What If Joseph Smith Had Been a Composer?

What If Joseph Smith Had Been a Composer?

Hymn #68 — “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”

Text: Martin Luther (1483-1546); adapted
Music: Attributed to Martin Luther

It has been said many times by modern Apostles and Prophets that without great men like Martin Luther, there would have been no Restoration of the fullness of the gospel.

Joseph Smith acknowledged this truth himself.

Martin Luther is to Protestants in general, and to Lutherans specifically, as Joseph Smith is to Latter-Day Saints. His importance in the Reformation which led to the Restoration cannot be overstated.

But did you know that Martin Luther was a composer?

Can you imagine how cool it would be if Joseph Smith had been a composer and written hymns?

Well, Martin Luther WAS a composer. He composed many hymns. The best of them is “Ein Feste Burg”… “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

Jason, our faithful “Bench Warmer” has written a beautiful commentary on this hymn, it’s importance, and how our hymnal butchers one of the most important hymns ever composed.

Please take a minute and read his comments. They are very important!

As for myself, I love to read and learn about the revelations and speeches and other writings of Joseph Smith. The idea of the great Seer of the Latter-Days being a composer too boggles my mind.

Unfortunately, he was not a composer. But if he had been, wouldn’t his hymns be so incredibly special to us?

Martin Luther’s should be just as special.

He was also a great poet and had a unique way with words.

Joseph Smith, in his intense study of the Bible in all its available translations, stated that Martin Luther’s German translation was the most correct of any translation he had seen. Luther could be called the father of the modern German language due to his work and translation of the Bible into a vernacular (every day language) of the German people. He homogenizing all the different dialects of the day into 1 codified form of communication.

As a boy, Luther was a chorister in the Catholic Church. (SIDE NOTE: For us Latter-Day Saints who still miss use this term, a “chorister” is a boy singer in a church choir who’s voice has not yet broken. Nowadays there are also girl choristers, though this was not aloud traditionally. The person leading the music is not called a “chorister.” They are called a conductor, or music leader, or music director.)

After defying the Catholic Church and being excommunicated from his position as a priest and member of the Catholic Church, Luther famously started his own sect of Christianity, Lutheranism.

If you haven’t seen the film “Martin Luther” staring Joseph Fiennes, I highly recommend it to you.

J.S. Bach, the greatest composer ever to walk the earth (pretty much agreed upon by all, though if you disagree, let’s not get into that here, we’ll do that another day) was also a boy chorister. And it just so happened that he grew up singing in the same church building that Martin Luther himself sang in.

This was very significant to Bach. To Bach, Martin Luther was his Joseph Smith. He revered Him and studies his writings most of his life. when Bach passed away, 2 copies of Martin Luther’s extensive complete writings were found in his library, dog-eared, marked, and obviously poured over.

It is no surprise therefore that Bach would select the great Martin Luther hymn, “A Might Fortress,” as the subject of one of his Cantatas.

Cantata #80 (out of over 300 cantatas, 200 which still exist in print) quotes and uses the tune of “A Mighty Fortress” in each of its 8 movements. It is an incredible masterpiece. I listen to it very often, at least once a month in my Sunday listening. It’s another high recommendation from me. Here’s a great recording with the best (in my humble, but accurate opinion…haha…) Bach conductor of our time, John Eliot Gardiner.

Years after Bach died (in 1750) and had been forgotten among most composers and performers and therefore the music loving public, another composer re-discovered Bach’s music. Felix Mendelssohn is responsible for our current knowledge of Bach.

Without his enthusiasm for Bach’s forgotten music, especially the St. Matthew Passion and other sacred works, like the cantatas, it’s possible that we would not know as much of Bach’s music as we do today.

Mendelssohn famously mounted the enormous St. Matthew Passion with his professional Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, Germany, the very city that Bach spent his last 20+ years working and living.

Mendelssohn, as a composer, who was working in the difficult few years after Beethoven shattered the meaning of what a Symphony is with his 9th, was constantly experimenting with his own symphonies. Inspired by the Reformation and all it’s consequences and outcroppings, Mendelssohn composed a great symphony as a tribute to the Reformation.

In the final movement of this “Reformation” symphony, what better piece of traditional Protestant music could Mendelssohn choose to employ as a foundation for the finale that Martin Luther’s great “A Mighty Fortress” hymn? And that’s what he did. Here is a marvelous recording, again, with my favorite Bach interpreter who is also a great Mendelssohn interpreter, John Eliot Gardiner.

The miss-treatment of this hymn in our hymnal, as expressed by Jason below, is one of the biggest sadnesses I have about our hymnal. I sincerely hope that the new committee follows Jasons recommendation of matching the editorial scheme found in the Episcopalian hymnal, 1982.

