The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Catherine Winkworth
(1827-1878)

Photograph of Catherine WinkworthCatherine Winkworth was the foremost 19th century translator of German hymns into English. Her translations, with alterations, are still the most widely used of any from German and are used extensively in many denominational hymnals, especially in Lutheran hymnals published in the United States.

Catherine Winkworth was born in No. 20, Ely Place, Holborn, London, England, on September 13, 1827. In 1829, her parents moved to Manchester while she was two as her father had a silk mill (possibly at Macclesfield). Two of her sisters, Emily and Susanna, were left with their grandmother Winkworth and her daughter, Eliza, at Islington.

When they followed their parents to Manchester they had lessons from the Rev. William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Chapel, Manchester, and husband of the well-known novelist. Catherine Winkworth lived most of her life in Manchester, England (the notable exception was the year she spent in Dresden, Germany).

For nearly two years from January, 1848, Catherine had a long period of ill-health.

In 1852, Catherine undertook active work among the poor in the newly-established Sunday School & District Visiting Society. She was regarded with extreme affection by the poor, and  long after she left the neighborhood, she used to receive occasional letters from them.

During her time in Manchester, Catherine came to know Chevalier Bunsen (Christian Karl Josias Bunsen, 1791-1860), who started Catherine & Susanna in their literary work, and to whom Catherine dedicated her Lyra Germanica (First Series).

Bunsen, the German ambassador to England, who presented her a copy of Andachtsbuch, a German devotional book with German hymns, which opened to treasures of German hymnody to her. She went on to publish two series of Lyra Germanica, 1855 and 1858. The first series were 103 translations from Bunsen's Versuch eines allgemeinen Gesang und Gebetbuchs, 1833, which went to 23 editions; the second series contained 121 more translations from the same book and was published in 12 editions.

Most of the winter of 1859 was spent by Catherine and Susanna, at Malvern owing to illness. Catching a fresh chill, Catherine had to stay on at Malvern till October, when they moved to Westen for a change of air. They arrived home at Alderley in time for Christmas, 1859.

In February 1861, their father was taken ill; this was the beginning of his complete breakdown in health, which obliged him to give up his business, and ultimately led to the family leaving Thornfield, Alderley Edge, and moving to Clifton, a suburb of Bristol, in October 1862. Here,  she became active in promoting higher education for women. This interest manifested itself in her translations from German of biographies of two founders of sisterhoods for the poor and the sick: Life of Pastor Fliedner, 1861, and Life of Amelia Sieveking, 1863.

Also in 1861, Susanna had a serious illness which left her more or less of an invalid for some years. In spite of this ill-health, the sisters continued with their translations of German works and made several visits abroad.

In 1863, she came out with The Chorale Book for England, which contained some of the earlier translations with their proper chorale tunes. In 1869, she published Christian Singers of Germany, which contained the biographies of German hymn writers, together with numerous hymns. More than any other single person, she helped bring the German chorale tradition to the English speaking world.

In 1870 she was made secretary of the Committee to Promote the Higher Education of Women.

According to her niece, Catherine went to Mornix near Geneva in 1878 where she joined Annie Shaen to help her in the care of their nephew Frank Shaen, then an invalid. She arrived on June 17th, and on the 21st they proceeded to Monnetiex in Savoy, France. On the morning of the 1st of July she was suddenly attacked by a pain at the heart, and in half-an-hour all was over. A few days later, Catherine was laid to rest in the corner of the churchyard set aside for Protestants. In her memory her friends raised a sum sufficient to endow two "Catherine Winkworth" scholarships for women at the Bristol University College, and also to erect a memorial tablet to her in Bristol Cathedral.

Dr. James Martineau said: "Her translations ... are invariably faithful and, for the most part, both terse and delicate; and an admirable art is applied to the management of complex and difficult versification." "Miss Winkworth," says Dr. John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, "although not the earliest of modern translators of German into English, is certainly the foremost in rank and popularity. Her translations are the most widely used of any from that language, and have had more to do with the modern revival of the English use of German hymns than the versions of any other writer." She possessed great intellectual and social gifts, and was unusually gifted as a translator of hymns.

Four of her notable works may be found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library are:

Available on this site are the Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth (from my copies of the first and second series of Lyra Germanica, and The Chorale Book For England). Note that the Savoy region was annexed to Italy, Switzerland or France at various times between 1536 and 1860, most recently to France.

Also available on this site:

Lyra Germanica, First Series, Songs for the Household (1855): Introduction To The First Series

Lyra Germanica, Second Series, The Christian Life (1858): Introduction To Second Series

The Chorale Book For England  (1863): Introduction and Preface: Introduction To Chorale Book For England

Christian Singers Of Germany (1869): Preface

Sources:

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