493 years ago today was a day that changed the world forever. On October 31, 1517, a young Catholic professor and priest took a stand against centuries of spiritual darkness and oppression, serving as the catalyst which launched the Protestant reformation. This man was Martin Luther. On that day, All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), which at that time was recognized as the day before All Saints Day, he went to the church in the small college town of Wittenburg, Germany and nail to the front door a document entitled “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Nailing things to the church door was not such an uncommon thing to do, as church doors served as a type of community “bulletin board.” But what Luther nailed to that door was not at all common.
The document was a call to debate about the Catholic practice of selling indulgences. This practice involved selling documents that offered a free pass from purgatory to whoever would donate money to the church. In this particular case, Pope Leo X was trying to raise money for the building of St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome. For this fundraising project, Leo solicited the help of one Johann Tetzel. Tetzel had much success in selling indulgences, and was asked to head up the selling for this project. Johann Tetzel would travel with much pomp and circumstance from village to village bearing the pope’s symbol. He used fear and manipulation to coerce people into buying the indulgences. He would graphically describe the fires of hell, and guilt the people for not offering “a little bit of money” to free their loved ones.
Many church leaders throughout the region had grown to find the practice detestable, but few had the courage to say anything. When Martin wrote his 95 these, he didn’t intend for them to be widely spread or published, and he even wrote them in Latin so they couldn’t be read by any but clergy and learned men. However, they were quickly translated and published all throughout the Holy Roman Empire, and what was meant to be a call to debate quickly became a call to reformation.
Luther and Music
As a musician, I particularly respect and admire Luther’s inestimable contribution to church music. When one considers the far-reaching aspects of his ideas and philosophies, it is staggering to think of what wouldn’t have been had there been no Martin Luther. For example, there would not have been a Bach as we know him. Musical traditions likely would have followed Jean Calvin’s or Ulrich Zwingli’s views, which would have all but eliminated sacred music as we know it.
In the medieval Catholic Church, congregations did not have the opportunity to participate in singing, for singing was reserved for priests and trained choirs. Beyond that, the music was in Latin, which the people could not understand. Much in the same way that Luther was passionate about translating the Bible into the vernacular, he was passionate about worship being in the language of the people.
Luther was a fairly talented musician himself. He supposedly had a nice tenor voice, although it was never something of which he was proud. He also was an above average lute player, something for which his friends admired him. He once said that “after theology, there is no art to be placed beside music. Music and theology alone are capable of giving peace and happiness to troubled souls.” It was from this perspective that Luther sought to bring about reform in church music. He believed that music was God’s gift to the people and should be accessible to them. The problem he found in implementing these ideas was that there were few out there who were capable of writing quality church music. Because of this, Luther began to contribute his own compositions to the people as examples of what he considered to be good church music.
Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress)
Ein’ Feste Burg is often referred to as the “battle hymn of the reformation” due to its strong text which implies absolute faith in the power of God to accomplish His will on earth. There has been much discussion about when exactly Luther composed this hymn, as well as about the purpose for which it was written. The earliest extant hymnal in which it appears is a hymnal that dates from 1531. However, there is a possibility that it also appeared in a 1528 and 1529 hymnal. Unfortunately, these hymnals are no longer extant, so there is no way to know for sure. Scholars state that if the hymn was indeed published in 1528, then it can be safely assumed that it was written shortly before. The same would be true if it was published in the 1531 hymnal. Luther wrote to serve his fellow believers, and they know from his pattern of behavior that he generally published hymns very shortly after he wrote them. As to the purpose of the hymn, scholars have two different theories based on possible years of publication. The most common theory is that it was written for the Diet of Spires in April 1529, when the German princes formally protested the revocation of their liberties by the Holy Roman Empire. This Diet led to the term “protestant.” The other theory is that he wrote it to commemorate the martyrdom of his close friend Leonhard Kaiser, who was burned at the stake in 1527. Some think that Luther might have written the text during his exile at Wartburg castle due to the strong symbolism employed in the text. However, this is only a guess as there is no proof to indicate such inspiration. It is possible, but most scholars agree that it was most likely written at least six years after the exile.
This hymn has been translated, and the music revised several times throughout history. We know it today as A Mighty Fortress. Here are two versions of Ein Feste Burg: the first is a performance of the song as Luther originally composed it; the second is Bach’s revision and harmonization almost 200 years later.