“Comfort, Comfort You, My People”
West Side Presbyterian Church, Ridgewood, N.J.
Fourth in what I’m calling an “online Advent calendar,” patterned after those German cards with little windows you open on each day of the liturgical season for a daily dose of inspiration. I’m posting a song a day (so far) to get in the spirit of the season.
This morning in the traditional service at Peace Lutheran Church, we sang No. 29 in the the old green Lutheran Book of Worship (which we still use), “Comfort, Comfort Now My People,” with words by 17th-century German hymnist Johann Olearius, who had a doctorate in divinity from Wittenberg, served as court preacher to Duke August of Sachsen-Weissenfals and wrote a commentary on all the books of the bible. It was translated in 1863 by Catherine Winkworth, who first translated many of the Lutheran chorales into English.
So it doesn’t get much more Lutheran than that.
But Marilyn Kay Stulken’s Hymnal Companion to LBW attributes the melody, FREU DICH SEHR, to Louis Bourgeois’ 1551 Geneva psalmbook Trente quatre pseaumes de David, and, hey, you don’t get much more Reformed, or Calvinist, than that, either. So I guess it’s some of both.
FREU DICH SEHR is No. 42 in the Geneva psalmbook. (It’s also attributed to Claude Goudimel.) The melody comes from a French folksong, and the Presbyterian church’s arrangement in the YouTube video above seems to harken back to its vernacular roots. You can almost dance to it, although surely none of the early Calvinists in Geneva could have imagined such a thing!
Bach got ahold of it, too. According to the Bach Cantatas Website (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/Chorale030-Eng3.htm), the melody, which the Calvinists called No. 42 for obvious reasons, was associated in the early 1600s with a German funeral hymn called Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele (rejoice greatly, O my soul). Here is Bach’s chorale:
Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele.
(Gioisci, anima mia) Karakorum Milano
It got into the Danish and Norwegian church as well, notably with a 17th-century century composer named Thomas Kingo, who picked up the melody in his Gradual of 1699, and whose hymns are still sung by congregations and rural vernacular singers in Denmark, Norway and the Faroe Islands. His text Lov og tak og evig ære (praise and thanks and eternal honor) is a standard hymn in both national traditions — I first ran across it in my grandfather’s 1913 Norwegian Synod Lutheran Hymnary — and Kingo also used it as the setting for an important series of passion hymns for Holy Week.
For links to Danish composer Thomas Kingo’s Hører til, I høje himle (listen in the highest heavens), along with a bio, go to http://hogfiddle.blogspot.com/2011/05/thomas-kingo-hymns-on-passion-1699-tune.html. It’s on an earlier version of this blog, along with an English translation of all 17 verses of his Hymns on the Passion (1689). This promotional video, from Holy Week 2011 at Helligaandskirken (Church of the Holy Spirit) in Copenhagen, has fairly extensive clips from rehearsals.
Kingos passionssalmer – Hører til, I høje Himle!