Three Bach Cantatas


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


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


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


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.



Martin Luther’s Favorite Christmas Hymn?

This woodcut was printed on the page before the hymns “Dies est laetitiae” and “Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich” in the 1535 edition of Luther’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert.

The final section of the 1535 Wittenberg edition of Martin Luther’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Spiritual Songs, Improved Edition), and possibly also of its no-longer-extant 1529 predecessor, was prefaced, “Here follow several hymns composed by the ancients.” The next page read:

These songs of old on the following pages we have also compiled as a testament to several pious Christians who lived before our time in the great darkness of false doctrine, so that you can see how there have still been people at all times who have known Christ rightly and quite amazingly persevered in that knowledge by God’s grace.

The section opens with the Latin Christmas hymn “Dies est leticiae” (Dies est laetitiae) in four stanzas, immediately followed by a loose German translation of that hymn under the title “Der tag der ist so frewden reich” (Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich). The first two stanzas of the German hymn read as follows:

Der tag der ist so frewden reich
aller creature
Denn Gottes Son von himel reich
uber die nature
Von einer jungfraw ist geporn
Maria du bist aus erkorn
das du mutter werest
was geschach so wunderleich?
Gottes Son von himel reich
der ist mensch geporen.

Ein kindelein so löbelich
ist uns geporen heute
Von einer jungfraw seuberlich
zu trost uns armen leuten
Wer uns das kindlein nicht geporn
so wer wir all zumal verlorn
das heil ist unser alle
Ey du süsser Jhesu Christ
das du mensch geporen bist
behüt uns für der helle.

Even though the hymn includes two more stanzas, these first two are the most significant. Each might have appeared independently of the other, and each was often used as its own hymn at first. The second stanza, for instance, was sung by itself after Luther’s sermon on Christmas Eve in 1531.

In fact, one could easily surmise that the second stanza was Luther’s favorite Christmas hymn. He quoted it at least five times in his Christmas sermons. He was no doubt responsible for the paragraph above which cited this hymn, among others, as proof of the perpetuation of the correct knowledge of Christ even in the darkness of the papacy. In the just-mentioned 1531 Christmas Eve sermon, the first of a series on Isaiah 9:6, he quoted it and then commented:

But no one knows what’s being sung. You should be able to sing this song from the heart and not snore so much while you’re singing it, like the world does. It is taken right from the prophet Isaiah.

The following year, in his morning sermon on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, he commented on the hymn more extensively:

Now the angels point to him with their song [like the prophets did in their writings] as the one who does it all and in whom all that we need is found. Their song beats back all the devils who wish to lead people to salvation in a different way. If this newborn child is the Savior, then the Franciscan, Augustinian, and Carthusian orders are most certainly not.

And actually the whole world has cried out against Mary and the priests and monastic orders, and the priests and monks themselves have sung against her at their altars and cried for judgment on their own necks, and we did too. And still today the angel’s words, “A Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord,” are sung in all the churches in the beautiful song “For Us Today Is Born a Child [Ein Kindelein so löbelich].” For what do we sing? “Were he not born, we all had dwelled In fear and fire, from God expelled— Salvation’s ours forever!”

And what does that mean—“we all had dwelled”? Whoever composed this song was a spiritual man, and everyone, both young and old, sings his song. It is a song that glorifies and praises Christ and cries for judgment on all the monks and priests, since when it says “we all had dwelled,” it includes them too. Therefore throughout the world a public judgment of condemnation is sung by every mouth against those who lead people away from Christ, yet no one was able to realize this and no one still does. It is sung everywhere.

Therefore, as I have often urged you, ask God to provide faithful preachers, otherwise, unless he himself should rouse the people, we will keep on singing and reciting those words, but we will not understand them. They are supposed to be aroused in the sermon, from the Gospel, from the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the sacraments, and the canticles. Even the adversaries have all these things that we have—baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, the angel’s song, and the child in the manger. But since they are lacking a man in the pulpit who will open the people’s eyes and make the words in the text clear, so that they know what it says, they consequently have these things in a manner of speaking, but they do not really have them.

Both stanzas date back to at least the early 15th century, and the tune likewise dates to the same century. The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941) included W. Gustave Polack’s 1940 translation “Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer” (#78). The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS, 1996) also includes it (#131) with a livelier version of the tune, stanza 1 being an altered version of Polack’s translation – “Now Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer” – and stanza 2 an altered version of a translation by C. Døving (1867-1937). The Hymnary’s version did have some influence on my translation below.

This hymn deserves to be resurrected in any circles in which it is not currently popularized. The content is rich, and especially the Hymnary’s setting of the traditional tune is both very joyful (and thus a fitting reflection of the text) and eminently singable.

This Day! So Filled with High Delight
A new translation of Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich and Ein Kindelein so löbelich

1. This day! So filled with high delight
For ev’ry earthborn creature!
God’s Son, from realms of heav’nly light
Beyond the world of nature,
Is born into the human race
Of Mary, God’s own choice of grace
To be the virgin mother.
What awesome, wondrous deed is this?
God’s Son, from realms of heav’nly bliss,
Came down to be our brother!

2. For us today is born a child,
A perfect son so peerless,
Of Mary, fair maid undefiled,
To cheer mankind so cheerless.
Were he not born, we all had dwelled
In fear and fire, from God expelled—
Salvation’s ours forever!
To you, sweet Jesus, glory be
For sharing in humanity!
Let hell subdue us never!

Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary Handbook

The Free Lutheran Chorale-Book

Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Geschichte des Deutschen Kirchenliedes bis auf Luthers Zeit (Hannover: Carl Rümpler, 1854), pp. 196-197

Martin Luther, ed., Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Wittenberg: Joseph Klug, 1535)

Martin Luther, Luther at the Manger (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2017), pp. 8-10

Philipp Wackernagel, Das deutsche Kirchenlied von der ältesten Zeit bis zu Anfang des XVII. Jahrhunderts, vol. 2 (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von B. G. Teubner, 1867), pp. 520-527

Weimarer Ausgabe 36:399-400; 52:50-51

Luther Christmas Sermons to Press!

The bad news: I have removed Martin Luther’s five sermons on Isaiah’s six names for Jesus from this blog.

The good news: I have removed them as a result of a contract with Northwestern Publishing House (NPH), who will, God willing, publish them in connection with the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. The plan at this point is to publish them as an Advent/Christmas devotional.

This 1531 Christmas sermon series by Luther is not only thoroughly scriptural and edifying, but is also of historical value. It provides a good glimpse into Luther the man – his sense of humor, his past experiences in the Roman Church, his experience with the German Peasants’ War, and his down-to-earth manner of communicating God’s word.

Please watch for this book from NPH in 2017, and thanks for your continued support of Red Brick Parsonage!

Prudentius’ Holy Innocents Hymn

“All Hail! You Infant Martyr Flowers”
By Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348-c. 413), sts. 1-4,6,7; Peter M. Prange, st. 5
Translated by Peter M. Prange

Translator’s Preface

As you prepare to celebrate the Festival of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, on Sunday, December 28, consider making use of Prudentius’ hymn below, translated by Pastor Peter Prange. Regarding his translation, Pastor Prange shares the following:

The original Latin stanzas of Prudentius’ hymn can be found here. The entire hymn can be found here, along with other hymns of Prudentius.

I produced this translation in 2008 when the congregation I serve (Jerusalem, Morton Grove, IL) was planning to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Stanza five is not part of Prudentius’ original Latin text but an original, additional stanza that I authored in order to include Matthew’s point that this event happened as a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy.

Pastor Prange set the hymn to the tune, “O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf” (Christian Worship 22).

All Hail! You Infant Martyr Flowers

1. All hail! You infant martyr flow’rs,
Cut off in life’s first dawning hours;
Like rosebuds, snapped in dreadful strife,
When Herod sought our Savior’s life.

2. With terror does the tyrant hear
That God’s own Son to us draws near.
On David’s throne he comes to dwell
And reign as King of Israel.

3. King Herod rages at the Word:
”Go, soldier, with your ruthless sword
To Him, who stands where we have stood,
And stain the Infant-crib with blood!”

4. O, what is gained from this offense?
What profit comes from violence?
The Savior-King survived the day,
As Christ was safely whisked away!

5. A voice is heard in bitter pain,
As Rachel mourns the infants slain,
Refusing comfort – sacred lore –
Because her children are no more!

6. Of you, O little lambs, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ our King:
Beneath the heav’nly altar’s ray
With martyr-palms and crowns you play!

7. To you, the Virgin-born, we raise
Thanksgiving and eternal praise,
Whom with the Father we adore
And Holy Spirit evermore.

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!”