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.”