German Hymn-Writers of the 1600s
Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann,
Paul Gerhardt, Joachim Neander

One of the great treasures of the Christian church is its hymns, and one of the greatest contributions to that treasure is that of the early Lutheran writers, beginning with Martin Luther and reaching a peak with J.S.Bach. On 26 October, the Lutheran church remembers three outstanding hymn-writers from Germany in the 1600's. Since that date is already taken on my Calendar, I here place them on 24 October.

Philipp Nicolai, hymnwriter 26 October 1608

Philipp Nicolai was born in 1556 in Germany, son of a Lutheran pastor. He studied theology at the universities of Erfurt and Wittenberg, 1575-1579, and became a pastor himself. It was a time of religious wars in Europe, and several times he had to flee or go into hiding and minister to his congregations secretly in house meetings. He was a theological writer, defending Lutheran theology chiefly against Calvinistic opponents. He also preached with great power and effectiveness. In 1588 he became pastor at Altwildungen, in 1596 he became pastor at Unna in Westphalia, and in 1601 pastor in Hamburg. But he is remembered today for writing two hymns.

While he was pastor in Westphalia, the plague took 1300 of his parishioners, mostly in the latter half of 1597, 170 in one week. To comfort his parishioners, he wrote a series of meditations which he called Freudenspiegel (Mirror of Joy), and to this he appended two hymns, both of which have become world-famous.

The first hymn was, "Wake, awake, for night is flying" (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme). It uses the image of the watchman on a city wall (Isaiah 52:8), and of the Parable of the Bridesmaids welcoming the Bridegroom to the Marriage Feast (Matthew 25:1-13), and of the Song of Triumph in Heaven (Revelation 19:6-9). It is a favorite Advent hymn.

The second hymn was, "How bright appears the morning star" (Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern). This also, with a wealth of imagery, hails Christ as our deliverer, and celebrates his triumph. It has become a favorite wedding hymn, but is also sung for Advent, for Christmas, for Epiphany, and and as a general hymn of praise.

Nicolai wrote both the words and the tunes, but the arrangements we know are due to Bach. The earliest English translations are those of Catherine Winkworth, but there have been many translations since, some of them (especially for the second hymn) content to reproduce the general spirit of the original words rather than their specific meaning. In addition, several hymnwriters have set their own words (in various languages) to one of Nicolai's tunes. If pure quality, without respect to quantity, were our criterion, Nicolai would have to be ranked as history's greatest chorale-writer, and one of its greatest hymn-writers.

Nicolai died 26 October 1608 after a brief (four-day) illness.

Johann Heermann, hymnwriter 17 February 1647

Johann Heermann was born in Silesia in Germany in 1585, the fifth and only surviving child of his parents. As a child he suffered a severe illness, and his mother vowed that if he lived he would be trained for the ministry. He became a minister, and taught at the university, but was forced to stop in 1607 because of an eye infection. In 1611 he became deacon and then pastor of the Lutheran church in the small town of Koeben near his birthplace. The Thirty Years' War was then in progress, and Koeben was burned in 1616, plundered four times between 1629 and 1634, and ravaged by pestilence in 1631. Heermann several times was forced to flee, narrowly excaping death and losing all his possessions. In 1634 a throat problem forced him to stop preaching, and he retired in 1638 and died in 1647.

During the preceding century, during and immediately following the Lutheran Reformation, most Lutheran hymns had been "objective," affirming the doctrines of the faith, but not explicitly stating an emotional response. Heermann's hymns move toward the expression of the feelings of the believer.

His best-known hymn (in English circles) is "Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?" (Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen), a chorale used by Bach in the St Matthew Passion. It is loosely based on a Latin verse (beginning "Quid commisisti, dulcissime puer, ut sic judicareris?"), variously attributed to Augustine and to Anselm, but now to Jean de Fecamp (d. 1078). The tune, by Johann Crueger, is perhaps indebted to Psalm 23 of the Geneva Psalter.

Other hymns of his include:

"O gracious God above, true fount of joy unending" or "O God, my faithful God" (O Gott, du frommer Gott);

"Oh, what precious balm and healing, Jesus, in thy wounds I find" (based on a Latin hymn of Bernard of Clairvaux);

"O Christ, our true and only Light, Illumine those who sit in night" or "O Christ, our Light, our Radiance true";

"Lord, thy death and passion give Strength and comfort at my need" (based on a Latin hymn of Bernard of Clairvaux);

"Lord, grant thy servants grace" (an ordination hymn);

"Praise God, this hour of sorrow Shall bring a brighter morrow" (a funeral hymn).

Paul Gerhardt, hymnwriter 7 June 1676

Paul (Paulus) Gerhardt was born in 1607 near Wittenberg in Germany, and studied theology at the University of Wittenberg from 1628 to 1642. In 1651 he was ordained and made pastor of a church in Brandenburg, near Berlin. In 1657 he became third assistant at St Nicholas Church in Berlin. In his sermons, he maintained the Lutheran position against the Calvinists. He refused to sign a pledge not to bring theological argument into his sermons, and was deposed by Frederick William of Brandenberg-Prussia in 1666. His wife and four of his children died. In 1669 he was made archdeacon of Luebben, and died there 7 June 1676.

Despite personal suffering and the horrors of the Thirty Years War, Gerhardt wrote over 130 hymns, expressing both orthodox doctrines and emotional warmth in response to them. His work, like that of Heerman cited above, is counted by hymnologists as transitional between the Confessional and the Pietistic periods of Lutheran hymnody. He has been called he greatest of Lutheran hymn-writers. (Note that when we say "hymns," we are talking about words. The composing of hymn-tunes is another matter.)

His hymns include the following:

"O sacred head, sore wounded" (O Haupt voll Blut), a translation of the Latin "Salve caput cruentatum," attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux. This hymn, known as the Passion Chorale, is used with great effectiveness by Bach in the St Matthew Passion, where eleven stanzas of it are interspersed through the account of the Passion of Christ, all sung to the same tune, but with different arrangements suited to the words of the different stanzas and to the contexts in which they appear. It is one of the best-known and best-loved of Good Friday hymns.

"Awake, my heart, and render" (Wach auf mein Herz, und singe), a morning hymn.

"The duteous day now closeth" or "Now all the woods are sleeping" or "Now rest beneath night's shadow" (Nun ruhen alle Waelder), an evening hymn.

"All my heart this night rejoices" or "Once again my heart rejoices" (Froehlich soll mein Herze springen), a Christmas or Nativity hymn.

"Commit thou all that grieves thee" (Befiehl du deine Wege), often sung to the same tune as the Passion Chorale. It is a hymn about trust in God in time of trouble, and is based on a poem of Martin Luther which in turn is a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 37 ("Fret not yourself because of the evil-doer.... Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.")

"O how shall I receive thee" or "How shall I fitly meet thee" or "O Lord, how shall I meet you" (Valet will ich dir geben), a hymn welcoming the newborn Christ, used during Advent and Christmas, and in Bach's Christmas Oratorio.

"Awake, my heart, with gladness, See what today is done" (Auf, auf, mein Herz), an Easter hymn;

"Evening and morning, sunset and dawning";

"Jesus, thy boundless love to me" (translated by John Wesley);

"Since Jesus is my friend, and I to him belong";

"Put thou thy trust in God, in duty's path go on";

"A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth" or "A Lamb goes forth, our griefs to share", a Good Friday hymn;

"Blest is he that never walketh", a paraphrase of Psalm 1;

"If God Himself be for me, I may a host defy" (Ist Gott fuer mich);

"Emmanuel, we sing thy praise", a Christmas hymn;

"Holy Spirit, source of gladness! Come with all thy radiance bright";

"O enter, Lord, Thy temple, be Thou my spirit's Guest";

"O draw me, Saviour, after Thee! So shall I run and never tire", tr. J. Wesley;

"Give to the winds thy fears", tr. J. Wesley;

"A pilgrim and a stranger, I journey here below";

"I will sing to my Creator, Unto God I'll render praise";

"I'll praise thee with my heart and tongue, O Lord my soul's delight";

The hymn "Awake, my heart, and render," mentioned above, is often sung to a tune by a pupil of Melanchthon, Nicolaus Selnecker (1528-1592), Lutheran professor of theology at Leipzig, co-drafter of the Lutheran creedal statement called the Formula of Concord, who wrote words and music for many hymns. This particular tune is a hemiole (or hemiola): that is, it has alternate 6/8 and 3/4 rhythm. (A well-known modern example is the song "America" from the musical "West Side Story.") Thus, the first stanza is:

  Awake, my heart, and render     c - | c - B A - c | d - c -
  to God, thy sure Defender,      c - | c - d B - G | c - B -
  thy Maker and Preserver,        B - | c - c d - e | d - d -
  a song of love and fervor.      e - | f - e d - c | d - c -
The hemiola form is traditional in Latin America, in Africa, in Germany, and Finland, and elsewhere (The old Finnish Koraalikirja is full of hemiolas. Query: what are the German, Finnish, and Swedish names for the form?)

Joachim Neander, hymnwriter1680

To these Lutheran hymnwriters, we may add a Calvinist, Joachim Neander, born in Bremen in 1650. After a rowdy life as an undergraduate, he underwent conversion and amendment. He became a schoolteacher, then undertook a life of solitary meditation. There is a cave named for him near Mettman-am-Rhein, which he perhaps used as his hermitage, until his death at the age of thirty. He is accounted the principal Calvinist poet in Germany, but only a few of his hymns are known in English. The best-known is "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation" (Lobe den Herren, den maechtigen Koenig der Ehren!), based on Psalms 150 and 103:1-6.

Neander was originally surnamed Neumann (New man). However, like many others of his time (such as Martin Luther's colleague Philip Schwartzerd, whose name means "black earth," and who changed it to "Melanchthon," which means the same thing in Greek), he adopted a Greek surname with the same meaning (NE- meaning "new" as in "neo-Marxist" or whatever, and ANDER meaning "man" as in "android, polyandry, andrology," and so on. In Greek, ANTHROPOS means "man (gender-inclusive)" while ANER, ANDR- means "man (gender-specific)". Thus, "anthropology" is the study of humans in general, while "andrology" is the medical study of the male body, just as "gynecology" is cencerned with the female body. The respective equivalents in Latin are HOMO, HOMIN- (gender-inclusive) and VIR (gender-specific). In English, "man" does double-duty for both. Some feminists are trying to substitute "person" for "man" in all gender-inclusive uses, but this is awkward, because the gender-inclusive meaning is the primary one for "man". I have thought of reviving "were" (pronounced "weer") as in "werewolf" and "weregeld" for the gender-specific meaning, but am not optimistic about the chances of success.). When Joachim Neander went to live in a cave by a river, the river came to be named for him as the Neander River, and the valley of that river was called the Neander Valley, or Neander Dale. The German word for "dale" is "thal" (the "th" is pronounced much like English "t"), and so the valley and general region is the Neanderthal. It is here that remains were first found of an early European population that have accordingly come to be called Neanderthal Man.

Prayer (traditional language)

Almighty God, who through thy holy Apostle hast taught us to praise thee in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs: We give thee thanks this day for the gift of writing great hymns which thou didst give to thy servants Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, Paul Gerhardt, and Joachim Neander; and we pray that thy Church may never lack those with the gifts of writing words and music to thy praise, and may be ever filled with the desire to praise and thank thee for thy great goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever.
Prayer (contemporary language)
Almighty God, who through your holy Apostle have taught us to praise you in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs: We give you thanks this day for the gift of writing great hymns which you gave to your servants Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, Paul Gerhardt, and Joachim Neander; and we pray that your Church may never lack those with the gifts of writing words and music to your praise, and may be ever filled with the desire to praise and thank you for your great goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.