“Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott:” Battle Hymn or Song of Comfort?

by Erin Hanke

The humans live in TIME but [God] destines them for ETERNITY.
—C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

I have heard Luther’s hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, described as the “battle hymn of the Reformation” more times than I can count. For over a century, hymnologists have described it as a “battle hymn,” and Luther as a man who sought to defy authority and conquer his enemies on earth. “This hymn is Luther in song…rugged and majestic, trustful in God, and confident, it was the defiant trumpet-blast of the Reformation, speaking out to the powers in the earth and under the earth, an all-conquering conviction of divine vocation and empowerment…this one of Luther’s is matchless for its warlike tone, its rugged strength, and martial inspiring ring.”[1] The hymn has become for many something belligerent; something to beat over the heads of external enemies, but Luther had in mind the internal enemies and a message of resisting temptation. He wrote this hymn to apply the 46th Psalm to the church of this own time and its struggle.[2] What we can gather about Luther’s original intention for this hymn, viewed through the lens of J. S. Bach’s cantata setting, is the subject of this study.

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott first appeared in an Augsburg 1529 broadside with the subtitle “a Psalm of Comfort,”[3] and was later positioned within the hymn cycle on Oculi Sunday in Lent. The melody of this hymn is best compared to that of pre-Reformation plainchant, a most un-militaristic form, in which the rhythm emphasized important words.

Ironically, the hymn’s major shift in character began at the first meeting of the Wartburg Festival in Eisenach on October 18, 1817.[4] Those attending the festival were members of a youth organization who sought to unify Germany and rebel against recent suppressive actions of the government. Luther had, of course, translated the New Testament into German at the Wartburg and in so doing standardized the German language. The festival thus exploited the Wartburg as a symbol for German Nationalism. The 1817 meeting opened with the singing of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, which consequently became the national hymn of Protestant Germany.[5] Rather than a song of comfort, it became a battle hymn for what the nationalists sought to accomplish on earth.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) originally wrote his cantata, “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott,” BWV 80, for Oculi Sunday during his Weimar period. The readings for this Sunday in Lent included Ephesians 5:1–9—be imitators of God, put away impurity, do not be deceived by evil words, live as children of light; and Luke 11:14–28—Jesus casts out demons and tells the people, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”[6] Bach’s first setting of the cantata did not contain the two festive movements that became the first and fifth movements, which appear in his later Leipzig version. This earlier Weimar version of the cantata was thus a smaller scale chamber cantata with an appropriately Lenten character. During his later tenure at Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where music was not allowed during Lent, Bach added two larger scaled choral movements so that it could be used at the festival of the Reformation.[7]

The later Reformation version of the cantata combines the original Luther chorale text with a libretto by Salomo Franck (1659-1725). The libretto is used to reinforce and elaborate upon what Bach saw as the essential message of the chorale. The first movement, one of those added during Bach’s Leipzig years, is written in motet style, where the instruments double the voices. It is a masterfully contrapuntal setting of text from the first verse of Luther’s hymn. Here the voices serve as a prelude to the instrumental entry of the chorale. The voices sing floridly around the shape of the chorale melody, singing the chorale text but never stating the chorale melody. The melody is played by instruments alone.

The second movement was composed for Bach’s earlier version in Wiemar. Albert Schweitzer has described the indefatigable line played by the violins and violas in unison as a figure of “tumult.”[8] While the strings play this figure, the bass sings a florid vocal line with libretto text: our baptism binds us forever with God. Through this thick texture, the soprano sings verse two of Luther’s hymn text and the chorale melody, which emphasizes that “with our own strength we are lost.” When compared to the activity of the bass and violin the soprano line seems to simply reflect the simplicity of faith. Surrounding this simple statement (the soprano) is the all-encompassing security of our baptism (the bass) protecting us from the enemies all around (the strings), who, though unrelenting, are unable to conquer the souls of those united with Christ through baptism and trusting his Word.

The third movement begins as a recitative with text from the libretto and is set in minor mode. We are first reminded of Christ’s great sacrifice for us and then find the crux of Luther’s unique message: Gib nicht in deiner Seele dem Satan und den Lastern statt! Laß nicht dein Herz, den Himmel Gottes auf der Erden, zur Wüste werden! Bereue deine Schuld mit Schmerz, daß Christi Geist mit dir sich fest verbinde! (Do not make a place in your soul for Satan and depravity! Do not let your heart, God’s heaven on earth, become a wasteland! Repent your guilt with pain, so that Christ’s spirit may firmly bind itself to you!) The recitative transforms into an arioso at the words “daß Christi Geist mit dir sich fest verbinde,” and Bach repeats the statement three times with a four-note ascending motive in imitation between the voice and continuo.

The fourth movement is an aria that depicts the penitent sinner’s response to the previous movement: Komm in mein Herzenshaus, Herr Jesu, mein Verlangen! Treib Welt und Satan aus und laß dein Bild in mir erneuert prangen! Weg, schnöder Sündengraus! (Come into my heart’s house, Lord Jesus, my desire! Drive the world and Satan out and let your image, shine forth renewed in me! Away, contemptible horror of sin!) Melismas occur only on the words “Verlangen” and “erneuert” (desire and renewal), to draw attention to the prayerful desire for the renewal of the Holy Spirit that sin might be kept out.[9]

The fifth movement is the other addition for the Leipzig festival Sunday and uses the third verse of the chorale as its text. The chorale is set in an unusual way for Bach, with all four voices singing in unison. This provides an effect of congregational singing against the highly complex instrumental lines. The voices united in faith stand firm against the fervid sixteenth notes of reeds and strings.

