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.

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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.

O God, Earth, Heaven, and Sea Proclaim

By the Bohemian Brethren

Translator’s Preface

A fellow pastor in my circuit and I decided to use the First Lesson for Holy Trinity Sunday, Genesis 1:1—2:3, to launch a four-Sunday sermon series on the creation of the world. The maxim has been attributed to St. Augustine that all of theology is either implicit or explicit in the first three chapters of Genesis, so we certainly were not going to do poorly by carefully covering one-third of that. In addition, we thought it would prove a timely series in the United States’ increasingly atheistic and evolution-saturated culture.

With a series such as this, I like to have a series hymn that the congregation can sing all four Sundays. Repetition is the mother of learning, and music can be a wonderful aid in the learning process too. A good hymn intentionally repeated can go a long way in impressing important spiritual truths on the hearts and minds of God’s redeemed people.

However, I was unable to find a good creation hymn in Christian WorshipThe Lutheran Hymnal, or the couple hymn blogs operated by confessional Lutherans to which I subscribe. I toyed with the idea of penning my own – an introductory stanza, seven stanzas highlighting the divine activity on each of the first seven days of earth’s existence, and a closing doxology. But then I came across hymn #67 in the “Schöpfung und Regierung” (Creation and Governance) section of Northwestern Publishing House’s old German hymnal, Evang.-Lutherisches Gesangbuch für Kirche, Schule und Haus (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal for Church, School, and Home).

Titled “Gott, Erd und Himmel samt dem Meer” and attributed to the Bohemian Brethren, the hymn seems to be a free paraphrase of Psalm 104, and therefore offers a number of excellent devotional thoughts and truths fueled by the creation account and creation itself.

The original German reads:

1. Gott, Erd und Himmel samt dem Meer
verkünden deine Kraft und Ehr,
auch zeigen alle Berg und Thal,
daß du ein Herr seist überall.

2. Die Sonne geht uns täglich auf,
es hält der Mond auch seinen Lauf,
so sind auch alle Stern bereit,
zu preisen deine Herrlichkeit.

3. Die Tier und Vögel aller Welt
und, was das Meer im Schoße hält,
zeigt uns frei an ihm selber an,
was deine Kraft und Weisheit kann.

4. Du hast den Himmel ausgestreckt,
mit Wolkenheeren überdeckt
und seiner Wölbung Majestät
mit goldnen Sternen übersät.

5. Du bists, der alle Ding regiert,
den Himmel und das Erdreich ziert
so wunderbar, daß es kein Mensch
erforschen noch ergründen kann.

6. Wie mag doch unsre Blödigkeit
ausgründen deine Herrlichkeit,
so wir ja Dinge nicht verstehn,
womit wir allezeit umgehn!

7. Wie lieblich ist, Herr, und wie schön,
was du geschaffen, anzusehn!
Doch wie viel lieblicher bist du,
o Herr, mein Gott, in deiner Ruh!

8. Du schließest Erd und Himmel ein,
dein Herrschen muß voll Wunder sein,
du bist ein Herr in Ewigkeit
von unnennbarer Herrlichkeit.

9. O Vater, Sohn und Heilger Geist,
dein Name, der allmächtig heißt,
sei stets von uns gebenedeit,
sei hochgelobt in Ewigkeit.

My initial literal translation:

1. O God, earth and heaven together with the sea
proclaim your power and honor,
and every mountain and valley show
that you are a Lord over all.

2. The sun rises upon us daily,
the moon also holds its course,
so too all the stars are ready
to praise your glory.

3. The beasts and birds of all the world
and all that the sea keeps in its lap,
informs us openly all by itself
what your power and wisdom is capable of.

4. You have stretched out the heavens,
covered them with hosts of clouds
and their vault’s majesty
sown over with golden stars.

5. You are the one who rules all things,
adorns the heavens and the kingdom of the earth
so stunningly, that there is not a single person
who can investigate or fathom it.

