Updated: Aug 4, 2020
German: Stille, mein Wille, dein Jesu hilft siegen
Text: Catharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel (1697-ca. 1797) Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
1. Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side; Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; Leave to your God to order and provide; In ev'ry change he faithful will remain. Be still, my soul: your best, your heav'nly Friend Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
2. Be still, my soul: your God will undertake To guide the future as he has the past. Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake; All now mysterious shall be bright at last. Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.
3. Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, And all is darkened in the vale of tears, Then shall you better know his love, his heart, Who comes to soothe your sorrow and your fears. Be still, my soul: your Jesus can repay From his own fullness all he takes away.
4. Be still, my soul: the hour is hast'ning on When we shall be forever with the Lord, When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone, Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored. Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Tr. Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)
The place still reeked of cigar smoke. The chair where the composer sat, to his right a room with a grand piano. This was Ainola, the home of Aino and Jean Sibelius, in Järvanpää, Finland. Set in the woods with a view of Lake Tuulsulanjärvi, it was about thirty some kilometers from Helsinki. He and his wife had lived there since 1904, some years after the premier of his great composition, Finlandia. The house was beautifully situated, but primitive; not until after he died could his beloved wife install indoor plumbing.
Finlandia, Sibelius' great patriotic composition, emerged from the nationalistic movement among Finns in the last half of the 1800s. Sibelius had grown up immersed in Lutheran piety-- his grandfather was a Lutheran pastor--and Finnish nationalism. This was the time of the great poets and writers who forged Finland’s nationalist identity, Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877), Zachris Topelius (1818-1898) and Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), the compiler of the Finnish epic, Kalevala. Sibelius set many of Runeberg’s texts and breathed in Topelius’ genial poetry and novels about Finland.
Finlandia was part of a group of pieces on the history of Finland. From his childhood, Sibelius knew the power of the Lutheran hymn and made a hymn like tune central to this composition. Around it, he painted an aural picture of Finland at the time, beginning with the sound like a railroad engine making its way from Helsinki to St. Petersburg stopping in his home town, Häminleena, where the Russian Army had a garrison. At its first performance, with no choir, and thus no text to divide between Swedes and Finns, just music, the Finnish people seemed to experience an awakening. As Glenda Dawn Goss, one of his biographers says, the piece gave Finns a "shared sense of place, history and Lutheran values." The patriotic text would not be added until 1941 when Sibelius made it a stand alone piece.
Catharina von Schlegel, the author of the text, "Be Still, My Soul," was a Lutheran woman from the early 18th century, living in a Lutheran female convent for unmarried women, or Frauleinshaus, in Köthen, Anhalt, in Saxony-Anhalt, the city where Bach worked for a short time. In fact, she was his contemporary.
Schlegel was born not long after the Pietist movement began and was raised in its greatest period. This text, a sermon to the singer’s soul needing comfort in a time of trouble, breathes the confidence of faith. Translated into English, it became associated with Finlandia which has remained the tune since 1927. It could be that the meter was among the few that could be found to fit it.
The melody, taken out of its rather turbulent context in the orchestral piece, is serene and confident. You will hear that in the choral renditions of it.
As I have noted before, there is a long tradition of psalms and hymns that use this kind of conversation—the voice to the soul—talking to oneself. We are probably doing that now as much as we ever have. We can tell ourselves to be calm, to relax, to breathe more deeply, but that conversation needs something from outside us to be convincing. Reading this hymn aloud, hearing how an old woman who lived a very long life comforted herself with truths from Holy Scripture, can be salutary. We hear echoes of the Word in every stanza. "When turmoil roils the seas of sorrow and trouble in our souls,"--Schlegel here recalls the words of Jesus calming the storms--“Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know/His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.” The Psalmist, as does Schlegel, knows that we need to remind ourselves of what God has done in the past to have the faith he will do so again. The waves and winds know this; so should we.
HYMN INFO Jane Laurie Borthwick, a worthy contemporary of Catherine Winkworth, translated many German hymns into English. Born in Scotland to a wealthy owner of an insurance company, she and her sister, Sarah Borthwick Findlater,(1823-1907) had studied German while on a study tour in Switzerland and were urged to translate German hymns. The two supported many charitable works and the mission of the Free Church of Scotland in Singapore and the Moravian mission in Labrador. This translation appeared in their book Hymns from the Land of Luther, 1853. "Be Still, My Soul" was first associated with Finlandia in the Scottish Church Hymnary of 1927 and then the Presbyterian Hymnal of 1933. By then it was being used for texts in hymnals of every kind in the English language. It appeared in the Concordia 1932 as the tune for the Te Deum, "Thee, God we Bless." Perhaps a prejudice against using national hymns for other texts meant the tune did not appear in the SBH 1958, although Schlegel's text did to another tune. The fifth stanza is not used.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Eclipse 6 men’s acapella https://youtu.be/kqKVFYD8Obc
Choir and Congregation, First Plymouth Church in Lincoln https://youtu.be/uAT6PWayxCI
Hear Finlandia with orchestra and choir
Sibelius’ Finlandia at the Proms/BBC orchestra choir https://youtu.be/fE0RbPsC9uE
Finlandia at the opening of the new concert hall in Helsinki https://youtu.be/qOSaT6U4e-8