The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation: A Sobering Celebration

500 years ago this day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, Augustinian friar, District Vicar of the Reform Congregation of Augustinian Hermits in Meissen and Thuringia, Doctor of Sacred Theology and lecturer on Holy Scripture at the University of Wittenberg, preacher, priest, and pastor, nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church, the Church of All Saints, in Wittenberg. The purpose of the Theses was to engender debate and, it was to be hoped, to bring about genuine reform of the preaching of indulgences. Luther thus entered into a grand tradition of monastics who called their Mother Church to repentance, striving to bring her into conformity with her own laws and with the Law of God. But in the judgment of Rome, Luther’s criticism went too far. Instead of receiving his correction or allowing his teaching to continue as a school of thought within the Roman fold, Luther’s enemies demanded that he simply recant, with no argument, no debate, and certainly no correction of abuses. This Luther could not do for fear of offending the God whose Scriptures he was sworn to teach. Thus Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and severed from the fellowship of Rome all who, like Luther, upheld the teachings of the Scriptures and Church Fathers that Luther had once again brought to light. The Lutheran Church, as a consciously distinct entity within broader Christendom, was born.

I find this sobering not because of the division that Pope Leo X and his adherents wrought, nor because I lament the fact that the Reformation had to happen. It is sobering because, as much as we might be drawing attention to the significance of this anniversary, our own sense of celebration and thanksgiving pales utterly in comparison with that of past generations.

Already in Luther’s lifetime the significance of October 31st, 1517, was acknowledged and commemorated. Robin Leaver records in his recent book The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg the signature of a letter written by Luther to Nicolas Amsdorf, dated October 31st, 1527: “Written at Wittenberg on the Day of All Saints [which liturgically begins on the evening of October 31st], in the tenth year after the indulgences had been trampled underfoot, in memory of which we are drinking at this hour.” Later generations would do far more than drink in memory of the posting of the 95 Theses. At the centenary in 1617, Reformation Day was celebrated as a major feast, on the order of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The celebration thus began with Vespers on October 30th, continued with Mass and Vespers on October 31st and November 1st, and finally concluded with Mass on November 2nd. The best talent that the world at that time had to offer was commissioned to produce and perform elaborate and majestic settings of the Mass itself, psalms, and Lutheran hymns. The celebrations were no less widespread and jubilant a century later, when the bicentenary of 1717 was observed with preaching, prayer, and praise throughout Germany, once again as a three-day feast. The following video gives an idea of the passion that went into such celebrations.

The hymns sung at these Reformation celebrations possess such fire, such vigor! There are the great hymns of Luther himself: “Nun freut euch lieben Christen g’mein” (Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice), the joyous hymn of praise; “Der du bist drei in Einigkeit” (Thou What Art Three in Unity), translated from the ancient Vesper hymn; “Wir glauben all an einen Gott” (We All Believe in One True God), Luther’s Creed, and “Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (Lord God, Thy Praise We Sing), his Te Deum; the Psalms “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), “Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” (Were God Not with Us at This Time), “Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein” (May God Bestow on Us His Grace), and “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold), the latter two of which were most properly considered “battle hymns of the Reformation”; and, of course, “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” (Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word), with its strong words “against the Pope and the Turks, the two arch-foes of Christ and His holy Church.” Then there are the hymns by others: “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (Salvation unto Us Has Come), by Paul Speratus; “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” (My Soul, Now Bless Thy Maker), by Johann Gramann; “O Herre Gott, dein Göttlich Wort” (O God, Our Lord, Thy Holy Word, not available here due to copyright issues, but found in TLH as No. 266), the 1527 Reformation celebration hymn. The treasures of Lutheran hymnody new and old were certainly wisely brought forth to the glory of God.

Where are we now? Yes, we have festivals. We publish books, produce films, and hold extra services. But as I consider my own community, I am struck at how our celebration of this most significant occasion is proceeding more or less under the radar. We live in a culture that feels itself virtually unaffected by the Reformation, by the work that cost Luther and so many of his followers so dear. The apathy, of course, extends far beyond Reformation Day. How many of our churches celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost for three days each with lavish services morning and evening, joyously attended by the entire community?