6. How in all the world may our stupidity
comprehend your glory,
if we do not even understand things
with which we are occupied all the time!

7. How lovely, Lord, and how beautiful it is
to consider what you have created!
Yet how much more lovely you are,
O Lord, my God, in your rest!

8. You enclose earth and heaven,
your ruling must be full of wonder,
you are a Lord into eternity
of inexpressible glory.

9. O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
your name, which is called omnipotent,
continually be blessed by us,
be highly praised into eternity.

The biggest danger was lying latent in st. 3. In fact, in the first draft of my translation, I had: “Just by existing teach us well | How far your wisdom does excel.” I eventually changed it because I didn’t like the lack of poetry. The potential doctrinal misunderstanding of which I was initially ignorant finally became clear in my first re-translation: “Just by existing do make known | The depths of strength and sense you own.” I was confusing the natural knowledge of God with the revealed knowledge of God. The natural knowledge of God – found in creation and in our conscience – certainly does show us some extent of God’s power and wisdom, but not anywhere close to the full extent. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ alone (Col 2:3), and Christ, though responsible for creation (John 1; 1 Corinthians 8:6), is not revealed in creation itself. He is revealed only to us by his Spirit through his Word (1 Corinthians 2:9,10). The original German was somewhat ambiguous, so I made sure to be clearer in my final product below.

The end of st. 8 might also raise an eyebrow at first: “Forever will your glory shine | Which man cannot see or define.” Obviously, all believers in Christ will one day see God as he is (1 John 3:2). However, it remains true that as we are now, we cannot see or fully define the glory of God (Exodus 33:20; 1 Timothy 6:16). We must first be changed, and God promises we will be (1 Corinthians 15:50-54).

Finally, I made the final stanza a bit more Christ-centered than the original, for which I’m sure the Christian reader will find no need to forgive me.

As to the origin of the hymn, I only know that Michael Weisse published the first hymnal used by the Bohemian Brethren in 1531. I was unable to access a copy of that hymnal to see if this hymn traces back that far. It could also conceivably have come from their later descendants, the Moravians. The NPH hymnal suggests the tune, “Vom Himmel hoch” (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come), but I recommend and will be using “Wo Gott zum Haus” (Oh, Blest the House, Whate’er Befall).

Certainly, as Lutherans, we value the Second Article of the Creed (redemption) more highly than the First Article (creation and providence). But I pray that this hymn gives us appropriate opportunity also to express our praise to the triune God for First Article truths, which are rendered that much more glorious through the lens of true faith, created and sustained by Second Article truths.

O God, Earth, Heaven, and Sea Proclaim

1. O God, earth, heav’n, and sea proclaim
The pow’r and honor of your name;
From valleys low to summits grand,
Creation shows your vast command.

2. The sun comes up, day in, day out;
The moon still runs his monthly route;
The stars at dusk prepare to sing
The brighter glory of their King.

3. All beasts and birds on earth’s broad face,
All creatures in the seas’ embrace
Just by existing do make known
Some scope of strength and sense you own.

4. You have stretched out the sky and made
The clouds its covering and our shade,
And space, whose vault our sight exceeds,
Have sown with golden stars like seeds.

5. To search out or to comprehend
How you adorn the heav’ns and tend
To ev’ry detail on earth’s span—
This goes beyond the reach of man.

6. For we attempt, with puny brain,
To trace your glorious ways in vain,
Since e’en affairs routine and stale
We analyze to no avail.

7. How lovely, Lord, to contemplate
The masterworks you did create!
Yet lovelier and far more bless’d
To view you in your Sabbath rest!

8. The earth and heav’n, by you contained,
Awaken awe for your wise reign.
Forever will your glory shine,
Which man cannot see or define.

9. O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Who can the name Almighty boast,
Through Christ receive our endless praise
Here and through heav’n’s eternal days.

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!