We need to remember that the Restoration didn’t start with Joseph Smith. The foundation was being prepared much earlier. Without Martin Luther, a man prepared and inspired by the Lord to do what he did, we would not have what we do today in our Church. This hymn, in its true form, reminds us of this important historical fact.

That’s all for today. We’ll take a look at another favorite tomorrow.


P.S. Click below to subscribe and I’ll send you my Free Report: “9 Ingredients of Great Hymn Writing.”

Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

Oh, this hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, one of the most beloved in Protestantism. There have been many composers who use this tune as the theme for their compositions. Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, numerous choral preludes by organists, a large-scale Chorale Fantasy by Max Reger, and so on.

Though known today much more for his work as a theologian and reformer, Martin Luther was highly skilled in hymn-writing as well.

About Martin Luther, he “had an abiding conviction of the importance of musical worship, and he sought to establish congregational singing throughout the Protestant churches. He spoke of this conviction many times.

Once he stated, “The devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God.”

Another time he said: “If any man despises music, as all fanatics do, for him I have no liking; for music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men. Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful. Then one forgets all wrath, impurity, and other devices.”

“Many writers throughout past centuries have paid tribute to Martin Luther’s skill as a hymn-writer and to this great hymn in particular. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that Luther ‘did as much for the Reformation by his hymns as he did by his translation of the Bible’” (Davidson, 98).

These ideas on sacred music driving away temptation is echoed by Elder Packer’s teachings, that when we are troubled, we can sing a hymn in our minds to divert our attention for temptation.

I think this is one of the great hymns ever written. But our setting and use of this hymn is sad to me.

Firstly, we only have one verse in our hymnal. Most hymnals have four verses of this hymn, and the message of this great hymn is so empty comparatively without the other three. I don’t know why the editors of this hymnal chose to only set one verse.

It is the same sadness I have when the person conducting the meeting announces that we will only sing one verse of the hymn “for time’s sake.” It is like we are codifying the unimportance of hymns and music by only printing one verse.

The other aspect of this hymn as it appears in our hymnal is the use of fermatas that highlight and make plain the lack of understanding about fermatas. The fermata has been used to mean different things in different periods of musical composition and in varying types of composition.

For our consideration, meaning the use of the fermata in hymns and chorales, especially at the time this was written, was something other than indicating holding the note for a longer duration of time. In chorales, especially from the time of Luther through Bach, the fermata was simply used to indicate the ending of a phrase. Hymns of this era often use them for that purpose. You see that here in this hymn and in the chorales of Bach, especially in his cantatas.


Since to most people today, the fermata means to hold, we misuse and misplay these chorales. Other hymnals have solved this by notating the hymn without fermatas and putting in note values where one would indeed hold the phrase ending longer.

For example, in the Hymnal 1982, There are no fermata marks. After the antecedent of the first phrase (so at “God”), the quarter note is retained, so that the drive of the hymn continues uninterrupted.

At the end of the consequence of the phrase, at “failing,” there is a tick mark, which would indicate that this phrase ended with a slightly longer hold, but not too long. This phrase is then repeated, ending with a slightly longer hold at “prevailing” as the tune moves on to different material.

Rather than having fermati at each phrase ending in the Hymnal 1982, the endings are notated with dotted half notes, so there is no guesswork as to how long the note should be held. I think this tune is better served today to notate in such a manner, rather than putting in nine fermati that are at best ambiguous in their interpretation.

Having that many markings that indicate elongation or a pause makes the execution of this hymn in our book very stunted and segmented, and that doesn’t serve the tune or text well.

Unfortunately, I think this method of execution is so ingrained in our tradition, and with only one verse, so you can’t use the first verse to train for subsequent verses, that it would be extraordinarily difficult to play this hymn for singing without so many of the pauses for the congregation to pick up on it. Sad day.

There is such a danger for this hymn to plod and be far too slow, especially with all of the pauses. Unless you are the Tabernacle Choir with 360 voices in an acoustic environment that is favorable to taking liberty with the tempo, this hymn must go faster than it is normally done in our services.

A great tempo for singing and moving through this hymn is quarter note equal to 96-102 beats per minute. This gives a wonderful, dignified, stately, yet not dragging pulse for this hymn. This hymn also cries out for all resources of the organ to be employed, proclaiming the mighty attributes of God!

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Mixture, Bourdon 16’
Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Flute 8’, Nazard 2 ⅔’, Mixture, Bassoon 16’, Trumpet 8’, Hautbois 8’
Pedal: Flue and Reed 32’, Principal 16’, 8’, 4’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’, 16’ Posaune
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Left here to sadly emphasis the lack of additional verses. But adding more toward the last phrases works… Like adding the Great Trumpet 8’, the Clairon 4’, and the Contra Trumpet 16’ sequentially to the last phrase.