The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


‘Mighty Fortress’ not a tavern song

Separating fact from fiction

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].”


John Seboldt

John Seboldt

Posted at 12:59 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/14/2013

The urban legend about Luther borrowing secular tunes persists. The misinterpretation of "bar form" is one reason. Luther actually did borrow one love ditty, but thought better of it and wrote an original tune later. Most "secular" borrowings come in the post-Luther period, and there weren't that many. What is often overlooked is how many pre-Reformation tunes Luther borrowed, which come  from a sacred folk tradition and/or ancient church chants. German speakers sang a lot at Mass even before it was officially permitted, so Luther didn't really invent liturgical song by the people, but promoted and developed it.

Note: John Seboldt edited this post at 1:00 pm on 6/14/2013.

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