The old prayer for the Festival of the Reformation includes the acknowledgment and confession, “in sincere repentance, that by our manifold sins, ingratitude, indifference, and unbelief we have, indeed, deserved that Thou mightest justly hide Thy face from us and visit us with a famine of Thy Word.” Heaven forbid. “But we beseech Thee, O Lord, deal with us, not after our sins, but according to Thine infinite compassion. Let not the gates of hell prevail against Thy Church.”

May the 1000th Jubilee of the Reformation, October 31st, 2517, if Our Lord should tarry so long, find a Church ready to rival her fathers in fervor and zeal, faith and love, praise and adoration.

German Service 2014 at Holy Cross Davenport

Following the success of last year’s German Christmas Service at Holy Cross Lutheran Church of Davenport, we’re looking forward to hosting another one this year. The service is scheduled to take place tomorrow, Sunday, December 14, at 4 PM. The Rev. John Preus of Trinity Lutheran Church in Clinton, Iowa, is scheduled to preach.

Here is a PDF of the bulletin we’ll be using. Many of the hymns are available at the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book, including “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Savior of the Heathen, Come“), “Christum wir sollen loben schon” (“Christ Are We Bound Indeed to Praise“), “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” (“All Glory Be to God on High“), “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her” (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come)”, “Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem” (“A Child Is Born in Bethlehem“), “Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen” (“All My Heart This Night Rejoices“), and “Uns ist ein Kindlein heut geborn” (“To Us Is Born This Day a Child“). Here’s a video of last year’s service to give you an idea of what to expect:

Hope to see you there as we join in celebrating the birth of God in the flesh, the Lord Christ Jesus!

John the Baptist pointing to Christ

Comfort for Advent

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” So opens Isaiah 40:1–11, the Old Testament lesson used by many congregations of the Missouri Synod this past Sunday, the second in Advent. For those using the historic lectionary, the same lesson will be heard this coming Sunday. And what more fitting to accompany such a lesson than Johann Olearius‘s hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” (“Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben“)?

In point of fact, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” was not written as an Advent hymn. Olearius prepared it for inclusion in his hymnal Geistliche Singe-Kunst, Leipzig, 1671. This resource introduced many new hymns by Olearius, hymns that tended to be brief but carefully constructed. They were meant to provide something to sing for those days in the Church Year that had not already had a large body of hymnody devoted to them. “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” was written for the Feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24. The first lesson for that day was Isaiah 40:1–5, of which Olearius’s hymn is a paraphrase, and a skillful one at that, even in Catherine Winkworth’s masterful translation.

Stanzas 1 and 2 make clear the source of the comfort and peace which God speaks to His people: the forgiveness of their sins. “Tell her that her sins I cover,” says God to His preachers. With the forgiveness of sins comes the conversion of “pining sadness” into “ever-springing gladness.” Stanza 3 introduces John the Baptist, the “herald” who is “bidding all men to repentance,” as well as the motif of leveling: “Let the valleys rise to meet Him / And the hills bow down to greet Him.” Olearius’s wording suggests that God is speaking here not primarily of topography, but of the hearts of men. The haughty are to be made humble, bowing before God, and the humble are to be exalted, standing confident in His presence. This application is made more explicit in the fourth stanza, where the straight and the plain are interpreted as “hearts” made “true and humble,” though Olearius’s German speaks more in terms of a humble mode of living. In the end, the message of comfort through the coming of God’s kingdom in Christ will be made manifest to the entire world, as “all flesh shall see the token / That His Word is never broken.”

The tune is known in Lutheran hymnody by the name “Freu dich sehr,” for the text “Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele.” The tune originated in the Genevan Psalter as the melody for the metrical version of Psalm 42, but among English-speaking Lutherans, the tune is now most closely associated with Olearius’s hymn.

Though not originally intended for Advent, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” surely embodies both the penitence and the joyful anticipation so characteristic of that season. John the Baptist, after all, figures prominently in the Advent observance, and his entire preaching was a testimony to Christ. Though Christ is not mentioned by name in the hymn, the fulfillment of Isaiah 40 in the preaching of John the Baptists reveals that Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who by His sacrifice takes away the sin of the world, is the one who brings comfort to Jerusalem and to the world.

May Olearius’s hymn, and the prophecy on which it is based, bring comfort to your household this Advent season.

