Three Bach Cantatas

J.J.

Preliminary Acknowledgment

These three cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) were recently performed by La Follia Austin Baroque. I was graciously given the opportunity to work with these cantatas in connection with this concert, for which I hereby express my deepest gratitude to the ensemble’s director. As a result of this work, my faith in my Savior Jesus was strengthened, as was my ability to express it, and my prayer is that readers of this post will experience the same benefit. I also wish to acknowledge the lovely performances in that concert by the singers and instrumentalists, especially of the arias.

BWV 151 – Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt

Foreword

This cantata was first performed on December 27, the Third Christmas Day, in 1725. However, while it was the first time this text was set to Bach’s music, it was very likely not the first time this text had ever been set to music. Bach took this text from a book titled Gottgefälliges Kirchen-Opffer (God-Pleasing Offering for Worship), written by Georg Christian Lehms (Darmstadt: Johann Levin Bachmann, 1711). In his foreword, Lehms said that he wrote the book for use in the city of Darmstadt, and that the plan was to have one of his pieces of poetry sung to accompaniment every Sunday and festival, and he wanted as many people as possible to have his book in front of them as the words were being sung so that they could, as he put it, “really fix the words into [their] soul.” That means it was most likely set to music by some composer in Darmstadt in 1711, or perhaps 1712, but that composer’s cantata setting is unknown…because that composer was not Johann Sebastian Bach.

This particular libretto by Lehms is based on the appointed Gospel from the Third Christmas Day, John 1:1-14, in which John, one of Jesus’ apostles, meditates on the mystery of the incarnation, the taking on of human flesh by the Son of God and his dwelling in our midst. Borrowing from John’s thoughts and others elsewhere in the Bible, Lehms puts himself as a representative Christian in the stable of Bethlehem, watching from a distance as Jesus is being born and applying to himself the beauty of the moment, and the profound, invisible, and eternally signficiant truths behind it.

Bach takes the meditations of that spectator in Bethlehem’s stable and makes them soar on the wings of music. You can watch a performance of his beautiful music here.

A few notes on the German text: In the opening aria, kömmt is simply an older variant of kommt, the regular third person, singular, present tense form; Lehms perhaps considered it a more poetic form (somewhat akin to cometh for comes in English). It is also important to note that, although many translations render the second line simply, “Jesus is now born,” wird geboren is an emphatic present passive construction – is being born – not a present perfect construction like ist geboren – is/has been born. This is underscored by the addition of anitzt, “under the present circumstances, at present, presently, now.”

Unless it was simply a hasty mistaken (possible, but not likely), Bach made a telling change in the fourth movement, the tenor recitative. In the original, Lehms says that since Jesus has left his Father’s home out of love for us, we in turn desire “to let” (lassen) Jesus into our heart. I do not know the extent to which Lehms was influenced by Pietism or might have been a Pietist himself, but regardless, the language of “letting Jesus into one’s heart” is Pietistic language (and has carried over into much of modern day American Christianity). Bach changed lassen to fassen; instead of letting Jesus into our hearts, Bach has us fixing him more firmly, or framing him, in our hearts. In other words, Bach recognized that if we believe that Jesus is our Savior from sin, death, the devil, and hell, Jesus is already there in our hearts through such faith (a fact which Pietism seemed to enjoy calling into doubt). But the more we consider Jesus’ self-giving love for us, the more we want to make sure he is fixed there firmly, stays there, and holds more sway there.

For the chorale, Lehms incorporated the final (eighth) stanza of Nicolaus Herman’s Christmas hymn, “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen alle gleich,” which is usually dated to 1560, when it first appeared in print in its complete form. However, a four-stanza version had already appeared in print around 1550, though with serious typographical errors.

1. Soprano Aria

Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt,
Jesus wird anitzt geboren!
Herz und Seele freuet sich,
Denn mein liebster Gott hat mich
Nun zum Himmel auserkoren.

Sweet comfort, my Jesus is coming;
Jesus is now being born!
Heart and soul rejoice,
for my God most dear has
now selected me for heaven.

2. Bass Recitative

Erfreue dich, mein Herz,
Denn itzo weicht der Schmerz,
Der dich so lange Zeit gedrücket.
Gott hat den liebsten Sohn,
Den er so hoch und teuer hält,
Auf diese Welt geschicket.
Er läßt den Himmelsthron
Und will die ganze Welt
Aus ihren Sklavenketten
Und ihrer Dienstbarkeit erretten.
O wundervolle Tat!
Gott wird ein Mensch und will auf Erden
Noch niedriger als wir und noch viel ärmer werden.

Be jubilant, my heart,
for now the pain departs
which has so long burdened you.
God has his Son most dear,
whom he so esteems and cherishes,
sent down to this world.
He leaves the throne of heaven
and will the entire world
from its chains of slavery
and its bondage deliver.
O marvelous deed!
God becomes a human, and wishes to become on earth
still lowlier than we and still far more wretched.

3. Alto Aria

In Jesu Demut kann ich Trost,
In seiner Armut Reichtum finden.
Mir macht desselben schlechter Stand
Nur lauter Heil und Wohl bekannt,
Ja, seine wundervolle Hand
Will mir nur Segenskränze winden.

In Jesus’ humility I can find comfort,
in his poverty, riches.
For me this man’s sorry state makes known
nothing but pure happiness and well-being;
yes, his marvelous hand
will only twine wreathes of blessing for me.

