Text: Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Music: Martin Luther
Tune name: EIN FESTE BURG
Inspired by Psalm 46, this is the most famous of all of Martin Luther’s many hymns. Almost 500 years old, it remains a confident and vigorous affirmation of God’s faithfulness and protection, despite the very different circumstances faced by believers. The Protestant Reformer’s reference in the fourth stanza to “earthly powers” and their hostility to the Word was no doubt a reference to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But today this hymn is sung in Roman Catholic parishes, and the final stanza has a more ecumenical significance. Christians are united in affirming the ultimate powerlessness of the most hostile enemies of the faith, no matter what earthly power they wield.
First published in 1529, within ten years an English-language translation of this hymn appeared, courtesy of Miles Coverdale (whose translation of the Psalter is in our Book of Common Prayer). The translation we sing dates to 1852, and is the work of Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-1890). Hedge was an American, a professor of German, and a Unitarian minister, closely associated with the Transcendentalist movement. One can only imagine that Luther would have regarded him as an unlikely ally.
1. A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
does seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
2. Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.
3. And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
4. That word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever!
When we sing EIN FESTE BURG today, it usually has a steady and even rhythm, almost like a march. In Luther’s day, it was a bit more jaunty, something like this:
Since this hymn is based on Psalm 46, perhaps it is not surprising that the most common Anglican chant setting of Psalm 46 relies on Luther’s tune, as demonstrated here by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Given this hymn’s status as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” it is also not surprising that many composers (especially Lutheran composers) have used the tune as the basis for masterful compositions. Here’s an eleven-minute chorale fantasy by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) which explores and celebrates the tune’s possibilities. It is played here by Ullrich Böhme on the organ of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the home for many years of J. S. Bach.
Dietrich Buxtehude produced a subtler and more highly ornamented setting of the tune in his Chorale Prelude (BuxWV184). It is played here by Maurizio Mancino.
Given the extent of J. S. Bach’s engagement with Lutheran hymnody, one would expect in his catalogue numerous settings of this tune for organ. However, the chorale prelude BWV 720 is the only surviving setting, and some doubt that Bach actually wrote it. It is played here by Theo Jellema.
Bach also wrote a cantata based on this tune and text. It was composed for use on the Lutheran Feast of the Reformation (October 31). Here is a performance of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80) by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists are Joanne Lunn, soprano; William Towers, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; and Peter Harvey, bass.
Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 was composed in 1830 in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession — a key document of Lutheranism — to Emperor Charles V in 1530. This commemorative occasion accounts for Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony being known as the “Reformation” Symphony, and for its incorporation of EIN FESTE BURG in the final movement of the work. Here is a performance of that movement, played by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Lorin Maazel.
Last but not least, here is Max Reger’s 1898 Choralfantasie über “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”, played by Agnieszka Tarnawska.