O Food of men wayfaring

Text: Maintzich Gesangbuch, 1661
Music: [1] Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510-1559);
[2] 15th C. German melody, adapt. by Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450-1517)
Tune name: [1] O ESCA VIATORUM;
[2] O WELT, ICH MUSS DICH LASSEN

 

THE TEXT

The first known publication of the text for this anonymous hymn is in a Catholic hymnal published in Würzburg in 1647 (although the later 1661 hymnal, the Maintzich Gesangbuch, is credited as the source for the translator). In 1906 it was translated for the first edition of The English Hymnal by John Athelstan Laurie Riley (1854-1945). In addition to translating a number hymns from Latin and Greek, Riley is also the author of the “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” (The Hymnal, #599).

The first two lines of this hymn have been revised in a number of more modern hymnals; “O food of men wayfaring” has become “O food to pilgrims given,” while (to preserve the rhyme) “The Bread of Angels sharing” has become “O bread of life from heaven.” One can assume that the revision was made to eliminate the gender-specific reference in the original translation. Otherwise, “pilgrims” and “men wayfaring” do equal justice to the Latin original: “O esca viatorum.” But the original translation was more literal in rendering the second phrase: “O panis angelorum,” even though Riley had to add “sharing” to fill out the phrase with a word to rhyme with “wayfaring.”

In addition to its use as a hymn, the text was set to music by both of the Haydn brothers, Johann Michael and Franz Joseph.

THE TUNE

The tune used in our hymnal, O ESCA VIATORUM, derives its name from the first words of the Latin poem, but that music was not originally written for this hymn text. It is one of a number of tunes — some of them very familiar — compiled in sixteenth-century Geneva for singing the Psalms. In our Hymnal, the French composer Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510-1559) is credited as the source for this tune, which came from one of the hymn books he published between 1547 and 1551.

Bourgeois is best known as the composer of the tune known as OLD HUNDREDTH, which is one of the most frequently sung hymn tunes in the world. It is the tune to which we sing “From all that dwell below the skies (The Hymnal, #277), “All people that on earth do dwell” (The Hymnal, #278), and (most famously), the Doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (The Hymnal, #139).

The other tune to which “O Food of men wayfaring” is sung is O WELT, ICH MUSS DICH LASSEN. This tune is also known as INNSBRUCK, as the tune first shows up in the late fifteenth century in a secular song about the Austrian city by the Franco-Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac (1450–1517). “Innsbruck, ich muß Dich lassen,” Innsbruck, I must leave you, expresses the wistful regret of a young man who must leave his city and his beloved to work in a foreign land.

Here is a performance of this Renaissance folk song by the Munich-based ensemble, Die Singphoniker.

After the Reformation, that song was adapted into a Lutheran hymn, O Welt, ich muß dich lassen. The melody was kept intact, but with the exception of the reference to an impending departure, the text was totally revised. No longer expressing sad regret, the leaving in mind is of this earthly life for the “everlasting Fatherland.”

O World, I must leave you,
I travel from here along my way
to the everlasting fatherland.
I will give up my spirit
so that my body and life
lie in God’s merciful hand.

My time is now completed,
death ends my life,
to die is to my advantage,
there is no staying on earth,
I must gain eternity,
with peace and joy I travel hence.

My trust is placed in God,
I will behold his face,
truly through Jesus Christ
who has died for me,
gained the Father’s grace
and so has become my mediator.

Here is the first verse of this chorale, with the original melody from Isaac’s folk song, sung by Der Mädchenchor am Dom zu Speyer.

While that text was still being used in the late seventeenth century, Isaac’s melody had been adjusted — rhythmically simplified — to fit it into the structure of Lutheran chorales. Johann Sebastian Bach used it in three of his cantatas. He also published a stand-alone chorale version of O Welt, ich muß dich lassen.

Below is a performance of Bach’s setting of the first two verses of this chorale (BWV 395), sung by the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. Bach’s harmonization appears in our Hymnal with the evening text “The duteous day now closeth” (#181). It is also available to sing “O Food of men wayfaring.”

Here is an organ accompaniment to this setting of  “O Food to men wayfaring” with which you may sing.