Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bartholomäus Gesius

Bartholomäus Gesius (1562-1613) was a typical Lutheran cantor of his time: theologically, as well as musically, trained. Situated prominently in Frankfurt an der Oder, Gesius wrote sacred music in a "late Renaissance" style well into what historians officially designate as the Baroque period (1600 ff.). His music included settings of the Psalms and the Passion, liturgical music, cantatas, and hymns. I am acquainted with seven tunes attributed to Gesius, five of which have figured in anglophone Lutheran hymnals of the past century. Chances are good that, whether or not your hymnal names Gesius as the composer, at least one or two of his tunes are in your congregation's repertoire.

Befiehl du deine WegeAustralian Lutheran hymnals and the Ev. Lutheran Hymnary (ELHy, 1996) pair this tune with Paul Gerhardt's comforting hymn "Commit whatever grieves thee." The Australians also sing Rist's Communion hymn "O living Bread from heaven" to this tune.

If you follow hymn tunes at all, you may be acquainted at least with the title of this tune, though perhaps not with the tune itself. Hassler's well-known chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen is sometimes given this title. Plus, there is another tune called Befiehl du deine Wege, used four times in the American Lutheran Hymnal (ALH, 1930). This title connects all these tunes with the Gerhardt hymn. The ALH tune sounds way too cheerful to suit this hymn. And though at least half a dozen American Lutheran hymnals (including ALH) set the Gerhardt hymn to the Hassler tune, the latter is far more strongly tied to the Passion hymn "O sacred Head, now wounded." For my money, Gerhardt's hymn deserves a solemn, powerful, ear-catching, well-structured chorale of its own. And this tune is all those things. Though today's congregation may struggle a bit, at first, with the raised-sixth of the Dorian mode, I believe with strong leadership they can quickly learn this awesome tune.

Geduld, die soll'n wir habenAlso known as Dank sei Gott in der Höhe, this tune was used in the Service Book & Hymnal (SBH, 1958) with the hymn "O Father, by whose servants." Evidently it is most widely used with the text "While yet the morn is breaking" (in German: Dank sei Gott etc.), a morning hymn by Johannes Mühlmann (d. 1613). The Ev. Luth. Hymn-Book (ELHb, 1912/1931), The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH, 1941), and Christian Worship (CW, 1993) all bear witness to this link. ELHb uses a rhythmic version which I find lopsided and difficult. This is a pleasant enough tune - bright, energetic, pleading - but individuality is not one of its strengths. Several of its phrases bear comparison to their counterparts in Leonhart Schröter's Freut euch, ihr lieben. Though I like both tunes, I would be wary of using both of them in the same book or with the same congregation, because their similarities could easily lead to confusion.

HerrnhutThis strong, reverent, mysterious tune is not so much catchy as unforgettable. Who would have dreamt that a tune in the Long Meter (LM,, rhythmically framed by an unvarying series of quarter-notes, could be so effective? Yet, by common agreement, it seems to be so. Lutheran hymnal editors have favored it with a multitude of texts: "Jesus, the very thought of Thee"; "Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts"; "My God, and is Thy table spread"; "O Jesus, at Your altar now"; "Our table now with food is spread"; "The death of Jesus Christ, our Lord"; "'Tis finished, so the Savior cried"; and "'Twas on that dark, that doleful night." But especially successful has been this tune's pairing with the Zinzendorf hymn "Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness" in the Lutheran Hymnary (LHy, 1913/1935), ALH, SBH, and ELHy. Clearly, this tune is susceptible to hymns about the atonement and the Lord's Supper. In fact, one of its alternate titles is Communion Hymn. Unfortunately, it is also susceptible to confusing variants. For example, ELHb gives it in the following form, under the title Mein Seel, o Gott, muss loben dich:Meanwhile, SBH offers the following version under the similar but distinct title Mein Seel, o Herr, muss loben dich:To some these variants may seem slight, but I submit that their existence could confuse a congregation struggling to sing this powerful, memorable tune in unison. Plus, hymn geeks like me might be flummoxed by LHy's title for this tune - Jesu, din Ihukommelse - since one hardly expects to find a German chorale under a Danish-Norwegian title. But I suppose the high regard in which this tune is so widely and deservedly held may account for the way different cultures have adopted (and adapted) it as their own. Would that we Missouri Sinners knew this tune better! I, for one, would gladly see the limp-wristed sentimentality of G. J. Elvey's tune St. Crispin (to which my church customarily sings Zinzendorf's hymn) replaced by Herrnhut's depth and muscular solemnity.

