Four odd (but mostly loveable) things about Lutheran hymns

A discussion with a friend earlier tonight got me thinking about ways in which Lutheran hymnody differs from Anglican. So as we live in an age of listicles, here are four features of Lutheran hymns that have always struck me (as an adult convert) as distinctive, three of which I have learned to love…

1. The metres can be rather strange

Anglican hymn metres (a measure of syllables per line) are usually pretty straightforward. The classic is “common metre”: Then there’s “short metre” ( and “long metre” ( These can be doubled up (“DCM”, “DSM”, “DLM”). You might also get, and so on.

Some Lutheran hymns have predictable metres, but with others, all bets are off. The Easter hymn “I am content! My Jesus ever lives” has a metre. Move forward to Pentecost, and “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” meanders around a pattern. Then there’s the Communion hymn, “O Lord, we praise thee”, an epic that causes even the Lutheran Service Book to throw up its hands and label it as “peculiar meter”:

2. The hymns can be really long 

As the examples above show, Lutheran hymns often have really long stanzas. You might think the writers would make up for it by only writing a few stanzas per hymn. Not so! In the older hymnals, it’s routine to see hymns with 9, 10, 12 or more stanzas, even where the stanzas are as long as those cited above.

In the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s first hymnal, the classic hymn “Salvation unto us has come” has 14 stanzas (each of metre). The video here spares us most of these:

The latest LCMS hymnal has reduced this down to 10 stanzas, and other hymns are even more drastically cut – a tendency lamented by ELCE pastor, Tapani Simojoki, in this post defending long hymns as a form of catechesis (and fondly recalling singing a 41-stanza hymn on one occasion).

The good thing about hymns of this length is that they can include some really solid material. The Kindle edition of Walther’s Hymnal is a fine (if regrettably pricey) resource for personal devotion, even if most congregations would riot if forced to sing some of the hymns in their entirety.

3. The hymn tunes can be quite bouncy, though 

The good news is that the hymns often keep you on your toes, reducing the chances of your nodding off midway through verse 18. Early Lutheran chorales often had very bouncy rhythms, many of which were later regularised to fit with changing fashions.

Everyone knows Luther’s hymn Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), but the original can come as a surprise to those familiar with its incarnation in Anglican hymnals:

To be honest, it’s the four-square, un-dotted version that strikes me as odd these days.

4. We sit down to sing them

This is the one I really can’t reconcile myself to. I’ve not been to many Lutheran churches – there aren’t many in this country to go to – but it seems pretty universal to sit down for most hymns: 

(Image via Duluth News Tribune.) 

It’s even in the rubrics in our service books, with a special symbol (△) indicating when people should stand for the final verse.

This probably makes sense when you’re singing a 27-stanza chorale. Speaking as my church’s organist, though, who sits at the front of the church to play, the impact on the quality of singing is enormous. When people stand for that final verse, or for the closing hymn, the difference in the sound is transformational. Now that we rarely sing more than five or six verses per hymn, I really don’t see what excuse we have for not standing. Hey ho…


St Patrick’s Breastplate – with added architectural history

As a treat for St Patrick’s Day, here’s the CBSO Chorus singing what one of the greatest hymns of all time: St Patrick’s Breastplate.

The video itself is put together rather better than many YouTube videos of this type, and features an interesting slideshow of interior and exterior photographs of St Patrick’s (RC) Cathedral in Armagh, including its original, pre-Vatican II configuration; a mercifully brief glimpse of its “brutal” reordering in 1982 (with an “altar” that looks like a cross between a radio antenna and a pagan fertility symbol); and its current, “re-interpreted and restored” ordering in 2003 under Cardinal Brady. The pictures of the “re-reordered” cathedral provide, perhaps, a visual depiction of “the reform of the reform” – even if the 2003 changes were not a return to the original High Altar shown earlier in the video.

The only disappointment with the music is that the CBSO Chorus don’t sing all nine verses. For those of you playing at home, however, the full version follows: Continue reading “St Patrick’s Breastplate – with added architectural history”

In Dulci Jubilo: from angels and Lutherans

Image: Wikipedia.

