Skip to 0 minutes and 0 seconds (SINGING) God is our fortress and our rock, our mighty help in danger, who shields us from the battle’s shock and thwarts the devil’s anger.
Skip to 0 minutes and 24 seconds For still the prince of night prolongs his evil fight he uses every skill to work his wicked will. No earthly force is like him. The power of song is something that we’re all familiar with. Whether we think of the memory songs that we learned at school or the earworm in the latest singles chart, we’ve all experienced the remarkable power of words set to music. They seem to be able to attach themselves to some deep part of our brains, so that we can still recall them after years and sometimes even decades have passed. My talented colleague Dr. Alice Jorgensen introduced this video with Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott–” “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”
Skip to 1 minute and 23 seconds Mediaeval and early modern Europe had a vibrant folk song and ballad tradition. This included traditional songs handed down over generations, as well as more topical songs which commented, often satirically, on contemporary events and public figures. Before the advent of printing, these songs spread from mouth to mouth, often evolving and mutating as they did so. With the arrival of printing, printers who were desperate to find profitable markets, develop the broadside– single sheets of paper, cheaply printed, and often illustrated with woodcuts, featuring material of topical interest. Ballads were ideally suited to this format, and a lively trade developed. Ballads and songs also circulated in pamphlet form.
Skip to 2 minutes and 7 seconds However, the short lived nature of broadsides and pamphlets means that only a tiny percentage of those that were printed still survive today. The power of song to communicate meaning in a memorable way, especially in a society that was still largely illiterate, made it enormously attractive to the reformers. Sadly, tradition is probably wrong in attributing to Martin Luther the question, why should the devil have all the best music? But it’s easy to see how the idea stuck. Luther was quick to capitalise on the power of song. As early as 1524, Luther’s first hymn book had been published.
Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds The title of this book translates from German as “Enchridion, or Little Handbook, quite useful for a contemporary Christian to have with them for continuous practice and contemplation of spiritual songs and Psalms”. This title emphasises the fact that Luther intended the work to be used for individual devotions, as well as for communal singing. The small volume, which has been bound here with a number of other works, contains 26 hymns and 15 tunes, most of them written by Luther himself. It tells us something about the popularity of this book that a pirated edition appeared at almost the same time as the official edition. In spite of its popularity though, Trinity now holds the last surviving copy of this book.
Skip to 3 minutes and 27 seconds While hymns were an important part of the continental Reformation, they played a much less central role in the English and Scottish Reformations. Under the reforms begun by Archbishop Cranmer, the services of the Church of England no longer took place in Latin. Following the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, John Merbecke provided musical settings for the reformed liturgy of the English church. But a lack of suitable English hymns meant that the rule of singing in corporate worship was limited. This shortage was addressed by turning to the hymn book of ancient Israel, the book of Psalms. It was during the reign of Edward VI that psalm singing became popular in England.
Skip to 4 minutes and 7 seconds Thomas Sternhold, a Groom of the Robes and Edward’s musical tutor, was the pioneer of English psalmody. In 1549 he published a collection of 51 metrical psalms entitled Certain Psalms Chose out of the Psalter of David and Drawn into English. The project was dedicated to King Edward. Over time, translations of other Psalms were added to Sternhold’s work. The result was this volume, The whole book of Psalms collected into English metre. And it was better known as Sternhold and Hopkins. The 17th century churchmen Thomas Fuller observes that Sternhold and Hopkins’ piety was better than their poetry, but the occasional clunkiness in the verse did nothing to hamper the volume’s popularity.
Skip to 4 minutes and 51 seconds Between its first publication in 1584 and the year 1640, 280 editions of the collection appeared. But the printing of music was a secular as well as a sacred enterprise. One remarkable example of early modern printing from the library of Trinity College is this copy of John Dowland’s First Booke of Songs or Ayres from 1603. This collection is notable for its innovative typographical design, which combines settings for solo voice accompanied by a single lute with settings for four voices. These are laid out so as to allow the singers to read from a single copy while sitting around a table. And this feature gives the table book format its name.
Skip to 5 minutes and 34 seconds Now we’re going to finish off by listening to Alice singing one of the best known settings of the Psalms, the old 100th. [SINGING] To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the God whom Heaven and Earth adore, from us and from the angel host be praise and glory ever more.
Reading for singing
Early modern Europe had a vibrant folksong and ballad tradition. Printed songs proved a valuable source of revenue for early modern printers and song played an important role in spreading the ideas of the reformation.
- Compare how songs were shared during the early modern period and how we share them today.
- What similarities and differences are there?
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