The sixth movement, also from the earlier Weimar setting, returns to the minor mode. The text of this recitative comes from Franck’s libretto to emphasize the essential message of Luther’s chorale: So stehe dann bei Christi blut gefärbten Fahne, O Seele, fest und glaube, daß sein Sieg auch dir den Weg zu deiner Krone bahne! Tritt freudig an den Krieg! (Then stand with Christ’s bloodstained flag, O soul, firmly, and believe that his victory will also pave the way to your crown! March joyfully to war!) The victory Christ battles for pertains to our soul, not our earthly success. Christ battles for our salvation by keeping the enemy from penetrating our soul while we remain on earth. Wirst du nur Gottes Wort so hören als bewahren, so wird der Feind gezwungen auszufahren, dein Heiland bleibt dein Hort! (If you only keep God’s word as you hear it, then the enemy will be driven out forcibly, your Savior remains your stronghold!) The force is that with which God vanquishes the devil from our hearts and not a call for an external battle on earth or an expectation that we will receive what we desire on earth. We are called only to keep God’s Word as told to us by the Scriptures.

The seventh movement is a duet written on the libretto text. The movement begins simply but develops into a full texture of five combined melodies to complement the message of the text. First: Wie selig sind doch die, die Gott im Munde tragen, doch seliger ist das Herz, das ihn im Glauben trägt! (How happy are they, who bear God in their mouths, yet happier is the heart that bears him in faith!) But then, Es bleibet unbesiegt und kann die Feinde schlagen und wird zuletzt gekrönt, wenn es den Tod erlegt. (It remains unconquered and can strike at the enemy and will be crowned at last, when it vanquishes death.) Here we are told where the battlefield is: in our hearts. This battle, the complexity of our salvation, is handled by God alone. We have only to trust His Word.

The closing movement is a four-part chorale setting of the fourth verse of the hymn. The text of this verse rather summarizes the entire chorale: Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn und kein’ Dank dazu haben. Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan mit seinem Geist und Gaben. Nehmen sie uns den Leib, Gut, Ehr, Kind und Weib, laß fahren dahin, sie habens kein’ Gewinn; das Reich muß uns doch bleiben. (They shall let his word stand and have no thanks for it. He is beside us on the battlefield with his spirit and his gifts. If they take our bodies from us, possessions, honor, child, wife, let them take them away, they have no spoils; the kingdom must remain with us.) Again, the message is not that if we lose our job, our reputation, our family, that God will arm us to get them back.  These may very well be taken from us and when they are, we must not fall into despair. Our true riches cannot and will not be taken from us. We will never lose what is essential—our eternal salvation—if we trust God’s Word.

God is a fortress for our souls, not a tank for our victory on earth. Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott is not a call to or support for war on earth. The message is for the faithful: do not pretend that the world is something other than what it really is. We cannot expect justice on earth. We should not mourn our earthly losses as the heathen might, seeing no future other than our days here. The warning is clear: Gib nicht in deiner Seele dem Satan und den Lastern statt! Laß nicht dein Herz, den Himmel Gottes auf der Erden, zur Wüste werden! (Do not make a place in your soul for Satan and depravity! Do not let your heart, God’s heaven on earth, become a wasteland!) The hymn reminds us that the devil sees our frustrations and despair as an opportunity to slip into our hearts. We must always turn to the promise of God’s Word: we will never lose what is truly needful—and there lies our comfort.

Recommended recording:
Philippe Herreweghe.
Harmonia Mundi France, 2000.

Translation: ©Pamela Dellal, courtesy of Emmanuel Music, Boston   www.emmanuelmusic.org, adapted.

 

 



[1] Quoting Julius Koestlin. William L. Hunton, Favorite Hymns: Stories of the Origin, Authorship, and Use of Hymns We Love. Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1917, pg. 181.

 

[2] Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology: Setting Forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of All Ages and Nations, 1957, pg. 283.

 

[3] I am grateful to Robin Leaver for sharing this information with me in conversation.

 

[4] This date happened to coincide with the three-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses.

 

[5] The hymn was no longer sung at the second meeting in 1848 as those gathered “did not sing anymore” and, as their union declared, were men “who had no religion.” Joseph Gostwick, Joseph, English Poets: Twelve Essays. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1875, p. 247-8.

 

[6] Paul Westermeyer, “A Mighty Fortress and Psalm 46 in Context,” Word & World, Volume 34, Number 4 (Fall 2014), pg. 397-408.

 

[7] Bach did not include the trumpet or timpani parts often heard now in recordings—these parts were added later by his son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784).

 

[8] Albert Schweitzer, J.S. Bach. New York: Dover Publications, 1966, 92.

 

[9] A melisma refers to the singing of a single syllable of text over many moving notes.

 

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