In Dulci Jubilo is one of my favourite Christmas carols – and also the best example of one of my favourite words, “macaronic”, meaning a hymn that combines Latin with a vernacular language.

This old article from Credenda Agenda provides some fascinating background on the carol, starting with its reported origins:

The origins of this carol are unknown, but one fourteenth-century writer reported that the angels sang it to the mystic Heinrich Suso (d. 1366), who, upon hearing the music, took up dancing with the angels. That’s one of the best how-I-thought-of-this-tune-stories that I have ever read. But it does give us insight into the writer’s estimation of the tune. How else could we get such delightful words and music? Six hundred fifty years later it continues to delight us.

The carol was originally written in Latin and German, and the earliest manuscript dates from 1400:

In dulci jubilo [In sweet jubilation]
Singet und sit vro. [Sing and be joyful.]
Aller unser wonne [All our delight]
Layt in presepio [Lies in the manger]
Sy leuchtet vor die sonne [He shines as the sun]
Matris in gremio [On his mother’s lap]
Qui alpha es et O. [You Who are Alpha and Omega.]

I love the earthy and concrete language of this: “Sing and be joyful” is so much more, well, joyful than “Let us our homage shew”.

The first printing of words and music together are found in a 1533 Lutheran hymnal, and had three verses: verses 1, 2 and 4 in our modern version. Our verse 3 appeared twelve years later, in 1545, in another Lutheran hymnal. This verse was probably written by Martin Luther, and at the very least it certainly reflects both his theology and his ability to express that theology in simple, direct but attractive words.

Here is Luther’s verse, in the Latin/German original. The square brackets give the English translation of the Latin lines, and J.M. Neale’s English version of the German lines:

O Patris caritas! [O love of the Father]
O Nati lenitas! [O gentleness of the Son]
Wir wären all verloren [Deeply were we stainèd]
Per nostra crimina; [Through our sins]
so hat er uns erworben [But Thou for us hast gainèd]
Coelorum gaudia. [The joy of heaven]
Eia wären wir da! [O that we were there!]

Which gives both us and the angels plenty to dance about!

Remembrance Sunday hymns

A couple of random (and not necessarily very Remembrance-y) thoughts from the Remembrance Sunday service at our local parish church this morning.

The opening hymn was Timothy Dudley-Smith’s great hymn Lord, for the years. It occurred to me that these lines are showing their age a bit in the Era of Austerity:

Lord, for our land in this our generation,
spirits oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care…

But these still seem pretty apposite:

Lord, for our world where men disown and doubt you,
loveless in strength, and comfortless in pain…

Then the third hymn was I vow to thee, my country. I have a very conflicted view of this hymn. Basically the problem is the first stanza, whose words are marvellously stirring but whose sentiments are, quite bluntly, obscene. But I reckon it’s rescued by the second stanza – and, of course, by Holst’s magnificent tune:

And hey: it’s better than O valiant hearts (which we were spared).

[Edit: for a strongly contrasting piece by Holst, rather more in tune with his own socialist views, see my post on his anthem “Turn back, O man”.]

The hymn we sang at the war memorial for the act of remembrance was O God, our help in ages past. Which is a flawless and imperishable treasure. So that was alright.

Our clear vocation

We almost sang this hymn at church yesterday (the number was listed in the bulletin, but sadly turned out to be a typo), but it’s a good one for a Monday morning. Words by one of my favourite modern hymn writers, Fred Pratt Green; tune, Repton (as in Dear Lord and Father of Mankind):

How clear is our vocation, Lord,
when once we heed your call:
to live according to your word,
and daily learn, refreshed, restored,
that you are Lord of all,
and will not let us fall.

But if, forgetful, we should find
your yoke is hard to bear;
if worldly pressures fray the mind
and love itself cannot unwind
its tangled skein of care:
our inward life repair.

We mark your saints, how they became
in hindrances more sure,
whose joyful virtues put to shame
the casual way we wear your name,
and by our faults obscure
your power to cleanse and cure.

In what you give us, Lord, to do,
together or alone,
in old routines or ventures new,
may we not cease to look for you,
the cross you hung upon,
all you endeavoured done.