“O earth, bring forth this little flower”

O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf
Advent motet
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

In 1879, Brahms published two motets for unaccompanied chorus. They were dedicated to the great Bach scholar, Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) , and both works demonstrate how much Bach influenced Brahms. The first of these, Warum ist das Licht gegeben, is a dramatic meditation on hope, opening with a text from Job: “Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery.”

The second motet, O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf, is based on an Advent hymn attributed to Friedrich Spee (1591-1635), a German Jesuit priest. The poem seems to be inspired by the ancient Rorate caeli, or Advent Prose, sung in our liturgy as the Introit on the Fourth Sunday in Advent. That text in turn is a conflation of a number of verses from the book of Isaiah.

O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf became the English language hymn “O Savior, rend the heavens wide,” which survives today in only a handful of hymnals (you may download a pdf copy of the hymn here).

Here is Brahms’s setting of O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf, sung by the Chorus of the National German Radio Symphony. The German text with translation is presented below the embedded video.

O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf,
O Saviour, tear open the heavens,
herab, herab vom Himmel lauf,
flow down to us from heaven above;
reiß ab vom Himmel Tor und Tür,
tear off heaven’s gate and door,
reiß ab, wo Schloss und Riegel für.
tear off every lock and bar.

O Gott, ein’ Tau vom Himmel gieß,
O God, a dew from heaven pour;
im Tau herab, o Heiland, fließ.
in the dew, O Saviour, downward flow.
Ihr Wolken, brecht und regnet aus
Break, you clouds, and rain down
den König über Jakobs Haus.
the king of Jacob’s house.

O Erd, schlag aus, schlag aus, o Erd,
O earth, burst forth, burst forth, O earth,
dass Berg und Tal grün alles werd.
so that mountain and valley all become green;
O Erd, herfür dies Blümlein bring,
O earth, bring forth this little flower;
O Heiland, aus der Erden spring.
O Saviour, spring forth out of the earth.

Hier leiden wir die größte Not,
Here we suffer the greatest distress;
vor Augen steht der ewig Tod.
before our eyes stands bitter death.
Ach komm, führ uns mit starker Hand
Ah, come lead us with your powerful hand
vom Elend zu dem Vaterland.
from this misery to our Father’s land.

Da wollen wir all danken dir,
Therefore we all want to thank you,
unserm Erlöser, für und für;
our Redeemer, for ever and ever.
da wollen wir all loben dich
Therefore we also want to praise you
zu aller Zeit und ewiglich.
at all times, always, and forever.