MusikAdventskalender — Bachchor [Bach choir] Siegen –
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, Martin Luther, Johann Walther

Sixth 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.

Today’s song of the Christmas season — which I found on a German online Advent calendar and linked my own Advent calendar here on Hogfiddle (way cool!) — incorporates one of the earliest German vernacular hymns, dating back to the 1370s. With added stanzas by Luther himself and a melody he reworked in 1524 with his cantor and arranger, Johann Walther, it is traditionaly sung at the big festival service Christmas morning in Germany. The YouTube file above is from a performance by the Bachchor Siegen and Bachorchester [Bach orchestra] Siegen, conducted by Ulrich Stötzel in Seigen, a city in Rhine-Westphalia.

I didn’t grow up Lutheran, but I heard it on 10- and 12-inch LP records in settings by Bach, Praetorius and Samuel Scheidt on the “hi fi” in our living room. And later I learned my father’s family may be descended from Walther, who included Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (praise to you, Jesus Christ), as the hymn is known in German, in his collection Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn (a spiritual song booklet) in 1524. It’s not so much a hymnal as a series of three- to five-part settings of chorale melodies. Think of it as lead sheets for the contemporary worship service at the castle church in Wittenberg.

I’ve never been able to trace our ancestry back farther than a Caspar Walther who was born in Schleswig-Holstein in 1763 and emigrated to Norway as a young man. But if my grandmother in her apartment off 4th Avenue in Brooklyn kept alive the family lore that we were descended from Martin Luther’s song writer, that’s good enough for me. She married a pastor of the old Norwegian Synod, my grandfather, whose father and grandfather had been musicians at the cathedral in Bergen. He conducted the Norwegian-language sermons, and I am told he chanted with a lovely tenor voice. So I guess you could say this stuff runs in the family. If nothing else, the interest does.

At any rate, I enjoy the idea of my great-great-great- (insert nine or 10 “greats” here) -great-uncle Johannes working on lead sheets with Martin Luther before choir practice at the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg.

Maybe they weren’t calling them lead sheets, but Luther and Walther were certainly doing the contemporary worship music of their day. In their notes on Aryeh Oron’s Bach Cantata Website at http://www.bach-cantatas.com/CM/Gelobet-seist-du.htm, Oron, Thomas Braatz and Ian Hammond suggest:

When this chorale appeared in print in 1524, it, as well as many others, certainly must have first appeared as broadsheets before they were incorporated in the first collections of chorales, specifically in Johann Walter’s choir hymnal and the Erfurt Enchiridien. If we can suspect that Luther completed these chorales at the same time when he prepared sermons based specifically on certain points of the liturgical year, then it is quite possible that this chorale was written out, printed out on a broadsheet and distributed in time for one of his sermons during Advent or Christmas of 1523 under the title Ain Deütsch hymnus oder lobsang auff Weyhenacht (a German hymn or praise song for Chrisstmas.

OK, OK, that’s all pretty wonkish. But it gives me a sense of how it all must have begun, with people in parish ministry at Wittenberg working with the old melodies and making all things new again.

Here’s a lovely interpretation of Bach’s cantata Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ by the Evangelische Kirchenchor [evangelical church choir] Steinheim an der Murr, a small town in Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany:

Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ – Choralgesänge – Johann Sebastian Bach

2 thoughts on ““All Praise to You, Eternal Lord,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther and a family story about his first songbook — ADVENT #6

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