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Getting into Martin Luther's Groove

A Letter to Church Musicians

Dear Church Musicians:

Is it not time, perhaps, to sing reformer Martin Luther’s great songs with the sprightly rhythm in which they were originally composed? The new translation included here could give fresh vigor to the canonic status of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Luther’s great song begins with a grace note and carries on like a plainsong for the length of a breath. The song is not written in bar line measures with a steady, repetitive beat. It is not meant to be belted out in a full four-part harmony of voices as if to show we are God’s bulwark. The first two musical lines, which are repeated, have a much more supple character. The quicker fifth note in each phrase, imitating the initial pick-up note of the song, followed by a decorative melisma (slurring of notes), shows that the Almighty God is not a flat-footed fortress surrounded by a moat to keep us safe—rather, God in Jesus Christ is agile, a sure mobile Guardian and staying power who takes away the fear of those who stand up for Jesus.

The wonderfully melismatic line five has five notes and should not be squared off into six notes, because then you miss the solid strength of line six with its ascending six notes ending with do re mi fa! While line five seems rhythmically tricky at first, once you get the swing of the double melisma, the melody rocks!

Let the younger members of your church learn the groove first. They can teach the older ones. Once you sing lines five and six right, then you catch the verve of Luther, who indeed wrestled personally with “the old evil fiend,” der Teufel, like an Adversary you could throw an inkpot at!

The Devil “vents hateful spleen” against God’s children—those are the right words. The tottering governments worldwide (Ps. 46) that turn women and children into poverty-stricken, emaciated skeletons hanging human flesh are malicious and cruel. The world’s Evil One and all the devils are spiteful (st. 3) because they that know Jesus Christ, commander-in-chief of the angel hosts, who sacrificed himself (st. 2) to redeem the world (John 3:17), has really won the war against sin and the polluting waste of creation.

The next two lines—seven and eight—supplement and taper off from the melodic climax of line six, subsiding with five-note and six-note phrases until a (ninth!) extra line of seven notes concludes the song, ending a complete octave lower than where the song began.

The song’s pattern of angular irregularity, as we might call it, gives this Luther song (like the Genevan psalm melodies) grit and musical excitement. This German chorale of the 1500s has the jazzy syncopated tension and exuberant melismatic certainty we need in church song in our turbulent days.

Iambic trimeter/tetrameter poetry boxed in four-line common meter stanzas can be reassuring at times. But those of us in middle-class suburban congregations must become more aware in our singing of the desperate need of fellow believers whose persecuted blood cries out for redress in foreign places and city neighborhoods; our congregational repertoire should reflect the certainty and struggle in which God’s faithful folk are engaged.

The catchy, off-the-beat rhythm of many current Bible choruses attempts to loosen up, once for all, the traditional hymns delivered to saints in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of Western civilization. But God’s people today need and deserve strong, joyful song that recognizes we are stuck in a battle for life against death!

“Devils lurk throughout the earth desiring to destroy us!” Principalities and powers, like an impersonal “they” (st. 4), “threaten house, rob, kill child and spouse.” The demonic deceit of hidden credit card interest rates that bankrupt consumerist families, and the massive export of arms “against terrorism” which itself diabolically terrorizes helpless civilians, characterize the falsified world we inhabit. The war God’s children are in is not a crusade against other people and faiths; it is a fight with the faceless Satan whose evil force is stronger than any earthly well-intentioned humanist endeavor.

The surplus ninth line of Luther’s song sums up each stanza epigrammatically and focuses happily upon the victory Christ’s post-Pentecost Spirit presence ordains, so that faithful hearts—believe it or not!—can be merry. We should all take a deep breath before we sing deliberately in unison the final melodic line of jubilant certainty. “He (Jesus Christ) shall decide the conflict”—nobody else can boast an army of angels. “One simple word resists sin”—Luther’s Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fallen (James 4:7).

“God’s rule saves us forever!” (Acts 1:3; Rom. 8:31-39). In that last phrase you can overhear Augustinian monk Luther’s memory of chanting et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

Klaas Schilder (1890-1952), in my confessional faith tradition, says somewhere that the marriage of the monk Martin Luther and the nun Katharina von Bora sent a cultural shockwave throughout the world, because that simple deed suddenly raised Christian marriage to its rightful place of esteem. Luther’s Bible translation, which put God’s written Word in the vernacular German idiom of ordinary people, also was a tremendous reformational deed, because it armed believers for battle against sin in daily life and did not offer an escape from their troubles.

If we can reinstate the original rhythm and spirited lilt of Luther’s stirring song “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” maybe we can also bestir ourselves today to hear and sing the song Luther gave us, not just in its dogmatic strength, but with the charismatic faith vitality he gave it. That will embolden us cheerfully to make Jesus Christ’s wisdom known for us and our neighbors who are in fearful straits.

With steadfast greetings for a good celebration of this historic Reformation,
—Calvin Seerveld

P.S. If the text seems too densely poetic, sing it through several times with heart and mind (1 Cor. 14:15) until your choir and congregation can own it. Don’t expect to “get it” in one quick try.

P.P.S. A bonus of this translation: it quietly avoids assigning gender to both God and the devil

Excerpt

Martin Luther’s 1529 hymn “Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott” (roughly Psalm 46)

The mighty God is our stronghold,
a sure safeguard and power.
The Lord will free us from all wrong
and fears which make us cower.
The old evil fiend
who vents hateful spleen
and kills with deceit
expects now our defeat—
no earthly force is stronger.

Our human strength cannot succeed
against demonic cruel might;
but God has chosen who will lead
the struggle to restore right.
A pure sacrifice?
His Name: Jesus Christ!
Lord of angel hosts
no other god can boast—
he shall decide the conflict.

Though devils lurk throughout the earth
desiring to destroy us,
be not so much afraid of hurt:
God’s care shall keep us joyous.
The world’s Evil One
whose spite makes us run,
still fails to compel,
has now been judged to hell—
one simple word resists Sin!

That Word of God—“free grace!”—remains,
despite the Adversary.
Christ’s Spirit presence now ordains
our hearts of faith be merry.
If they threaten house,
rob, kill child and spouse,
so “last days” begin,
they still can never win
God’s Rule saves us forever!
© 2009, Calvin Seerveld