Opening Voluntary: Chorale Prelude on Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier (BWV 731) – J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
Today’s opening voluntary is a chorale prelude on the hymn tune, Liebster Jesu, sung today as our offertory hymn, “Blessed Jesus, at thy word” (#440, Hymnal 1982). The original version of the tune was a composition of Johann Rudolph Ahle (1625-1673) and first appeared in 1664 paired with the text of an advent hymn. Ahle was born in Mülhausen, Thuringia and studied theology at the University of Erfurt from 1645-1649. He became the cantor of The Church of St. Andrew in Erfurt in 1646 and was later appointed organist of the Church of St. Blasius in Mülhausen in 1654. Ahle’s original tune, a somewhat florid and soloistic work, was later altered to a form more appropriate for congregational singing and was paired with the present text of Tobias Clausnitzer (1619-1684), Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier. It was republished in that revised form in 1687 with Clausnitzer’s previously-published text of 1663. It entered into English hymnody in the 19th century through the translations of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) and was first published in her work, Lyra Germanica of 1861. It was later included in The Chorale Book for England in 1863 along with its associated melody.
Clausnitzer’s German text was originally subtitled “before the sermon” and contains references to and quotes from other portions of the liturgy. The Sursum Corda is eluded to in the first stanza, “dass die Herzen von der Erden/ Ganz zu dir gezogen werden,” freely translated into English as “that our hearts from the earth are wholly drawn to thee.” This is lost, however, in the poetical translation of Winkworth that we use today. There is a more direct quote in stanza three, “Light of Light, from God proceeding” from the Nicene Creed. The text and tune were later parodied by baroque period composer, Benjamin Schmolk (1672-1737), who retained only the first line of Clausnitzer’s hymn, and created the rest of a new text on a baptismal theme. One stanza of this later work appeared in The Hymnal of 1940, but it was not retained in our present Hymnal 1982.
In the baroque period, composers, particularly in the Germanic Lutheran countries, began to set chorale melodies for the organ. The original purpose of these “chorale preludes,” as they are known, is not absolutely clear. Some of them may have been used as introductions to congregational singing, while others were more likely to have been intended to function as free-standing compositions. Musicologists today describe at least eight different types of treatment of the chorale in these works. Today’s version of Liebster Jesu by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) is of the “ornamented cantus firmus” type in which the chorale melody (cantus firmus), usually (and in this setting) in the top voice, is presented in a highly ornamented form supported by a relatively simpler harmonic accompaniment.