The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Introduction To Lyra Germanica
First Series

Catherine Winkworth

Lyra Germanica
First Series
Songs for the Household

Selected from the Chevalier Bunsen's Versuch eines allgemeinen Gesang und Gebetbuchs (1833)
Christian Karl Josias Bunsen, 1791-1860

The following hymns are selected from the Chevalier Bunsen's Versuch eines allgemeinen Gesang und Gebetbuchs, published in 1833. From the large number there given, about nine hundred, little more than one hundred have been chosen. This selection contains many of those best known and loved in Germany; but in a work of this size it is impossible to include all that have become classical in that home of Christian poetry. In reading them it must be remembered that they are hymns, not sacred poems, though from their length and the intricacy of their metres, many of them may seem to English readers adapted rather to purposes of private than of public devotion. But the singing of hymns forms a much larger and more important part of public worship in the German Reformed Churches than in our own services. It is the mode by which the whole congregation is enabled to bear its part in the worship of God, answering in this respect to the chanting of our own Liturgy.

Ever since the Reformation, the German Church has been remarkable for the number and excellence of its hymns and hymn-tunes. Before that time it was not so. There was no place for congregational singing in public worship, and therefore the spiritual songs of the latter part of the middle ages assumed for the most part an artificial and unpopular form. Yet there were not wanting germs of a national Church poetry in the verses rather than hymns which were sung in German on pilgrimages and at some of the high festivals, many of which verses were again derived from more ancient Latin hymns. Several of Luther's hymns are amplifications of verses of this class, such as the Pentecostal hymn here given, Come, Holy Spirit, God and Lord, which is founded on a German version of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, Reple. By adopting these verses, and retaining the well-known melodies, Luther enabled his hymns to spread rapidly among the common people. He also composed metrical version of several of the Psalms, the Te Deum, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Nunc Dimittis, the Da nobis Pacem, etc., thus enriching the people, to whom he had already given the Holy Scriptures in their own language, with a treasure of that sacred poetry which is the precious inheritance of every Christian Church.

The hymn, In the midst of life, is one of those founded on a more ancient hymn, the Media in vita of Notker, a learned Benedictine of St. Gall, who died in 912. He is said to have composed it while watching some workmen, who were building the bridge of Martinsbruck at the peril of their lives. It was soon set to music, and became universally known; indeed it was used as a battle song, until the custom was forbidden on account of its being supposed to exercise magical influences. In a German version it formed part of the service for the burial of the dead, as early as the thirteenth century, and is still preserved in an unmetrical form in the Burial Service of our own Church.

The carol, From Heaven Above To Earth I Come, is called by Luther himself, 'A Christmas child's song concerning the child Jesus'. He wrote it for his little boy Hans, when the latter was five years old, and it is still sung from the dome of the Kreuzkirche in Dresden before day-break on the morning of Christmas Day. It refers to the custom, then and long afterwards prevalent in Germany, of making at Christmas-time representations of the manger with the infant Jesus. But the most famous of his hymns is his noble version of the 46th Psalm, A sure stronghold our God is He, which may be called the national hymn of his Protestant countrymen. Luther's hymns are wanting in harmony and correctness of metre to a degree which often makes them jarring to our modern ears, but they re always full of fire and strength, of clear Christian faith, and brave joyful trust in God.

From his time there has been a constant succession of hymn writers in the German Church. Paul Eber, an intimte friend of Melancthon, wrote for his children the hymn, Lord Jesus Christ, true Man and God, which soon became a favourite hymn for the dying. Hugo Grotius asked that it might be repeated to him in his last moments, and expired ere its conclusion. Another hymn of the same class is, Now hush your cries, and shed no tear, the Jam mæsta quiesce querela of Prudentius II translated by Nicholas Hermann, the prious old precentor of Joachimsthal, a hymn long sung at every funeral.

The terrible times of the Thirty Years' War were rich in sacred poetry. Rist, a clergyman in North Germany, who suffered much in his youth from mental conflicts, and in after years from plunder, pestilence, and all the horrors of way, used to say, 'the dear cross hath pressed many songs out of me', and this seems to have been equally true of many of his contemporaries. It certainly was true of Johann Hermann, the author of some of the most touching hymns for Passion Week, who wrote his sweet songs under great physical sufferings from ill health, and amidst the perils of war, during which he more than once escaped murder as by a miracle. Do too the hymns of Simon Dach, professor of poetry in the university of Königsberg, speak of the sufferings of the Christian, and his longing to escape from the strife of earth to the peace of heaven.

But the Christians of those days had often not only to suffer, but to fight for their faith, and in the hymns of Altenburgh and von Löwenstern we have two that may be called battle songs of the Church. The former published his hymn, Fear not, O little flock, the foe, in 1631, with this title: A heart-cheering song of comfort of the watch-word of the Evangelical Army in the battle of Leipsic, September 7th, 1631, God with us. It was called Gustavus Adolphus' battle song, because the pious hero often sang it with his army; and he sang it for the last time immediately before the battle of Lützen. The latter, von Löwenstern, was the son of a saddler, but was ennobled by the Emperor Ferdinand III for his public services: he was at once a statesman, poet, and musician. His hymn, Christ, Thou the champion of the band, was a favourite of Niebuhr.

