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Today I stumbled across a YouTube post I expect to spend a lot of time with, even though it features music that’s not exactly on the charts today — and it’s a pretty wonky thing to curl up with for light summer reading. It’s an audio file of songs from Johann Walther’s Eyn Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn (little spiritual song book), best known as Walther’s — and Martin Luther’s — first Wittenberg chorale book or hymnal with harmony settings for choir. First published in 1524, it contains 32 songs, including 24 by Luther, and it went through several editions in the next 20 years.

Also available online: A brief description and song directory of the 1524 edition, with links to MIDI files and YouTube videos (where available) in the The Free Lutheran Chorale-Book compiled by Christopher J. Neuendorf, pastor of Holy Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa.

“The collection,” says Wikipedia (with slight exaggeration) of the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein, to give it its modern German spelling, “has been called the root of all Protestant song music.”

I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. Equally important, I think, is Luther’s Achtliederbuch (book of eight songs), which came out in Nürnberg in 1523. But the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein was the first collection of Lutheran chorales arranged for choir. Walther, who was the kantor or choir director for Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, was a friend of Luther’s and edited the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein.

“These songs have been set in four parts,” said Luther himself in a foreword, “for no other reason than because I wished to provide our young people (who both will and ought to be instructed in music and other sciences) with something by which they might rid themselves of amorous and carnal songs, and so apply themselves to what is good with pleasure, as becometh the young.”

Luther’s foreword in itself makes the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein worthy of notice. But I have another reason.

According to a story handed down in my family, we are descended from Johann Walther. I’m not sure of the exactly relationship, but by my calculation he would be roughly my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle. (I’ve blogged about the family connection before, HERE and HERE, toward the bottom of the post.) I’ve only been able to trace our forebears back to a Johan Caspar Walther, born in 1764, who emigrated from Schleswig-Holstein to Norway. That’s about as far north from Wittenberg as you can get and still be in Germany, and a detail about the YouTube videos got me thinking. The performance is by the early music group Weser-Renaissance Bremen, and Bremen isn’t that far from Schleswig-Holstein. Debi and I once took a commuter train from Bremen to Hamburg; we changed trains, and we were in Copenhagen that afternoon. Might there be a connection?

It’s fun to think about, anyway, and just having the story in the family is a lovely bit of heritage.

Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle Johann, as I like to think of him, is probably best remembered as a musician and an educator. His biographer, Walter E. Buszin, flatly says he “was not a great composer” but he laid the foundation for Lutheran hymnody and thus paved the way musically for composers like Praetorius and Bach who followed him.

When he collaborated with Luther on the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein, Walther was still a court musician for Frederick the Wise. The following year Frederick died, and his successor John the Steadfast decided (in modern terms) to cut the courtly music budget. Walther found himself out of a job, and Luther helped him land as position as town kantor in nearby Torgau. There he established a school for young singers, and, again, methods would serve as a model for other ecclesiastical town schools including St. Thomas in Leipzig where Bach would teach 200 years later.

“The change made in Torgau proved to be of the utmost importance in the development of Lutheran church music, and it would perhaps not be amiss to state that the decision made by John the Steadfast proved to be a blessing in disguise,” says Buszin.

Most of the songs in the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein are relatively unknown today, although some do come up in Christmas recitals. (“A Mighty Fortress is our God,” Walther’s best-known work, came later.)

Nun freut euch, Lieben Christen G’mein (Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice). Emily Marie Solomon, who wrote her master’s thesis on the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein, notes that it’s relatively unchanged from the Achliederbuch, where it first appeared, perhaps in homage to Luther’s first printed songbook. The setting in Gesangbüchlein is very simple, and follows Luther’s original melody closely.

  • An instrumental version by the Festival Consort of northern California, linked to Pastor Neuendorf’s page beneath an English translation.
  • “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” from the Concordia Publishing House collection Martin Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth.
  • A choral performance in German at St. Sebald in Nürnberg for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Posted March 6, 2022, by YouTube user Miguel Velázquez, with this blurb:

Johann Walter, also known as Johann Walther or Johannes Walter (original name: Johann Blankenmüller) (1496 – 25 March 1570) was a Lutheran composer and poet during the Reformation period.

Sections (numbering follows Velázquez’ note in YouTube):

  • No. 1, Nu bitten wir den heiligen geist 
  • No. 2, Kom heiliger geist, Herre Gott 
  • No. 3, Mitten wir im leben sind 
  • No. 4, Aus tiefer not schrei ich zu dir 
  • No. 5, Gott sei gelobet und gebenedeiet 
  • No. 8, Ach Gott vom himmel sieh darein 
  • No. 9, Christ lag in Todesbanden 
  • No. 13, Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott 
  • No. 23, Jesus Christus unser Heiland 
  • No. 27, Mit fried und freud ich far dahin 
  • No. 29, Herr Christ, der einig Gotts son 
  • No. 35, Wir gleuben al an einen Gott

Performers:

  • Solo Soloist, David Erler
  • Solo Soloist, Mirko Ludwig
  • Solo Soloist, Hermann Oswald
  • Solo Soloist, Ulfried Staber
  • Conductor, Manfred Cordes
  • Chamber, Bremen Weser-Renaissance

Painting on YouTube: Hans Holbein the Younger – The Last Supper.

Further Reading

Christopher J. Neuendorf,  The Free Lutheran Chorale-Book https://www.lutheranchoralebook.com/sources/geystliche-gesangk-buchleyn/.

Emily Marie Solomon, Tunes, Textures, and Trends: The Transformation of Johann Walther’s Geistliches Gesangbüchlein (1524, 1525, 1537, 1544, 1551)” Master’s thesis, Western Michigan University, 2014 https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/masters_theses/.

Jonathan A. Swett, “‘Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice’ (A Text and Tune Hymn Analysis),” LutheranReformation.org, Sept. 19, 2016 https://lutheranreformation.org/history/dear-christians-one-rejoice-text-tune-hymn-analysis/.

[Published June xxx]

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