Mach's mit mir, GottFirst, let's talk alternate titles. This tune may also be found under the names Eisenach, Silesius, and Mir nach, spricht Christus. The latter two titles refer to the hymn "Come, follow Me, the Savior spake" by Johann Scheffler (Angelus Silesius), to which this tune is firmly wedded in the English-speaking world. Now and then, the tune has also been sung to "O Love, who madest me to wear," "The abyss of many a former sin," and "To realms of glory in the skies." Second, let's talk alternate attributions. In its present form, and under its present title, the tune is ascribed to J. Hermann Schein, 1628. But Schein admittedly adapted it from a tune Gesius published with another text in his 1607 choralebook Geistliche Deutsche Lieder (consider it added to my all-purpose gift registry). Finally, let's talk turkey. This is a gorgeous tune. Objectively beautiful, emotionally touching, driven by hemiolas (rhythmic groups of 2 alternating with groups of 3) that somehow manage not to throw the congregation into confusion, everything about it testifies to the joy and hope and humility of Lutheran spirituality. And its enduring popularity, long after many Lutheran churches have turned their backs on Renaissance music, testifies to its charm and to the happiness of its union with Scheffler's "Jesus as example" hymn.

O Christe, MorgensterneThe Common Service Book (CSB, 1917) paired this tune with the hymn "O Christ, Thou bright and morning star." It is an exuberant, irrepressible tune, though perhaps not the most inspired. Today's congregations might need some time getting used to the rhythm, but once it's locked in, they won't lose it. I would rate it "OK," but I wouldn't push it on an unwilling crowd. Whether I speak for the consensus of anglophone Lutherans may be judged from the fact that this tune hasn't been published among us in over 90 years.

BONUS: Here are some Gesius tunes I picked up while browsing through some German hymnals. I am sure to find more of them as I continue my research.

Freut euch, ihr lieben Christen all'This tune seems to be in direct competition with the Leonhart Schröter tune I referenced earlier. It reminds me vaguely of Mach's mit mir, Gott, particularly in the second phrase. Nevertheless it is a very distinctive and well-written tune. The rhythm, however - particularly in the latter half of the tune - may price it out of the market for American Lutherans. Whoever aims to introduce this tune in the anglophone church will have to work his way through many intermediate steps, such as singing it around the campfire at youth group retreats, improvising an organ fantasia upon it, or having a cantor, choir, or Sunday School class sing it to the congregation.

Wir wollen singn ein' LobgesangThis is one of the type of Renaissance-era hymn tunes I particularly like: bold, confident, rhythmically thrilling, and filled with a joy that belies its minor-key sound. Part of the challenge of teaching tunes of this era to today's parishioners is that they don't understand the difference between certain old modes, such as the Dorian of this tune, and the modern minor mode, which they have been taught to interpret as "sad." I believe there is ample evidence that is a misrepresentation even of "minor keys."

Is it worthwhile to lead your parishioners into the sound-world of the 16th century? I think it is. The more tunes of this type that they know, the better they will understand the hymns of Luther and his contemporaries. The better they know those hymns, the more they will be steeped in a truly Lutheran spirituality. Even in today's supposedly literate age, the hymnal has great potential to be the people's Bible and Catechism. But it also presents a proportionate danger of misleading them. For the hymns they sing in their hearts are vehicles of the theology they apply to everyday questions of life. And the tunes to which they sing those hymns shape the spirituality in which they receive and apply that theology to themselves. So, even if they question the appeal of tunes like this, which simply sound "sad" to them at first, I think it is worthwhile to teach them. As they learn to perceive the strength and joy of such tunes, rather than sadness, they will also grow to observe other distinctions, to think increasingly Lutheran thoughts, and to be surprised by the comfort and assurance those thoughts bring with them.

IMAGES: H. L. Hassler; J. H. Schein; N. L. von Zinzendorf.


Strumelia said...

I like your differentiation between the archaic subtle joy found in modal music and the more simplistic 'sad' of modern minor key. The use of drones contributes to this modal joy, IMHO.
Thank you for your blog post.

David S. said...

"And though at least half a dozen American Lutheran hymnals (including ALH) set the Gerhardt hymn to the Hassler tune, the latter is far more strongly tied to the Passion hymn "O sacred Head, now wounded." For my money, Gerhardt's hymn deserves a solemn, powerful, ear-catching, well-structured chorale of its own."

It took me a while to figure out that by "Gerhardt's hymn" you meant "Commit what e'er grieves thee". I thought you were advocating for "O Sacred Head" to be separated from Hassler's tune!

Forgive me for dredging up blog posts over a decade old with my comments, but I've found these to be invaluable commentary on the hymn tunes.