St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral, Wilkes-Barre
A mighty fortress is our God
Hymn 687 and 688, The Hymnal 1982
Having grown up in the Lutheran Church with a father and two uncles who served as pastors in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), few other hymns have so shaped and influenced me as “A mighty fortress is our God.” The poet Heinrich Heine spoke of it as “the Marseillaise of the Reformation” (the Marseillaise is the national anthem of France). With the tune (Ein feste Burg) and text composed by Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), it is the quintessential Lutheran chorale. The version which appears in The Hymnal 1982 at #687 closely resembles Luther’s original musical form, marked by strong rhythms typical of the folk and dance music of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In later years the great Lutheran church musician, organist, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) arranged many of the great Lutheran chorales with more elaborate harmonies and isometric rhythms that “straightened out” the lively syncopations. The version more familiar to most of us found at Hymn #688 is primarily the result of Bach’s influence.
Until the work of Luther, singing hymns in church was primarily the right and responsibility of members of the clergy and other religious orders. Those hymns were sung in Latin, the official language of the Church. Luther sought to give the music of the Church to the people, so he wrote new hymns in his own native German language and encouraged reformists from other countries to write hymns in their own native tongues. For some of these new hymns Luther and others wrote new tunes, for others they adapted the translations of Latin texts to existing plainsong tunes, and for others they actually wrote sacred texts to be sung to secular drinking songs. “A mighty fortress” is an entirely new text set to an entirely new tune. The text is a paraphrase of Psalm 46 (“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”), one of the very first examples of such a metrical rewording of a Psalm text.
By virtue of its strength, poetic and musical integrity, and its historical significance, “A mighty fortress” clearly stands among the greatest of all Christian hymns. For me personally, it is a direct link to my own strong faith which was planted and nurtured in me by my parents, uncles and aunts, and many previous generations of my family, with strong roots to our German Lutheran heritage. It was sung at the funerals for both my parents, and God willing, when the time comes, it will be sung at my own funeral.
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