Friday, August 27, 2010

Control Group 5

Who better to represent Lutheran hymnody than Martin Luther himself? Luther was the author of many powerful and inspiring hymns, including:
  • German paraphrases from the Psalms:
    • "A mighty fortress is our God" (from Ps. 46)
    • "From depths of woe I cry to Thee" (Ps. 130)
    • "If God had not been on our side" (Ps. 124)
    • "May God bestow on us His grace" (Ps. 67)
    • "O Lord, look down from heaven" (Ps. 12)
  • paraphrases of parts of the Catechism:
    • "Here are the holy ten commands" (10 Commandments)
    • "We all believe in one true God" (Creed)
    • "Our Father, Thou in heaven above" (Lord's Prayer)
    • "To Jordan came the Christ our Lord" (Baptism)
  • paraphrases of liturgical numbers:
    • "Kyrie, God Father" (the Kyrie, of course)
    • "All glory be to God alone" (the Gloria)
    • "Isaiah, mighty seer" (the Sanctus)
    • "In peace and joy I now depart" (the Nunc dimittis)
    • "God the Father, be our Stay" (the Litany)
  • translations of older Latin hymns:
    • "Come Holy Ghost, God and Lord" (from Veni Sancte Spiritus)
    • "Grant peace, we pray, in mercy, Lord" (from Da pacem)
    • "In the midst of earthly life" (Media vita, plus the Greek Trisagion)
    • "Jesus Christ our blessed Savior" by John Hus
    • "Now praise we Christ the Holy One" by Coelius Sedulius
    • "Savior of the nations, come" by St. Ambrose
  • stanzas added to pre-Reformation German hymns:
    • "All praise to Thee, eternal God" (stanzas 2ff.)
    • "O Lord, we praise Thee, bless Thee, and adore Thee" (stanzas 2-3)
    • "We now implore God the Holy Ghost" (stanzas 2-4)
  • and among his masterpieces, several wholly original hymns:
    • "A new song here shall be begun" (excerpted as "Flung to the heedless winds")
    • "Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands"
    • "Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice"
    • "From heaven above to earth I come"
    • "Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word"
    • "To shepherds as they watched by night"
In addition, Luther was also a significant composer. He wrote a short polyphonic setting of Psalm 118:17 in Latin (Non moriar sed vivam). There is credible evidence that he wrote at least a few of the tunes to his own hymns, though it is sometimes hard to see where Luther ends and Johann Walter begins. Working together with a handful of helpers, Luther and Walter essentially created the chorale or "hymnal style" with the melody on top of four-part harmony. Their music for such hymns as "A mighty fortress" also helped popularize a then little-used church mode that we now know as the major scale.

TLH and LSB have about two dozen of his hymns each, including between them all of the titles listed above. How many hymn numbers follow "Luther, Martin (1483-1546)" in AH's index of authors, composers, and sources of hymns? Eight. That's one-third as many as TLH or LSB, kiddies. And two of those hymn numbers belong to hymns by other people set to tunes attributed to Luther. And another two are different translations of the same hymn. So, actually, there are only five (5) hymns by Luther among the Ambassador Hymnal's 634 hymns. That's more than zero, but less than the 15 hymns by Charles Wesley, the 14 by Fanny Crosby, the 13 by Isaac Watts, and the 10 apiece by Frances Ridley Havergal and James Montgomery, all in AH. Don't get me wrong. I like many of the the hymns by Wesley, Watts, and Montgomery; I wouldn't necessarily let the fact that they weren't Lutheran stop me from including their best work in the Hymnal of My Dreams™. I'm not asking you to make a judgment here. It's just interesting to observe the proportions, isn't it?

Here are two hymns by Luther that haven't circulated much in English-speaking circles. The first one is an entirely different paraphrase of the 10 Commandments from the better-known one listed above. I'm curious as to why "Wilt Thou, O man" hasn't gotten much airplay in American Lutheranism. You might suppose it's a matter of a hymnal having just so much room for verse paraphrases of the Decalog. But that doesn't wash; "Wilt Thou, O man" concentrates its material into half the space of "Here are the holy ten." Or maybe it's that Lutherans are uncomfortable with the idea, suggested by the first stanza, that we can earn our way to heaven by keeping God's Law. But if that's the case, why did TLH botch its translation of the first line of "Here are the holy ten" to read "That man a godly life might live"? Puzzles within puzzles!

One would think that the author of the Small Catechism might be given credit for not teaching salvation by works. This hymn can be interpreted as a condensed paraphrase of exactly what Luther says in that Catechism to explain the Commandments, including the admonition, "I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God..." God does promise "grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments," as both Moses and Luther teach, and as all Lutherans affirm when they vow to uphold their Catechism. Taken by itself, this part of the Catechism is all Law. It remains for the other parts to explain that (1) we don't keep the Law, and so we cannot earn eternal life thereby; and that (2) God rescues us from this perilous dilemma by forgiving and saving us freely, on account of Christ, by means of the Gospel and its sacraments. Maybe what clinches it for "Here are the holy ten" is the fact that it goes beyond a naked paraphrase of the Decalog, all the way through the two points just stated: "God these commandments gave therein to show thee, child of man, thy sin... Help us, Lord Jesus Christ, for we a Mediator have in Thee..."

Still, I think Luther's shorter Decalog hymn could have its uses. Younger children could more easily learn it by heart. And that would be a very clever way to teach them the Ten Commandments! Plus, it offers us a chance to make friends with a rarely-heard but very fortunate pairing of text and tune, an authentic collaboration between two fine artists whose joint work established our Lutheran hymn-singing tradition.

As a free bonus, because there was room for both hymns on the page, you can now also enjoy Luther's paraphrase of Psalm 128. The fact that both were written by Luther and translated by Richard Massie is not the only reason these hymns resonate with each other. For you'll notice, again, that in doing justice to the Psalm text, Luther risked triggering your knee-jerk Protestant reaction to even the slightest suggestion of work-righteousness. But this time, Luther's guiltlessness is even easier to defend. For when the first line sings of "fearing God," it clearly means faith and faithfulness. And behold, what sweet promises Luther doth draw from this plain little psalm! Stanza 2 says that faith saves us from the curse of Adam and his seed (i.e., death). Stanza 3 promises rescue and reward in the end. Stanza 4 extends those promises to succeeding generations. And if the final stanza's Trinitarian doxology means anything, it is to fill Psalm 128 with Christ and make Him the help that God sends from Zion.

The tune, by the way, is one I picked for this hymn. To-date I have only seen it in an Australian hymnal, set to one brief hymn. I thought it deserved a little daylight, so enjoy!

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