Repertoire

Music for Passiontide, III — Mendelssohn and others revisit Media vita

Earlier this week, we listened to John Sheppard’s setting of Media vita, which begins “In the midst of life we are in death.” The hymn probably dates to the early 13th century.

In the early 16th century, Martin Luther translated this Latin hymn into a metrical German hymn, suitable for congregational singing. In his hands it became a three-stanza hymn which still survives in a few Lutheran hymnals. Luther amplified the text to make it more explicitly Christocentric, making reference to Christ’s shed blood as the source of our salvation.

In the early 19th century, Felix Mendelssohn set Luther’s text to stirring music for 8-part a cappella choir. Small fragments of the melody that Luther used for the text survive. Luther’s text with an English translation is below the performance video; a score is available here.

Mendelssohn’s Mitten wir im Leben sind is sung here by the Chamber Choir of Europe, conducted by Nicol Matt.

Mitten wir im Leben sind
     In midst of life
mit dem Tod umfangen.
     we are surrounded by death.
Wen suchen wir, der Hilfe tu,
     Whom shall we seek to help us
dass wir Gnad erlangen?
     attain grace?
Das bist du, Herr, alleine.
     Thou alone, O Lord.
Uns reuet unser Missetat,
     We regret our misdeeds.
die dich, Herr, erzürnet hat
    
that have angered Thee, O Lord.

Heiliger Herre Gott,
     Holy Lord God,
heiliger, starker Gott,
     Holy and mighty God,
heiliger, barmherziger Heiland,
     Holy, merciful Saviour,
du ewiger Gott,
     eternal God,
laß uns nicht versinken
     let us not sink
in des bittern Todes Not!
     and suffer bitter death.
Kyrie eleison.
     Lord, have mercy.

Mitten in dem Tod anficht
     In the midst of death
uns der Höllen Rachen.
     the jaws of Hell assail us.
Wer will uns aus solcher Not
     Who shall save us from such extremity,
frei und ledig machen?
    
who shall free us from such a fate?
Das tust du, Herr, alleine.
     Thou alone, O Lord.
Es jammert dein Barmherzigkeit
     Thy mercy takes pity on
unser Sünd und großes Leid.
     
our sins and great suffering.

Heiliger Herre Gott,
     Holy Lord God,
heiliger, starker Gott,
     
holy, mighty God,
heiliger, barmherziger Heiland,
     
holy, merciful Saviour,
du ewiger Gott,
     
eternal God,
laß uns nicht verzagen
     
let us not lose heart
vor der tiefen Höllen Glut!
     
when faced with the fires of deep Hell.
Kyrie eleison.
     Lord, have mercy.

Mitten in der Höllen Angst
     
In the midst of fearful Hell
unser Sünd uns treiben.
     
we are driven by our sins.
Wo solln wir denn fliehen hin,
     
Where shall we flee
da wir mögen bleiben?
     
in our wish to survive?
Zu dir, Herr Christ, alleine.
     
To Thee, dear Christ, alone.
Vergossen ist dein teures Blut,
     
The dear blood Thou hast shed
das gnug für die Sünde tut.
     
has done enough for our sins.

Heiliger Herre Gott,
     Holy Lord God,
heiliger, starker Gott,
     
holy, mighty God,
heiliger, barmherziger Heiland,
     
holy, merciful Saviour,
du ewiger Gott,
     eternal God,
laß uns nicht entfallen
     
let us not be deprived
von des rechten Glaubens Trost!
     
of the solace that true belief brings.
Kyrie eleison.
     Lord, have mercy.

Luther’s own melody was — not that long ago — familiar to English-speaking Lutheran congregations, via a metrical English-language hymn called “In the midst of earthly life.” It is sung by here by the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter’s in the Loop, a Roman Catholic church in Chicago. The Schola is directed by J. Michael Thompson. A scan of the hymn from a Lutheran hymnal is available here. (Perhaps we can sing this in our parish next Lent, or sooner.)

Now that you’ve learned to sing it with the help of a choir, here is a piano accompaniment by Andrew Remillard to sing it on your own:

Two great Lutheran composers who have given attention to harmonizing this hymn are Michael Praetorius and Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s setting makes a few changes in the melody and the rhythm (as he was wont to do when necessary). Those settings are performed here by the Huelgas Ensemble, directed by Paul Van Nevel.