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"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (German, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott) is the best known of Martin Luther's hymns. Luther wrote the words and composed the melody sometime between 1527 and 1529.Julian, John, ed., A Dictionary of Hymnology: Setting forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of all Ages and Nations, Second revised edition, 2 vols., n.p., 1907, reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957, 1:322–25 It has been translated into English at least seventy times and also into many other languages.W. G. Polack, The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, Third and Revised Edition (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 193, No. 262. The words are a paraphrase of .Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 307–08, nos. 228–229.

History

Ein' Feste Burg with Luther's signature
"A Mighty Fortress" is one of the best loved hymns of the Lutheran and Protestant traditions. It has been called the "Battle Hymn of the Reformation" for the effect it had in increasing the support for the Reformers' cause. John Julian records four theories of its origin:
  • Heinrich Heine: it was sung by Luther and his companions as they entered Wormsmarker on April 16, 1521 for the Diet;
  • K.F.T. Schneider: it was a tribute to Luther's friend Leonhard Kaiser, who was executed as a Protestant martyr on August 16, 1527;
  • Jean-Henri Merle d'Aubigné: it was sung by the German Lutheran princes as they entered Augsburg for the Diet in 1530 at which the Augsburg Confession was presented; and
  • the view that it was composed in connection with the Diet of Speyer (1529) at which the German Lutheran princes lodged their "protest" to Emperor Charles V, who wanted to enforce his Edict of Worms (1521).


Rare early printing of "A Mighty Fortress."
The earliest extant hymnal in which it appears is that of Andrew Rauscher (1531), but it is supposed to have been in Joseph Klug's Wittenberg hymnal of 1529, of which no copy exists. Its title was Der xxxxvi. Psalm. Deus noster refugium et virtus. Before that it is supposed to have appeared in the Hans Weiss Wittenberg hymnal of 1528, also lost. This evidence would support its being written in 1527–1529, since Luther's hymns were printed shortly after they were written.

Tradition states that King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden had it played as his forces went to battle in the Thirty Years' War. The psalm had been translated into Swedish already in 1536, presumably by Olaus Petri. In the late 1800s the song also became an anthem of the early Swedish socialist movement.

It was first translated into English by Myles Coverdale in 1539 with the title, Oure God is a defence and towre. The first English translation in "common usage" was God is our Refuge in Distress, Our strong Defence in J.C. Jacobi's Psal. Ger., 1722, p. 83.

The hymn is now a suggested hymn for Catholic masses[53503], appearing in the second edition of the Catholic Book of Worship, published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Its enduring popularity in Western Christendom has breached boundaries set in the Reformation.

Text

English translations

The most popular English version is A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing and was translated by Frederick H. Hedge in 1853.

Another popular English translation is by Thomas Carlyle and begins A safe stronghold our God is still.

Tune

A Mighty Fortress, isometric tune
A Mighty Fortress, rhythmic tune
Luther composed the melody, named "Ein' Feste Burg" from the text's first line, in meter 87.87.55.56.7. This is sometimes denoted "rhythmic tune" to distinguish it from the later isometric variant, in 87.87.66.66.7 meter which is more widely known and used in Christendom. In 1906 Edouard Rœhrich wrote, "The authentic form of this melody differs very much from that which one sings in most Protestant churches and figures in (Giacomo Meyerbeer's) The Huguenots. ... The original melody is extremely rhythmic, by the way it bends to all the nuances of the text ..."

While 19th-century musicologists disputed Luther's authorship of the music to the hymn, that opinion has been modified by more recent research; it is now the consensus view of musical scholars that Luther did indeed compose the famous tune to go with the words.

Arrangements

The tune has been used by numerous composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, as the source material for his Cantata BWV 80. It was given two settings in Bach's Choralgesänge (Choral Hymns), BWV 302 & BWV 303 (for four voices). Bach also wrote a version for organ, Chorale Prelude BWV 720. Two orchestrations of Bach' settings were made by conductors Leopold Stokowski and Walter Damrosch. Dietrich Buxtehude (also) wrote an organ chorale setting BuxWV 184. Felix Mendelssohn used it as the theme for the fourth and final movement of his Symphony No. 5, Op. 107 (1830), which he named Reformation in honor of the Protestant Reformation started by Luther. Joachim Raff wrote an Overture (for orchestra), Ein' fest Burg ist unser Gott, Op. 127. Giacomo Meyerbeer used it in his five-act grand opera Les Huguenots (1836), and Richard Wagner used it as a "motive" in his Kaisermarsch (Emperor's March), which was composed to commemorate the return of Kaiser Wilhelm I from the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Two organ settings were written by Max Reger; his Choral Fantasy "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott", Op. 27 and a much shorter Chorale, Op. 67, No. 6. Ralph Vaughan Williams uses the tune in his score for the film 49th Parallel, used most obviously when the German U-Boat surfaces in Hudson Bay shortly after the beginning of the film. Flor Peeters wrote an organ chorale setting “Ein’ feste Burg” as part of his Ten Chorale Preludes, Op. 69, published in 1949. More recently it has been used by band composers to great effect in pieces such as Psalm 46 by John Zdechlik. In 2007, Bradley Joseph arranged an instrumental version on his album, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

In popular culture

  • The hymn was sung at the National Cathedralmarker during the funeral service for United States President Dwight David Eisenhower.
  • A version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was used as the theme for the children's television series Davey and Goliath, which was produced for the Lutheran Church in America.
  • Part of it can also be heard in the made-for-TV movie, A Separate Peace.
  • "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" is the first song that the main character of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man encounters, chronologically within his own life.
  • A Caribbean-style instrumental version is included in the Van Dyke Parks album Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976), erroneously given as Johann Pachelbel's Canon.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 used the song as a running gag during the film "The Rebel Set", in which the mastermind of a bank heist disguised himself as a Lutheran minister. The series was produced in the state of Minnesotamarker, which has a large Lutheran population.
  • A Mighty Fortress was the name of a supplement for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game; this supplement depicted the Renaissance and wars of religion as a campaign setting for this roleplaying game.
  • In the animated TV series The Simpsons the doorbell chimes of Ned Flanders, the cheerfully devout next door neighbor, sometimes ring "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
  • The WB series The Gilmore Girls features this hymn in an episode of the series' third season, when Zach, Brian and Dave are practicing for a gig at Mrs. Kim's house. The band re-writes the hymn after Zach protests the lyrics.
  • The prison warden ironically whistles this tune in Frank Darabont's movie Shawshank Redemption.
  • The instrumental is played in the background during a collage of scenes in the movie American Gangster.
  • In Medieval II: Total War, the building description for a fortress begins with the words "A might fortress is our God... but strong walls and towers help". However, a different description is seen when the player does not choose a Catholic Faction.
  • Is sung during Brom's funeral in the HBO series Deadwood.
  • Is used as the theme music for the radio program The Lutheran Hour.


Other uses



Notes

Bibliography

  • Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Lutheran Worship. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1982. ISBN
  • Julian, John, ed. A Dictionary of Hymnology: Setting forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of all Ages and Nations. Second revised edition. 2 vols. n.p., 1907. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav and Lehmann, Helmut, eds. Luther's Works. Vol. 53, Liturgy and Hymns. St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1965. ISBN 0-8006-0353-2.
  • Polack, W.G. The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1942.
  • Rœhrich, E. Les Origines du Choral Luthérien. Paris: Librairie Fischbacher, 1906.
  • Stulken, Marilyn Kay. Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.


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