Although the composer of Sunday’s anthem, Dieterich Buxtehude, and the author and composer of the hymn and tune upon which it is based (Johann Franck and Johann Crüger, respectively) are important figures in church music, let us look instead at the female translators and writers featured Sunday, whose work is less often celebrated.
The Old Irish text ‘Rop tú mo baile’ (ca. 700–1000) was translated into English prose in 1905 by Mary Elizabeth Byrne, M.A., an Irish linguist, author, and journalist. In 1912 her text was made into a poem beginning ‘Be thou my vision’ by Eleanor Hull, a writer, journalist, and scholar of Old Irish. The poem, like ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ (Hymn 370), is a lorica (Latin for ‘breastplate’), a prayer recited for protection – a fact perhaps more apparent in Byrne’s version, which maintains the incantational feel of the original form. The hymn is set to a traditional Irish tune.
The text of Sunday’s anthem was translated by Catherine Winkworth, who more than anyone else opened the treasury of German hymnody to English speakers, publishing at least four collections of such translations. Nine of her texts are found in the Hymnal – though not, curiously, her version of the text in question, ‘Jesu, meine Freude’, for which another version (which – to say the least – has dated much less well) was chosen. Winkworth was also heavily involved in promoting and facilitating girls’ and women’s education in mid-19th-century England.
The success of ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ demonstrates the power of Scripture set to singable and memorable music. Its composer, Karen Lafferty, launched a ministry of contemporary Christian music and missions work with this song, whose text is taken from the Sermon on the Mount and sums up Christ’s instruction to be concerned, above all earthly needs, with things heavenly: a precept echoed, in devotional form, in the two hymns discussed above.