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Bach's Mighty Fortress, for the Reformation

Schlosskirche Wittenberg
Wikimedia Commons
Schlosskirche Wittenberg

When Martin Luther set out to change the world, in his toolkit was a song to get his point across, one that became the foundation of Bach's Cantata No. 80, this week on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Chorale Prelude on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 720 - Christopher Herrick, organ (Metzler Organ at the Jesuit Church, Lucerne, Switzerland)

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (Martin Luther, harm. J.S. Bach) - Chamber Choir of Europe, Nicol Matt, conductor

Cantata BWV 80 Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (translation) - Joanne Lunn, soprano;  William Towers, alto;  James Gilchrist, tenor;  Peter Harvey, bass;  Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat, BWV 1051 - Dunedin Consort, John Butt, director

Chorale Prelude on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 720, arr. Samuil Feinberg - Martin Roscoe, piano


If you’re going to change the world, it’ll help to have a song to get your point across.

[MUSIC – BWV 303 (chorale)]

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” became that song for Martin Luther when he triggered the Protestant Reformation. Around 200 years later, one of his most dedicated followers brought the song to artistic heights Luther never could have imagined.


Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 80 captures the spirit, the verve, and the joy of Martin Luther’s hymn, and it’s coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour, from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. If there are kids anywhere in your life, October 31st means dressing up in costumes and running from house to house to collect candy. But for Bach, in his time, and Lutherans worldwide to this day, October 31st is Reformation Day, a celebration of the day a provincial monk, as the story goes, nailed a condemnation of his corrupt superiors to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

You’ll hear a performance of Bach’s Cantata No. 80, performed at that very location, very shortly. And if you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece, just visit our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

As with so many chorales, Bach wrote a short organ prelude on Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Here is organist Christopher Herrick with that piece, performed at the Jesuit Church in Lucerne, Switzerland.

[MUSIC – BWV 720]

At the Metzler organ in the Jesuit Church on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, Christopher Herrick was the organist in J.S. Bach’s prelude on “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

From a distance, what you notice about the town of Wittenberg, about halfway between Leipzig and Berlin, is the cylindrical tower of All Saints Church. When you get closer, you can see, in large letters, the words “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott.” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was one of many, many hymns written by Martin Luther to bolster the resolve of his followers while changing the world through the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s.

A couple of hundred years later, J.S. Bach reinforced that resolve in the Cantata No. 80. But the piece isn’t so much about the Reformation as it is about the generalized battle between good and evil – or, more specifically, between Jesus and Satan, and how that battle is played out in the lives of believers.

The piece opens with a chorus, the voices chasing after each other in imitation while also spread out across a wide range, from low to high voices. That combination creates a sonic structure, bold and bracing, on the words, “A mighty fortress is our God, a sure defense and sword.”


Then, while the bass soloist gives voice to the urgency felt by those doing battle against evil, the soprano soloist sings the chorale tune as an act of constancy and stability.

During the next sequence of events, the bass warns the believer against allowing evil a place in his or her soul, the soprano sings a beautifully intimate prayer, hoping for the presence of the divine, and the chorus, in the voice of the community, responds with a dancing adaptation of the chorale tune.


But there’s still a battle to be fought, the tenor soloist singing, “… stand with Christ’s bloodstained flag … and march joyfully to war!” In a calming response, the alto soloist joins the tenor to, as the late Craig Smith of Boston’s Emmanuel Music put it, enter a state of grace before the chorus sings the chorale once again, distilled into its purest essence.

Remember, you can find a translation of this piece when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is the Cantata No. 80, Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott, with soprano Joanne Lunn, alto William Towers, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey. John Eliot Gardiner directs the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 80]

J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 80, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, or “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” John Eliot Gardiner led the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with soprano Joanne Lunn, alto William Towers, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.

Bach wrote the first version of that piece when he was about 30 years old and living in Weimar. About 12 years later, after he moved to Leipzig, he refashioned the cantata as a celebration of Reformation Day. But it was only another 12 years later that the piece took the form you just heard. Bach added that incredible opening chorus for a 1739 celebration of the bicentennial of the Reformation taking hold in Leipzig itself.

This performance of the Cantata No. 80 took place on Reformation Day in 2000, at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

One of the violinists in the orchestra later wrote of the town festival,

“The Reformation hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott could be heard all around us, and in the most varied styles. All kinds of things were on offer until late into the night. Everyone sat peacefully around a large fire and ate and drank. Now and then someone appeared dressed as Luther, then disappeared again. And above all this, ineradicable and solemn in large letters on the mighty castle tower, hung the inscription Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.”

The cantata you heard a few minutes ago is a re-working of a piece Bach wrote several years before he made it a celebration of Reformation Day. Here is another work from that earlier time. This is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. John Butt directs the Dunedin Consort.

[MUSIC – BWV 1051]

Within the set of chamber works Bach sent off to the Margrave of Brandenburg as a sort of musical resumé, the piece we know as the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 has no violins. It’s an unusual choice, but maybe understandable in light of the fact that Bach’s boss at the time he probably wrote the piece was apparently a fair to middling viola player.

Whether Bach was writing to please him or just experimenting with the possibilities of unexpected combinations, the Sixth Brandenburg inhabits a deep, rich sound world. This performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 featured the Dunedin Consort from Edinburgh, Scotland, and their director, John Butt.

We have just enough time to return to the chorale prelude Bach wrote on “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the same Martin Luther hymn tune Bach used to create the Cantata No. 80. Here is a Russian composer Samuil Feinberg’s realization of that piece with pianist Martin Roscoe.

[MUSIC – BWV 720]

Pianist Martin Roscoe, with J.S. Bach’s chorale prelude on Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott – “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” – transcribed for piano by Samuil Feinberg.

Remember, you can hear this program again at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.