4. Tenor Recitative

Du teurer Gottessohn,
Nun hast du mir den Himmel aufgemacht
Und durch dein Niedrigsein
Das Licht der Seligkeit zuwege bracht.
Weil du nun ganz allein
Des Vaters Burg und Thron
Aus Liebe gegen uns verlassen,
So wollen wir dich auch
Dafür in unser Herze fassen.

O precious Son of God,
now you have opened heaven to me
and through your humiliation
the light of salvation have restored.
Since you now, all on your own,
the Father’s castle and throne
have left out of love toward us,
so we desire also,
in return, to frame you in our heart.

5. Chorale

Heut schleußt er wieder auf die Tür
Zum schönen Paradeis,
Der Cherub steht nicht mehr dafür,
Gott sei Lob, Ehr und Preis.

The door to paradise so fair
He op’ns again today,
No more a cherub guarding there—
To God all praises pay.

BWV 82 – Ich habe genung

Foreword

Bach composed this cantata in preparation for the Festival of the Purification of Mary (sometimes also called the Presentation of Our Lord) in 1727, though he had already composed the second and third movements for his wife Anna Magdalena at least two years earlier. Since the Law of Moses pertaining to purification after childbirth said that the appropriate sacrifices were to be made 40 days after the birth (Leviticus 12:1-8), the Festival of the Purification was fixed on February 2 – 40 days after Christmas Day, counting inclusively.

In preparing this cantata, Bach as usual had the appointed Gospel reading for that festival in mind, Luke 2:22-32. Here is a portion of Martin Luther’s translation of that text, to which Bach would have referred:

And when the days of [Mary’s] purification arrived, according to the Law of Moses, they brought him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord… And behold, a man named Simeon was in Jerusalem, and he was pious and God-fearing and was waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was in him. And he had received an answer from the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had first seen the Christ of the Lord. And he came into the temple at the instigation of the Spirit. And when the parents brought the child Jesus into the temple…he took him in his arms, praised God, and said, “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, just as you said, for my eyes have seen your Savior, whom you have prepared before all peoples, a light to enlighten the heathens and for the glory of your people Israel.”

The particular libretto Bach selected especially seized and expanded upon the little word “now,” spoken by Simeon, and the contentment with which that word is positively dripping. Why was Simeon ready now? What was he now ready for and looking forward to? How can the peace and contentment conveyed in that word now be ours? And how might we put that resignation and contentment into our own words today?

In order to answer these questions, the as-yet unknown poet juxtaposes Simeon’s physical taking of the Christ into his arms, especially in view in the first half of the first movement, with our spiritual embracing of Christ through faith in him, which is in view in the subsequent movements. And Bach puts the poet’s resultant readiness, even eagerness, to face death to music. There is perhaps no better piece of music a Christian could be listening to, pondering, or singing as he or she dies than the aria constituting the third movement. You can watch a performance of this cantata here.

A few notes on the German text: The most discussed word in this cantata is usually the third – genung. Most performances and printings of the text today will use the modern genug, but it is clear that Bach himself, probably relying on his source text, consistently used the variant genung, which dates back to the 14th century and – according to the Deutsches Wörterbuch (1961), the definitive German language dictionary based on work begun by the Brothers Grimm in 1838 – “also appeared often enough in the 18th century both in prose and in verse.” Regarding the pronunciation, the Wörterbuch says:

[This form of this variant] is Middle German in the widest sense, including Franconia and the Rhine, but it also appears in Upper [i.e. Southern] German in isolated instances. It was pronounced genunk, which is also how it was written at first, for the form cannot be explained from the pronunciation standpoint of genûch or genŭch, but only from the standpoint of genŭk, which thus must also date back to the 14th century.

However, poets like Lessing (1729-1781) and Göthe (1749-1832) would occasionally rhyme genung with words like jung, suggesting that perhaps by the (late?) 18th century, when used, it did not retain its original pronunciation. Bach’s libretto does not help, since the word is not rhymed with anything, except perhaps itself. I personally cannot imagine Bach wanting the word to get lost in the back of the throat at the end of the phrase, especially considering its importance to the cantata’s message, and I therefore personally prefer the genunk pronunciation, although I have only heard it employed by one virtuoso (very beautifully, I might add).

As for the phrase “Ich habe genung” itself, the literal rendering “I have enough” communicates almost nothing clearly in English. The phrase is an idiomatic one in the biblical and liturgical context, which could be paraphrased, “There is nothing else I need and I am completely prepared to die.” Thus my rendering: “I am content.” There is some precedence for this; there is an Easter hymn titled, “Es ist genug,” that has been translated “I am content!”

Another mistake commonly made in translations is to render the first line of the fifth movement, “I rejoice in my death.” Sich freuen auf etw. (acc.) is an idiomatic phrase meaning “to look forward to/eagerly anticipate something.” A literal translation misses the full impact of this powerful expression of faith in Christ.

1. Bass Aria

Ich habe genung,
Ich habe den Heiland, das Hoffen der Frommen,
Auf meine begierigen Arme genommen;
Ich habe genung!
Ich hab ihn erblickt,
Mein Glaube hat Jesum ans Herze gedrückt;
Nun wünsch ich, noch heute mit Freuden
Von hinnen zu scheiden.
Ich habe genung.

I am content;
the Savior, the hope of the pious,
I have taken into my eager arms.
I am content!
I have beheld him;
my faith has pressed Jesus against my heart.
Now I wish—gladly were it yet today—
to depart from here.
I am content.

2. Bass Recitative

Ich habe genung.
Mein Trost ist nur allein,
Daß Jesus mein und ich sein eigen möchte sein.
Im Glauben halt ich ihn,
Da seh ich auch mit Simeon
Die Freude jenes Lebens schon.
Laßt uns mit diesem Manne ziehn.
Ach! möchte mich von meines Leibes Ketten
Der Herr erretten;
Ach! wäre doch mein Abschied hier,
Mit Freuden sagt ich, Welt, zu dir:
Ich habe genung.

I am content.
My comfort is just this alone,
that Jesus can be mine and I his very own.
In faith I hold him,
since I too see with Simeon
the joy of that life already.
Let us go with this man.
Ah! If only from the chains of my body
the Lord would deliver me.
Ah! Even if I were to depart right here,
gladly would I say, world, to you:
I am content.

3. Bass Aria

Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen,
Fallet sanft und selig zu!
Welt, ich bleibe nicht mehr hier,
Hab ich doch kein Teil an dir,
Das der Seele könnte taugen.
Hier muß ich das Elend bauen,
Aber dort, dort werd ich schauen
Süßen Friede, stille Ruh.

Sleep sweetly, you weary eyes,
close gently and happily!
World, I will stay here no longer;
there is simply no part of you
that could be of use to my soul.
Here must I heap up misery,
but there, there shall I see
sweet peace, quiet rest.

4. Bass Recitative

Mein Gott! wann kömmt das schöne: Nun!
Da ich im Friede fahren werde
Und in dem Sande kühler Erde
Und dort bei dir im Schoße ruhn?
Der Abschied ist gemacht,
Welt, gute Nacht.

My God, when is that beautiful “Now!” coming
when I will depart in peace
and rest in the sand of the cool earth
and there with you in your embrace?
My farewell has been said,
world, good night.

5. Bass Aria

Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod,
Ach, hätt er sich schon eingefunden.
Da entkomm ich aller Not,
Die mich noch auf der Welt gebunden.

I look forward to my death—
ah, had it but arrived already!
There shall I escape all the trouble
which has as yet confined me to the world.

BWV 8 – Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben

Foreword

The early 16th century Scottish poet William Dunbar, in his famous “Lament for the Makars,” writes:

Since there for death is rem’dy none,
Best is that we for death dispone,
After our death that live may we.
The fear of death discomfits me.

In this cantata, Bach attempts to help his audience do just that—dispone or prepare for death. He composed it in preparation for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity in 1724, which fell on September 24 that year. In preparing it, he once again had the appointed Gospel reading for that Sunday in mind, Luke 7:11-17. Here is a portion of Martin Luther’s translation of that text:

But as [Jesus] was drawing near the town gate [of Nain], behold, a dead man was being carried out who was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and many people from the town were accompanying her. And when the Lord saw her, he was grieved for her and said to her, “Don’t cry.” And he stepped forward and touched the coffin, and the pallbearers stopped, and he said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” And the dead man sat up and began to talk, and he gave him to his mother.

With that concept in mind of Jesus bringing comfort in the midst of death and its sorrow, Bach selected a libretto for his cantata that was based on a hymn written around 1690 by Kaspar Neumann, who had been a well-known Lutheran pastor in Breslau, Silesia – today Wrocław, Poland. Even though only the first and fifth stanza of Neumann’s hymn are incorporated word for word as the first and last movements of the cantata, the other movements, written by an as-yet unknown poet, are based on all the intervening stanzas of Neumann’s hymn. One can therefore effectively argue that Kaspar Neumann is really ultimately responsible for all of the textual content of this cantata.

What Bach heard in this libretto, and in Neumann’s hymn on which it was based, was a personal meditation on Jesus’ words, “Don’t cry.”

Neumann first squarely confronts the fact that death is unavoidable, due to original sin—the teaching that we are not born with a blank slate, but a blackened one, and are therefore deserving of death and headed for death. Bach reflects Neumann’s expression of the inexorable countdown to death with a very clock-like rhythm in the first movement.

Neumann then acknowledges and addresses the fears that all people, including Christians, have as they consider the inevitable reality of death.

But then the voice of his faith in Christ takes over and Neumann concludes by expressing the serenity he is able to have in the face of death because of Christ’s saving work and his promise to raise the bodies of believers from death on the Last Day and bring them safely to his side.

You can read a rhyming translation of Neumann’s original hymn here.

1. Chorus

Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?
Meine Zeit läuft immer hin,
Und des alten Adams Erben,
Unter denen ich auch bin,
Haben dies zum Vaterteil,
Daß sie eine kleine Weil
Arm und elend sein auf Erden
Und denn selber Erde werden.

Dearest Got, when will I die?
My time continually slips away,
and heirs of the old Adam,
among whom I too am included,
have this as their patrimony,
that they for a short while
are poor and miserable on earth
and then themselves turn into earth.

2. Tenor Aria

Was willst du dich, mein Geist, entsetzen,
Wenn meine letzte Stunde schlägt?
Mein Leib neigt täglich sich zur Erden,
Und da muß seine Ruhstatt werden,
Wohin man so viel tausend trägt.

Why, my spirit, do you shudder at the thought
of when my final hour will strike?
My body draws closer to the earth each day,
and there must eventually be laid to rest,
where so many thousands are carried.

3. Alto Recitative

Zwar fühlt mein schwaches Herz
Furcht, Sorge, Schmerz:
Wo wird mein Leib die Ruhe finden?
Wer wird die Seele doch
Vom aufgelegten Sündenjoch
Befreien und entbinden?
Das Meine wird zerstreut,
Und wohin werden meine Lieben
In ihrer Traurigkeit
Zertrennt, vertrieben?

I confess my weak heart does feel
fear, worry, distress:
Where will my body find its rest?
Who is going to be the one
to free and unfasten my soul
from the yoke of sin imposed upon it?
What’s mine will be dispersed,
and where will my loved ones,
left behind in their sorrow,
be separated and scattered?

