Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Vom himmel hoch -- Martin Luther's Christmas song, with some family lore on Johann Walther and Luther's chorales in general


Music kind of runs in my father's family, and my grandmother used to say we were descended from a 16th-century German musician named Johann Walther, or Walter in modern German, who was a cantor (choir director) in Wittenberg and arranged the music for Martin Luther's first hymnal. So when I was asked to play during the offertory at the contemporary worship service in our new "blended" ELCA parish in Springfield, I thought a moment and decided on "From Heaven Above," a Christmas carol that Luther wrote for his family.

When I mentioned it to my cousin, who is also kind of a church music geek, he emailed back, "I noted with pleasure your inclusion of Vom Himmel Hoch (the German tune name) into the Service. Good show! ... That hymn was written by Luther for his children to sing as they acted out the Christmas story. My understanding is that Walter convinced him to modify the hymn for congregational usage."

Which means my great-great- (I counted it up once and there must be nine or 10 "greats") grandfather could have collaborated with Luther when he first set the carol to the tune of a popular love ballad of the day. That arrangement, first published in 1535, didn't last long. The text is a first-person account of the Nativity story, and apparently Luther's congregations thought it was a little too risque for the Christ child to be singing a love ballad. So in 1539 they switched over to the melody we now use in 1539.

I guess contemporary worship music has always had its ups and downs!

Anyway, my cousin wrote:

Don't know what's in the ELCA hymnal, but LCMS uses all of the original 15 verses in their hymnal (even the new one). That hymn was written by Luther for his children to sing as they acted out the Christmas story. My understanding is that Walter convinced him to modify the hymn for congregational usage.

I got the Pastor at Messiah to incorporate verse 13 into every Advent and Christmas Service - in most cases the choir sang it - as the last prayer within the structure of the Prayers for the Church. As children, we were taught it for our evening prayers.

Traditional translation
Ah, dearest Jesus, Holy Child
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber, kept for Thee.

Particularly at home, but even in a small church, Luther used the lute to lead the singing, so strum away. at has a public domain PDF file with five verses, as harmonized by Bach, set to the 1539 melody.

CPDL ChoralWiki has a three-part motet by Walther at,_da_komm_ich_her_(Johann_Walter). It was first published in Geistliches Gesangbüchlein, Part I (1551), and I don't know if it is the 1535 melody.

BACKGROUND at -- The following notes in Hymns and Carols are from John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1892, 1907), pp. 1227-1228.

Of the origin of the German hymn, Lauxmann, in Koch, viii. 21, thus speaks:—

"Luther was accustomed every year to prepare for his family a happy Christmas Eve's entertainment.. . and for this festival of his children he wrote this Christmas hymn. Its opening lines are modelled on a song, 'Aus fremden Landen komm ich her;" and throughout he successfully catches the ring of the popular sacred song. It is said that Luther celebrated the festival in his own house in this original fashion. By his orders the first seven verses of this hymn were sung by a man dressed as an angel, whom the children greeted with the eighth and following verses."

We may add that Luther took the first stanza almost entirely from the song, which begins:--

“Ich komm aus fremden Landen her,
Und bring euch viel der neuen Mahr,
Der neuen Mahr bring ich so viel,
Mahr dann ich euchy hier sagen will.”

From the rest of the song Luther did not borrow anything.

In Klug's G.B., 1535, it is set to the melody of “Aus fremden Landen,” or rather, as F.M. Bohme, in his Aldeutsches Liederbuch, 1871, No. 271, gives it “Ich komm aus fremden Landen her.” In the Geistliche Lieder, Leipzig, V. Schumann, 1539, this was superseded by the beautiful melody still in use, which is sometimes ascribed to Luther, and is set to this hymn in the Chorale Book for England, 1863 (set also to No. 57 in Hymns Ancient & Modern, 1875).

A very nice comment on the song in Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912, at -- in the second paragraph quoted below:

* * *

Before I close this study with a survey of Christmas poetry in England after the Reformation, it may be interesting to follow the developments in Protestant Germany. The Reformation gave a great impetus to German religious song, and we owe to it some of the finest of Christmas hymns. It is no doubt largely due to Luther, that passionate lover of music and folk-poetry, that hymns have practically become the liturgy of German Protestantism; yet he did but give typical expression to the natural instincts of his countrymen for song. Luther, though a rebel, was no Puritan; we can hardly call him an iconoclast; he had a conservative mind, which only gradually became loosened from its old attachments. His was an essentially artistic nature: “I would fain,” he said, “see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them,” and in the matter of hymnody he continued, in many respects, the mediaeval German tradition. Homely, kindly, a lover of children, he had a deep feeling for the festival of Christmas; and not only did he translate into German “A solis ortus cardine” and “Veni, redemptor gentium,” but he wrote for his little son Hans one of the most delightful and touching of all Christmas hymns—“Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her.”

[extended quotation in German omitted]

“Vom Himmel hoch” has qualities of simplicity, directness, and warm human feeling which link it to the less ornate forms of carol literature. Its first verse is adapted from a secular song; its melody may, perhaps, have been composed by Luther himself. There is another Christmas hymn of Luther's, too—“Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar”—written for use when “Vom Himmel hoch” was thought too long, and he also composed additional verses for the mediaeval “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ.” ...

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