Paul Gerhardt Memorial in Lübben

A Gerhardt Hymn for Advent

The Gospel Lesson for the First Sunday in Advent, whether you’re using the historic Western lectionary or the new three-year lectionary developed by the modern Roman Catholic Church, is the Triumphal Entry of our Lord Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. It is in view of this Gospel Lesson that Paul Gerhardt wrote his Advent hymn “O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee” (“Wie soll ich dich empfangen“).

From John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology, vol. 2, p. 1280:

First published in the Crüger-Runge G.B., 1653, No. 77 [actually No. 83], in 10 stanzas of 8 lines.… It is founded on Matthew 21:1–9, the Gospel for the first Sunday in Advent. The allusions in stanzas 6–9 would suggest that it was written during the Thirty Years’ War. It is one of Gerhardt’s finest productions, and is probably the best German Advent hymn.

This hymn is a fine example of the salutary subjectivity that characterizes so many Lutheran hymns of the seventeenth century. Stanza 1 attends to the state of the singer’s heart, which he prays will be prepared to receive the Christ at His Advent, both now in His Word, and on the Last Day in His glory. Stanza 2 features the imagery of the Triumphal Entry, but the rest of the hymn emphasizes the coming of the Christ into the flesh, and thereafter through the means of grace, to redeem His creatures from sin and death. Stanzas 9 and 10 turn to the final Advent of the Christ on the Last Day, when He will come “to judge the nations, / A terror to His foes,” but “A Light of consolations / And blessed hope to those / Who love the Lord’s appearing.”

Gerhardt’s hymn appears in The Lutheran Hymnal, 1941, No. 58, where it is missing stanza 3. It also appears in the Lutheran Service Book, 2006, No. 334, where it is also missing stanzas 6, 7, and 9. The version at the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book includes all ten stanzas, restoring stanza 3 as found in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book, 1930, No. 136.

A beautiful recording of stanzas 1, 2, and 4, sung in German by the Bach-Chor Siegen under the direction of Ulrich Stötzel, appears as the opening track on the album Paul Gerhardt: Die schönsten Choräle, available on iTunes and Amazon. And here is a video of a performance of those same stanzas, also in German:

This Advent season and always, may we all receive our Savior aright unto our eternal blessing!

About the Featured Image

The Paul Gerhardt Memorial, situated before the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, stands in the town of Lübben, where Gerhardt served from 1668 until his death in 1676. Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

A Hymn for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving-BrownscombeAs we in the United States of America join in our National Day of Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn to those early European settlers in the New World, who gave humble and hearty thanks after the extreme sufferings of a harsh winter and a devastating famine. In the midst of our plenty, we tend to be less thankful to our God in Christ than were those poor souls who had lost so much.

I am also put in mind of the hymn with which my congregation concluded this year’s Thanksgiving Eve celebration: Martin Rinckart’s “Now Thank We All Our God” (“Nun danket alle Gott“). Rinckart himself may seem not to have had much for which to be thankful. Like those Plymouth Pilgrims, he had suffered profoundly. Serving as pastor (archdeacon) of Eilenburg during the worst of the Thirty Years’ War, which brought with it not only wanton destruction but also the horrors of plague, Rinckart buried literally thousands of his parishioners, including, in 1637, his own wife. And yet this embattled clergyman produced one of the most jubilant hymns of thanksgiving ever penned.

Martin Rinckart

Martin Rinckart (1586–1649)

Rinckart patterned his thanksgiving hymn, originally intended as a table prayer, after a selection of verses from the Apocrypha, which, while not received as inspired Scripture among the Lutherans, continued to be read and held in esteem among them for centuries. The verses in question are Sirach 50:22–24, “Now therefore bless ye the God of all, which only doeth wondrous things every where, which exalteth our days from the womb, and dealeth with us according to his mercy. He grant us joyfulness of heart, and that peace may be in our days in Israel for ever: That he would confirm his mercy with us, and deliver us at his time!” In fact, this passage served as the text from which the chaplains preached in thanksgiving at the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It may be in connection with this joyous occasion that Rinckart wrote his hymn.

May Rinckart’s words, and Johann Crüger’s glorious melody, truly embody our spirit of thankfulness toward our gracious God in Christ.

A Treat for Reformation Day

Download: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (Johannes Eccard, 1597)

 
95-thesesI’d really like to take a whole lot more time on this before putting it up here, but time is what I don’t have, and I’d love some feedback if anyone gets a chance to use it for Reformation Day this year. This is sheet music for Johannes Eccard’s SATTB setting of “Ein feste Burg,” with the lyrics for the first stanza from The Lutheran Hymnal. Eventually I’d like to upload sheet music for each stanza, but until then, you can just have your choir pencil in the lyrics of the stanza they’re going to sing. This is in the same key as the setting in TLH and LSB, so you can have choir and congregation go back and forth. Let me know what you think!

