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Music of the Month: Preludes on Five Hymns of Martin Luther

Bret A. Heim has crafted new settings based on five of Martin Luther's hymns:  GOTT DER VATER, WOHN UNS BEI; JESUS CHRISTUS, UNSER HEILAND; a cantilena and toccata on NUN BITTEN WIR; NUN FREUT EUCH; and a delightful triptych on NUN KOMM, DER HEIDEN HEILAND. These attractive settings will be a wonderful addition to the organist’s library.

GOTT DER VATER, WOHN UNS BEI

The hymn “Triune God, Be Thou Our Stay” (Lutheran Service Book 505) was one of many hymns Martin Luther (1483–1546) based on pre-Reformation texts. He called these hymns gebessert, or “improved.” In this case, the early version of the hymn was addressed to St. Peter or St. Mary. This is a portion of the version addressed to Mary:

Holy Mary, stay with us,

and do not let us perish.

Free us from all sins.

And if we should die,

defend us from the devil;

help us, chaste Virgin Mary

to join the lovely angel host.

It isn’t difficult to see with a post-Reformation lens the theologically dubious claims that caught Luther’s attention in this hymn. The most obvious Reformation-era change to the hymn is that it is now addressed to the Holy Trinity: God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. However, much of the hymn reads similar to the original version:

 Triune God, be Thou our stay;

O let us perish never!

Cleanse us from our sins, we pray,

And grant us life forever.

Keep us from the evil one;

Uphold our faith most holy,

And let us trust Thee solely

With humble hearts and lowly.

Let us put God’s armor on,

With all true Christians running

Our heav’nly race and shunning

The devil’s wiles and cunning.

Amen, amen! This be done;

So sing we, “Alleluia!”

JESUS CHRISTUS, UNSER HEILAND

The hymn “Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Savior” (Lutheran Service Book 627) was another hymn Luther translated and updated from an earlier version. This time, the original text was written by John Hus (1369–1415), a Bohemian reformer who predated Luther by a century.

Luther translated and updated this hymn during Lent and Holy Week in 1524, when he was preaching on the Lord’s Supper and studying the Bohemian’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Luther titled his revisions Das lied S. Johannes Hus gebessert (“The hymn of St. John Hus, improved”).

Luther’s revised and improved hymn quickly became a staple in the Lutheran Church’s hymnody on the Lord’s Supper.

NUN BITTEN WIR 

The hymn “To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray” (Lutheran Service Book 768) predated Luther with its first stanza, and in typical Luther fashion, he added what we now know as stanzas 2 through 4. A hallmark of this hymn is that each stanza ends with the words of the Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy!”

This was a common feature of hymns in the Middle Ages, and they even have a name: Leise hymns. These Leise hymns always ended with Kyrieleis, a contraction of Kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy”).

Many of Luther’s hymns follow this model: “Triune God, Be Thou Our Stay” (LSB 505), “These Are the Holy Ten Commands” (LSB 581), “O Lord, We Praise Thee” (LSB 617), and “In the Very Midst of Life” (LSB 755).

Sometimes an Alleluia replaces the Kyrie at the end of each stanza. This can be found in Luther's festival hymns: the Christmas hymn “We Praise You, Jesus, at Your Birth” (LSB 382), the Easter hymn “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (LSB 458), the Pentecost Hymn “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” (LSB 497), and the hymn for the Holy Trinity “Triune God, Be Thou Our Stay” (LSB 505).

NUN FREUT EUCH 

Of all of Luther’s hymns, perhaps “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (Lutheran Service Book 556) most clearly sets forth the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. This hymn is unique in that it also takes the structure of a narrative.

The narrative begins with Luther’s invitation to us: “Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice…” (stanza 1). It then turns to Luther’s first-person view of being dead to sin yet alive to Christ: “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay…” (stanzas 2–4). The hymn then turns to God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ: “God said to His beloved Son: ‘It’s time to have compassion…’ ” (stanzas 5–6). The hymn concludes with God addressing us: “To me He said: ‘Stay close to Me…’” (stanzas 7-10).  

NUN KOMM, DER HEIDEN HEILAND 

The hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come” (Lutheran Service Book 332) was another that Luther translated and updated. Whereas many of Luther’s revisions had their genesis in the Middle Ages, “Savior of the Nations, Come” is attributed to Ambrose of Milan (340–397).

The hymns Ambrose, the “Father of Latin hymnody,” wrote were intended to be sung by the people. Perhaps Luther was attracted to this early Latin hymn because of its simple style that was conducive to congregational singing.

This hymn is synonymous with Advent, but that was a classification made first by Luther. Before Luther’s time, the hymn had been prescribed for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.


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Written by

Nathan Grime

Nathan Grime is from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a 2020 graduate of Hillsdale College, where he studied rhetoric, public address, and journalism. Currently, Nathan is the organist and Kantor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Hillsdale, Michigan.

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