First Missions Hymn of Lutheranism

“Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein” (Stanza 1)
By Martin Luther

Translator’s Preface

With a mission festival suddenly on the horizon, I was looking for a manageable setting of a Lutheran missions hymn. Michael Praetorius’ 2-voice arrangement of stanza 1 of “Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein,” found in Part 9 (1610) of his Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion), fit the bill perfectly. Based on Psalm 67, “Es wollt uns Gott” is not only considered “the first missionary hymn of Protestantism”; it is also one of the first Lutheran hymns, period. As such, it has a storied history. My favorite anecdote is retold in the Christian Worship: Handbook (Milwaukee: NPH, 1997) on p. 581 (altered slightly to fit the new translation of st. 1 presented below):

In Wolfenbüttel the Catholic prince permitted the singing of several of Luther’s hymns in his chapel. When a priest challenged him concerning this practice and told him finally that the singing of such hymns could no longer be tolerated, the prince asked, “Which hymns?” The priest answered, “My lord, it is called ‘To Us May Our God Gracious Be.'” Whereupon the prince snapped, “Well, then, should the devil be gracious to us? Who can be gracious to us but God?” Thus, the practice of singing Luther’s hymns in that particular chapel was continued.

Unfortunately, the translation of st. 1 found in hymn 574 of Christian Worship (“May God Bestow on Us His Grace”) did not lend itself well to Praetorius’ setting.

Time to translate.

First, the original text, with lines ( | | ) demarcating phrases that had to be kept intact in the translation (that is, had to contain the same number of syllables and make sense, not breaking off in the middle of a word or prepositional phrase) in order to fit the setting:

Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein
Und seinen Segen geben
| Sein Antlitz uns | mit hellem Schein
Erleucht zum ew(i)gen Leben
| Daß wir erkennen | seine Werk’
Und was ihm liebt auf Erden
| Und Jesus Christus | Heil und Stärk’
Bekannt den Heiden werden
Und sie zu Gott | bekehren |

Then, a literal translation unhindered by meter or other restrictions:

May it please God to be gracious to us
And give (us) his blessing,
May his countenance with brilliant shine
Illuminate us to eternal life,
So that we recognize his works
And what is pleasing to him on earth,
And (so that) Jesus Christ’s salvation and strength
Are broadcast to the heathens,
And convert them to God.

Lines 5-8 proved most difficult by far. I ended up having to make all the verbs passive, instead of alternating between the active voice in lines 5-6 and the passive voice in lines 7-8, as in the original. What I ended up with is the product below.

Since, instead of copying the music from an original 1610 edition, it was graciously copied for me from the Gesamtausgabe der musikalischen Werke (Georg Kallmeyer, 1929) by the staff of the Martin Luther College Library, I don’t feel comfortable sharing the music publicly here. However, I am willing to share it legally for non-profit purposes with other confessional Lutheran clergy and choir personnel upon request. Simply use the contact info on my About page to submit a request for a PDF file of the 2-voice choir setting.

I pray this fresh translation of the first stanza of Lutheranism’s first missions hymn serves to remind especially Lutherans of the high priority that the Lutheran Church has always (rightly) placed on mission work, and that, even if only in a very small way, it encourages her to continue to do so with ever-increasing zeal. I pray that it might also serve any English-speaking Christians that come across it as a fitting, and memorizable, missions prayer.

To Us May Our God Gracious Be

To us may our God gracious be
And bless us in rich measure;
May his kind face shine brilliantly,
Guide us to life forever.
To us shall God’s works then be known
And God-pleasing behavior,
And to the heathens shall be shown
The pow’r of Christ their Savior,
Which shall cause their conversion.

16th Century Christmas Hymn

By an anonymous author, possibly of Finnish origin

Translator’s Preface

One of my favorite Christmas hymn settings is Michael Praetorius’ 1609 4-voice arrangement of “Parvulus nobis nascitur” from Part 6 of his Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion). According to John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology, this Latin hymn first appeared in the 1579 edition of Lucas Lossius’ Psalmodia.

The now dissolved Chorus Cantans Latine of Martin Luther College, consisting of 12 male voices at its height, performed this arrangement several times, and its memory has stuck with me. I recently had an opportunity to translate it so that it could be sung by an American Lutheran church choir.

First, I pulled up my literal translation from years ago:

1. A little child is born for us,
Given birth from a virgin.
Because of him the angels rejoice
And we [his] servants give thanks:
“To the Trinity be glory without end!”

2. We have the King of grace
And the Lion of victory—
The only Son of God
Who gives light to every age.
To the Trinity be glory without end!

3. He came to bring us, [God’s] dear children,
Back to God from death,
And to heal the severe wounds
Inflicted by the cunning of the serpent.
To the Trinity be glory without end!

4. To this sweet little infant
Sing you all with one accord,
[Who is] lying in a manger,
Humbled in a shabby bed.
To the Trinity be glory without end!

