Our business there will be the unending Alleluia.
On Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: “How Lovely are Your Dwellings” (Psalm 84) by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
What then does heaven offer us? The possession of God, and the unceasing task of praising Him.
Our business there will be the unending Alleluia.
— John Mason Neale
From highly skilled Levitical musicians of old to living composers, the church has been setting the psalms to music for nearly 3,000 years. Within this vast treasury, musicians have provided many settings to be tasted, some to be chewed, and a few to be digested again and again. Please join me to discover why Psalm 84 (vss. 1–2, 4) by Johannes Brahms (from A German Requiem, Opus 45) is among the few.
The King at supper sits, the twelve as guests He greets;
Clasping Himself in His hands, the food Himself now eats.
— Ancient Eucharistic Hymn
Readers of this column might recall from the April 2021 issue (“Music Inspired by the Diet of Worms: Luther’s Favorite Composers”) that among Luther’s favorite composers was the Franco-Flemish master, Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440/45–1521), who died 500 years ago, the same year as the Diet of Worms. In honor of the quincentennial of his passing, this column will focus on his last published Mass, the Missa Pange Lingua.
For even Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us:
Therefore let us keep the feast . . . with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
— I Corinthians 5:7–8
The text of Martin Luther’s Easter hymn, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (please see the complete English text below) begins by echoing the words of St. Luke: “God raised [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). Christ’s resurrection conquered death and brought us life and salvation, fulfilling the promise of Isaiah that Jesus would “swallow up death forever” (Is. 25:8), and now evoking “loud songs of alleluia!” from God’s people. Stanza 2 describes the condemnation of the law and the consequences of sin and death: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Stanzas 3 and 4 shift the focus to the Christus Victor theme, proclaiming the good news that “[death’s] sting is lost forever.” In stanza 5, Luther treats the Passover narrative as uniquely Christian Scripture, proclaiming the good news that the church is safe from sin and eternal death because of the blood of the Passover Lamb. The last two stanzas invite the faithful to eat the Passover Lamb in the Easter feast, where Christ is “our meat and drink indeed.”
I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.
— Psalm 119:46
This month marks the 500th anniversary of the Diet of Worms, the imperial meeting where Luther was asked to recant his early Reformation writings, but chose instead to make the good confession of faith before Emperor Charles V, saying:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen. (Luther’s Works 32:112–13)
This anniversary pre-dates the first Lutheran hymn and hymnal by just a few years, but three works by three of Luther’s favorite composers are worth exploring on the Quincentennial of Luther’s speaking the truth of God’s Word in the public square, come what may.
Visit our dwellings, O Lord, and drive from them all the snares of the enemy
—Prayer for Compline
The chant now known to the English reader as the hymn “Before the Ending of the Day” (LSB 889) probably originated between the late fifth and seventh centuries. In liturgies ancient and modern it is generally prescribed as the office hymn for Compline, especially during the Trinity season. Not unlike the later Lutheran practice of assigning a hymn of the day to each Sunday and feast day in the church year, the monastic office generally prescribed an office hymn for each hour of daily prayer, such as “Now That the Daylight Fills the Sky” (LSB 870), which is usually assigned to Prime, the prayer office for the beginning of the day. “Before the Ending of the Day” is a perfect fit for Compline, the service at the completorium or completion of the day. It is not difficult to picture a group of monks congregating to close the day in prayer with the following Latin chant:
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
— Psalm 51:10
“We have now reached the Psalm of all Psalms; that which of all inspired compositions has, with the one exception of the Lord’s Prayer, been repeated oftenest by the Church.” Thus wrote John Mason Neale in his monumental, four-volume Commentary on the Psalms (II:181). These words about Psalm 51 also apply to the church as she approaches Ash Wednesday and prays in this Psalm that hearts broken through repentance might be restored through the joy of salvation.
Therefore do the Wise Men hasten with their offerings to the royal nuptials
where the guests are gladdened with water made wine, alleluia.
— Antiphon to the Benedictus
Cantata 65 was first performed in Leipzig on 6 January 1724, Bach’s first Epiphany in Leipzig, the end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of the festival of the manifestation of Christ. What was anticipated during Advent and fulfilled at Christmas is fully revealed as Christ is manifest to the Gentiles, as this cantata vividly depicts in its text, tune, and context.
I believe in . . . the life of the world to come.
Readers of “Lifted Voice” might be surprised to encounter a column on the sacred music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Although he was raised Roman Catholic, he was not much of a church goer in his adult life, and certainly not a composer primarily for the church. Nevertheless, his Solemn Mass in D Major or Missa Solemnis (Opus 123), is what conductor Robert Shaw, from whose writings and recordings I have borrowed here, described as “an Everest,” i.e., a musical mountain that begs to be climbed (Deep River: The Life and Music of Robert Shaw, p. 497). Those who have done so (the present writer included) have not emerged the same; indeed, they never fully descend from this majestic mountain, even years after the programs have been archived and the echo has faded. As the church contemplates the end times this November, concurrent with COVID-limited celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, please join me to survey Beethoven’s masterpiece, with special focus on his setting of the words “and the life of the world to come.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia
— Easter Acclamation
During my tenure at Naval Air Station Lemoore (central California), I had the privilege of participating in the annual Child Remembrance Ceremony, in recognition of October as Child Loss Month. As part the ceremony, those who had personally experienced the death of a child (in utero or otherwise) were kind enough to share their stories of grief and hope, followed by the lighting of votive candles in memory of those who have departed this world in the faith. In addition to these faith stories, I was privileged to share one piece of sacred music with the assembly, along with an appropriate hymn or prayer. Though I am no longer part of the Lemoore community, these wounded healers are forever in my heart for sharing their stories, which stand in vivid theological contrast to the current promulgation of abortion as a “reproductive health option.” In recognition of the reality of child loss, please join me to explore the work “When David Heard” by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), an appropriate hymn by St. Ephraim Syrus (ca. AD 306–373), and a simple funeral chant on the words Jesus spoke after the death of Lazarus.
Cantatas over Coffee: "Lord God, We All to Thee Give Praise": Cantata for St. Michael and All Angels (1724) by J. S. Bach
Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.
—Martin Luther’s Daily Prayer
Among the principal feasts of Christ in the church year, few are more beloved in the Lutheran tradition than St. Michael’s and All Angels (hereafter “Michaelmas”), with the possible exceptions of Reformation and All Saints. Two competing (or are they complementary?) theories might explain the choice of September 29th for this festival: the dedication of a church by the same name in ancient Europe, and/or the passing of the fall equinox, resulting in shorter days and longer nights, an allegory of the end-times battle between good and evil. The Scripture lessons were Revelation 12:7-12 (Michael’s end-times battle with the ancient dragon) and St. Matthew 18:1-11 (angels behold the face of God as part of their care for God’s children). In Bach’s Leipzig, St. Michael’s Day was also one of the quarterly occasions on which “rents were levied and agreed in northern Europe, the start of the new agricultural year for many people and, in Leipzig, the day of one of its three annual trade fairs” (John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, p. 457). Theologically, the day called for what Jonathan Green describes as “a flashy and brilliant cantata” (A Conductor’s Guide to the Choral-Orchestral Works of J. S. Bach, p. 289), but the other commitments of the day might explain why Cantata 130, while unmistakably festive, is also one of Bach’s shortest cantatas.
Pr Brian Hamer
Brian J. Hamer is Chaplain to Destroyer Squadron 23, Naval Base San Diego, via the LCMS Board for International Mission Services.
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