2014-09-14 Notes from the Bench

“Now Thank We All Our God” (Nun danket alle Gott) 

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

Sometimes referred to as the “German Te Deum,” today’s recessional hymn is a well-known hymn of thanksgiving that transcends all nation, language, and denominational boundaries. The original text of this hymn was written by Martin Rinckart (1586-1649), an archdeacon in Eilenburg, Saxony, in 1630 for his children to sing during table-grace. Rinckart’s hymn was first published in 1636 in his Jesu Herz-Büchlein. Johann Crüger (1598-1662) later composed the melody we now associate with this text and published it in his Praxis Pietatis Melica in 1647. Catherine Winkworth wrote the English translation we are now familiar with, which was first published in her Lyra Germanica, Second Series in 1858. This hymn has been the basis of numerous organ chorale settings written during the Baroque period (1600-1750) and during the twentieth century. It is the basis for one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas in addition to being included as a chorale movement within his other cantatas, and was adapted as the second movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s second symphony.




Today’s postlude is a setting of Nun danket alle Gott written by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933), a German composer, best-known for his keyboard works, who wrote for the organ, piano and harmonium. Karg-Elert’s compositional style is late-Romantic with elements of Impressionism and Expressionism encountered. His music often pushes the boundaries of traditional harmony without unraveling into complete atonality.

Karg-Elert received his earliest music education in Leipzig where he initially received instruction in piano and was later granted a three-year scholarship to study composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. Following his studies at the Conservatory, he moved to Magdeburg in 1901, where he taught piano. He returned to Leipzig a year later to devote his work to composition and was later appointed an instructor of music theory and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1919. Encouraged by the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, Karg-Elert initially began writing for piano. Carl Simon, a music publisher in Berlin, introduced Karg-Elert to the harmonium, or reed organ; a self-contained keyboard instrument that was often used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in small churches or private residences where a pipe organ was not available. Karg-Elert enjoyed writing for the harmonium and composed an extensive catalogue of works for the instrument, many of which have been adapted for performance on the organ. His first original compositions for the organ are his 66 Chorale Improvisations, Op. 65 which were completed in 1909, and includes the well-known Now Thank We All Our God heard today. Subtitled “Marche triomphale,” the chorale melody that is the basis for this work is not clearly stated, but rather fragments of it are woven into a dramatic fantasy-like and improvisatory piece.


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