The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in 1517 transformed the religious understanding of his time and the understanding of the relationship between the human being and the Creator. The concept of religious change influenced the various facets of the human experience, both in the political and ecclesiastical dimension of his time. Music, poetry and art are not exempt from the influences resulting from the Reformation. The new means of relationship between believers and the word and worship of God affected, in a great way, the music and, especially, the hymnology.
For this reason, the Protestant Reformation finds in music and hymns its best allies to connect and integrate those who come to worship God. The gospel is also felt in the hymnology.
Luther and his concept of music
Luther had a great appreciation for the value of music. He liked it and knew the art of composition. He also played the lute, admired the singing, and appreciated the musical art of the masters of his time. Through his personal influence, music made remarkable developments in worship. However, he did not conceive of this as an end in itself, but rather as a means at the service of the gospel. For this reason, music was considered a gift given by God and not by humanity. The musical capacity of the performer did not come into play nor was music viewed as an end in itself—but rather it began to blossom in terms of theology. Luther regarded music as one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against evil.
Luther himself expressed in one of his letters: “It is my intention, according to the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church, to compose psalms for the people, that is to say, to write spiritual songs through which the Word of God can remain alive through singing.” Luther’s first musical collection consisted of 37 hymns, some of which came from the psalms, while others were translations of Latin melodies, and still others were original compositions for that hymnal.
The first hymnal of the Reformation
The Reform hymns were written on sheets that were initially distributed among the people. Then the first hymnals were printed. The first hymnal of the Reformation was called “Erfurt Euchiridiou” and was printed in the city of Erfurt in 1524. Very soon these publications had reached such great popularity that four printers of Erfurt were all working hard at the same time to satisfy the demand.
The hymns flooded the country and caused a profound influence on the minds of the people. The truth of God’s Word was thus transmitted in a way that the enemy was unable to counteract. Luther preached more with his hymns than with his sermons. One historian of the time stated: “Interest in the Protestant faith increased in an extraordinary way, due to the singing of his hymns. This occurred among all social classes and not only in schools and churches. There were Protestant songs in homes, in workshops, in markets, on roads, in the countryside.”
In this way Luther, along with the Reform hymns—songs of simple musical composition, richly elaborated from the truths of the gospel, expressed in the people’s language and adapted to the needs of the communities—were consolidating a profound concept of music and hymnology and thus instituted a paradigm shift throughout the history of Western music.
The hymn of the Reformation
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is, par excellence, the hymn of the Protestant Reformation. It is the musical banner of the church in its conquering march during the terrible conflict against evil.
The most probable date in which it was written corresponds to April 19, 1529, the day in which the famous protest of the princes, that gave place to the name of “Protesters” by which the reformers were known, was presented/displayed to the Diet of Spires.
Let us elaborate by providing a brief musical analysis of the Reformation hymn from the elements that we can observe in the handwritten score of Luther and its subsequent transformations throughout the history. In this way we can introduce ourselves to the concept of the hymnology established by Protestant composers inspired by God.
We see here Luther’s autograph manuscript. This is the A Mighty Fortress anthem in its oldest version. The most appropriate musical term to refer to that form of composition established by the musicians of the Protestant Reformation is “chorale.”
At first glance we discover the two fundamental elements of a Protestant hymn: 1) the melodic line and 2) the words of the text.
The melody is constructed from very simple intervals, integrated by sounds of quite broad duration and organized through a free rhythm. This allowed for easy and quick learning. All the people in the religious community were able to learn and understand this simple melody. They could also follow the slow rhythm of notes accompanying the words in the text.
All the sentences end with a note of longer duration. This allowed for a moment of joint breathing to begin singing again at the next sentence. It was established to make a caesura (brief musical pause at the end of a phrase for breathing and preparation for the beginning of the next sentence) that indicated the end of each verse of the letter of the hymn.
These first characteristics are fundamental to understand the musical spirit of the Protestant Reformation. The beauty of the art of music is expressed through the simplest and most transparent means. Intervals, melodies, durations and rhythms adapted to the possibilities of interpretation of the common people. There is no place here for virtuosity or technical display.
The relationship between text and music
The text of the hymn is located in the score just below the notes of the melody. All the stanzas were always located in the same place to indicate that all should be sung with the same music. The hymn presents a practically syllabic structure, that is, for each syllable of the text there is a note of the melody. We observe a single exception to this characteristic in the central part of the hymn.