Another favourite hymn of Niebuhr was the hymn to Eternity, the greater part of which is of very ancient but uncertain date. It received its present form about the middle of the 17th century.

Many of the hymns of Paul Gerhardt belong to this period, though he lived until 1676, long after the conclusion of peace. He is without doubt the greatest of the German hymn writers, possessing loftier poetical genius, and a richer variety of though and feeling than any other. His beautiful hymn, Commit thou all thy ways, is already well known to us through Wesley's translation, and many others of his are not interior to it. He was a zealous preacher for several years at the Nicolai-Kirch in Berlin; whence he retired because he had not sufficient freedom in preaching the truth, and became Archdeacon of Lübben. With him culminated the elder school of German sacred poetry, a school distinguished by its depth and simplicity.  Most of its hymns are either written for the high festivals and services of the Church, or are expressive of a simple Christian faith, ready to dare or suffer all things for God's sake. To this school we must refer, from their spirit, two hymns written a little later; the first is, Jesus my Redeemer lives, one of the most favourite Easter hymns, written by the pious Electress of Brandenburgh, who founded the Orphn House at Oranienburgh. The other, Leave God to order all thy ways, was written by George Neumarck, Secretary to the Archives at Weimar. It spread rapidly among the common people, at first without the author's name. A baker's boy in New Brandenburgh used to sing it over his work, and soon the whole town and neighbourhood flocked to him to learn this beautiful new song.

In the latter half of the seventeenth century a new school was founded by Johann Franck, and Johann Scheffler, commonly called Angelus. The former was burgomaster of Guben in Lusatia; the latter, physician to Ferdinand III; but in 1663 he became a Roman Catholic, and afterwards a priest. The pervading idea of this school is the longing of the soul for that intimte union with the Redeemer of the world, which begins with the birth of Christ in the heart, and is perfected after death. This longing beathes through the hymns of Franck given in this collection; one of them, Redeemer of the Nations Come, [1] is a translation of the Veni, Redemptor gentium of St. Ambrose. Angelus dwells rather on the means of attaining this union by the sacrifice of the Self to God through the great High-priest of mankind, an idea expressed in his hymns with peculiar tenderness and sweetness. We find much of his spirit and sweetness lingering in modern times about the few hymns of the gifted Novalis.

The greatest poet of this school is however Gerhardt Tersteegen, who lived during the early part of the eighteenth century as a ribbon manufacturer at Mühlheim. His hymns have great beauty, and bespeak a tranquil and childlike soul filled and blessed with the contemplation of God. The well-known hymn of Wesley's, Lo God is here! let us adore, belongs to him, and in its original shape is one of the most beautiful he ever wrote, but is frequently met with only in a disfigured and mutilated form. To this school belong a large number of the hymns in this collection, among which those of Deszler, an excellent philologist of Nuremburgh, and of Anton Ulrich, the pious and learned Duke of Brunswick, and particularly good. Those of Schmolck, the pastor of Schweidnitz, who exercised great influence over the hymn-writing of his day, have more simplicity than most of the rest, but are characterized by a curious mixture of real poetry and deep feeling with occasional vulgarities of expression. The defects of this school, which showed themselves strongly in the course of the eighteenth century, were a tendency that the feeling should degenerate into sentimentality, and the devout dwelling of the heart on Christ's great sacrifice into compassion and gratitude for His physical sufferings, -- defects which greatly disfigure many of the Moravian hymns. In some of the hymns here translated the expression 'Christi Wundenhöhle' occurs, which has been rendered by the blood or cross of Christ, as being phrases at once more scriptural and more constant to our feelings. There were not wanting however, even at this period, many hymns fit for good soldiers of Jesus Christ, such as Who seeks in weakness an excuse, and others of the same kind.

Germany is rich in Morning and Evening Hymns, and Hymns for the Dying, of which a few are given in these translations. Among these is the morning hymn of Baron von Canitz: I was not aware until after translating it that it had been already published at the close of one volume of Dr. Arnold's sermons.

The hymn, How blest to all Thy followers, Lord, the road, was the favourite hymn of Schelling.

In translating these hymns the original form has been retained, with the exception, that single rhymes are generally substituted for the double rhymes which the structure of the language renders so common in German poetry, but which become cloying to an English ear when constantly repeated; and that English double common or short metre is used instead of what may be called the German common metre, the same that we call Gay's stanza, to which it approximates closely in the number of syllables, while its associations in our minds are somewhat more solemn. In a few instances slight alterations have been made in the metre, when, as is the case with some excellent hymns in our own language, it is hardly grave and dignified enough for the poetry.


1. Redeemer of the Nations, Come is translated by Winkworth in Lyra Germanica: First Series. It is not assigned to the Christmas-tide series of translations, but instead is assigned to the 25th Sunday after Trinity. Return

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