It was the custom in the Catholic church, in the earliest times, for the congregation to take a direct part in the singing during the service; to it belonged the doxologies, the Amens, the Kyries and the hymns. At the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the seventh, however, this privilege of the faithful, which had been secured by Ambrose, was taken from them by the Gregorian reform, which substituted the singing of the priests for that of the congregation.
In Germany, however, this reform was not adopted in its entirety. The people still preserved a few of their privileges, especially in the Easter service, when they joined in the Kyrie and the Alleluia. The result was that it became the custom to insert German verses among the lines of the liturgy in these places. In this way the German sacred song gained admission into the religious service under cover of the Kyrie and the Alleluia. Throughout a long period of time these ejaculations formed the obbligato verse-ending to every hymn sung in the church. Hence these songs were called "Kirleisen" (i. e. Kyrie songs.).
The oldest Easter-hymn dates back as far as the twelfth century. It runs thus :
Christ ist erstanden
Von der Marter alle.
Des sollen wir alle froh sein,
Christ soll unser Trost sein,
Halleluja, Halleluja, Halleluja.
Des sollen wir alle froh sein,
Christ soll unser Trost sein,
The Mystery Plays that had such a vogue in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries also helped the German hymn to conquer the church. The mixed Latin-German Christmas cradle-songs have a quite uncommon charm. The poetry of them is of the most primitive kind imaginable. The words are put together less with regard to the sense than to the sound and the rocking rhythm; yet the bright Christmas enchantment that surrounds them affects us no less than it did the generations that have vanished.
In Bach's organ chorales there are two of these old Christmas songs :
In dulci jubilo,(V, Nr. 35.)
Nun singet und seid froh.
Unsers Herzens Wonne
Liegt in praesepio,
Und leuchtet als die Sonne
Matris in gremio.
Alpha et O, Alpha et O.
Puer natus in Bethlehem,
Unde gaudet Jerusalem,
Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem,
Des freuet sich Jerusalem.
Cognovit bos et asinus,
Quod Puer erat Dominus,
Das Ochslein und das Eselein,
Erkannten Gott den Herren sein,
Halleluja, Halleluja. (V, Nr. 46.)
In time, translated Latin hymns came to be admitted into German sacred poetry; the Credo, the Pater noster, the ten commandments, the Seven Last Words, and various Psalms, in metrical paraphrases, were also incorporated in it.
When the Reformation of the sixteenth century threw the doors of the churches open to German poetry, it was under no necessity to set to work to compose appropriate hymns, but could choose what suited it from the treasures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Luther, with that wonderful artistic feeling for diction that even Nietzsche had to acknowledge in him, undertook to revise the old possessions for the new Church, and to alter and improve them as might be required. At the same time he himself continued the work of the Middle Ages by re-fashioning Latin hymns, psalms, liturgical chants and biblical fragments into hymns for the German service.
The German Reformation had this advantage over the French, that it found a spiritual song already existing in the popular tongue, and therefore a ground upon which it could build; but its great good fortune was that it possessed, in Luther, a man who would not permit the old wood to be cut down, recognizing with sure prescience that the new song must grow up in the shade of the old. On the other hand the sacred folk-song withered away in the Romanesque countries, because it had no root in the Middle Ages, and had to exist as best it could upon the Psalter, as it does to the present day.
At the first glance it may seem incomprehensible that Calvin, by making the Psalter the hymn-book of the people, should from the very beginning condemn his church to infertility. He obeyed the instinct of the Romanesque spirit, and pronounced the judgment that was decreed on the French Reformation even before it came into being. Later on, German chorales and English hymns were borrowed to be added to the Psalter.
The first German hymn-book, the so-called Erfurt Enchiridion, appeared in 1524, and was probably compiled by Luther's friend Justus Jonas. It was issued simultaneously, curiously enough, by Trutebulsch at the imprimerie of the Dyeing Tub, and in Maler's imprimerie of the Black Horn. The sole surviving copy of the Maler issue was destroyed by fire in 1870 at the bombardment of Straßburg. Fortunately it had been reproduced in facsimile in 1848. The Trutebulsch hymn-book has been recently brought out in a new edition.
In accordance with the practice of the time, this first hymn-book was shamelessly pirated everywhere, among other places at Nuremberg, where the printer Hans Hergott so zealously pirated Luther's writings from the very beginning that Luther, on the 26th September 1525, had to petition the town-council "to forbid the Hergötlein to pirate".
Among the twenty-six songs of the Erfurt Enchiridion are eight German translations of psalms, including "Aus tieffer not schrey ich zu dir", a series of hymns done into German, the two mediæval Easter hymns "Christ lag yn todes banden" and "Jhesus Christ unser Heyland, der den Tod überwand", the old hymn upon the ten commandments, three hymns by Paul Speratus, including the well-known "Es ist das Heil uns kommen her", and some of Luther's hymns, including the "New lied von den zween Mertererern Christi zu Brussel". "Ein feste Burg" does not appear in this hymn-book.