And a blessed Festival of the Reformation!

Album Review: “Eccard: Fröhlich will ich singen”

I’m always on the lookout for additional recordings of Lutheran chorales, and last week I found a real gem: Johannes Eccard: Fröhlich will ich singen, available on both iTunes and AmazonMP3. The sheer energy and beauty of this recording has kept me listening to this music non-stop for the past seven days.

Aside from tracks 4–14, which are secular pieces, and 15–16, which come from the “Preussische Festlieder,” the real stars here are recordings of chorale settings taken from Johannes Eccard’s Geistliche Lieder auf den Choral, Königsberg, 1597. These are five-part arrangements of some of the greatest Lutheran chorales. The polyphony of Eccard’s arrangements is often intricate, but never ceases to serve the melody, which is placed firmly in the soprano. With such good material as a starting point, it would be difficult to perform these arrangements poorly, but the recordings on this album positively soar.

The album opens with “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (iTunesAmazonMP3). While I have a mild appreciation for recordings of Johann Walter’s arrangement of Luther’s classic, this one blows them out of the water, only partly due to Eccard’s brilliance. The inclusion of percussion emphasizes the natural pulse of the music, and the performers clearly delight in what they are doing, particularly as the syncopation is emphasized in the penultimate line of each stanza (st. 1, “Sein grausam Rüstung ist,” st. 3, “Das Macht, er ist gericht’t“). One can only imagine the splendor had they elected to include stanza 2, with its soaring paean to Christ.

Track 2 is an achingly beautiful performance of Luther’s “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (iTunesAmazonMP3), stanzas 1 and 3, set to its 1525 Strassburg tune, later to be known as “Herr, wie du willst.” Those familiar with the Lutheran Service Book, Concordia Publishing House, 2006, may recognize the tune as that for No. 625, “Lord Jesus Christ, Life-Giving Bread.” This is truly the music of heaven. I would be content to go the rest of my days with this track playing on a continuous loop.

Track 3 is a lovely performance of “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott” (iTunesAmazonMP3), with Johann Walter’s 1524 tune. The hymn is based on Psalm 51, and its penitential character is reflected in both the composition and its performance.

Track 17 is Luther’s “Vater unser im Himmelreich” (iTunesAmazonMP3), the Reformer’s hymnic version of the Lord’s Prayer. The performance includes stanzas 1, 5, and 9. Stanza 5 is beautifully sung by a soloist, which serves as an effective foil to the stirringly powerful entry of the full choir for the triumphant “Amen” stanza.

The album closes as strongly as it began, with a percussive rendition of Luther’s “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” (iTunesAmazonMP3). In Luther’s day, this hymn was sung at the conclusion of his “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort.” Here it concludes what I believe to be the finest recording of Lutheran chorales ever assembled.

I confess a degree of disinterest in the secular pieces included here, which are well done but not my cup of tea. Each of the chorale recordings, however, is pure gold. To find five of them on one album is a treat not to be passed up.

Here’s hoping and praying for many more such recordings in years to come!

Hymns for St. Michael and All Angels

"Guido Reni 031" by Guido Reni - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Guido Reni 031” by Guido Reni – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, September 29, is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, when we give thanks and praise to God for His holy angels and the protection from evil that He affords us by their agency. Lutherans have joined in celebrating this feast for centuries, and have adorned their homes and sanctuaries with hymns composed for the occasion. As of now, two of these hymns are available at the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book.

