Three Cheers for German Hymnody

In evening worship last night, I was struck by the fact that many of my favorite hymns have a common thread tying them together: Catherine Winkworth. So many excellent hymn texts have been translated by Catherine Winkworth from German to English, many of which are still sung in worship regularly. In her relatively brief career (she died in 1878 at 51), she published hundreds of hymn translations, some now obscure, but many well known and well loved. It doesn’t hurt that many of her translations are paired with Bach or Cruger tunes. To give you an idea of the pervasiveness of Winkworth’s work in our hymnals, these are some well-known Winkworth translations:

  • Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended?
  • Comfort, Comfort Ye My People
  • From Heaven Above to Earth I Come
  • How Brightly Shines the Morning Star
  • Now Thank We All Our God
  • Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
  • Whate’er My God Ordains is Right

Some may find many of her texts archaic or even opaque at times (“Hence with earthly treasure!”), but I find them poetic, rich, and dense. She also translated in a wide subject area of hymns. Here are some examples; consult your hymnal’s index to see how many Winkworth texts made it in.

From “All My Heart this Night Rejoices,” a Christmas hymn:

Shall we still dread God’s displeasure,
Who, to save,
Freely gave
His most cherished treasure?
To redeem us, he hath given
His own Son
From the throne
Of his might in heaven.

He becomes the Lamb that taketh
Sin away
And for aye
Full atonement maketh.
For our life his own he tenders;
And our race,
By his grace,
Meet for glory renders.

From “Baptized into Your Name Most Holy,” a, well, baptism hymn:

Baptized into your name most holy,
O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
I claim a place, though weak and lowly,
Among your seed, your chosen host;
Buried with Christ, and dead to sin,
Your Spirit e’er shall live within.

From “Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness,” a Eucharist hymn:

Now in faith I humbly ponder
Over this surpassing wonder
That the bread of life is boundless
Though the souls it feeds are countless;
With the choicest wine of heaven
Christ’s own blood to us is given.
Oh, most glorious consolation,
Pledge and seal of my salvation.

From “Jesus, Priceless Treasure,” a hymn of trust:

Though the earth be shaking,
Ev’ry heart be quaking,
Jesus calms my fear.
Lightnings flash and thunders crash;
Yet, though sin and hell assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.


Because He Comes, He Surely Comes

I have written in the past about why Psalms are appropriate for Advent and Christmas worship (quoting at length from C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms ). Psalms have a long history of being sung during Advent. Before most Advent/Christmas hymns were even penned, churches were singing Psalms to celebrate Christ’s incarnation. Traditional Advent Psalms include (but are certainly not limited to) Psalms 89, 96, 98, and 113. To go back further, the “Advent” hymns in the Gospels are rich in Psalm imagery; Mary’s song in Luke 1, for example, is rich in psalm themes, especially Psalms 89 and 92.

Psalms are chock full of themes that have historically been associated with Christ’s incarnation. These include justice for the poor and oppressed, comfort for the downtrodden, judgment for the wicked, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, and a cosmic rejoicing in God’s mercy and reign. Singing Psalms with these themes helps to balance the sentimentality of some Christmas songs, as well as center us on the magnitude of the incarnation. Indeed, the baby born in a cattle stall 2000+ years ago is the King and Judge of the universe who came to defeat the prince of this world. Granted, on the other hand, if we sing only Psalms during Advent, we’ll miss out on some sublime and strong incarnational hymnody. C.S. Lewis provides some helpful thoughts on Psalm singing and Advent:

“Psalm 110, the psalm assigned to Christmas Day, has nothing about peace and good-will, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem. It seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of a war, promising victory…The note is not ‘Peace and good-will’ but ‘Beware. He’s coming’…All this emphasizes an aspect of the Nativity to which our later sentiment about Christmas does less than justice. For those who first read these Psalms as poems about the birth of Christ, that birth primarily meant something very militant; the hero, the judge or champion or giant-killer, who was to fight and beat death, hell, and the devil, had at last arrived.”

