2016-01-10 Notes from the Bench

“Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” by Johann Crüger and Johann Sebastian Bach

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


Our recessional 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 setting for the 9:00 and 11:00 am services was written by Bach and is from his Leipzig Chorales, also referred to as his “Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes.” The works of this collection are large-scale chorale preludes composed in a variety of styles. Many people consider these chorales settings as the pinnacle of Bach’s organ chorale writing. The chorales contained within this collection span the liturgical year, beginning and ending with chorales related to Pentecost. In Bach’s setting of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, he ornaments the chorale melody and alternates its phrases with dance-like ritornello sections to create a serene meditation on the rite of communion.



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