Is it true that when Martin Luther wrote the text for “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” he borrowed the tune from a popular bar song? No, said composer Carl Schalk, who has composed music for many a Lutheran hymn, including “Now the Silence” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 460).
“Both the words and the music of ‘A Mighty Fortress’ are ascribed to Luther,” Schalk said.
Why is this myth so popular? “The musical form of ‘A Mighty Fortress’ was called ‘bar’ form, and people interpreted this to mean it was written in a bar,” Schalk said. “But bar form is simply a technical German term meaning that a song is in three parts, AAB.”
Perhaps this myth also gained traction because people “loved the songs they sang about their faith and wouldn’t just sing them at church,” he added. “They’d sing them at work and everywhere.”
Yes, some secular tunes have found their way into the church, mostly after a tune’s secular associations waned, Schalk said. “ ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded’ uses the tune of a 1600s secular song about unrequited love. And folk songs like ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Morning Has Broken’ became ‘What Child is This’ and ‘Baptized in Water’ [respectively].”
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers