Intertwining: A Chorale Melody, Geography, and Horrific History

by Tom Leeseberg-Lange

As we contemplate the tenth anniversary of the worst attack by an enemy on American soil, it is fascinating and hopefully instructive to consider some history involving the human behaviors of religion, commerce, war, as well as the healing salve of music.

In 1626, the commercial interests of the Protestant Dutch West
India Company in the New World were advanced by the purchase of the island of Manhattan from the Canarsees Indian tribe who lived in what is now Brooklyn. For reasons unknown, the native Manhattan tribe, the Wecquaesgeeks, were left out of the transaction.

Fifteen years later, the slightly older Dutch East India Trading Company (the world’s first megacorporation) allied with the Muslim Sultan of Jahore to take by bloody force the coveted strategic port city of Malacca in Malaysia. The valuable commodity of that pre-petroleum era was spices, particularly cinnamon. The Dutch prevailed over the Portuguese Catholics with 7000 people reportedly slaughtered in that final battle for commercial supremacy in that region. The year was 1641.

Johann Schop

That same year a chorale melody was composed by famed German violinist/organist, Johann Schop of Hamburg (ca. 1590–1667), which we know as WERDE MUNTER, MEIN GEMÜTE* (Be alert, my soul).

Fast forward to 1723 when the newly installed Kantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig finished and directed an expanded version of Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life), now referred to as Cantata 147, a work he began perhaps as early as 1716 while at Weimar. This cantata is best known for part ten, the chorale Jesus bleibet meine Freude, one of the most celebrated arrangements in the history of music. Based on the Schop melody composed 82 years earlier, Bach added a lyrical countermelody, harmonized and orchestrated the piece to create what we know as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

As I was mulling my own music selections for September 11, I came across a recent recording by the New York piano sensation, Simone Dinnerstein (Simone has three syllables and –stein is pronounced –steen). Titled A Strange Beauty, Ms. Dinnerstein’s second release for Sony Records includes three Bach organ chorales transcribed for piano: Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” BWV 639; Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of “Nun freut euch”, BWV 734 (the melody we know as ES IST GEWISSLICH, The Day Is Surely Drawing Near), and the ubiquitous Jesu, Joy.

Her playing of “Ich ruf zu dir” is sublime. Dinnerstein, a Jewish artist, certainly plays to the heart of this fervent Christian prayer with astonishing sensitivity. “Nun freut euch” is performed with such incredible buoyancy and speed that it is like seeing leaves driven from autumn-colored trees by a formidable, unrelenting wind.

But for me the revelation was her performance of “Jesu, Joy”. Having played for an estimated 600+ weddings over

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the last 42 years, I’ve probably played this piece

599½ times and have lost some of my enthusiasm for it as a result. However, in Dinnerstein’s remarkable fingers,

- - - -

the piece became fresh again. Using Dame Myra Hess’s vaunted piano arrangement, a wholly (and holy) new perspective quickly unfolded for me. You see, Julia Myra Hess received her honorific

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in large part due to the fact she organized some 1700 lunchtime concerts

in Great Britain during World War II to sustain the morale of the people during protracted bombing by the Nazis. Day concerts were the only option because British concert halls were blacked out at night

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to avoid attracting German bombers. Surely she performed her famous 1926 transcription of “Jesu, Joy” at some of these concerts.

Perhaps this lovely melody was also played and performed to raise spirits before or during the retaliatory firebombing in 1943 of Hamburg, the professional home of the man who had composed WERDE MUNTER 302 years earlier. Or perhaps in Dresden two years later. Dresden was a city of little military or strategic importance that had become a hospital zone and safe haven for tens of thousands of refugees who were fleeing west to escape the wrath of Stalin. Instead the “good guys” rained apocalyptic hellfire down on that benign Baroque city and burned or incinerated tens of thousands of human beings starting late on Shrove Tuesday and continuing through Ash Wednesday 1945. Also destroyed were the iconic Frauenkirche (where Schop’s friend, Heinrich Schuetz, was buried) and its Gottfried Silbermann organ on which Bach played a concert a week after its 1736 dedication.

Clearly the capacity for barbarism and inhumanity is not the province of only one people or religion. We

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would be well served to commit to memory the familiar English text for “Jesu, Joy”, a poem by Robert Bridges [or Madeleine Forell Marshall’s recent AF rendering] that is not a translation of the original German text:

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.
Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
With the fire of life impassioned,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.
Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

Click here for more information about Simone Dinnerstein and her participation in ecumenical efforts to remember and mourn 9/11.

*WERDE MUNTER has passed out of usage in the German Protestant hymnals Evangelische Kirchengesangbuch, 1950 (EKG) and the newer Evangelische Gesangbuch, 1994 (EG). It is found in TLH, LBW, LW, and LSB. JESU, JOY is found in LBW and though it is a distinct melodic and rhythmic variant of the Schop tune, it is called WERDE MUNTER at ELW 501.

Posted on Sep 6, 2011 9:18:03 AM
Filed Under: Potpourri,

Tom Leeseberg-Lange

Written by Tom Leeseberg-Lange

Tom Leeseberg-Lange is in his 14th year as Director of Music Ministry at First Ev. Lutheran Church, Ellicott City, Maryland. Previously he served Lutheran congregations in Indiana and Missouri dating back to 1971. He followed Philip Gehring as editor of CrossAccent, the Journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians and served as ALCM Administrator from 1997-2007.