“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice” This was Martin Luther’s first congregational hymn, published in 1524 in Etlich Christliche Lieder (also known as the “Achtliederbuch,” or “Eight Christian Hymns”) and representing the genesis of Protestant hymnody. The printing press, which had been invented around 1450, had become a boon to the Reformation, as ideas and music could be spread quickly and cheaply; no longer did each volume have to be copied by hand by a scribe. Consequently, even average working families could afford books, and small pamphlets such as Etlich Christliche Lieder were a common means which Luther and others used to propagate the Reformation.
Of the eight hymns contained in this little volume, four were by Luther; his choice of tunes to which his hymns were set manifest his acute concern that a hymn be “singable.” This hymn tune was probably a secular folk tune from the late Middle Ages which Luther borrowed and used to set a sacred text. This process, as readers of music notes will recall, is called “contrafactum.” Contrafactum, or replacing an existing secular song’s text with a sacred text, was fairly common during the Reformation. Luther and the reformers wished to engage the congregation in worship immediately, and whilst they made a concerted effort to teach singing and original hymnody, they also composed texts to already-familiar tunes so that people would already be familiar with half of the hymn before they even sang it! Roman Catholic church music largely (but not exclusively—there were exceptions) excluded the congregation from singing. Plainchant (or Gregorian chant) was the primary expression of medieval hymnody and consisted of free-flowing, florid, and unaccompanied vocal lines meant primarily as a vehicle for conveying the text. Plainchant by nature was/is most appropriate for a choir (of monks) who have adequate time to rehearse and to learn this music; plainchant is difficult for a congregation to sing. Luther supplemented these chants with easily-sung congregational hymnody. This hymn is one such example.
Frequent readers of music notes at this point may surmise that the writer will now launch into another discussion of Luther and “bar tunes.” If you know the falaciousness of this insidious misconception, you may quit reading here. However, this bears continual repeating.
This hymn, like “A Mighty Fortress” and like much medieval secular music, is musically repetitive. Just as poetry has form and meter, so does music. The form of this medieval secular music is known musicologically as the “bar” form. Bar form means the music repeats in a certain way: AABC (or coda [ending]). In this hymn, the bar form is manifest as follows:
A: “Dear Christians one and all rejoice, with exultation springing;” the music then repeats,
A: “And with united heart and voice and holy rapture singing;” new music is then introduced,
B: “Proclaim the wonders God has done, how His right arm the vict’ry’s won;” which concludes with a brief coda,
C: “What price our ransom cost Him!”
“A Mighty Fortress” is set to this same musical/poetic scheme. Luther was aware that, not only were people generally familiar with these tunes, the tunes in essence taught themselves, as by the end of the second stanza one will have sung the A section a total of four times. Plus, the melody of the B section is often related musically to the A section, so it will not sound “foreign” when the singer arrives there. So, Luther never once used “bar” tunes, as the purveyors of shoddy church music would have us believe; yet, he used a form that was recognizable and easy to sing. We may not find this hymn today the easiest to sing; we sing others that are more recognizable and probably more beloved. However, seldom is Law and Gospel better proclaimed than in this Reformation hymnody, and we are fortunate to be able to sing it.