Luther found inspiration for his text in the words of Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a present help in trouble.” He elaborated his poem in a language and with a language that even the simplest person could understand. The strophic structure allowed for singing more of a text with the same melody, a characteristic that made it easier to memorize the hymn.
The melody is very simple. It is based predominantly on a series of melodies and intervals that are easy to sing in tune. The melody is not harmonized. The hymnbooks of the time of the reform that were widely used by religious communities presented exclusively a single melody and the words of the text. This melody was interpreted daily by a single voice throughout the congregation. The average record indicates that it was written for the human voice of man or woman. It is a simple melody, a melody for the people.
The hymn has three parts and the first part is repeated twice in a row. Then we can say that the Protestant hymn has an AABA structure. It is the form of the hymn that would later be the basis for the structure of the German classical song.
The development of Luther’s choir
Throughout history, the Reformation anthem was a source of inspiration for many interpreters and composers. From the harmonies of Johann Walter, a musician and close friend of the great reformer, to the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach and to the great Symphony No. 5 of Felix Mendelssohn, Luther’s choir accompanied the life of the history of the Church.
The chorale and the new tonal system
For the most part, the music of the chorales was strongly tonal and those chorales that survived from a modal past were modified by the tonal system as many of the popular melodies suffered the same transformation. In this way, the German composers contributed to this important change in the musical language. Not only Luther’s attitude towards music, but also the concrete materials at the disposal of composers and performers became powerful modernizing agents.
Musical composition for chorales
Martin Luther and Johann Walter introduced choir singing in the liturgical service and established that the hymn should be learned first by the choir of the churches and then should be taught to the congregation. This is a key point in the historical ascent of Protestant music. The chorale, which was originally sung by the whole assembly, could drown out the choir. But it was not like that. The choir also held its place in the Protestant worship. Its function consisted in teaching the chorale to the congregation, so that with the passage of the time the congregation learned to sing all the melodies by memory.
After the motet and under the influence of the instrumental music, the Cantata appeared and found a very favorable place in worship. The Cantatas and musical Passions found quick acceptance in the service thanks to Luther, who kept the choir active and the choir allowed for the subsistence of choral creations in the Lutheran worship.
From Johann Sebastian Bach we have harmonizations for choir and also for organ. There are more than 300 choir chorales that appear in his Cantatas (narrative vocal pieces with instrumental accompaniment) and Passions (musical settings specifically depicting the sufferings and death of Jesus), each ending with a simple chorale. It goes without saying that the harmonizations of Bach are masterpieces because they are completely adapted to the meaning of the words of the text. Words merge with harmonies and acquire an amazing plasticity. The melodies for chorale were granted a personality through the harmonies with which Bach takes them, the same personality that had the words to which they were linked. His predecessors, even the eldest of them, harmonized the melodies and nothing else. Bach also harmonized the words.
Towards the end of the 17th century, chorales became one of the main characteristics of the cantata of the churches. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote almost 250 cantatas of this type, using chorales in many different ways. For example, the cantata entitled A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, written in 1730, is based entirely on Luther’s hymn. The first movement presents the melody as a phrase played mainly by the orchestra, while the chorus intones a polyphonic texture in shorter notes. In the third movement this procedure reverses—the choir sings the melody while the accompanying instrument moves rapidly. The last movement is a simple harmonization as a hymn and is one of the most characteristic features of the music of the Lutheran church, as well as a part of the cantata in which the congregation united to sing the melody.
For Luther, artistic expression was always at the service of the Word. Moreover, in the case of music and hymnology, this was a duo subjected to the skills of composers, but ultimately to the ultimate truths of God. In this context, the worship occupied a very important place in Luther’s reflections and his concern was to transform that event into something significant for the community.
His interest in making the Gospel understandable led him to transform it through the language of the people. His ability as a musician and poet achieved that popular songs and those everyday melodies of people entered the church and settled in the psalmody of worship. The new content was given by Scripture and the new didactic tool allowed him to make it known to the simplest of the community.
Congregational singing was installed and from then on, Christian communities began to participate with their voice of praise, without harm the theological content. What Luther achieved with his preaching in everyday learning was reinforced by the hymns in worship. This characteristic of Protestantism was constantly developed and today the songs, hymns and melodies multiply in many hymnbooks and songbooks. They express, as Luther did in the past, the melodic feeling of the community, crowning the worship with many kinds of song and melody.