4. Bass Aria

Doch weichet, ihr tollen, vergeblichen Sorgen!
Mich rufet mein Jesus: wer sollte nicht gehn?
Nichts, was mir gefällt,
Besitzet die Welt.
Erscheine mir, seliger, fröhlicher Morgen,
Verkläret und herrlich vor Jesu zu stehn.

No! Begone, you absurd, useless worries!
The one calling for me is my Jesus; who would not go?
Nothing I truly enjoy
is in the world’s possession.
Show yourself, blessed, joyful morning,
when I get to stand transfigured and glorious before Jesus.

5. Soprano Recitative

Behalte nur, o Welt, das Meine!
Du nimmst ja selbst mein Fleisch und mein Gebeine,
So nimm auch meine Armut hin;
Genug, daß mir aus Gottes Überfluß
Das höchste Gut noch werden muß,
Genug, dass ich dort reich und selig bin.
Was aber ist von mir zu erben,
Als meines Gottes Vatertreu?
Die wird ja alle Morgen neu
Und kann nicht sterben.

Go ahead, O world, keep what’s mine!
You’re already taking my flesh and my bones for yourself,
so take away, too, my poor possessions.
It’s enough that, out of God’s great bounty,
I still get to have the highest good;
it’s enough that I am rich and blessed there in heaven.
What really is there to inherit from me,
except my God’s paternal faithfulness?
That is new every single morning
and cannot die.

6. Chorale

Herrscher über Tod und Leben,
Mach einmal mein Ende gut,
Lehre mich den Geist aufgeben
Mit recht wohlgefaßtem Mut.
Hilf, daß ich ein ehrlich Grab
Neben frommen Christen hab
Und auch endlich in der Erde
Nimmermehr zuschanden werde!

Ruler over death and life,
make one day my end a good one;
teach me to give up my spirit
with truly calm and composed courage.
Grant that I have a decent grave
next to pious Christians
and also that at last, in the earth,
I nevermore be put to shame.

S.D.G.

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Caspar Neumann’s Meditation on Death

Translator’s Preface

Pieter Schenk, Caspar Neumann, copperplate engraving. Neumann was called the “Chrysostom of Breslau” for his preaching ability.

Caspar Neumann’s (1648-1715) hymn, “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben,” did gain some ground in German Lutheran hymnody – including in the Wisconsin Synod’s German hymnal, where, however, it was titled “Lieber Gott, wenn werd ich sterben.” But its fame consists primarily in the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) chose it as the basis for the cantata he composed for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, September 24, 1724. (He had just been hired as the St. Thomas Cantor in Leipzig the previous year.) Considering that Neumann had passed away less than 10 years earlier, and had only composed this hymn perhaps 30 years earlier (c. 1690), this was a high compliment from the great composer.

Bach selected Neumann’s hymn text in light of the Gospel appointed for that Sunday, Luke 7:11-17, the account of Jesus raising the son of the widow who lived in Nain. Bach simply incorporated sts. 1 & 5 into the cantata as they were, for the first and sixth movements (opening chorus and closing chorale), respectively. The remaining stanzas were paraphrased and reworked into different schemes by an as-yet unknown poet:

  • Original st. 2 (AB AB CC DD, 87 87 77 88) – 2nd movement (Tenor Aria; AB AAB, 98 998)
  • Original st. 3 – 3rd movement (Alto Recitative; AAB CCB DE DE, 649 687 69 65)
  • Original st. 4 – 4th movement (Bass Aria; AB CC AB, 12-11 5-5 12-11) and 5th movement (Soprano Recitative; AA BCCB DEED, 9-11 8-10-8-10 9-8-8-5)

I have retained the meter of the original in my translation, but my rhyme scheme is slightly different – AB CB DD EE.

The usual tune originally suggested was “Freu dich sehr” (used, e.g., with “Comfort, Comfort All My People”). I would also suggest “Der am Kreuz” (used, e.g., with “Jesus, Grant that Balm and Healing”). You can read the original German text along with a prose translation here. You can listen to a performance of the cantata here.

May Neumann’s meditation on death lead us to see what blessings, comfort, and assurance we have in Christ Jesus, and thus become our own meditation.

Dearest God, When Will Death Meet Me

1. Dearest God, when will death meet me?
Precious time keeps slipping by,
And heirs of the sinful nature,
With whose number, too, am I,
Have from Adam as their lot
But a brief and fleeting slot
on this earth to live in sorrow,
ere becoming earth tomorrow.

2. I wish not to meet unwilling
The conclusion of my time;
Mortal seeds sown in my members
Guarantee their passing prime,
Not to mention without fail
One and all go down death’s trail,
Many loved ones not omitted,
Who to graves are now committed.

3. Yet, O God, what questions anxious
Shall I raise when death draws near?
Where shall my cold frame be buried?
Where shall then my soul appear?
How my worries swell and soar!
Who’ll assume my treasure store?
Where shall all my loved ones scatter,
While I turn to earthly matter?

4. Stop! What right have I to worry,
Since I’ll go to Jesus’ side?
Better now ’twould be than later,
For my flesh shall be revived.
Pardon glad, world, I bestow
That you keep my goods below;
To my heirs I am supplying
God, a giver never dying.

5. Lord of life and death, I pray you,
Let my end a good one be.
Teach me to give up my spirit
With devout serenity.
Grant that I a decent grave
Next to faithful Christians have,
And at last, with ground my cover,
All disgrace may then be over.

