As a choral prelude for our All Saints’ Day service, the choir sings two stanzas of “If thou but suffer God to guide thee,” a hymn by a pious seventeenth-century German poet. The Bach Cantatas website explains the hymn’s origins:
Georg Neumark (1621-1681), who later in life was crowned as poet and held the position of court poet in Weimar, had composed the words and music to this famous chorale after having been attacked and robbed of everything that he possessed while traveling to the University of Königsberg (Kalinengrad) and, in the aftermath of this event, experiencing a difficult winter of deprivation until he finally found a position as a private tutor in Kiel at the end of December of 1641.
There are seven stanzas in this confident and comforting hymn (the choir will sing the first and the last as a choral prelude). The text has no explicit connection with All Saints’ Day, but it certainly reflects the confidence in God’s love that all saints demonstrate as they encounter life’s trials, big and small. In some more modern hymnals, the opening line is changed from “If thou but suffer God” to “If thou but trust in God,” since the use of “suffer” to mean “permit” is a bit archaic.
Here are all seven stanzas in the definitive translation by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878):
1. If thou but suffer God to guide thee
and hope in Him through all thy ways,
he’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee,
and bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love
builds on the Rock that naught can move.
2. What can these anxious cares avail thee,
these never-ceasing moans and sighs?
What can it help if thou bewail thee
o’er each dark moment as it flies?
Our cross and trials do but press
the heavier for our bitterness.
3. Be patient and await His leisure
in cheerful hope, with heart content
to take whate’er thy Father’s pleasure
and His discerning love hath sent,
Nor doubt our inmost wants are known
to Him who chose us for His own.
4. God knows full well when times of gladness
shall be the needful thing for thee.
when He has tried thy soul with sadness
and from all guile has found thee free,
he comes to thee all unaware
and makes thee own His loving care.
5. Nor think amid the fiery trial
that God hath cast thee off unheard,
that he whose hopes meet no denial
must surely be of God preferred.
Time passes and much change doth bring
and sets a bound to everything.
6. All are alike before the Highest;
’tis easy to our God, we know,
to raise thee up, though low thou liest,
to make the rich man poor and low.
True wonders still by Him are wrought
who setteth up and brings to naught.
7. Sing, pray, and keep His ways unswerving,
perform thy duties faithfully,
and trust his Word, though undeserving,
thou yet shalt find it true for thee.
God never yet forsook in need
the soul that trusted Him indeed.
Johann Sebastian Bach must have loved the melody of this hymn, as he used it in at least eight of his cantatas. In the seven movements of Cantata #93 — Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten — Bach employed the text of six of stanzas of Neumark’s poem, along with variations on the melody. Below, you can listen to the entire cantata (a little over 19 minutes) performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, directed by John Eliot Gardiner. The text for the cantata (in German with English translation is here.
Our organist, Wallace Hornady, can’t make it to our Friday night All Saints’ Day service, so we are going to have to put off singing “For All the Saints” until Sunday morning. (Trust me: getting through all eight verses of this hymn really does require the sonic support of an accomplished organist. Without that accompaniment, by the time we get to stanza 4 and sing the words “We feebly struggle,” a new level of meaning is perceived.)
Instead, our Processional hymn is a vivid and triumphant text from Adam of St. Victor ( d. c. 1192), widely acknowledged as the greatest of the medieval liturgical poets. “Joy and triumph everlasting” is a translation of four stanzas of his sequence hymn for use at Mass on any saint’s day. The translation by the English poet laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930) was deliberately planned to fit the tune to which we sing this hymn, known as BOURGEOIS, not because it reflects middle-class sensibilities (it’s much too animated for that), but because it was composed by the influential Genevan composer Louis Bourgeois (b. c. 1510).
The translation by Bridges omitted three of the stanzas of the original, but included one that is not in our Hymnal, intended to be sung as the final verse:
There from lowliness exalted
dwelleth Mary, queen of grace,
ever with her presence pleading
’gainst the sin of Adam’s race.
To that glory of the blest,
by their prayers and faith confest,
us, us too, when Death hath freed us,
Christ of his good mercy lead us.
Our Sermon hymn on this feast day is from a 1759 collection of funeral hymns by Charles Wesley (1707-1788). “Let saints on earth in concert sing.” Wesley’s hymn originally contained these additional stanzas:
Ten thousand to their endless home
this solemn moment fly,
and we are to the margin come,
and we expect to die:
His militant, embodied host
With wishful looks we stand,
And long to see that happy coast,
And reach that heavenly land.
Our old companions in distress
We haste again to see,
And eager long for our release
And full felicity:
Ev’n now by faith we join our hands
With those that went before,
And greet the blood-besprinkled bands
On the eternal shore.
Our spirits too shall quickly join,
like theirs with glory crowned,
and shout to see our Captain’s sign,
to hear his trumpet sound.
O that we now might grasp our Guide!
O that the word were given!
Come, Lord of hosts, the waves divide,
and land us all in heaven.
The text for the Offertory anthem — Justorum animae — is from the Book of Wisdom and is traditionally sung as the Offertory proper on this feast day.
The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and the torment of death shall not touch them.
In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die;
but they are in peace.
In past years, our choir has sung settings of this moving text by Charles Villiers Stanford and Orlande de Lassus. This year, for the first time we’re singing a setting by William Byrd. Here is a performance of this anthem by the Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner
Our Communion motet is also by William Byrd. Oculi omnium combines verses from Psalm 145 and John 6: “The eyes of all hope in thee, O Lord, and thou givest them meat in due season. Thou openest thy hand, and fillest every living creature with thy blessing. Alleluia. My Flesh is meat indeed and ty Blood is drink indeed: he that eateth ty Flesh and drinketh ty Blood, abideth in me, and I in Him. Alleluia.”
Here is the Christ Church Cathedral Choir singing this anthem. They are conducted by Steven Darlington.
The text to our first Communion hymn, “The Church of God a kingdom is,” was based on a famous painting by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” commonly known as the Ghent Altarpiece.
Painted in the early 15th century, this majestic work graces the sanctuary of Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. The hymn “The Church of God a Kingdom is” was written by Lionel B. C. Muirhead (1845-1925) in 1898 for publication in a hymnal. Muirhead was a friend of the English poet laureate Robert Bridges, who dedicated one of his collection of poems to him. The tune ST. BAVON was composed by organist Charles Edward Horsley (1822-1876), and was named after the patron saint of Ghent.
“Lo! what a cloud of witnesses” is a paraphrase of Hebrews 1:1-3. The author is unknown. The tune ST. FLAVIAN is also used in singing the Lenten hymn, “Lord, who throughout these forty days” (#59). It first appeared in a 1562 English Psalter for use in singing Psalm 132.
We close our All Saints Day celebration with “Sing Alleluia forth in duteous praise.” The text dates back to the eighth century or earlier. It affirms the fact that the Church’s singing of praise on earth is shared with heavenly choirs of saints and angels.