Besides Luther and Paul Speratus (1484-1551) there may also be mentioned, as the earliest writers of sacred poems, Nikolaus Decius (died in 1541) and Nikolaus Selnecker (1530-1592). The last hymn-book to appear in Luther's life-time was published in 1545 in Leipzig by Valentin Babst; this, in its numerous reprints and pirated editions, remained the standard for all evangelical hymnbooks until the end of the sixteenth century.
In Bach's organ chorales are found such of these oldest hymns as were also included in the later hymn-books (In the following list the Roman figures indicate the numbers of the volumes in the Peters Edition of Bach's organ works.):
A. Sacred Songs of the Middle Ages:
(1) Easter Hymns..
Christ ist erstanden (V, No. 4).
Christ lag in Todesbanden (V, No. 5; VI, Nos. 15 and 16; cantata BWV 4).
Jesus Christus unser Heiland, der den Tod (V, No. 32).
(2) Christmas Hymns.
In dulci jubilo (V, No. 35).
Puer natus in Bethlehem (V, No. 46).
(3) "Improvements" of mediaeval song-paraphrases.
Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund (The Seven Last Words. V, No. 9).
Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot (V, No. 12; VI, Nos. 19 and 20).
Vater unser im Himmelreich (V, Nos. 47 and 48; VII, Nos. 52 and 53).
Wir glauben all an einen Gott (VII, Nos. 60, 61 and 62).
(4) Hymns translated from the Latin.
Der Tag der ist so freudenreich (Dies est laetitiae. V, No. I I ).
Christum wir sollen loben schon (A solis ortus caV, Nos. 6 and 7).
Erstanden ist der heilge Christ (Surrexit Christus hodie. V, No. 14).
Herr Gott dich loben wir (Te Deum laudamus. VI, No. 26).
Komm Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist (Veni creator spiritus. VII, No. 35).
Komm heilger Geist, Herre Gott (Veni sancte spiritus. VII, Nos. 36 and 37).
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland ( Veni redemptor gentium. V, Nos. 42 and 43; VII, Nos. 45, 46 and 47; cantatas BWV 61 and BWV 62).
B. Hymns by Luther.
Jesus Christus unser Heiland, der den Zorn Gottes (Jesus Christus nostra salus; Hymn of John Huss, Passion hymn. VI, Nos. 30, 31, 32 and 33).
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (Grates nunc omnes reddamus; Christmas hymn. V, Nos. 17 and 18).
(2) Biblical paraphrases.
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (Psalm 130: De profundis. VI, Nos. 13 and 14 ; cantata BWV 38).
Ein feste Burg (Psalm 46. VI, No. 22; cantata BWV 80).
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (The Song of Simeon, Luke II. V, No. 41).
(3) Original Hymns.
Christ unser zum Jordan kam (Baptismal hymn. VI, Nos. 17 and 18; cantata BWV 7).
Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (V, No. 49, and pp. 92-101 ; VII, Nos. 54 and 55).
Vom Himmel kam der Engel schar (V, No. so).
C. Translations and Paraphrases from Various Authors.
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (Gloria in excelsis, by Nikolaus Decius, [died. 1541]. VI, Nos. 3-11).
Christe du Lamm Gottes (The Agnus Dei in its simple form. V, No. 3).
O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (The Agnus Dei expanded into three verses, by Nikolaus Decius. V, No. 44; VII, No. 48).
An Wasserflussen Babylon (Psalm 137, Super flumina, by Wolfgang Dachstein. VI, Nos. 12a and 12b).
Christ der du bist der helle Tag (Christe qui lux es et dies. V, pp. 60 ff., Partita).
In dich hab' ich gehoffet Herr (Psalm 31, In te Domine speravi, by Adam Reissner, [died. 1562]. VI, No. 34).
Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn (The Magnificat. VII, Nos. 41 and 42; cantata BWV 10).
Kyrie, Gott V ater (Kyrie fons bonitatis. VII, Nos. 39a and 40a). Christe, alle Welt Trost (Christe unite Dei Patris. VII, Nos. 39b and 40b).
Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist (Kyrie ignis divine. VII, Nos. 39c and 40c).
The really creative period of the hymn begins at the end of the sixteenth century. The whole of German poetry is impelled upon the religious path. While France, under a monarchy conscious of its own goal, is developing into a strong national state, in which there springs up a brilliant literature, fostered by an art-loving court, Germany is on the way to complete ruin. The nation as such disappears, and with it that national feeling without which no true literature is possible. When the country relapsed into barbarism during the Thirty Years' War, the only thing of the soul that survived was religion. In its bosom poetry took refuge. Thus Germany, in its bitterest need, created a religious poetry to which nothing in the world can compare, and before which even the splendour of the Psalter pales.
