More bad things done to good hymns

My researches for Sunday Cantata keep throwing up wonderful Lutheran chorales that never made it into English, or have been forgotten entirely. More distressing still is to find that hymns that have survived have been sadly mistreated by translators and/or hymnal editors.

The latest exhibit for this latter category, from BWV 166, Bach’s cantata for Cantate Sunday (5th of, or 4th after, Easter, depending on which way you like to count): Ämilie Juliane von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt’s hymn Wer weiss wie nahe mir mein Ende.

Here’s how Bach gives us verse one in that cantata:

[Performed by Bach Collegium Japan]

(Listen to the whole thing this Sunday on Lutheran Radio UK)

The original has 12 verses. TLH gave us 11 of them as Who Knows  When Death May Overtake Me (TLH 598), a translation reproduced also in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELH 483).

Question 1: If you’re willing to sing 11 verses, why not 12?

The missing verse is no. 7:

Ich weiß, in Jesu Blut und Wunden
hab ich mir recht und wohl gebett ;
da find ich Trost in Todesstunden,
und alles, was ich gerne hätt.
Mein Gott, ich bitt’ durch Christi Blut:
Mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut!

An English prose translation by Francis Browne (on the marvellous site bach-cantatas.com) reads as follows:

I know that in Jesus’ blood and wounds
It is right and good for me to make my bed;
There may I find consolation in the hour of death
And everything I would happily have.
My God, I pray through Christ’s blood:
Make sure my end is good.

Why would you want to leave that out? Makes me want to know:

Question 2: What’s wrong with the blood of Jesus?

You see, not only do they leave out the bloody verse. Jesus’ blood is veritably written out of the hymn.

If you know TLH (or ELH) well, you will know that there is a refrain at the end of each verse, which goes like this: “My God, for Jesus’ sake I pray / Thy peace may bless my dying day.”

Except that it doesn’t. The German reads:

Mein Gott, ich bitt’ durch Christi Blut:
Mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut!

That’s the blood of Christ. Something like, “My God, I pray through Jesus’ blood / Make Thou my life’s end only good.” (OK, so I’m no Shakespeare. Sorry.)

Verse11 (10 in TLH/ELH) declares in the original:

“I am and remain in his care,
fairly adorned with Christ’s blood.”

But the hymnal simply states:

“He grants the peace that stills all sorrow / Gives me a robe without a spot.”

The only blood the translators didn’t write out is the direct reference to the Lord’s Supper (verse 10/9). Which makes me wonder:

Question 3: Is it hard to tell the difference between cause and effect?

The translators seem to prefer translating Blut as ‘peace’. Now, as any well-catechised child will tell you, the blood of Christ does bring us  peace with God. That’s why we have the Pax Domini in the liturgy, and that’s why we have it where we have it.

But the blood and the peace aren’t the same thing. The one brings about the other. They are not synonymous. So why on earth would you treat them as synonymous?

Which leads us to:

Question 4: Why would the editors of a conservative Lutheran hymnal go to such lengths to avoid talking about the blood of Jesus (except in the Lord’s Supper, when they can’t get away from it)? Could it be that they were crypto-Ritschlians, perhaps without realising it?

As someone once sang, Ritschl shall reign where’er the sun

Question 5: Given that, even with such a deficient translation, this is a pretty stunning hymn (do read the whole of Browne’s translation, together with the original German, here), why would it be culled even further in the finest modern English-language Lutheran hymnbook, the Lutheran Service Book? All that remains of the 12 verses are  9, 10 and 12 in what has been re-cut as a baptismal hymn (‘Once in the Blessed Baptismal Waters’, LSB 598).

What on earth for? There are plenty of fine baptismal hymns in LSB as it is. No need to go a-butchering for another one, thus depriving the church of the opportunity to reflect on what gives us confidence on the edge of the grave.

And finally: You just heard the tune used in Bach’s time for this hymn: Georg Neumark’s Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten. Why would it be replaced by the later unremarkable creation used in TLH, ELH and LSB?

But at least that’s only a matter of opinion.

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