Today in church we sang “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” a hymn that has powerful associations for me. I am going to speak of three incarnations of that tune.
FIRST? The original version is Luther’s great hymn of the Reformation. The hymn has a curious effect on me. I find i can never finish it because my voice breaks partway through. I am especially devastated trying to sing the words to the last verse, which not only renders me tearful but yes, my voice totally gives way:
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.
Don’t ask me why, but i haven’t successfully sung these words, the last half of the last verse in more than a decade. Here’s a version entirely on organ + words. Why that way? It’s the most understated version i could find. Other versions are so strong that you might think i am trying to PREACH. This is just an attempt to share some music: music that has admittedly been a powerful text in my life.
SECOND? Felix Mendelssohn, a man known as one of the great Christian composers in one century –the 19th– was rebranded as a Jewish composer by the Nazis, who attempted to remove him from history. Please note: while in the 20th century the fanatics attempted to persuade the world that Mendelssohn was a Jew, he thought of himself as a Christian, and would not have understood the Nazis. His perspective is a valuable one for anyone who wonders why so many Jews stayed in Germany rather than fleeing: because they did not even understand the madness about to descend upon them.
Mendelssohn composed a lot of music that moves me, including a wonderful Violin Concerto, his music for A Midsummernight’s Dream, his symphonies & piano music. Mendelssohn wrote a symphony to commemorate the anniversary of the reformation, using Luther’s tune as the basis for a movement of that symphony.
Listen to how meekly the tune appears, as if it were an idea in someone’s head, an idea that grows as if it were a little bulb pushing forth leaves. It’s a sweet gentle idea on a spring morning, not a hammering oppressive powerful dogma. The tune becomes part of something quite dramatic and passionate, even while being complete abstract.
THIRD, i come to what is for me an adaptation of Luther’s tune. Viktor Ullmann wrote Der Kaiser von Atlantis (in other words The Emperor of Atlantis) while living in the supposedly model work-camp at Theresienstadt.
There are two pre-existing melodies picked up by Ullmann in his opera. The first is the Austrian hymn, which was the Nazi anthem. In Ullmann’s version, it becomes a dirge sung in minor.
Ullmann’s tale was a very ironic story, aimed by a concentration camp inmate at his captors. Death takes a holiday, because Death is overwhelmed by the demands made upon him by Emperor Uberall (“Uberall” = over all, and a satire on Hitler, given that the Austrian anthem was sung to the words “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles”: Germany over all). By the end of the opera, Death ends his strike, after striking a deal with Emperor Uberall, resuming his job if the Emperor will agree to be the first to die. He agrees. The opera ends with his farewell, followed by a madrigal version of Luther’s hymn, sung in 6/8 time rather than its usual quadruple time, and reharmonized. Would the men holding their machine guns have been moved by this melody? It was never tested, because the Nazis stopped Ullmann before he finished, shipping him to Auschwitz.
Here is the scene that ends Ullmann’s opera, complete with subtitles, and starring Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as the Emperor. This video was shot on location in Theresienstadt, as if in homage to those who were dragged away to be killed, including Ullmann himself. The madrigal passage adapting “A mighty fortress is our God” begins 5:30 into this clip, but it’s worth waiting for it in context. If the singers seems a bit spooky and haunted, maybe that’s because the space seems haunted by the spirits of those who inhabited that camp.
Did Ullmann know the geneology of this tune: that it was the Reformation anthem, picked up by Mendelssohn (by now a forbidden composer, due to his Jewish blood), and possibly recognizable to the soldiers? One could wish that they would have been humanized by the tune had they heard it, the ultimate utopian reading of this place of death.
And speaking of tears, I find i always have tears watching this video.