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Let Our Gladness Have No End

“Let Our Gladness Have No End”  This hymn’s anonymous text and tune date from 1400s Bohemia.  Bohemia, an area in what is now the Czech Republic but which traditionally has been German-influenced, seems always to have fomented a certain type of ecclesiastic reformation, even before the time of Luther.  Jan Hus, an early reformer burned at the stake in 1415, advocated the “protestant” principle of the translation of scripture into the common language.  After his death, Hus’ followers (led by such colorful people as Ziska, Procopius the Less, and Procopius the Great!), demanded that they be able to receive both the host (bread) and the wine at communion.  (Roman Catholic tradition had withdrawn the wine from the laity.)  The Church, in the “Compacta of Prague,” agreed to this demand, but the seeds of Reformation had already been sown in this territory.  According to Newadvent.org, the Catholic online encyclopedia, this early Bohemian rebellion, along with gross corruption and wealth of the clergy, made it “easy for Protestantism to make advances.”   Indeed, religious sects continued to develop even after the Reformation.  The Bohemian Brethren (sometimes called “The Brethren” in the US) and the Moravians (who are related to the Mennonites and who have a historical presence on the US east coast) originate from this area.

            The term “Bohemian” is often used casually to refer to someone of loose manners or questionable morals.  For example, artists and musicians around fin de siecle Paris (particularly Montmartre) such as Monet, Satie, Debussy, would often gather and philosophize and criticize the strictures of church and government, and would long for the personal freedom to be rid of such “artificial” confines.  This pejorative term derives from the student movement in Prague centuries after the Reformation.  Yet, we can gather much about the character of the Bohemian people from the history of their quest for spiritual and political liberty.

            The fervency and energy with which some Bohemian Christians exercised their faith—even a hundred years before Luther--is certainly evident in this raucous, triple-meter tune.  Much like a modern praise chorus, this hymn uses only three major chords (F, C, Bb) with a few minor forays into other harmonies. This is a folk hymn—no one knows who composed it, but the average person gravitated to it and sang it because it was easy.  As with many folk hymns, rhythm is just as important as the melody.  The writer of music notes will attempt to play it on the organ with the rugged rhythm primarily in mind.  This simple hymn, unlike its commercially-driven contemporary counterpart, is honest.  It does not claim to be great or interesting music.  It seeks only to convey Christmas joy, and it is even theological.  Dealing with the incarnation, the first stanza notes that Christ did “descend,” and that “God gave us Christ, His Son, to save us.”  The third stanza alludes to the prologue of John’s gospel, “Into flesh is made the Word, Alleluia!  He, our refuge and our Lord.  Alleluia!”  These are profound theological concepts which this hymn does not even attempt to explain (for that we will need to sing “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”)  But, as a good last hymn of the service will do, it encapsulates these vast theological concepts so that, hopefully, our minds will be a little less “Bohemian” and a little more Christian as we go about our weekly tasks.

 

 

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

Comfort, Comfort

 

“Comfort, Comfort”  This hymn heralds the coming of Advent just as John the Baptist heralded the coming Christ.  Taken nearly verbatim from Isaiah 40: 1-5, this text urges us to “prepare the way for the Lord;  make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”  Let us speak first of the tune.

          The writer of music notes has heard this tune played many times slowly, lugubriously, and quite dully, as though every bit of life had been sucked out of both the music and the singers.  This tune, though, demands a different treatment. 

          The composer, Louis Bourgeois, was the chief musician for John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter of 1551, from which this tune came, originally set to Psalm 42.  Although Calvin is known for his austerity, for he advocated the singing of psalms only rather than “hymns of human composure,” this tune is dance-like, in the style of a Renaissance dance.  It alternates between duple and triple meter, and the tempo is anything but slow.  This morning our choirs sing the first three stanzas at their original tempo at which the Isaiah text comes alive.  We will slow a little when the congregation joins, but we hope not to lose the energy. 

          Bourgeois was entrusted with writing, selecting and arranging all the music for the Calvinist psalters, and he was highly regarded by the citizens of Geneva particularly for his teaching music and theology to children.  Like many church musicians, he was known to make “unauthorized” changes in the music occasionally, and the city council sent him to jail for a day in 1551 for such changes!

          The text comes from Johannes Olearius (1611-1684), written for St John the Baptist’s feast day on 24 June.  Olearius was born and raised in Halle, Germany, from whence many fine Lutheran hymnwriters hail, but studied in Wittenberg where he also served on the faculty of the university.  As a writer of poetry, he published Geistliche Singe-Kunst, published in the Lutheran city of Leipzig in 1671.  Notice the rich biblical imagery in this hymn—it is taken directly from Isaiah 40 but never directly mentions Christ (who is never mentioned in Isaiah, of course.)  However, it is clear through the editorially-capitalized “Him” to whom this hymn is addressed, and for whom we prepare.  This is a hymn of preparation.  It does not tell us all we need to know of the Christian faith, just as John the Baptist did not tell the “full story” of Christ—John merely prepared the way so that Christ could reveal Himself fully.  The Advent season consistently anticipates the Incarnation, but Advent is still clearly rooted in the Old Testament in which the Hebrews do not know the full truth of the Messiah.  We moderns do know the rest of the story, so we seem to want to skip Advent and sing those beloved Christmas carols right away.  There is nothing wrong with that, but there is also much advantage to hearing these Old Testament messianic prophecies so prevalent in our lectionary throughout Advent.   For in so doing, and in trying to recreate the anticipation of those ancient Hebrews, we ourselves can appreciate more fully the gift that was Christ’s Incarnation.  

 

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

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