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500 years of Reformation influence on music

Paraphrases of the Psalms

Luther, the theologian who defended music and the church reformer who called for music, was also a Christian pastor who wrote music. Luther was condemned by the pope and outlawed by the emperor in 1521. Almost immediately, he started to work on many tasks of church reform, including hymns that he wrote himself. The authoritative Luther’s Works, American Edition contains 37 hymns, 24 of which were written or first published in 1523 and 1524.

A prolific hymnodist, almost of all of Luther’s hymns are based squarely on biblical texts. As Mark Noll wrote in Christian History magazine, issue 95, “They are not poetic flights of fancy but carefully constructed vehicles for gospel teaching.”

The earliest known autograph of Luther’s famous hymn, “Ein’ feste burg.” image: public domain

Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” is a loose, Christocentric paraphrase of Psalm 46. Whatever the possible connections of this hymn to Luther’s own spiritual journey — of which theories abound — the editors of the LW American Edition are clearly correct in saying that “he did not write it to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles.” From the original circa 1531 German words and melody in the Meistersinger tradition, to the regal and refined Anglican rendition conducted by Stephen Cleobury and performed by the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge, to the beautiful but theatrical version by contemporary soprano Sandi Patty, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” has certainly stood the test of time as a favorite hymn of Protestants. One version I particularly derive joy in singing on Reformation Sunday is Psalm 46 itself, set to the meter of Luther’s “Ein’ feste Burg” in the Trinity Psalter.

Bach clearly took after Luther when it came to the free use of music to glory of God. One music scholar observes, “As Luther faced trials after posting his Ninety-Five Theses, Bach suffered criticism of the music he created. He stood his ground despite loss of income and prestige, demonstrating a Luther-like refusal to compromise beauty and truth for expediency.” [The Legacy of Luther, “A New Song Begun: Luther and Music,” Yount, pg. 253]

Two attributes of Luther’s hymns made them an important impetus for what Bach would eventually bring to culmination. One was Luther’s skillful setting of texts to tunes, in his case, usually music based on ancient church styles. With the advantage of about another 200 years, Bach would write with a much fuller repertoire of modern major and minor scales but, like Luther, would also skillfully use musical conventions to mirror the meaning of Scripture texts. The second feature was Luther’s consistent focus on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, such as his paraphrase of Psalm 130, a hymn that Bach later set to music several times.

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