Hymn of Comfort for an Exile

By Joseph Schaitberger

Translator’s Preface

In Professor Wagenmann’s article on Joseph Schaitberger in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, he identifies Schaitberger’s Salzburg Exile Hymn as “his most well-known.” “[It] reflects both every aspect of the distress experienced by those witnesses to the faith and their gospel-centered comfort, in simple, touching words.”

A depiction of the Salzburg Emigrants from the front of Christoph Sancke’s Ausführliche Historie Derer Emigranten Oder Vertriebenen Lutheraner Aus dem Ertz-Bißthum Saltzburg, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1732). The passage on the top is Matthew 24:20: “But pray that your flight does not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.” A sermon by Luther on this section of Scripture was one of the emigrants’ inspirations. The man on the left is carrying a sack on which is written: “God is with us in distress” (paraphrase of Psalm 91:15). In his arms are the Augsburg Confession and Johann Arndt’s True Christianity, a popular devotional work. The lady is carrying a sack on which is written: “The Lord has done great things for us” (Psalm 126:3). In her arm is a Bible. The rhyme on the rectangular scroll reads: “Because of faith in grace alone | We banished are to realms unknown. | We leave behind our fathers’ land, | Still safely in our Father’s hand.”

“Those witnesses to the faith” include primarily two waves of Lutherans exiled from the Archbishopric of Salzburg. A group of 1000+ were exiled by Archbishop Maximilian Gandolf between 1684 and 1686, with 600+ of their children, including Schaitberger’s children, being confiscated from them. And a group of 30,000+ were exiled by Archbishop Leopold Anton von Firmian between 1731 and 1734, around 12,000 of whom emigrated in 1732 to Prussian Lithuania in the area in and around Gumbinnen (present-day Gusev, Russia), where King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia gave them a good start to a new life. Archbishop von Firmian’s original edict of explusion was signed on October 31, 1731 – a deliberately insulting way to “celebrate” the 214th anniversary of the Reformation – and publicly read on November 11, the anniversary of Martin Luther’s baptism. The 1731 edict also implied confiscation of children under 12 years old. Some of the harsher stipulations of his edict were later mitigated under pressure from the Protestant states in Germany, but it does appear that many children were forced to stay behind.

I translated Schaitberger’s Exile Hymn on the basis of the text as printed in his Neu-vermehrter Evangelischer Sendbrief (Nuremberg, 1733), pp. 131-133. The hymn is not found in the original 1710 edition of the Sendbrief, and thus it appears that Schaitberger composed it specially for the 1732 emigrants, on the basis of his own experience and the facts of the 1731 expulsion as he knew them. Schaitberger himself recommended singing it to the tune of “Ich dank dir schon durch deinen Sohn” or “Hör, liebe Seel, dir ruft der HErr!” (four melodies given on pp. 154-155 here). My only hesitation in presenting it is my rhyming of “unerring” with “unsparing” in st. 7, which I know some linguistic perfectionists will not appreciate. Nevertheless, dictionaries do legitimize both pronunciations of “unerring.”

Multiple sources say that Schaitberger’s hymn was one of the most oft-sung hymns by the emigrants during their journey. The emigration created a sensation especially in all the cities and towns through which the emigrants passed. Many townspeople sang with them in the town squares. The aging Schaitberger himself was able to greet some of the exiles in Nuremberg; one can easily imagine him singing his hymn with them or teaching it to some of them.

Hymn of Comfort for an Exile

1. I am an exile, sadly banned—
This my new designation—
From cherished home and fatherland—
God’s Word the sole causation.

2. Yet I, Lord Jesus, contemplate
Your like humiliation.
If I now you must emulate,
Fulfill your inclination.

3. Through foreign streets I now must stray;
A pilgrim I am branded.
Therefore, my Lord and God, I pray
You never leave me stranded.

4. Stay with me, mighty God, I plead;
To you I am commended.
Forsake me not in all my need,
Though life itself be ended.

5. Freely the faith did I confess—
What cause, then, for compunction?
Let men me “Heretic!” address
And seek my life’s expunction.

6. Fettered and bound in Jesus’ name—
What honor such expulsion!
Thus not my crimes, but this to blame—
True doctrine’s vile revulsion.

7. Though Satan and the world divest
Me of my means unsparing,
This jewel I’ll ne’er be dispossessed:
God and the faith unerring.

8. With your will, Lord, I shall agree,
In patience persevering.
I shall subscribe to your decree
Willingly, without fearing.

9. Though I should stay in misery,
I shall not show resistance;
Still, God, do give good friends to me
E’en in the far-off distance.

10. Time now, in Jesus’ name, to leave;
All has from me been taken.
Yet I know one day I’ll receive
The glorious crown of heaven.

11. So step I from my house away
New, foreign streets to wander.
But Lord, my children! Forced to stay!
I sigh and sob to ponder.

12. Please, let my new town be a site
Where your Word is permitted;
By it my heart, both day and night,
Shall then be benefited.

13. If in this vale of tears I must
Live in prolonged privation,
In heaven God will give, I trust,
Far better habitation.

14. The man shall here remain disguised
Who did these verses fashion;
He papal doctrine has despised
But Christ professed with passion.

Luther’s Great Pentecost Hymn

Translator’s Preface

The first stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn, “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott” was originally a Latin antiphon (a responsive prayer or exclamation, either spoken or chanted at the beginning of the service) for Vespers on the evening before Pentecost, in use from the 11th century. Currently, in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, we still use the first part of this antiphon as a refrain for the Psalm appointed for Pentecost (Psalm 51b, Christian Worship p. 87), as the Verse of the Day for Pentecost, and there are hints of it in the Prayer of the Day for Pentecost. The antiphon, in its entirety, went thus (in English):

Come, Holy Spirit, fill up the hearts of your believers, and kindle in them the fire of your love: You who have gathered the nations in the unity of the faith through all the diverse languages. Alleluia, Alleluia.”

