Johann Spangenberg’s “Grammaticae Latinae Partes,” Wittenberg, 1538, included this four-part setting of “Vitam quae faciant beatiorem,” which would come to be used for the after-meal hymn “Danket dem Herren denn er ist sehr freundlich.”
The tune for the after-meal hymn “Danket dem Herren denn er ist sehr freundlich” originated as a tool for teaching Latin prosody. It accompanied the hendecasyllabic text of Martial, Epigrams 10.47, “Vitam quae faciant [faciunt in the sixteenth century sources] beatiorem, / Iucundissime Martialis, haec sunt,” etc. The melody appeared in Ludwig Senfl, Varia carminum genera, Nürnberg, 1534, Nos. 23 and 24, as the tenor line in two different four-part arrangements, the second joined to Catullus, 5, “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus.” It appeared again in Johann Spangenberg’s Grammaticae Latinae Partes, Orthographia, Prosodia, Etymologia et Syntaxis, printed by Georg Rhau in Wittenberg, 1538, which concludes with a section on prosody assigning to various meters melodies used for instructing the youth of Nordhausen, where Spangenberg was active at the time. Spangenberg’s arrangement of “Vitam quae faciant beatiorem,” which again placed the melody in the tenor, would prove the foundation on which generations of composers would build.
“Danket dem Herren denn er ist sehr freundlich” as it first appeared in the 1544 hymnal of the Bohemian Brethren
The tenor line from “Vitam quae faciant beatiorem” appeared as a stand-alone melody in the 1544 hymnal of the Bohemian Brethren, where it was joined to the Gracias (after-meal hymn) “Danket dem Herren denn er ist sehr freundlich.” From there it entered the Lutheran tradition, joined to the same text, via the second volume of Valentin Babst’s Geistliche Lieder, Leipzig, 1545, which imported many hymns from extra-Lutheran sources. Polyphonic arrangements followed Spangenberg’s four-part setting, still placing the melody in the tenor.
After 1586, when Lucas Osiander initiated what would become a universal shift among Lutheran composers toward placement of the melody in the soprano to enable congregational singing together with the choir, Spangenberg’s arrangement had to be reworked. Sethus Calvisius in 1597 placed the old melody in the soprano, moving Spangenberg’s soprano line to the alto and the alto line to the tenor. The result sounds somewhat sparse, which is likely what moved Batholomäus Gesius in 1601 to treat Spangenberg’s soprano line as the melody. Others, including Michael Praetorius, would follow Gesius in using the new melody, but by the time of Johann Crüger’s Praxis pietatis melica, 1647, the old melody had returned and would remain in place for as long as “Danket dem Herren denn er ist sehr freundlich” would continue to be sung.
Spangenberg’s arrangement, with the alto line slightly reworked, would also be used for the well-known Latin Christmas carol, “Gaudete,” in the Swedish/Finnish collection Piae Cantiones, 1582. Swedish musician Haquinus Laurentii Rhezelius included the lyrics for “Gaudete” in his Någre Psalmer, Andeliga Wijsor och Lofsonger, 1619, where he instructed that they be sung to the tune “Vitam quae faciant beatiorem,” obviously as it was known from Spangenberg. It seems therefore that the tune for “Gaudete” came directly from the grammars and not by way of “Danket dem Herren denn er ist sehr freundlich.” Ever since its performance by English folk-rock band Steeleye Span in 1972, “Gaudete” has become a staple of both the early music revival and modern pop.