Martin Luther and “Tavern Music”

“If I had a dollar for every time I have heard that Martin Luther used tavern music for his hymns and that ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ was a drinking song, I would be a wealthy man. Yet such assertions are simply not true. These are falsehoods perpetrated on the evangelical world.” Thus, Paul S. Jones begins his chapter entitled, “Luther and the Bar Song: The Truth, Please!” in his excellent 2006 work, Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today.

Jones clearly dispels the myth that EIN’ FESTE BURG was a popular tavern song that Luther “stole” for the tune of his great hymn. He also puts to death the popular belief that Luther quipped, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” (There is no record that he ever said that)

What is the truth concerning “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God?” According to Jones, “Luther’s battle hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,’ is not a tavern song, nor is it based on one. Luther composed both the text (based on Psalm 46) and the original tune for this chorale in 1529. Luther was a good composer, who worked closely with eminent musicians Johann Walter and Conrad Rupff. While some of his pieces were derived from Gregorian chant or other preexisting compositions, only one was even based on a secular tune—an extant folk song used for his Christmas hymn, ‘From Heaven above to Earth I Come.’” Moreover, even that tune was replaced over time because Luther was aghast to hear the tune of one of his hymns being sung in “inns and dance halls.”

Luther understood the importance of both the lyrics and tune being appropriate for the corporate worship of a holy God. Granted, as a teenager, I thought it was “cool” to sing the words of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun” while sadly never quite comprehending the disconnect that I was singing about God’s grace to a tune associated with a house of ill repute in New Orleans.

From where did the idea that Luther’s masterpiece was a “tavern song?” Probably because it was written in “bar form,” which is “a standard German music and literature form of the Middle Ages,” which has nothing to do with taverns, yet it was not a long jump from “bar form” to “bar song.” Sadly, I, too, in my ignorance, helped to perpetuate this myth in the past, but this is my humble attempt spread a little knowledge to an unaware world.

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1 Comment

  1. cliftonr said,

    October 13, 2014 at 4:03 PM

    Reblogged this on The Rankin File and commented:

    Way back in 2011 I posted this concerning Luther’s, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” With Reformation Day coming up in a few weeks I thought it might be appropriate to repost it.


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