2015-02-01 Notes from the Bench

“Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” by Gerald Near

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


The Gospel hymn for today is the much beloved Eucharistic hymn, “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness.” The original German text, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, was written by the German politician and poet Johann Franck (1618-1677) and expresses an intimate relationship between the individual believer and their faith in their Savior, Jesus Christ. Devotional poetry such as this that conveys an internalized piety was commonly written in the period immediately following the devastation of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The lovely chorale melody associated with this text was composed by the German-Lutheran theologian and musician, Johann Crüger (1598-1662). Schmücke dich, text and melody, first appeared in print in the collection Geistliche Kirchen Melodien (Church Clergy Melodies), published by Crüger in 1649 in Berlin, where he was teaching at the Berlinisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster, one of the most prestigious schools in Germany, and serving as cantor for the Nikolaikirche. This hymn with additional stanzas appeared in other German church-song collections, including Crüger’s fifth edition of Praxis Pietatis Melica (Practice of Piety in Song) printed in 1653, and Geistliches Sion (Holy Zion) published by Johann Franck in 1674. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) wrote two English translations of this text; the second version appeared in The Chorale Book for England, a collection of German chorales published by her in 1863 in London and utilizes a metric structure compatible with Crüger’s chorale melody. The version of this hymn as it appears in our hymnal is based on her translation and employs stanzas one, seven, and nine of the full text.


Numerous composers from the eighteenth century through the present day have written works based on Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele which include settings of the chorale melody for organ, choral arrangements, and most notably, “Cantata 180” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Today’s prelude is a setting written by Gerald Near (b. 1942) who is among the most prominent composers of church music living in the United States today. Near attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of Minnesota and studied with Leo Sowerby, Leslie Bassett, Robert Glasgow, Gustav Meier, Elizabeth Green, and Gustav Meier, Dominick Argento, and Thomas Lancaster. In 1982, Near was a recipient of the McKnight Foundation Fellowship, a Minnesota-based family foundation committed to the enhancement of community life and a supporter of the arts. Near has published choral music and works for organ, has received a number of commissions, and his music has been performed internationally. Among his organ works are settings of chorale and plainchant melodies that are well-suited for liturgical use, including the setting of Schmücke dich heard today. Near served as the organist and choirmaster, and subsequently Canon Precentor, for St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Dallas, and was the composer in residence for St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver. He is currently choir director and cantor at Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the director of the music publishing company, Aureole Editions.

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