Updated: Dec 17, 2020
German: Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben
Text: Johan Olearius (1611-1684). Tune: Louis Bourgeois (1510-1559) French Psalter 1551 Psalm 42; Freu dich sehr harmonized by Claude Goudimel (1514-1572)
1. Comfort, comfort ye my people, Speak ye peace, thus saith our God; Comfort those who sit in darkness, Mourning 'neath their sorrow's load. Speak ye to Jerusalem Of the peace that waits for them; Tell her that her sins I cover, And her warfare now is over.
2. Yea, her sins our God will pardon, Blotting out each dark misdeed; All that well deserved his anger He no more will see or heed. She hath suffered many a day, Now her griefs have passed away; God will change her pining sadness Into ever-springing gladness.
3. For the herald's voice is crying In the desert far and near, Bidding all men to repentance, Since the kingdom now is here. O that warning cry obey! Now prepare for God a way; Let the valleys rise to meet him, And the hills bow down to greet him.
4. Make ye straight what long was crooked, Make the rougher places plain; Let your hearts be true and humble, As befits his holy reign. For the glory of the Lord Now o'er earth is shed abroad; And all flesh shall see the token That his word is never broken. Tr. Catherine Winkworth
MEDITATION This Advent hymn, used most often for the Second Sunday in Advent, is a close paraphrase of Isaiah 40:1-5. Olearius wrote it to be sung on John The Baptist day, June 24--so Bach used it in his Cantata BWV 30 for that day. While there are some reflections from the hymn writer in the text, it is mainly a paraphrase. The writer was a German Lutheran, but in the paraphrase and the tune from the French psalter, one can read a lot of history. Lutherans and Calvinists had gone to war theologically and actually about many things. A marker of a Calvinist to German Lutherans was the paraphrasing of the psalms. When Ambrosius Lobwasser (1515-1585) of Königsberg, a Lutheran who admired the French Psalter tunes from Geneva, prepared, in 1573,
a version of the French psalter for Germans he was viewed as something of a heretic by Lutherans. A Professor of Jurisprudence in Königsberg, he had trained in Berry, France where he came to love the French tunes. German Lutherans condemned his work because he had used the French texts of Beza and Marot, in order to keep the meters of the tunes, as his source rather than the Hebrew originals. He finished his work on the hymns during a quarantine in his town for the plague. German Calvinists loved the work of Lobwasser and sang his works for generations.
Olearius lived a century after Lobwasser. He, along with other Germans, had absorbed Lobwasser's notions--and knew the French tunes through him. So this hymn with its French origins became a staple German hymn. The tune is used for several favorite Lutheran hymns from Lutheran lands, On my Heart Imprint thine Image, for one.
Another interesting tidbit is that in the same way that the Lutherans changed their rhythmic tunes to isometric quarter notes, influenced by Bach, the French psalter musicians also did the same. If you look at American Lutheran hymns down through time, you can see the change and the restorations back to rhythmic forms.
One of the glories of the tradition of singing praise to God is that Christians from around the world can sing a hymn, fight about it, and then make it their own. Jesus came into the life of Mary and Joseph as one of their own, spoke their language, sang their songs, and submitted to all the customs of the Jewish faith--so that all the world would be saved. Now everyone around the world can join together in their own songs glad to sing God's praise. Even in places hostile to the faith, Christmas carols are playing as people shop for Christmas gifts. The universality of Christmas! Its glory!
HYMN INFO Olearius was a major force in German Lutheran hymnody. He had a distinguished career as a professor at the University of Wittenberg which he attended as a student. He was appointed Chaplain in the Saxon court and wrote a commentary on all of the Bible; he translated into German The Imitation of Christ, the devotional classic by Thomas à Kempis. He wrote many other devotional pieces of his own. He spent his last years during the Pietistic revival in Germany which one can sense in his works. He is mostly known for his massive collection of hymns Geistliche Singe-kunst (1671-1673) which contained over 1300 hymns. Among them this one. The book was praised for its scholarship and editing of normally long texts into much shorter ones.
The tune, known also as Freu dich sehr from the French Psalter of 1551, is by Bourgeois, harmonized by Claude Goudimel (1514-1572). Bougeois was Calvin's colleague and friend, working with him in Strasbourg and Geneva. He had to cool his heels in prison one night for messing with the arrangements in the older psalter. Calvin got him out! Goudimel converted to Protestantism in 1557 and worked with the Huguenots. Some think he was martyred in the St. Bartholomew's Massacre in 1572, but cannot prove it. Bach used the tune and text several times in his cantatas and preludes.
LINKS Lincoln, Nebraska choir/ lively version—captures the rhythm https://youtu.be/V2wKFZBYUjg
Cathedral Church of the Advent https://youtu.be/GGURM_EVT8M
Holy Comforter Church choir/John Ferguson's arrangement of the hymn https://youtu.be/PBfDujy9-X0
Bach's setting of the third stanza in his Cantata BWV 30 Freu dich sehr
Handel's Messiah begins with these wonderful selections directly from Isaiah 40