I’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!
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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 [affiliate links]. 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” (iTunes • AmazonMP3 [affiliate links]). 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” (iTunes • AmazonMP3 [affiliate links]), 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” (iTunes • AmazonMP3 [affiliate links]), 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” (iTunes • AmazonMP3 [affiliate links]), 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” (iTunes • AmazonMP3 [affiliate links]). 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!
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 thanks 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!
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 →
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!
Last night I tried singing through all of Luther’s psalm settings that I’ve put up here so far, using the audio player that I’ve embedded in the hymn text pages, and I noticed something interesting: “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” was the only one with a singable tempo.
With most of the audio files I’ve put up here, I’ve followed the convention of representing sixteenth-century semibreves with modern half notes. Assuming that each semibreve/half note corresponds to one resting heartbeat, I have given each hymn in cut time, “alla breve,” which is the time signature actually used in the sixteenth-century hymnals (a “C” with a vertical line through it), and I have assigned each half note the value of 90 BPM—a decidedly unhealthy resting heart rate. When played with a healthier heart rate of more like 60 BPM, these hymns really drag. So I’ve already been pushing the tempo, probably well beyond what would have been used in the sixteenth century, if I’ve understood it correctly.
But what last night’s experiment showed me was that there must be a flaw in my understanding of sixteenth-century tempo. At these tempos, which are already pushing it, I struggled to rest long enough on each syllable. These hymns beg to be sung at a faster tempo, whether in German or English. The reason that “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” was so much more singable is that it just happened to be played at 120 BPM, with semibreves being represented by quarter notes rather than half notes. The reason for that is that in Babst’s 1545 hymnal, the time signature for this hymn includes the numeral 2, which from what I understand meant that the tempo should be somewhere in between the slower 4/4 (C) and the faster 2/2 (C with vertical line). So rather than slow down the hymn even farther, I threw up my hands and gave up, electing to use the 4/4 time with quarter notes for semibreves, as the music is printed in recent sources, and play it at Musescore’s default 120 BPM—totally unscientific, and resulting in a hymn that was faster rather than slower, but the hymn proved very singable at that tempo. That has led me to believe that I should really be playing all the other hymns at that tempo or faster. (By the way, my thinking that the 2 meant “slower” is based on seventeenth-century sources. I recently read that the 2 in the sixteenth century meant the same thing as the slash through the C. So slash-C plus 2 would mean quadruple tempo! That would make sense, since the hymnals add the 2 to hymns that are made up of lots of breves.)
The opening of “These Are the Holy Ten Commands.” The hymn is in cut time. The two rests, semibreve and minim in value, when added to the minim pickup note, come to one breve, which I identify with one measure. The rests are not necessary for performance. I therefore take them as giving the singer a sense of where the pickup note falls in the metrical structure.
So now I’m reconsidering the whole question of tempo. Everything I’ve read has told me that the semibreve in the sixteenth century stands for one at-rest heartbeat, and this has just proved to be impossibly slow in practice. But what if the heartbeat is supposed to correspond, not to the semibreve, but to the breve (which we represent with a whole note)? After all, the breve was the standard measure at the time. Most hymns provide however many rests before the opening pickup note as may be necessary to bring the value up to one breve, even if those rests are not to be observed in practice when the A section is repeated. The hymns are also notated in cut time, “alla breve,” or “to the breve.” It makes sense, therefore, to view the breve as the basic unit of measurement, and for the basic unit of measurement in the notation to correspond to the basic motion of the human heart.
If the breve corresponds to the heartbeat, and if each breve is divided into two semibreves, representing the downbeat and the upbeat, then each semibreve would correspond to either the systolic or the diastolic division of the heartbeat. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub: God’s free grace and favor. Makes perfect sense. The implication for tempo would be that each measure of two beats would be played at about 60 BPM. Each half note (semibreve) is then played at about 120 BPM, each quarter note at 240 BPM.
(Of course, I may be making this more complicated than it needs to be. It could be that everything that says semibreve = heartbeat is assuming 4/4 (C) time. If 2/2 is twice the tempo, then we’ve arrived at the same conclusion. But why, then, do so many texts dealing with Reformation hymns assign the value of one heartbeat to one semibreve in cut time?)
I propose, therefore, to overhaul most of my hymn audio files, playing each measure at a rate of 60 BPM, with each half note being played at 120 BPM. This goes against everything I’ve read about sixteenth-century tempos. Experts in the field of mensural notation will laugh at my amateurish attempts to deal with this deviously difficult system of notation. But the results will be singable, and that’s what matters.
On Sunday, December 15, at 2 PM, my congregation will be holding a German Christmas service. If you’re in the area, please stop by! We’ll be using some wonderful Lutheran Christmas hymns that have fallen out of use in English-speaking Lutheran churches. Here’s the bulletin: