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Jesus, Priceless Treasure

LORD OF LIFE LUTHERAN CHURCH

Music Notes

12 July, 2015

 

“Jesus, Priceless Treasure.” This hymn is one of the most significant in the corpus of Lutheran chorales. Although much can be said about the text writer Johann Franck (1618-1677) and the composer Johann Crüger (1598-1662), today we shall skip the biographical intricacies of these two men in favour of a closer look at the text and its overall form.

            Unlike the “objective” character of the Reformation chorales, which prefer to avoid overt emotionalism, Franck’s text makes no such claim. We consider the evocative first stanza, “Jesus, priceless treasure, fount of purest pleasure, truest friend to me, ah, how long in anguish shall my spirit languish, yearning, Lord, for Thee? Thou art mine, O Lamb divine! I will suffer naught to hide Thee; naught I ask beside Thee.” These English words, given to us through Miss Winkworth, induce certain emotions—“pleasure,” “anguish,” “languish,” “yearning.” These are not stale words. Interestingly, the initial phrase is quite a bit different in German:Jesu, meine Freude, meines Herzens Weide, Jesu, meine Zier, which is literally, “Jesus, my joy, my heart’s pasture, my treasure.” Winkworth has given the word “treasure” prominence in the first phrase, tied to the word “fount,” with its water implications. The cleansing power of water is manifest through the flood and fulfilled in the New Testament through baptism, with St John writing in Rev. 22: 17: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Jesus, then, is the water of life for which we yearn as though suffering from a great thirst. But why call Jesus Weide, a pasture? Indeed, this word can also mean “to graze” or “to feed,” for in the German Bible we can read in John 15: 21, “Spricht Jesus zu ihm: Weide meine Schafe!” In English, “Jesus speaks to him: Feed my sheep.” This is not the word essen, which suggests a meal, or fressen, which suggests devouring as an animal might do. Rather, it is a metaphorical use which suggests a “feeding of one’s soul,” which would perfectly explain its use for Jesus’ words as well as in this hymn. There may be sacramental implications here, but there are manifold metaphorical ways in which one’s soul can be fed.

         The second and third stanzas are anything but monochromatic. I envision them as a William Blake painting! “In Thine arms I rest me; foes who would molest me cannot reach me here. Though the earth be shaking, ev’ry heart be quaking, Jesus calms my fear. Lightnings flash and thunders crash; yet, though sin and hell assail me, Jesus will not fail me.” Perhaps, when composing this text, Franck had in mind the Thirty Years’ War which began the year of his birth and which ravaged Europe until 1648. One cannot believe in a metaphorical hell or Satan in order to understand fully this text as he continues by addressing Satan (is this the first time Satan has been addressed directly in hymnody?): “Satan, I defy thee; Death, I now decry thee, fear, I bid thee cease. World, thou shalt not harm me nor thy threats alarm me while I sing of peace. God’s great power guards ev’ry hour; earth and all its depths adore Him, silent bow before Him.” In the original German, this stanza makes more sense: Trotz dem alten Drachen, trotz dem Todesrachen, trotz der Furcht dazu! Three times does the writer defy (literally, “in spite”) three objects of scorn: the “old dragon,” the “vengeance of death” and “fear.” One is reminded of the surety of stating something three times which, in ancient times, at least in writing, indicated the grave importance of that being said. Consider Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, or the angels’ tripartite cry of “holy, holy, holy” (Is. 6:3) or the warning found in Rev. 8: 12, “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth. . .” So, too, do we “spite” the devil, death and fear!

            The fourth stanza reiterates, “Hence, all earthly treasure! Jesus is my pleasure, Jesus is my choice. Hence, all empty glory! Naught to me thy story told with tempting voice. Pain or loss or shame or cross, shall not from my Savior move me since He deigns to love me.” The word “treasure” here, referring ironically to the offerings of the world, is Schätzen (the connotation here is of gold, silver, and that ever-elusive pirate’s treasure) as opposed to the word for “treasure” in the first stanza when addressing Jesus; there, Zier means a thing of beauty or wonderment. The fifth stanza bids the world farewell: “Evil world, I leave thee; thou canst not deceive me, thine appeal is vain. Sin that once did blind me, get thee far behind me, come not forth again. Past thy hour, O pride and pow’r; sinful life, thy bonds I sever, leave thee now forever.” Again, Franck uses a threefold formula for bidding farewell to the world, sin, and pride and power. In the German, each of these is bid "Gute Nacht," or "good night." As masterful as Miss Winkworth's translations are, the original German seems (to me at least) softer and more hopeful than the English. We bid "good night" with the expectation that we shall rise again. Nonetheless, this doesn't quite come across in English. This was a time during which death was more present and less sterile. Babies died more often than they lived. Depending on which source one consults, life expectancy during the Thirty Years’ War was within the 30s. Consider this: our modern sensibilities would look aghast at anyone, for example, who put a representation of a skull and bones on a headstone—or anywhere in a cemetery for that matter. Our funeral homes are made to look domestic, the sites of our death pleasant. Such was not the case in earlier times—not only did carvings and pictures of skulls and bones adorn places of death (and churches), but also can be found frequently in the frontispieces of theological treatises and Gesangbücher. The same sensibilities that causes us to find these practices morbid will have to be overcome in order to understand the longing for death that this stanza evinces.

The final stanza again reminds us of the source of our joy and salvation: “Hence, all fear and sadness! For the Lord of gladness, Jesus enters in. Those who love the Father, though the storms may gather, still have peace within. Yea, whate’er I here must bear, Thou art still my purest pleasure, Jesus, priceless treasure.” In the original, “Lord of gladness” is Freudenmeister, or “master of joy”! Amidst the verbiage about sin, death, and hell, this joyful title--the German language allows for some great creativity in making up words—stands in stark and pleasant contrast. It is Jesus—which, interestingly, is a more informal and personal way to address the Second Person of the Trinity than is “Christ”—who provides, peace, rest and security, and is truly our “joy.” To reiterate this gospel theme, the final stanza ends with the same phrase with which the hymn begins, “Jesu, meine Freude.”

 

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O Christ Our True and Only Light

LORD OF LIFE LUTHERAN CHURCH

Music Notes

5 July, 2015

 

“O Christ, Our True and Only Light.” These days, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East has caught our attention. The rampant destruction of ancient holy sites and the forced and threatened conversions of Christians to Islam should be of concern to all Christians. Persecution for the sake of the Gospel is nothing new to the Church, and one can even argue that its most fruitful eras were those during which Christians experienced the harshest of persecution. The author of this hymn text, Johann Heermann (1585-1647), was no stranger to hardship, having lived much of his adult life under the shadow of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a conflict that brought destruction to much of Europe and particularly to Silesia, that narrow region nestled amidst Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, and which for centuries was bandied about between whatever principality was in power at the moment. Heermann was a Lutheran pastor, having accepted his first pastorate in 1611. However, he would soon be troubled with health problems. From improper overuse his eyes were weak, and an affliction of the throat after 1623 forced him to cease public preaching. Several times Heermann lost all his possessions to the war, his first wife died in 1617, and several times he was forced to evacuate his home.[1] 

Heermann bears a reputation, along with Paul Gerhardt, as being one of the hymn writers who gradually moved the Lutheran chorale from the objective character of the Reformation chorale to a chorale of a more personal and introspective nature. Hymns set exclusively in first person—something generally eschewed by the Reformation writers—would become commonplace. In this hymn, however, Heermann observes much restrain as he sets his prayer to words, asking, “O Christ, our true and only light, enlighten those who sit in night; let those afar now hear Your voice and in Your fold with us rejoice.” The scripture references in LSB cite Isaiah 60: 1-3, that traditional Advent text, “‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’” This idea of light, suggested by Christ Himself in John 8 when he proclaims “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” is a thread which weaves through this text. The contrast between the peaceful years of his early life and the war-ravaged years of his adulthood must have ingrained themselves into Heermann’s being. Having witnessed the horrors of war, it would have been difficult for him to hold a high view of human nature, so he continues to pray:

 

Fill with the radiance of Your grace the souls now lost in error’s maze; enlighten those whose inmost minds some dark delusion haunts and blinds.