In the 15th century, even before Luther was born, more hymns and songs were beginning to appear in German, including a paraphrase of this antiphon with its own melody.

In the early 1520s, Luther repeatedly appealled to men like Georg Spalatin for scripturally sound, clear, and appropriate Psalm arrangements and hymns in German. His appeals basically fell on deaf ears, so Luther himself took up his pen and composed more than 20 hymns between 1523 and 1524 that appeared in the first evangelical hymnals of 1524. One of them was, “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott,” which is known at least in Wisconsin Synod circles as, “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” (Christian Worship 176).

For this hymn, Luther tweaked the already existing German stanza and set it to an adapted and simplified version of its customary melody. The earliest printed version of the original German stanza went thus (in English prose):

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God
Fill up with the pot [or kettle] of your grace
The heart and mind of those believers of yours.
Your burning love kindle in them,
You who through the radiance of your light
Have gathered in one faith
The people from all the world’s tongues,
For which may praise and honor to you be sung,
Alleluia, Alleluia.

This was one of Luther’s favorite hymns, as he made clear in 1539, when he told his companions, “The hymn, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,’ the Holy Spirit himself composed about himself, both the text and the melody” (WA TR, #4478).

One of Luther’s changes was to begin the fifth line with, “O Lord,” probably both to tie this original stanza with the two new ones he composed (whose fifth lines also begin, “O Lord”) and to emphasize the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

The most notable change to the original German stanza was the sixth line. The original stanza, as also the older Latin antiphon, emphasized the unity of the Church’s faith, into which the Spirit had gathered people from all nations and tongues. But Luther relegated the concept of unity to the word “gathered” itself, and he substituted “to the faith” for “in one faith.” Thereby he meant either to emphasize the purenesscorrectness, and truth of that faith, or to reinforce the truth that we are saved by faith alone; the gathering work of the Holy Spirit is a gathering primarily to faith. (Good works will always follow faith as a matter of course.)

Luther’s three stanzas went thus (in English prose):

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
Fill up with the blessing of your grace
Your believers’ heart, disposition, and mind;
Your burning love kindle in them.
O Lord, through the radiance of your light,
You have gathered to the faith
The people from all the world’s tongues.
May this, Lord, to your praise be sung.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

You Holy Light, Precious Protection,
Cause the Word of Life to shine on us
And teach us to know God correctly,
To call him Father from our hearts.
O Lord, protect from foreign doctrine,
That we seek no other master
Than Jesus with correct faith
And trust in him with all our might.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

You Holy Fiery Burning, Sweet Cheer,
Now help us joyfully and cheeredly
Steadfastly to remain in your service,
[And help] the tribulation not to drive us away.
O Lord, through your power prepare us
And fortify the timidity of the flesh,
That we here valiantly contend
And through death and life press on to you.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

With his additional two stanzas, the hymn, while not reflecting Luther’s best poetry, nonetheless is a treasure of biblical, and thus Lutheran, theology. He highlights salvation by grace alone, apprehended through faith in Jesus alone, worked through the Word alone. The doctrine and importance of the means of grace – the gospel of Jesus in Word and sacraments – is especially highlighted in st. 2. This doctrine is the driving force behind Luther’s prayer in that stanza for purity and correctness of teaching. The theology of the cross, another hallmark of Lutheranism, is highlighted in st. 3 in gripping terms.

The English translation in Christian Worship is unfortunate on a number of levels. Here is a sampling:

  • “All your graces” in line 2 of st. 1 is a misunderstanding of Luther’s “deiner Gnaden Gut,” which is really just a poetic way of saying, “your grace.” It thus misses the stress on God’s saving love in Christ.
  • Lines 6 & 7 of st. 1 turn Luther’s accomplished historical, gospel fact into a plea for something as-yet unrealized to be realized.
  • Luther’s original address, “Precious Protection” (could also be translated “Noble Refuge”), in line 1 of st. 2 somehow got turned into “Guide divine.” Thus the connection between that name and the second half of the verse is lost. (That connection is sort of redirected to the first half of the verse.)
  • “Call him Father with delight” in line 4 of st. 2 is a little unfortunate, though perhaps necessary in our modern world of broken homes and failed fatherhood in abundance. Luther’s original emphasis was simply on knowing and calling on God as a Father, period, as opposed to knowing him as an angry judge and being afraid to call on him or to have anything to do with him.
  • The translation that personally bothers me the most is the rendering of Luther’s, “rechtem Glauben” (“correct faith”), as, “living faith.” Certainly we want a living faith (as St. James makes clear), but perhaps now more than ever we need to emphasis that there is also a correct believing and an incorrect believing, and it is only correct believing (that is, believing in the truth) that can and will be living faith in the truest form. That this is the proper way to understand Luther’s phrase is probably best proved by the German compound noun which combines precisely these two words, Rechtgläubigkeit, which we would translate as orthodoxy, but many of us don’t know what orthodoxy means either – teaching and believing the right way (which implies there is a wrong way – contrary to the popular American expression, “You just gotta have faith…”).
  • “Grant us the will your work to do” in line 2 of st. 3 neither captures the connection between “süsser Trost” (line 1) and “getrost” (line 2) in Luther’s original nor the meaning and beauty of line 2 as a whole.
  • It’s always unfortunate when the concept of steadfastness gets lost in translation, as it does in line 3 of st. 3.