In undertaking a rhyming translation to fit Praetorius’ setting, I wanted to accomplish several things:

  1. The nobis (“for us“) of st. 1 was emphasized by being set to two ascended Ds (“no-bis”) after three G notes (“Par-vu-lus”). I wanted to retain that gospel emphasis on “for us” by having “us” occur with the first of the two Ds. In other words, “us” had to be the fourth syllable of the first line of st. 1.
  2. In the refrain (last line of each st.), Praetorius has the music match the concept of eternity, either by dragging out the syllables with multiple notes (soprano) or by repeating the lyrics (tenor and bass). I didn’t want my translation to get in the way of that feature; the refrain had to conclude with the concept of eternity and have lyrics that could be easily and pleasantly repeated.
  3. I wanted to have the same clear allusions to various Scripture references as the original. The “lion of victory” in st. 2 clearly alludes to Revelation 5:5, the second half of st. 2 to John 1:1-18, the second half of st. 3 to the fall into sin in Genesis 3, etc.
  4. It’s always nice if one can introduce a new theme or thread while being faithful to the original. In this case, after opening st. 1 with “See,” I thought about starting each stanza with “See” – to give the whole hymn a sort of “Behold!” or surprise-like character to match the wondrous miracle of the incarnation that is celebrated on Christmas. But when that didn’t work, I ended up going with a sort of sensory progression in the first three stanzas – sight (“See”) to hearing (“Hear”) to touch (“to snatch…From death’s firm clutches”). This also made st. 4 stand out more as a conclusion by the absence of any direct sensory reference in it.
  5. Without getting ridiculous, I like to repeat consonant and vowel sounds within stanzas and lines of stanzas. It helps to unify.

What I ended up with is the product below. You can also access the English choir score here. One suggestion is to have the choir sing “To the Trinity” in st. 4 in unison, before returning to 4 parts for the remainder of the stanza. This would audibly comply with the immediately preceding exhortation: “In unison let all rejoice.”

Unless I am mistaken, this is the first publication of a singable, rhyming translation of “Parvulus nobis nascitur” in English. May it serve to the eternal glory of the Trinity.

See, Born for Us a Precious Child

1. See, born for us a precious child,
Son of a virgin undefiled!
The angels praise him in the sky
And we on earth make glad reply:
“To the Trinity ascend
Sweet songs of glory without end!”

2. Hear now the King from Judah roar!
With all our foes he shall wage war!
The Father’s Son, the God of grace!
The light of life beams from his face!
To the Trinity ascend
Sweet songs of glory without end!

3. Sent down to snatch God’s children dear
From death’s firm clutches, and its fear,
He came to crush the serpent’s head
And heal our wounds of sin so red.
To the Trinity ascend
Sweet songs of glory without end!

4. Though in a manger poor he cries,
Though on a bed of straw he lies,
To this sweet infant raise your voice!
In unison let all rejoice:
“To the Trinity ascend
Sweet songs of glory without end!”

Luther’s Easter Hymn (Stanza 1)

“Christ Lag in Todes Banden” (1524) by Dr. Martin Luther

Translator’s Preface

In 1607 Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) had Part 2 of his Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion) published in Jena. The philosophy behind this 9-part collection of over 1200 hymn arrangements can be best described by comparing it with the work of Praetorius’ good friend and fellow Lutheran, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

Schütz loved to compose original musical interpretations of biblical texts. He was a Hebrew scholar, so his Psalmen Davids sammt etlichen Motetten und Concerten mit 8 und mehr Stimmen (1619) (Psalms of David, together with Several Motets and Concerted Pieces for 8 Voices and More) is representative of his style. He is also famous for his Historia der freudenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes Jesu Christi (1664) (History of the Joyful Birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Mary’s Son), available on the popular “Christmas Vespers” album, which also contains one of his Psalm settings. His music is not only extraordinarily beautiful, but, in the words of Martin Luther, it “make[s] the text come alive” (Erlangen Ausgabe [1854], 62:307). Some believe that he surpassed even Bach and Handel as an interpreter of texts (The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church).

However, since Schütz’s is “specialty” music, it is much more difficult and less “catchy” (since the musical phrasing does not repeat as in hymn verses). It is therefore less portable for the average layperson, who, although he would doubtless enjoy the music, would hardly recognize it and thus would have difficulty remembering or repeating it.

Michael Praetorius was the son of a staunch confessional Lutheran pastor. His father repeatedly lost pastoral positions in his congregations due to his firm confessional stance; he also lost the same pastoral position twice. Michael himself later regretted not becoming a theologian; he even penned a couple theological treatises, which have been lost. He often signed his work “MPC,” which everyone understood as “Michael Praetorius Creuzburgensis” (Michael Preatorius of Creuzburg), but which he interpreted as “Mihi patria coelum” (Heaven is my true homeland), which words can be viewed on the title pages of his volumes of Musae Sioniae.

Michael viewed the chorale or hymn as the musical treasure and heritage of the Lutheran church. It was the hymn which allowed God’s redeemed people to participate in a meaningful way in the divine service, giving understandable, clear, correct, edifying, aesthetically pleasing, unifying, and memorable expression of their faith in Jesus Christ. And so rather than occupy his time with original musical interpretations of biblical texts, he occupied his time with hymns. His goal was to make Lutheran hymns as lively, exciting, interesting, and enjoyable as possible.

