A Christmas with Paul Gerhardt in 1659

By | January 9, 2021

I pray that you enjoyed a Merry Christmas, even in these difficult and strange times, and were blessed by a lot of sacred music.

I came across a story about the 1659 Christmas Day service at the Nikolaikirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Berlin, Germany that I thought I would share. One of the pastors at the church at that time was Paul Gerhardt (1607-76), one of the great hymn writers of the Lutheran church music tradition.

Paul Gerhardt (1607-76)

The story comes from Brian Wren’s book Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000). The first chapter is entitled “‘Through All the Changing Scenes of Life’: Glimpses of Congregational Song.” In it Wren provides engaging descriptions of congregational singing in nineteen different worship services from 1970 back to the year 1200 BC. In these nineteen vignettes he provides glimpses of what it would have been like to worship in various times and places throughout the history of Christendom and with the Children of Israel. One of these descriptions is the story found below about the 1659 Christmas Day service at the Nikolaikirche in Berlin. Wren’s story is based on Paul Gerhardt’s own account translated in Andrew Willson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1993), p. 89.

Much can be gleaned from this story. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

BERLIN, GERMANY: 1659 C.E.

It is a cold Christmas morning in the Church of St. Nicholas (Nikolaikirche). Church and city have survived more than half a lifetime of civil war, invasion, battle, looting, and destruction, ending only a decade ago. Only the youngest in today’s congregation are untouched by the war. Cities, towns, villages and farms are still in ruins; hundreds were killed and wounded; thousands fled to other parts of Europe, or to America. The economy will take a century to recover.

Though science and art are elsewhere in decline, Lutheran churches preserve a rich musical tradition. One of the Nikolaikirche’s deacons, Paul Gerhardt, is a noted hymn writer, working closely with the cantor, composer Johann Crüger. Today is Christmas Day. Worship will appeal to eye and ear, proclaim the gospel, and chase away the miseries of life’s daily struggle.

The Nikolaikirche is a fitting “stage” for the festival: Gothic, with a soaring roof, and four hundred years of history. There are no competing events. Today the church will be full.

Many are already here, to worship or to lead the worship. Beneath the pulpit are a group of tradesman and craftsman, the Collegium Musicum, with violins and woodwind instruments, grouped around a moveable pipe organ. Nearby are a male quartet and a military band with trumpets, snare drums, and kettledrums. In the gallery are a schoolboy choir on one side and a mixed-voice choir on the other.

Candles are lit. From the high organ, a soaring prelude fills the church. All are hushed and expectant. The organ signals the first chorale; people open their books, their lips, and their hearts; the church fills with song. In Lutheran theology, music is one of God’s greatest gifts. Instrumental music is treasured in public worship, and new hymns are written, because the Bible calls us to sing a new song. In words and music, congregational hymns proclaim the gospel. Martin Luther set the tone, a century earlier, with bold, confident, joyful hymns. Others have followed in his footsteps.

The service proceeds, led by three robed clergy standing at the altar. In this part of Germany the liturgy is still sung in Latin, by the choirs and the schoolchildren. It is time for the first scripture reading. All eyes turn to the pulpit, where a college student stands, dressed as an angel with large, white wings. He sings an Old Testament prophecy, accompanied by the Collegium Musicum.

The main doors open. A teacher leads a procession of girls, dressed as angels. As they walk in procession to the high altar, one of the ministers chants a “Gloria,” answered by the military band with trumpet fanfares and drumrolls.

The girls reach the altar and face the congregation. Their teacher – in the role of an angel – sings the first stanza of Martin Luther’s Christmas hymn, written originally for a children’s pageant.

“From heaven high I come to earth…”

The girls sing the second stanza, in two-part counterpoint, while the third stanza is sung as a five-part motet by the gallery choir, accompanied by the organ.

The sermon is followed by a lively Te Deum, led by the instrumentalists, then a Latin anthem by the schoolboys. From the organ loft a nativity scene is presented, and the boys imitate the sounds of farm animals in the stable at Bethlehem. In response, choir and congregation sing a hymn. As they sing, a Christmas star revolves high above, on the front of the organ. The three Wise Men are represented by wooden puppets; they bow before the Christ-child in the cradle. A boy soprano sings “In dulci jubilo,” and Father Christmas walks down the center aisle, with a sackful of gifts for the children. Finally, all sing “Puer natus in Bethlehem” (“A boy is born in Bethlehem”). Christmas has finally come.

Brian Wren, Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 31-32.

The Church of St. Nicholas, Berlin, Germany

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