I was asked by a committee within our synod to study this hymn, and I found that I could not really meditate on it properly or with full edification without at least making my own attempt to rectify these problems. My own opinion is that my rendition of st. 3 below is the best of the three, while the rendition of st. 1 could probably use the most improvement (for which I will gladly take advice from readers).

The hymn itself is a prayer – a prayer especially appropriate for Pentecost, but also for every day of our lives. This powerful prayer is also my own in presenting a new translation of it below.

Come, Holy Spirit, God and Lord

Come, Holy Spirit, God and Lord!
In your believers’ hearts be stored
The fullness of your grace and light;
Your burning love in them ignite.
O Lord, what has your radiance done!
Within the faith you’ve made as one
People and realms of ev’ry tongue!
For this, O Lord, your praises e’er be sung!
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O Holy Light, Shield Supreme!
The Word of life upon us beam
And teach us all the highest art—
To call God, “Father,” from the heart.
O Lord, keep us from falsehood free;
Let Jesus our sole master be,
That with a faith correct and right
We place our trust in him with all our might.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O Holy Fire, Cheer so sweet!
Help us, with joy and cheer replete,
To serve you steadfast, come what may,
Nor by our trials be driv’n away.
O Lord, lend power for the fight,
Repress for us Old Adam’s fright,
That we as knights wage battle brave,
Press on to you in heav’n through grief and grave.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Alberus’ Thanksgiving Hymn

“To You, O God, Our Thanks We Give”
Erasmus Alberus (c. 1500-1553), 1537

Translator’s Preface

With this translation, I think I have finally crossed the finish line of my quest for meal-time prayer variety. I translated what follows from August Pieper’s Biblische Hausandachten (Family Meditations from the Bible), 2nd ed. (Milwaukee: NPH, 1912), p. 417.

This one-verse hymn is attributed to Erasmus Alberus, who studied under Luther at the University of Wittenberg and was an active helper in the cause of the Lutheran Reformation. Apart from his hymns, he is probably best known for his satire Der Barfuser Münche Eulenspiegel und Alcoran (Owlglass and Koran of the Franciscans), which ridiculed the Franciscan Order and was published in 1542 with a preface authored by Luther himself. After Luther’s death, Alberus sided with Matthias Flacius and the Gnesio-Lutherans.

Alberus’ thanksgiving hymn appears as hymn 458 in the current Evangelisches Gesangbuch, the official hymnal of the Protestant State Church in Germany. There it is set to an abridged version of the melody for Psalm 105 composed by Pierre Davantès and found in the 1562 Genevan Psalter. (You can hear Alberus’ German hymn sung to this setting here.) That melody is not particularly attractive or memorable, and I’m guessing these lyrics penned by a staunch Lutheran were combined with a melody from the Genevan Psalter, which was created under the supervision of John Calvin, in order to further the union agenda of the Protestant State Church, which seeks to combine the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

In addition, the original meter – 99 88 88 99 – is quite rare, if not nonexistent, in current Lutheran hymnody. I found it easier to translate the text into 88 88 88 88 meter, but this did not help me in finding a suitable tune. (The only hymn I know with this meter is “The Tree of Life” – Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary 302, Christian Worship Supplement 754).

So this project became a unique one for me, since it prompted me not only to translate German poetry, but also to compose music.

The original German stanza with a literal English translation:

Wir danken Gott für seine Gaben,
Die wir von ihm empfangen haben,
Wir bitten unsern lieben Herrn:
Er woll’ uns hinfort mehr bescher’n,
Er woll’ uns speisen mit sei’m Wort,
Daß wir satt werden hier und dort.
Ach lieber Herr, du wollst uns geben
Nach dieser Welt das ew’ge Leben. Amen.

We thank God for his gifts,
Which we have received from him,
We ask our dear Lord:
He would henceforth bestow more upon us,
He would feed us with his Word,
So that we get satiated here [in time] and there [in eternity].
Ah, dear Lord, [we ask that] you would give us
After this world the eternal life. Amen.

The primary difference between the original hymn and my translation below is the person. In the original, the one praying addresses God in the third person until the last two lines, almost as if the speaker is not actually praying, but rather telling someone else about how he prays after meals. I am familiar with this type of prayer perspective, but I am not a fan. It’s almost as if we are asking God simply to tune in to our recitation, if he likes, and to admire our ability to memorize. So I transformed the entire prayer into a second person address.

Click here for an original two-part setting composed just for this hymn. It is arranged for one party to sing the melody, and another party to sing an alto part, which would work just as well as a bass part when moved an octave lower.

I pray that the Holy Spirit has used this series of meal-prayer translations to aid Christian families in their prayer life and to further their love for music. May the triune God continue to provide for us on earth, body and soul, that we may praise his goodness forever in heaven.

To You, O God, Our Thanks We Give
A Hymn of Thanks After Meals

To you, O God, our thanks we give
For these your gifts we have received.
Since you redeemed us with your blood,
Bestow on us much more than food:
Our souls with your pure gospel feed;
Contentment then shall death exceed.
Dear Lord, when bread no more sustains,
Grant us to dwell in heav’n’s domains. Amen.

Bless These Your Gifts

Anonymous, 1561, Frankfurt an der Oder, st. 1-2; anon., 1660, Bayreuth, st. 3

Translator’s Preface

In the continuing quest for meal-prayer and meal-hymn variety, the following is a translation of hymn #595 in the “Jahreszeiten” (Seasonal) section of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin and Other States’ old German hymnal, Evang.-Lutherisches Gesangbuch für Kirche, Schule und Haus (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal for Church, School, and Home), published by Northwestern Publishing House in Milwaukee.

