Music Notes | Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

This Sunday Our Lord delivers the third of three instructions in the Gospel of Mark upon the identity of the Christ and upon discipleship, as part of which he foretells his own self-sacrifice. This is paired with the bulk of the fourth ‘song of the [suffering] servant’ from Isaiah 53 – ‘surely he has borne our infirmities…’ – that is otherwise heard on Good Friday, and with Psalm 91, which in this case is applied to Christ. The portion from the Epistle to the Hebrews – though the Epistles form their own lectionary series not explicitly related to the Gospel series – also speaks of Christ’s own High Priestly (self)-sacrifice. 

‘Hail, thou once despisèd Jesus’ [495] (which was last sung on the 5th Sunday in Lent, when this same passage from Hebrews was read) treats Christ’s sacrifice in exalted, hopeful, and lovely terms: Christ is the ‘universal Savior’ ‘by almighty love anointed’; through his work ‘opened is the gate of heaven, reconciled are we with God’; 

There for sinners thou art pleading;

there thou dost our place prepare;

ever for us interceding,

till in glory we appear.

This hymn is set to a traditional Dutch tune, ‘In Babilone’, first printed in 1710 in a collection of ‘peasant songs and country dances’; its ‘notey’ character, with many passing-tones; its AABA form; and its implied use of conventional tonal harmony make it simliar to various English traditional songs which also found their way into our hymn-tune repertory through the work of composer and hymnal editor Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Our Communion hymn, ‘Let thy Blood in mercy poured’ [313], is also often sung on the 5th Sunday in Lent, as it focuses so specifically on Christ’s Passion. Its intensely personal tone and its pairing with a classic chorale from 17th-century Germany (in which time and place this kind of text was very popular) makes it something of a surprise to learn that the original text which inspired it came from the Eastern Church (the source was not identified by the writer of the English text, John Brownlie) and that it was published in 1907. 

The composer of the music, Jan Krygaŕ (Johann Crüger, who was of Sorbian origin), wrote many fine tunes which also benefitted from his association with some of the most prominent and beloved hymn-writers of 17th-century Germany; many of the classic pairings of these texts and tunes appeared in the very large and very popular hymnal which Crüger edited, Praxis Pietatis Melica, which continued to be reprinted and updated for nearly a hundred years after its appearance in 1644. In our Hymnal, the music for ‘Ah, holy Jesus! How hast thou offended’ [158], ‘Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness’ [339], ‘Now thank we all our God’ [396], ‘Jesus, all my gladness’ [701], and others also come from Crüger’s pen. 

The present tune, written for ‘Jesus, meine Zuversicht’ (‘Jesus, my confidence’, the work of Louise Henriette, Princess of Brandenburg), demonstrates many typical features of Crüger’s work: the first strain is adapted from a much older chorale, ‘Gott der Vater, wohn uns bei’ (also the source for the tune we call ‘Ratisbon’ [7; see the notes for Lent 4, 2021-03-14]); the tune is in AAB, or ‘bar’-form, an old German poetic-musical form; there are few large leaps and no very complicated rhythms (though there are two dotted rhythms and some metrical ambiguities in its original form), which characteristics show the influence of the Genevan Psalter, with which Crüger was familiar because the Court of Brandenburg was Reformed in its religion. This tune is also heard in three settings for organ: a short but rich prelude by 19th-century composer Carl Piutti, and two 18th-century pieces by Johann Walther and Georg Andreas Sorge, both presenting the melody more or less unadorned, accompanied by two or three other voices in chamber-music style.

Verses of Psalm 91, the appointed Gradual Psalm as previously mentioned, are also heard in a duet by modern American Lutheran composer Donald Busarow. This limpid setting also quotes a German chorale, ‘Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan’ (What God does is well done), a song of trust in God’s providence, in an interlude and in combination with the vocal line.

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