter in a manner beyond the scope and aesthetic capabilities of his predecessors, but he also began to compose hymn texts that were not taken directly from scripture but were rather “of human composure.” (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is one such example.) Here, Watts has taken Psalm 78 as an inspiration, but has interpolated the meaning of the scripture texts.

Also of interest to the writer of music notes is that this text is dedicated to “childhood.” In an age where there are all sorts of educational and social options (and expectations) for children, this might not seem so unusual. But such did not exist prior to the nineteenth century, before which children were seen simply as little adults and treated accordingly. (Whether this was a good or bad thing probably depends on the situation.) With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, children were seen as a source of cheap labour in factories--think of Dicken’s Oliver Twist. In the UK, there were laws enacted as early as 1802 and 1819 restricting children from working in factories. Later in the nineteenth century, of course, formalized schooling was enacted, and in America what is known as the public school came to be. One might cynically say this was the “invention of childhood.” Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was inspired by his own humiliating experiences as a child, occasionally involving a debtor’s prison, and in its own way sought to exemplify the innocence and simplicity which ostensibly should be afforded children who were forced to grow up too soon. (One can see parallels to issues of today.) Watts lived a century prior to these progressive developments, and for him to have devoted a hymn to childhood suggests the importance with which he viewed teaching the faith.

Almost two centuries before Watts, Luther, of course, conceived of the catechism as a way to teach everyone, including children, the basics of the Christian faith. Luther’s great Christmas carol “From Heaven Above” was intended for the children of his household to sing—all fifteen stanzas! But this attention to the unique needs of children was sporadic. Certainly the tomes of parenting and education books on the shelves of the local book outlets testify to the attention the current culture pays to children. (Although one could very well argue that the motivation is commercial.) In this hymn, however, Watts affirms the importance of conveying the faith to children—not simply for their benefit, but for their own childrens’ benefit.


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