O gently call those gone astray that they may find the saving way! Let ev’ry conscience sore oppressed in You find peace and heavenly rest.

Shine on the darkened and the cold; recall the wand’rers to Your fold. Unite those who walk apart; confirm the weak and doubting heart,

That they with us may evermore such grace with wond’ring thanks adore and endless praise to You be giv’n by all Your Church in earth and heaven.

 

            This hymn was first published in Devoti Musica Cordis (“Music of a Devout Heart”) in 1630 in the section entitled “In the time of the persecution and distress of pious Christians.”[3] Hymnals of this time often seemed to try to outdo each other in terms of flowery titles, but do reveal a renewed interest on “heart-felt” faith vs. “mere” head knowledge. (Of course, this is oversimplifying an idea which was already a caricature of orthodox hymnody, but that is an exploration for another time.) In this text Heermann clearly delineates the fact that there is right and wrong/good and evil in the world. This bears pointing out especially in our time when such absolutes are often rationalized away in favour of the meaninglessly relative. It is a bit discomforting these days to think of people as having “gone astray,” being “lost in error’s maze,” suffering from minds in which “some dark delusion haunts and blinds.” We certainly don’t like to call people “darkened and cold,” nor refer to them as “wanderers.” (Although that reminds me of a parable or two of Christ’s.) These uncomfortable words can be applied to our friends, family, neighbours, and to ourselves, and are in a sense confessional,although in this hymn-prayer we pray more for the light of God’s word to lighten our heart’s darkness rather than any sins in particular. In essence, this hymn assumes a fairly low epistemology—ie., what we can know is limited to what God chooses to reveal to us.

            In all of Heermann’s biographies that I have consulted (and unfortunately my Koch volume III, which contains Heermann's, is missing), only Winkworth relates this story of Heermann and his son: In 1638, his eldest son had become taken with Roman Catholic dogma and was under the influence of the Jesuits. After much prayer and (I’d imagine) dogmatic rhetorical intervention, his son was convinced to remain in the Lutheran Church, only to die shortly thereafter in 1643. (A death which Winkworth suggests may have been due to poisoning by the Jesuits—a rather fantastic tale that will need some historical support in order for me to believe its veracity.) This hymn was published a good eight years before this event, but it is not hard to believe that Heermann would have used its words—his own words—when praying for his son.

Evil things happen to all parties during wartime, and here is to be lamented that any non-belligerents were involved. To quote Lazarus Spengler in his chorale, “All mankind fell in Adam’s fall; one common sin infects us all.” Catholic and Protestant alike have “sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3: 23) That evil exists and is manifest through persecution should only be of surprise to those whose worldview suggests that humanity is inherently good. For the rest of us, we can take refuge in the Gospel also in the words of Spengler:

As by one man all mankind fell and, born to sin, was doomed to hell,

So by one Man, who took our place, we all were justified by grace.         

 

[1] See John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), p 504, for the basic biographical information that has provided the basis for most of the hymnal companion biographies of Heermann. Note that Julian relies heavily on Koch’sGeschichte des Kirchenlieds.

[2] Catherine Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany. (New York: MacMillan, 1869), p. 195-196. One should note that Winworth’s sources, according to her preface, are Wackernagel’s Das Deutsche Kirchenlied and the aforementioned Koch.

[3] Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship. Marilyn Stulken, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 423. To see this hymnal in its entirety in digital form, visit  http://digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werkansicht/?PPN=PPN688378110&PHYSID=PHYS_0009&USE=800

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