The most well-known is Paul Eber’s “Lord God, to Thee We All Give Praise” (“Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir“), 1554. It appears in The Lutheran Hymnal, 1941, as No. 254, “Lord God, We All to Thee Give Praise,” and in the Lutheran Service Book, 2006, as No. 522, “Lord God, to Thee We Give All Praise.” Eber’s German hymn is a paraphrase of a Latin composition by Philipp Melanchthon, “Dicimus gratias tibi” (“We give thank to Thee”), 1543. The tune, which in the Lutheran chorale tradition is known as “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir,” is well known among English speakers as “Old Hundredth” due to its association with the metrical setting of Psalm 100 in the Geneva Psalter. Bartholomäus Gesius provided an additional tune in 1601, but it does not seem to have caught on, despite its majesty and beauty:


Another hymn for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels is Georg Reimann’s “In Love God Grants His Christians Dear” (“Aus Lieb läßt Gott den Christenheit“). Though Reimann departed this life to join the holy angels in 1615, the first appearance of his hymn is in the Preussische Fest-Lieder, Part 2, Königsberg, 1644, where it is joined to Johannes Eccard’s tune, “Aus Lieb lässt Gott.” It appears in C.F.W. Walther’s Kirchen-Gesangbuch as No. 155, but it is not present in English hymnals.

Thanks be to God for the protection of His holy angels, who ever join us in singing His praises!

Tempo Revisited

Since my last post on the tempos of the Reformation-era chorales, my thinking on tempo has developed yet further. In my previous post, I wrote that a tempo of about 120 BPM seemed about right for most of the early chorales. I then overhauled many of the audio files accordingly. The response from users was that the audio files were now too fast, and upon further reflection, I have to agree. This has driven me to further research and experimentation, which has led to the following conclusions: 1. I was correct in thinking earlier that the tactus in the early chorales corresponds to the breve. 2. I was wrong to think that the tactus as employed for the early chorales was as fast as 60 BPM. 3. The true tempo is best found by considering the speed at which the polyphonic arrangements are best sung. 4. A tactus of about 50 BPM yields a workable tempo for melodies in both 4/4 and 3/4, and allows Walter’s polyphonic arrangements to be sung with the semiminim (the shortest note value he uses in his 1524/5 collection) at a satisfying speed for the frequent mordents.

The music of the sixteenth century was driven by the tactus, a motion of the hand consisting of a downward stroke for the downbeat, followed by an upward stroke for the upbeat. Continue reading

Introducing the Free Lutheran Chorale-Blog

Since starting this site at WordPress.com over a year ago, and since transitioning to a self-hosted site earlier this year, my thinking about the structure of the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book has developed dramatically. The goal has remained constant: To provide unlimited free access to high-quality resources devoted to the singing of the great Lutheran chorales in English. How to achieve that goal is another question altogether.

Due largely to the nature of WordPress.com, the site started out pretty much as a blog. Each post was really supposed to function as a permanent page, serving as a gateway to all of the resources associated with a particular hymn, including English and German texts, audio files, and printable PDFs. Post categories served to organize hymns according to the church year and various topics. This design, or lack thereof, proved hopelessly confusing. A casual visit to the site left visitors with no clear idea of what the site was for or how to access materials.

This necessitated a major redesign. A new homepage now served as a launchpad for access to hymn text pages with looped audio to promote singing of all the stanzas. In this way the site began to function more as an online hymnal, particularly when accessed from a mobile device. Other elements were then changed in keeping with the new philosophy. The older blog posts were reimagined as “Hymn Info” pages, with links provided at the bottom of the text pages. Eventually, it became clear that there would have to be distinct pages for tunes. These can now be accessed both through a link under the audio player on the hymn text pages and via the tune indexes in the main menu.

Unfortunately, conceiving of the site as chiefly an online hymnal left the printable resources difficult to find: They were hidden away at the bottom of their hymn text pages. This has been addressed by moving the links to printable materials above the audio player. It had been feared that this would be too obtrusive, particularly when using a mobile device to sing the hymns from their text pages. In practice, however, the printable resources at the top of the page take up very little space. The site still functions nicely as a mobile online hymnal.

That still leaves us with a number of blog posts which remain as nothing but leftovers from an obsolete vision of what the site should be. Eventually the research found in the posts will be transferred to distinct “Text Info” pages, parallel to the existing “Tune Info” pages. This opens up the possibility of using the posting functionality for an actual blog.

Hence the Free Lutheran Chorale-Blog. I plan to publish posts regularly, and I hope for them to function as posts, not as substitute pages. These posts will serve to publicize news related to the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book, draw attention to notable additions to the site, serve as a venue for discussion of problems and philosophies involved in development, and whatever else doesn’t seem to fit in the Chorale-Book proper. Hopefully regular posting will also be a visible testimony to the fact that development on the site is constant and ongoing.

Check back regularly for new posts, and if you’ve been using and benefiting from the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book, thank you!