by Rev. Christopher Neuendorf
Did you know that we Lutherans have our own music? To be sure, ever since we in the Missouri Synod started using the English language, we’ve borrowed generously from any and every church whose hymn writers have set orthodox texts of poetic merit to genuinely churchly tunes. But there is a music all our own, a set of hymns that grew out of the heart of Lutheranism itself. We call them the chorales, and they’re worth getting to know.
The Lutheran chorales come from a number of different sources. Many of them, such as “Christ Is Arisen” (LSB 459), were already being sung in German even before the Reformation and could be brought unmodified into Lutheran services. Others, such as “Savior of the Nations, Come” (332), needed to be translated from Latin, their florid Gregorian tunes simplified for congregational singing. Still others, such as “The Only Son from Heaven” (402), started out as texts written by Lutherans, then were joined to existing secular tunes. Finally, some of the greatest Lutheran chorales, including especially “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (656), were written and composed, both text and tune, by Lutherans.
But Lutheran hymn writing didn’t stop with the first generation. Through the 17th century, Lutherans continued to furnish the Church with new texts for congregational song, and they continued to provide lively tunes for those texts. Consider the jubilant “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness” (467), written by Paul Gerhardt with a tune by Johann Crüger. Unfortunately, this kind of hymn writing mostly dropped off in the 18th century.
Two forces combined in the following century to bring the chorales to us English-speaking Lutherans. First, the founders of the Missouri Synod reintroduced the original forms of the chorales to our German-speaking congregations. Second, hymnologists in the Anglican Church looked with admiration to the German chorales and set about the monumental task of translating them into English, often preserving their original, complex rhythms. When our Synod started producing English hymnals, the original tunes reintroduced in our German chorale-books were combined with the texts provided by Anglican translators. The result is our present hymnal, which includes among many fine hymns from various churches a heaping helping of authentic Lutheran chorales.
Learn these hymns. Sing them at home, in the car and in the shower. Make them a part of your daily life. The chorales will richly reward your efforts!