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A rendition of Martin Luther, sitting among family in 1875

Luther in the circle of his family, 1875

Carillon Notes for October 2020

Tune name: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”)

Occasion: Reformation Sunday

Some scholars believe that October 31st was the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Germany. Whether or not this is true, he also wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg on that date in which he included a copy of the same theses. Though it was Luther’s intent to introduce these as changes to be made in the Catholic church, it clearly didn’t work out that way and he was excommunicated in 1521. This date therefore signals the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

In the Lutheran church and most other Protestant denominations, Reformation Day is celebrated on the Sunday closest to but before November 1st; All Saints’ Day is typically celebrated on the next Sunday. The intersection of this holiday with Luther’s statement is likely not accidental as on All Saints’ Day relics were typically on display in a large church and the viewing of relics was very similar to the subject of Luther’s main objection: the sale of indulgences which allegedly shortened the purchaser’s time in purgatory.

The hymn tune “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” is by Luther himself, dating from around 1529, and the text is his paraphrase of Psalm 46. It has been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” and the German poet Heinrich Heine referred to it as the “Marseillaise of the Reformation” in the first book of his “On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany” though this may be partly because he wrote it while in exile in Paris in 1833. In English it is usually sung “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” which was translated in 1853 by Frederick Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister who was born and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to A Dictionary of Hymnology, the first translation into English was over three hundred years earlier, in 1539, by Myles Coverdale who is best remembered for his translation of the Book of Psalms which was included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in the Anglican Church and is still used by many churches today, especially in England. He translated the first line as “Oure God is a defence and towre;” in the early 18th century Jacobi published it as “God is our Refuge in Distress.” American Lutherans often use a different translation from their own prayer book, published in Pennsylvania.

Today, we usually sing the hymn in a Bach harmonization, which can be found in many hymnals. Bach made the hymn rather “four square” by making all of the note values the same except the end of each line (this is called an isorhythmic setting); Luther’s original version was more varied rhythmically and almost dance-like. I have included examples of both the isorhythmic (in English) and rhythmic (in German) settings at the end of this article. In addition to the many settings of the tune intended for church use, whether in cantatas and choral works or as organ preludes, it has been quoted as a symbol of Protestantism and Germany. Felix Mendelssohn used it as the theme of the last movement of his “Reformation” Symphony, it represents the title characters in Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots, and Debussy quoted it in his suite for two pianos En Blanc et Noir (In Black and White) juxtaposed against La Marseillaise. It is still sung frequently in Protestant churches the world over in many different languages, and even appears in Gather, which is a Catholic hymnal. I think Luther would be happy that after 500 years some of his music has been accepted by his original faith!

Text of the hymn in Hedge’s translation:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing:
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work his woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth is his name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, —
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure, —
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers —
No thanks to them — abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also:
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is for ever.

Psalm 46 (This version is from the St. Helena Psalter, which is a modern poetic, gender-neutral translation based on the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer).

God is our refuge and strength, *

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *

and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

Though its waters rage and foam, *

and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

The God of hosts is with us; *

the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, *

the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be overthrown; *

God shall help it at the break of day.

The nations make much ado, and the realms are shaken; *

God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away.

The God of hosts is with us; *

the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Come now and look upon the works of the Most High, *

who does awesome things on earth.

It is God who makes war to cease in all the world, *

who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, then, and know that I am God; *

I will be exalted among the nations;

I will be exalted in the earth.”

The God of hosts is with us; *

the God of Jacob is our stronghold.


Wishing all of you a happy Fall of continued health and safety. Always speak up for your beliefs; you never know what you could accomplish!

— Thomas Dawkins, Music Director


Further listening: “Ein feste Burg” original rhythmic version sung in German by the Dresdner Kreuzchor with early baroque brass instruments, conducted by Hans Grüß and Martin Flämig. “A Mighty Fortress” isorhythmic version by J.S. Bach sung in English by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.