Luther published his first hymnal in 1519 (words only) and a musical note edition in 1524.
The first hymn that Luther wrote for congregational singing was the 10-stanza “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice,” which is still sung today. It was published in Luther’s first little hymnbook, Etlich Cristlich lider, which contained eight hymns, four by Luther.
It sounds like Luther’s testimony of salvation. It proclaims deliverance from sin and Satan, Christ’s love, Christ’s incarnation, Christ’s atoning ransom, Christ’s ascension, free grace, and the greatness of salvation. The hymn contains a fascinating account of the Father and Son discussing salvation and carrying it out.
The English translation by Richard Massie is very effective. It contains powerful metaphoric language such as “Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay; Death brooded darkly o'er me.”
Note how each stanza ascends in intensity. Consider, for example, the 2nd stanza.
The first stanza is an exhortation for Christians to “proclaim the wonders God has done.” In stanzas 2-3, the sinner describes his terrible plight, in bondage to Satan, tormented by sin, living in fear of death and hell. Stanzas 4-5 describe God’s love for sinners, His fervent desire to redeem them, and His command for the Son to purchase redemption for “all.” Stanza 6 describes the Son’s obedience, His virgin birth, and incarnation as a servant for the purpose of taking the devil captive, his unity with mankind (“he came to be my brother”). In stanzas 7-10, Christ calls on sinners to trust Him. He tells them that He will redeem them by his blood. He emphasizes the vicarious, substitutionary nature of His suffering (“your ransom I myself will be ... all this I suffer for your good ... my innocence shall bear your sin”). Christ says the redeemed sinner will belong to Him; He will be the sinner’s “friend divine”; nothing shall divide them. He promises resurrection (“life will from death the vict’ry win”) and eternal blessing (“and you are blest forever”). The hymn ends in stanzas 9-10 with Christ’s ascension and the sending of the Spirit to impart wisdom, comfort, and guidance in the work of gospel preaching. It concludes with a warning against allowing religious tradition to “destroy the gospel’s cause.”
“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice,” 1523 Martin Luther Trans. Richard Massie
1 Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice, With exultation springing, And with united heart and voice And holy rapture singing, Proclaim the wonders God has done, How His right arm the vict'ry won, What price our ransom cost Him!
2 Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay; Death brooded darkly o'er me. Sin was my torment night and day; In sin my mother bore me. But daily deeper still I fell; My life became a living hell, So firmly sin possessed me.
3 My own good works all came to naught, No grace or merit gaining; Free will against God's judgment fought, Dead to all good remaining. My fears increased till sheer despair Left only death to be my share; The pangs of hell I suffered.
4 But God had seen my wretched state Before the world's foundation, And mindful of His mercies great, He planned for my salvation. He turned to me a father's heart; He did not choose the easy part But gave His dearest treasure.
5 God said to His beloved Son: “It's time to have compassion. Then go, bright jewel of My crown, And bring to all salvation. From sin and sorrow set them free; Slay bitter death for them that they May live with You forever.”
6 The Son obeyed His Father's will, Was born of virgin mother; And God's good pleasure to fulfill, He came to be my brother. His royal pow'r disguised He bore; A servant's form, like mine, He wore To lead the devil captive.
7 To me He said: “Stay close to Me, I am your rock and castle. Your ransom I Myself will be; For you I strive and wrestle. For I am yours, and you are Mine, And where I am you may remain; The foe shall not divide us.
8 “Though he will shed My precious blood, Me of My life bereaving, All this I suffer for your good; Be steadfast and believing. Life will from death the vict'ry win; My innocence shall bear your sin, And you are blest forever.
9 “Now to My Father I depart, From earth to heav'n ascending, And, heav'nly wisdom to impart, The Holy Spirit sending; In trouble He will comfort you And teach you always to be true And into truth shall guide you.
10 “What I on earth have done and taught Guide all your life and teaching; So shall the kingdom's work be wrought And honored in your preaching. But watch lest foes with base alloy The heav'nly treasure should destroy; This final word I leave you.”
In about 1527, Luther wrote the majestic hymn “A Mighty
Fortress Is Our God.” A paraphrase of Psalm 46, it has has appeared in 667 hymnals and been translated into many languages. The first English translation was by Miles Coverdale. The most popular English translation today is by Frederick Hedge (1852), but there are about 70 other translations. “A Mighty Fortress” is a hymn of bold confidence in Jesus Christ in the face of the devil’s fierce attacks and in the midst of any difficulty. The hymn was sung by martyrs as they paid the ultimate price for Christ. It was used by Protestant soldiers in the Thirty Years War. It was called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” The original tune of “A Mighty Fortress” was a little more lively than the traditional tune that is used today. “A Mighty Fortress” was used by several classical composers in various compositions, including Johann Bach, Georg Handel, and Felix Mendelssohn.
1 A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
does seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
2 Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.
3 And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
4 That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever!
These are two of the many songs and hymns that Luther wrote. Some of the tunes were written by Johann Walter.
Luther was born into a musical family and could play the flute and lute.
He used music to teach doctrine as commanded in Colossians 3:16. His hymn “We All Believe in One God” is a confession of faith.
Luther knew the power of music for good or evil. He said, “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds and spirits.” And, “For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate ... what more effective means than music could you find?” (Luther’s Works, vol. 53).
He used simple, pleasing melodies that were easy to learn for all classes of people. He aimed to “make gospel songs which would spread of themselves among the people.”
He did not use drinking songs or songs that would remind the listeners of the evil things of the world. It has been said that Luther based “A Mighty Fortress” on a tavern song, but this is not true. He wrote the tune himself. Luther did once use a tune to a popular love song for one of his hymns, but he changed his mind and wrote his own tune to replace it.
“Of the melodies to Luther's thirty-seven chorales, fifteen were composed by Luther himself, thirteen came from Latin hymns or Latin service music, four were derived from German religious folk songs, two had originally been religious pilgrims' songs, two are of unknown origin, and one came directly from a secular folk song. ... Luther’s plan was to develop a unique style of music for use in worship. Luther didn't rely on the sensual, erotic music of his day. He didn't look to those who would rebel against his very culture to serve as a model for his music. ... Harrell concludes: ‘A study of Luther's chorales reveals two important facts about Luther's use of secular elements in his sacred music: (1) ALTHOUGH THERE WAS MUCH POPULAR MUSIC AVAILABLE TO HIM, FROM DRINKING SONGS AND DANCE TUNES TO RELIGIOUS FOLK SONGS AND CAROLS, LUTHER CHOSE ONLY THOSE TUNES WHICH WOULD BEST LEND THEMSELVES TO SACRED THEMES AND AVOIDED THE VULGAR, 'ROLLICKING DRINKING SONGS' AND DANCE TUNES. (2) No material which Luther used for a chorale remained unchanged, except for the one case noted previously. Rather, he carefully tested ... the melodies he considered, and when necessary molded them into suitability. Alterations were freely made’” (Tim Fisher, The Battle for Christian Music, data compiled from several sources quoted in Robert Harrell, Martin Luther, His Music, His Message, p. 18).”
Luther’s hymns were often accompanied by a stringed instrument called the lute or cittern. This developed into the German waldzither.
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