The hymn is titled, “Geseg’n uns, Herr, die Gaben dein,” and was familiar enough to our German ancestors. For example, August Pieper included the first two stanzas in the “Andre Gebete vor Tisch” (Other Prayers Before Meals) section of his Biblische Hausandachten (Family Meditations from the Bible). A literal translation yields:

Bless for us richly, Lord, your gifts,
Cause (this) food to be our nourishment;
Grant that through it (may) be invigorated
The frail body on this earth.

For this temporal bread alone
Is not able to suffice for us for life,
Your divine Word feeds the soul,
Helps us for life most of all.

Therefore give us both, Lord God,
Help (us) finally also out of every need,
So let us praise your goodness
Here and also there into eternity. Amen.

The suggested tune in the Gesangbuch is “Christ, der du bist der helle Tag,” a quite unfamiliar tune. (Ironically, despite the fact that its tune is suggested, the text of that hymn does not even appear in the Gesangbuch.) Another printed suggestion is “Herr Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” a popular Lutheran tune (e.g. Christian Worship 404).

In an effort to resurrect an ancient Latin hymn melody that was converted into a German Lutheran hymn that now seems to be fading from use, I have set the translation below to the tune “Christe, der du bist Tag und Licht,” which setting you can access here. A complete four-part setting of this melody can be found in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 1996), no. 571.

Regarding the translation itself, the most notable departure from the original occurs in stanza 2. The original stanza begins with an explanatory “For.” In other words, the author is explaining why we are duty-bound to ask God’s blessing on our food. I did not find this connection entirely apparent, nor was I convinced that the thoughts about God’s Word in stanza 2 were parallel to the concept of God’s blessing in stanza 1.

In stanza 1, we are acknowledging that no food would do us any good if God did not also add his word of blessing to it and in effect say to the food, “Nourish this human” – a blessing which God regularly extends even to unbelievers. In stanza 2, we are acknowledging that even if God were to add this blessing to our food for the duration of our lives, but we were unfamiliar with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we would still have no true happiness in this life and in the end we would still perish eternally in hell. In other words, the food would still, in the final analysis, have done us no good whatsoever (though God would have worked our life and its activity to the advantage of his Church).

Therefore I thought that beginning stanza 2 with an adversative “But” would actually lend strength to both stanzas by clearly dividing these separate but related thoughts.

May the triune God promote a spirit of pious thanksgiving among us not only at meal times, but in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Update (11-8-14):  The title of the hymn and the first line of the first stanza were changed from “Bless Now This Food” to “Bless These Your Gifts.” My original translation simply asked God to add his blessing to the food in front of us, but was silent on the question of whence the food came. The updated translation, more closely reflecting the original German, praises God, and reminds us, that the food is there in front of us in the first place because God has graciously given it to us.

Bless These Your Gifts

1. Bless these your gifts, Lord, from on high,
That they may nourish us thereby;
Frail bodies do with strength imbue,
That we our duties well pursue.

2. But earthly bread alone would fail
To make us happy, hearty, hale;
Your Word alone does feed the soul
And make our health complete and whole.

3. So give us both, Lord God, we plead,
And help us out of every need;
Then all your goodness we shall praise
Both here and there, in endless days. Amen.

Martin Luther’s Table Prayers

Translator’s Preface

Every so often I like to translate something familiar that has already been translated. Re-translating it makes me think about the words and appreciate the content all the more.

This time I decided to return to Luther’s Small Catechism, to Luther’s Table Prayers in particular. I consulted the critical edition: Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (The Confessional Writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church), 2nd ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1955), p. 522-523.

This choice was inspired in part by the fact that my wife and I have been looking for some variety in our table prayers. Although I knew that these prayers existed in Luther’s Small Catechism, they were not something I was taught by my family or in Catechism instruction. (We were simply taught the “common table prayers” – “Come, Lord Jesus,” etc.) The translations in the Catechism used by our synod (Kuske ed.) are somewhat abridged and include none of Luther’s rubrics. The strength of Luther’s prayers lies especially in the Prayer of Thanks, which he uses as an opportunity to teach the children Psalm passages that highlight more general and more important scriptural truths than simply the fact that God is the one who has given them their food.

May God grant that this fresh translation, even if only in a small way, aid the Christian reader in his or her prayer life, for Jesus’ sake.

How the Father, as the Head of the Family, Should Teach His Household to Ask God’s Blessing and to Give Thanks

The Table Blessing1

The children and servants should present themselves before the table with folded hands and good manners and say:

The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and gratify everything that lives with satisfaction.2 3

Then they should say the Lord’s Prayer and the following prayer:

Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these gifts you have given us, which we enjoy from your bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

The Prayer of Thanks4

So too after the meal they should likewise fold their hands and politely say:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is kind and his goodness endures forever. He gives food to all flesh. He gives the cattle their fodder, and feeds the young ravens who call on him. He does not take delight in the strength of the steed or take pleasure in anyone’s legs. The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him and who wait upon his goodness.5

Then they should say the Lord’s Prayer and the following prayer:

We thank you, Lord God our Father, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, for all the favor you show us, you who live and reign forever. Amen.

Endnotes

1 Borrowed by Luther from the breviary

2 Scholia: Satisfaction means that all animals get enough to eat so that they are glad and in good spirits about it, for worry and greed hinder such satisfaction.

3 Psalm 145:15-16

4 Composed by Luther, leaning on the breviary

5 Psalm 106:1; 136:25; 147:9-11