Since Christmas Day is two days away, I wanted to share one such Psalm that is especially appropriate for Advent: Psalm 98. Psalm 98 is cosmic in scope, calling on all people and all of creation to praise God for his covenant promises, righteous judgment, and imminent coming. Isaac Watts’ famous hymn “Joy to the World” is actually his christological paraphrase of Psalm 98. He published it in 1719 with the title “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” It’s not difficult to see why Psalm 98 and Advent are closely tied, as the ESV Study Bible notes: “The psalm and the hymn have come to be associated with Christmas; like Psalm 96, this is not inappropriate, provided it is clear that the coming of Jesus as the Davidic king who will bring light to the Gentiles is what establishes the connection.”

There are several excellent metrical arrangements of Psalm 98 of which I am aware. My all-time favorite version is from the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Singing (also included in the Cantus Christi and the forthcoming URC/OPC joint psalter hymnal). This boisterous fuguing tune is called LYGNHAM, published in 1803. This video is from one church’s psalm sing, though I prefer it a touch slower for congregational singing.

My other favorite version has older roots than the British tune above: the Genevan version of Psalm 98. The Genevan Psalms were commissioned by John Calvin in the 1500s and are still frequently sung in Dutch and Canadian Reformed churches. The video below is an excellent Dutch  rendition of this song.

Psalm 98 (ESV)
A Psalm.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 98A (Book of Psalms for Singing)

O sing a new song to the LORD,
for wonders he has done;
His right hand and His holy arm
the victory have won.

The great salvation wrought by Him
Jehovah has made known.
His justice in the nations’ sight
He openly has shown.

He mindful of His grace and truth
to Isr’el’s house has been.
The great salvation of our God
all ends of earth have seen.

O all the earth, sing to the LORD
and make a joyful sound.
Lift up your voice aloud to Him;
sing psalms! Let joy resound!

With harp make music to the LORD;
with harp a psalm O sing!
With horn and trumpet raise a shout
before the LORD, the King.

Let seas in all their vastness roar,
the world its living horde.
Let rivers clap, let mountains sing
their joy before the LORD!

Because He comes, He surely comes,
the judge of earth to be!
With justice He will judge the world,
all men with equity.

From All That Dwell Below the Skies, Sacred Harp, and SSS

I have a condition. It’s not an officially diagnosable, documented, or serious condition, but I have one just the same. I like to call it Song Stickiness Syndrome, or SSS for short (just wait for the DSM-VI, there are dozens of us!). The symptoms include perpetually singing a song in my head (most of the time in full or partial harmony), waking up with a song in my head (which is why it is particularly important to have a good alarm in the morning – currently Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”), learning melodies (and often harmonies) of songs with just one or two listens, and a penchant for whistling and humming.

SSS is both a blessing and a curse. Mostly blessing. It enriches my life since chances are strong that a given song in my head is a hymn or psalm, given the nature of my ongoing hymn- and psalm-related service for my church and denomination. The mere mention of a song or hymn title lodges that song in my head for at least an hour. The curse nature of SSS comes when my wife plays cruel tricks on me. Once in a while, she’ll sing a bar or two of a terrible Methodist or Baptist “hymn,” knowing that I will carry that burden far longer than one person should bear. For example, we were at a concert at an area megachurch recently, paging through their hymnal (The Celebration Hymnal, a popular Baptist hymnal) pointing out particularly egregious songs. She playfully decided to sing a few bars of “There’s Something About That Name” on the way home. The schmaltzy-ness – oh, the humanity. I also have difficulty shopping, since most of the background these days drives me to the brink of madness. Fortunately our local supermarket plays mostly alternative and classic rock, making it an SSS safe zone (or SSSSZ for short).

All this to say, I’ve had a song stuck in my head for days that falls under the “blessing” category, and I thought I’d share. Thus the long, me-focused introduction. Isaac Watts wrote a loose paraphrase of Psalm 117 titled “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” in 1719. This text has been paired with various tunes throughout the years, including DUKE STREET and LASST UNS ERFREUEN. Each of these are sturdy, appropriate, singable tunes for this text, but neither compare with its Sacred Harp match, called SCHENECTADY. I learned this tune thanks to the fantastic collection of early American sacred music called Goostly Psalmes or Early American Choral Music, volume 2 by His Majestie’s Clerkes, conducted by Paul Hillier.