That he succeeded is evidenced by the fact that his settings of such hymns as “In dulci jubilo” and “Psallite” are still often performed around Christmas to the delight of audiences today. Indeed, Praetorius is probably best known for his settings of Christmas hymns. The album “Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning” is a Lutheran staple. I myself took extreme pleasure in singing his arrangement of “Parvulus Nobis Nascitur” (A Little Child is Born for Us) with eleven other men in college. In general Praetorius’ arrangements are recognizable even to Lutherans of today, because we still sing many of the same hymn tunes he set to music. His music is portable for the layperson.

One of the hymns that often gets overlooked in the Lutheran church today is Martin Luther’s theologically rich Easter hymn, “Christ lag in Todes Banden” (“Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” in Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal). In Christian Worship, the original 7-stanza hymn was trimmed down to just 4 stanzas, and the original melody was apparently perceived as borderline dirgeful, since it was recast with a new tune (and the remaining 3 stanzas were thankfully restored) in the Christian Worship: Supplement, “with the hope of reviving its use within the church.”

But Part 2 of Michael Praetorius’ Musae Sioniae contains a setting of “Christ lag in Todes Banden,” and after hearing it, the listener will hardly want Luther’s text to be set to any tune other than the original.

What follows is a translation of stanza 1 of “Christ lag in Todes Banden,” the stanza employed in Praetorius’ setting. It was a translation undertaken with this setting specifically in mind.

Perhaps an outline of this translation process might be of interest. First I went back to the eight volumes of Part 2 of Musae Sioniae published in 1607 (one volume for each of the eight voice parts). I transcribed the old music into modern notation using musescore, free composition and notation software for Macs.

Next I entered Luther’s original text into the modern score. I took note of the words and concepts that Praetorius stressed with music:

Christ lag in Todes Banden
für unser’ Sünd’ gegeben,
der ist wieder erstanden
und hat uns ’bracht das Leben,
deß wir sollen fröhlich sein,
Gott loben und [ihm] dankbar sein
und singen Alleluja. Alleluja!

I especially noted two of these stressed words – “’bracht” (brought) and “loben” (praise). With “’bracht” I noticed that Praetorius’ notation seemed to denote a from-point-A-to-point-B, “over the river and through the woods” sort of bringing. Christ’s entire mission from heaven to earth and back again; his life, death, resurrection, and ascension; his compassion, miracles, forgiveness, sweat, blood, tears, cries, and ultimate triumph are all there in the “’bracht” notes.

With “Gott loben,” the stress is clearly on “loben,” and the music for “loben” takes on a lilting character. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep the “Gott” (God) in any translation of that phrase while retaining the stress – “Gott LO-ben” – so I decided to translate in such a way that highlighted the “loben” to match the musical lilt, and put the object of the praise, God, elsewhere.

I also noted the contrasts in the stanza – between lying (“lag”) and standing (“erstanden”), and between death (“Todes”) and life (“das Leben”). My final note was of the original rhyme scheme, not only the A-B-A-B-C-C-D structure, but also the fact that for the C-C Luther was not afraid to rhyme “sein” with “sein,” and so I was not going to be afraid to rhyme “be” with “be.”

Next I composed an expanded prose paraphrase, so that my translation would not become too artificial:

Christ Jesus lay in the tomb, firmly in death’s hold;
He had suffered death, had given up his life for all our sins.
This same Jesus is now risen and lives again!
And he has brought also to us release from death, life eternal.
For this let us be joyful,
Sing praises to God and be grateful to him
And sing Alleluia: Alleluia!

Next, after experimenting with various rhymes and synonyms, I arrived at the product below. My only regret in the final product is that I don’t think I captured the emphasis Praetorius places on Christ’s imprisonment in death being “for our sins.” The thought itself remains in the translation, but it does not receive the same emphasis. Praetorius’ original emphasis serves to maximize the joy expressed in the second half of the stanza.

Finally, I created a new master copy of Praetorius’ arrangement with the English text, so that it could be sung by a typical American Lutheran church choir (as long as that typical church choir has at least 8 strong voices, one for each of the 8 voice parts). You can access that score here.

I realize that this translation is out of season. If people are thinking about Praetorius at this time of year, they are thinking about his Christmas music. But Praetorius’ music requires much preparation, especially for the typical American Lutheran church choir. Besides, every Sunday, including the Sundays in the Advent and Christmas seasons, is a mini-Easter. I present what follows, as Luther and Praetorius did, to the glory of the triune God, especially to my Savior from sin, Jesus Christ, whose bodily resurrection guarantees my justification and life eternal at his side. Heaven is my true homeland.

Christ Lay in Our Sin’s Prison

Christ lay in our sin’s prison;
His life to death he’d given.
But now he stands arisen;
To us he’s brought his heaven.
For this let us joyful be,
Let’s sing to God and thankful be.
Praise him with Alleluias. Alleluia!