On the Eve of All Saints’ Day, 31 October 1517 an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses as a discussion starter to the church door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. The 95 points stirred up not just Wittenberg but the whole Christian world, and it is traditionally considered as the beginning of what became the Protestant Reformation. So Luther is regarded as a great reformer, Bible translator, political leader, fiery preacher and debater, and godly theologian. He was also a musician. He was born in the Thuringia, known for its music, and the young Martin grew up listening to his mother singing. He joined a boys’ choir and sang at weddings and funerals. He became proficient with the recorder, and he often expressed his emotions with an outburst of a song.
When the Reformation began in force, Luther was determined to restore worship too. He worked with skilled musicians creating new music for Christians, that they could sing in the vernacular. He helped reviving congregational singing and wrote a number of hymns.
He often ‘borrowed’ popular secular melodies for his hymns. Occasionally though a tune brought too much criticism and he was “compelled to let the devil have it back again” because it was too closely associated with bars and taverns.
Luther held strong views about music: “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits. A person who does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” – he wrote passionately in the uncompromising style of his age and his own conviction and character.
Luther’s most famous hymn is “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” – “A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still.” Based on Psalm 46, it reflects Luther’s awareness of our intense struggle with Satan. In difficulty and danger, under the attack of Satan, Luther would often resort to this Psalm, saying to his assistance, “Come, Philipp, let us sing the 46th Psalm.”
It is a difficult hymn to translate for the original German text is so vivid. At least 80 English versions are available. In the UK the translation of Thomas Carlyle is best known:
A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He’ll help us clear from all the ill
That has us now o’ertaken.