To learn more about Sacred Harp singing, I’ll point you to a post on Sacred Harp singing I wrote last year. Hillier’s version of “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” is professional and polished, though one of the mesmerizing characteristics of Sacred Harp gatherings is that they are neither professional nor polished. I’ll leave you with two videos of this song, one from an Irish Sacred Harp sing, and another more raucous version from a Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention. And please don’t take advantage of my now-public SSS vulnerability by playing cruel tricks on me.



Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

Martin LutherYou may have heard it said, or said it yourself, that Martin Luther used a drinking song for his iconic hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” Or maybe you’ve heard (or said) Luther’s apparent quip, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Either of these pithy truisms have been employed by those hoping to justify the inclusion of popular music in the church’s worship, just as long as the words are at least somewhat spiritual. Rick Warren, for one, is a celebrity pastor that takes this position.

In light of Reformation Day today, I hope to put to rest these false notions that shame Luther’s good name, while leaning on Paul S. Jones’ book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (P&R, 2006). Luther never used bar songs for hymns and never said anything about the devil’s good music. First, to dispel the silly quotation: this has never been found in any of Luther’s writings or verified by any Luther scholars. That paragon of all that is good about Christian music, Larry Norman (a pioneer of the CCM-precursor Jesus Movement), popularized the statement in his song with the same title, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” The statement has roots older than this 1970s Jesus Movement song, though, with something similar being attributed to William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) as well as misattributed in some form or fashion to the likes of Isaac Watts, the Wesley brothers, and D.L. Moody.

On to EIN FESTE BURG, the tune for “A Mighty Fortress.” This tune is one of Luther’s own compositions that he wrote specifically for this hymn as well as for a versification of Psalm 46. He also wrote several other very good tunes, including tunes for Psalm 130, an Advent hymn, and a Resurrection Sunday hymn. He, along with many other composers (including Bach) would borrow from other forms, including Gregorian chants and folk music.

The closest Luther got to stealing a drinking song was the tune VON HIMMEL HOCH for his Advent hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” This was associated with an old German folk melody, but when Luther heard the tune sung in inns and dance halls, he was embarrassed and the tune was stricken from his hymn collections. Folk songs were traditionally sung in such places, but that does not make them tavern songs. Lastly, a standard Middle Age German musical form is the “bar form.” Perhaps when CCMers were playing the telephone game, “bar form” was misheard as “bar song.”

More important than merely debunking urban myths is the principle inherent when such statements are uttered. Pop music or heavy metal, for example, are not automatically sterilized and sanctified by merely pairing them with religious texts. As Ken Myers argues in his classic All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway, 1989) and T. David Gordon more recently hammers home in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (P&R, 2010), popular music has inherent characteristics that are ill-suited for corporate worship. Music is not ideologically or theologically neutral and thus not all musical genres should be used in worship. Since music is not neutral, personal taste does not trump objective standards. For more on this topic, I commend Jones’ chapter to you (on which this post heavily leaned): “Luther and Bar Song: The Truth Please!” in Singing and Making Music. The aforementioned All God’s Children and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns are also well worth your time.

So on this Reformation Day, please do not take Luther’s name in vain by attributing to him what he never said, intended, or desired. And in the spirit of All Saints’ Day tomorrow (November 1), here’s a bonus video of the magisterial British hymn “For All the Saints.”

Who Will at Last His Israel Free

Indelible Grace released their sixth roman-numeraled studio album (and eighth overall) yesterday, Joy Beyond the Sorrow. It features many regular artists, including my favorites Andrew Osenga,  Sandra McCracken, Jeremy Casella, Matthew Smith, and the return of Derek Webb. Unfortunately, this is the first Indelible Grace album that Matthew Perryman Jones is not on.

My point is not to review the album, but to point you in the direction of the first track, “From the Depths of Woe.” I’ve written previously about my affinity for Psalm 130, and linked to a very early demo recording of this song in that old post. With lyrics by Martin Luther (based on Psalm 130), and vocals by Andrew Osenga and Emily Deloach, this new recording is arguably the best Indelible Grace song ever. I’m not exaggerating; it’s incredible.

You can listen to all of it in its seven minute glory here, (along with the rest of the album) and follow along with Luther’s words below. Then go buy the album, a steal at only $9.99!

From the depths of woe I raise to Thee, a voice of lamentation.
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me, and hear my supplication.
If thou iniquities dost mark, our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?

To wash away the crimson stain, grace, grace alone availeth.