The hymns of that time are a mirror of contemporary events. When the plague ravages, in 1613, the eastern parts of Germany, Valerius Herberger sings his joyous dirge "Valet will ich dir geben, du arge falsche Welt" (VII. Nos. 50, 51); Martin Rinkart's (1586-1649) "Nun danket alle Gott" (VII. No. 43), is composed while the bells are ringing out the conclusion of peace in 1648.
These hymn-writers are by no means talents of the first order. Nevertheless the sincerity of devout feeling and the grave beauty of a diction formed by a constant reading of the Bible keep the average of the songs fairly high. Perhaps all these poets wrote too much. It happens, too, with the sacred poem as with the lyric: in one inspired song the poet, become for the moment a genius, will express magically what in other songs he could only stammer out. And this one song will live. Johann Rist (1607-1667) composed six hundred and fifty-eight songs; of these five or six survived in the hymn-books [We may mention also Paul Flemming (1609-1640), Johann Heermann (1585-1647), and Simon Dach (1605-1659)].
Among these hymn-writers were two mystics, - Philipp Nicolai (1556-1698) and Johann Franck (1618-1677). To these Bach felt himself particularly drawn, for they, like himself, were steeped in the atmosphere of the Song of Songs. He wrote a cantata on Nicolai's "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" (BWV 1), and another on his "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (BWV 140), also basing an organ chorale on the latter (VII. No. 57). He treated Franck's "Jesu meine Freude" in a motet and in two organ chorales (V. No. 31 and VI. No. 29). The communion hymn of the same poet, "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele", inspired him to a cantata (BWV 180) and to that splendid chorale fantasia (VII. No. 49) that sent Schumann into ecstasy when he heard Mendelssohn play it on the organ.
But even in that epoch there are premonitions of decline. Subjectivity of feeling and a didactic point of view invade religious poetry, and deprive it of that naive, simple objectivity that alone can create true congregational songs for the church service. At the commencement of the period of decay, when feeling and diction are already becoming super-subtilised, there appears on the scene, as if to check the decline, the king of hymn-writers, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). His actions show that he was an adherent of the Lutheran scholastic, that brought about the real Reformation with such startling rapidity. The reformed Electoral Prince Friedrich Wilhelm had required the Berlin preachers to sign a declaration by which they pledged themselves, for the sake of peace, to treat with moderation the doctrinal differences between the Reformed and the Lutheran churches. Paul Gerhardt, in spite of friendly advances from the Prince, could not be induced either to sign the declaration or to make a verbal promise, and consequently had to relinquish his office. The gentle-hearted man, it is true, had never employed in the pulpit the violent kind of polemic to which the Electoral Prince wanted to put an end; he regarded, however, the promise that was demanded of him as a sort of treachery to the faith of his fathers. Of his hundred and twenty hymns, more than twenty have found a place in the hymn-books. They breathe a vigorous, simple piety, and are expressed in a popular diction of excellent quality. Even in the life-time of the poet some of them came into use in the church, while in Bach's time many had become public property. Bach was an admirer of Gerhardt, and repeatedly employed verses from his hymns in his cantatas. In the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) he makes use of five verses from "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" and one from "Befiehl du deine Wege". The really creative period of the church song, however, had come to an end by Bach's time. Pietism did indeed produce some spiritual poetry; but for Bach's work, so far as the chorale strophes are concerned, this is of little importance. He seized upon the copious treasures of the past that lay to his hand in the hymn-books. The following figures will give an idea of the increase of the riches at his disposal: the little Erfurt hymn-book of 1524 contained twenty-six songs; that of Babst, in the first edition, a hundred and one; Crüger's (that was in use in Berlin for almost a century), in its first edition (1640) two hundred and fifty, and in its forty-fourth edition (1736) thirteen hundred; the Lüneburg (1686), two thousand; the Leipzig (1697) over five thousand.
We know from the inventory that has been preserved that the eight volumes of the Leipzig hymn-book were in the possession of Bach. What became of the volumes, the leaves of which he must so often have turned over, is not known.
It was unfortunate for Bach's work that the old chorale took so prominent a place in it; for this reason it was included in the censure which Rationalism, in the name of purified taste, pronounced upon the church hymn of the past. For the second half of the eighteenth century Bach's cantatas and Passions did not exist; they had gone into exile with the old church hymn. Only after the reaction instituted by Ernest Moritz Arndt (1769-1860), Max von Schenkendorf (1783-1817) and Philipp Spitta (1801-1859), against the neglect of the hymn-book, had once more brought the old poems into repute, were the conditions established under which a new epoch could again comprehend the old master and the piety that gave birth to his works. Thus it is no accident that it was the son of the poet of "Psalter and Harp" who made it his life-task to reveal Bach to the world.