German: Schönster Herr Jesus
Text: Gesangbuch, Münster, 1677 Tune: Silesian folk tune 1842
1. Beautiful Savior, King of creation, Son of God and Son of Man! Truly I'd love Thee, truly I'd serve thee, Light of my soul, my Joy, my Crown.
2. Fair are the meadows, Fair are the woodlands, Robed in flow'rs of blooming spring; Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer; He makes our sorr'wing spirit sing.
3. Fair is the sunshine, Fair is the moonlight, Bright the sparkling stars on high; Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer Than all the angels in the sky.
4. Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations, Son of God and Son of Man! Glory and honor, Praise, adoration, Now and forevermore be Thine!
Tr. Joseph Seiss (1823-1904)
Life is not just one thing at a time. Roses come with thorns, sorrows with joys, the sublime with the ridiculous.
It was the 125th birthday of F. Melius Christiansen. All of the Lutheran college choirs in the area joined together to celebrate it in November, 1996. My parents thought the afternoon outing would be lovely. It was wonderful. We waited for the final number, "Beautiful Savior," but left immediately. It had been too much for them. We had to get home.
Safely in the car, we started up. My dad noticed my gas gage was on empty. He started praying, with increasing urgency, that we would find a gas station. My mother in the back seat was cold and got colder as we made our way north. All I had to give her was laundry which I had planned to wash at their place that evening while helping them with evening chores. As she keened in the back seat for more covers, my father prayed, “Dear Lord Jesus, find us a gas station. O Lord Jesus!” They sounded like a double choir: mother weeping with assorted pieces of laundry covering her, my father fretting beside me.
We found a gas station just in time. He was right, it would have been disastrous to be stranded on a rural highway with two elderly people on a Sunday night. When we got back, settled in and were warm, Mother smiled and said, "It says 'He makes our sorrowing spirit sing.'” Yes.
The anthem has a very complicated history that almost no one gets right. When Christiansen
set it, around 1913, he used the tune and text of a favorite Christmas carol of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, “Deilig er Jorden.”
It was not part of the St. Olaf Christmas concerts at first, but it was in the repertoire for several years. As the language change accelerated in the early 1920s, Christiansen changed to an English translation of the German text, "Schönster Herr Jesus/Beautiful Savior," by Joseph Seiss, a Lutheran pastor in Philadelphia. It is a completely different text from “Deilig er Jorden,” but it fits the tune very well. Soon it became the signature anthem of the St. Olaf Choir. Many Lutheran college choirs still use it as a showstopper. Every St. Olaf Christmas concert features it as a closing anthem, over five hundred students singing their hearts out. Thrilling. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
Ingemann's hymn became popular in America around the turn of the century when the American version of the Landstad hymnal included it. When Christiansen changed to the English text, Beautiful Savior, many still heard Ingemann.Those who did not have that association still thrilled to the anthem and its adoration of the Savior. Its genius was in comparing things people knew well to what they could not see. Jesus is more lovely than the loveliest things you can imagine: the meadows, the moonlight, the sparkling stars on high—which that night I was grateful I did not have to contemplate out on a road looking for a gas station. But none of them, the hymn teaches, can compare to the beauty of our Lord Jesus who "makes our sorrowing spirit sing!"
Bernhard Severin Ingemann (!789-1862), one of Denmark’s greater poets, was given a copy of the German hymn, “Schõnster Herr Jesu,” and wrote "Deilig er Jorden" to it. Originally a funeral hymn, it became a Christmas hymn because its last stanza refers to Christmas night. The tune is very likely from Silesia. Mozart used it, as did Swedish troubadour Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795). Many Norwegians say "Deilig er Jorden," is "Fairest Lord Jesus" when people want a translation, but it is not that either. Same tune, three different texts! Here you can hear the Christiansen arrangement and "Deilig er Jorden" in Norwegian and Danish.
Kenneth Jennnings Conductor emeritus conducts a mass choir; notice Anthon Armstrong, his successor, singing with the choir
St. Olaf Choir with Anton Armstrong, current conductor of the choir
Deilig er Jorden/Oslo Gospel Choir
Deilig er Jorden/Danish Radio and audience
Deilig er Jorden/St. Michaelis in Hamburg