Our works, alas! are all in vain; in much the best life faileth.
No man can glory in Thy sight, all must alike confess Thy might,
And live alone by mercy.

Therefore my trust is in the Lord, and not in mine own merit.
On Him my soul shall rest, His word upholds my fainting spirit.
His promised mercy is my fort, my comfort, and my sweet support.
I wait for it with patience.

What though I wait the live-long night, and ’til the dawn appeareth,

My heart still trusteth in His might, it doubteth not nor feareth.
Do thus, O ye of Israel’s seed, ye of the Spirit born indeed,
And wait ’til God appeareth.

Though great our sins and sore our woes, His grace much more aboundeth.
His helping love no limit knows, our upmost need it soundeth.
Our Shepherd good and true is He, who will at last His Israel free,
From all their sin and sorrow.

The Christian Fight Song

Hail to the Victors. Victory March. On Brave Old Army. The Aggie War Hymn.

You would probably recognize some of these iconic college fight songs even if you’re not a big sports fan. Fight songs instill pride, confidence, and emotion in fans, uniting fans and players against their foes. Even without Lloyd Carr there as coach, I still get chills when I hear the Michigan marching band play “Hail to the Victors” after a Wolverine touchdown.

But there is one fight song that transcends them all, at least in R.C. Sproul’s eyes:

“In its inception, the Gloria Patri functioned as a type of fight song, a rallying cry for orthodox Christianity. That original function has been lost through the passing of time so that it is now used as a liturgical response. We no longer sense the extraordinary significance of ascribing glory to Christ.”

R.C. explains that in the fourth century, when the Arians were denying the Trinity generally and the divinity of Christ specifically, Arians would sing degrading, insulting songs to Trinitarians across the river. Christians responded with their own fight songs, one of which has lasted to this day as the Gloria Patri. You can listen to a minute-long clip of R.C. explaining the Christian’s fight song here.

How will you sing the Gloria Patri? As a joyless, mindless, rote close to the service, relieved that you can finally go home and watch football? Or as a passionate exclamation of Christ’s eternal glory with the Father and the Spirit?

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost!
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
World without end. Amen.
Orthodox icon of the Council of Nicea

In a similar vein, the Nicene Creed was birthed out of the same controversies denying Christ’s divinity. Blood was shed over this incredibly important time in the church. The Nicene Creed is my favorite creed, and should be said with similar sentiment as the Gloria Patri: with conviction and gusto! A hint of defiance is acceptable as well.

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
   Maker of heaven and earth,
   of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
   begotten of the Father before all worlds;
   God of God,
   Light of Light,
   very God of very God;
   begotten, not made,
   being of one substance with the Father,
   by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation,
   came down from heaven,
   and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary,
   and was made man;
   and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
   He suffered and was buried;
   and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
   and ascended into heaven,
   and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
   and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead;
   whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit,
   the Lord and Giver of life;
   who proceedeth from the Father and the Son;
   who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified;
   who spake by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
   I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
   and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
   and the life of the world to come.


Be Still, My Soul

Chances are, the hymn “Be Still, My Soul” is familiar to you. It is included in dozens of hymnals – nearly half of all hymnals in print, according to – and is a frequently used choral piece. Kathrina von Schlegel wrote the hymn in 1752, and it was translated by Jane Borthwick in 1855. It is most frequently tied to the tune FINLANDIA, composed by Jean Sibelius in 1899 in – you guessed it – Finland. It is a wonderful example of the text of a hymn matching the tune perfectly.

But if you’re anything like me, you may have taken the words for granted in the past, not paying close attention to them. That all changed last week, as I was evaluating the text for use in corporate worship. Sometimes all it takes to re-appreciate a hymn’s poetry is to read the text without singing it. I realized that von Schlegel’s hymn has some of the most profound words in hymnody. The second and third verses are so beautiful, with the closing lines of each being especially powerful. My wife summed up the words thusly: it is a succinct, poetic, and powerful expression of the sovereignty and love of God in suffering.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end. 
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below. 
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away. 
Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last. 
Be still, my soul: begin the song of praise
On earth, believing, to Thy Lord on high;
Acknowledge Him in all thy words and ways,
So shall He view thee with a well-pleased eye.
Be still, my soul: the Sun of life divine
Through passing clouds shall but more brightly shine.