Text: Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
Music: Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)
Tune name: PASSION CHORALE
The Thirty Years War began when Paul Gerhardt was 12 years old. Raised in a town near Wittenberg, he witnessed first-hand many of the horrors of that era, experiences which no doubt affected his many hymns. As one admirer has observed, for Gerhardt “hope and joy in this life were taken away and confidence in another world was needed.”
It was while studying at the University of Wittenberg that he came to appreciate the power of hymns to teach and to encourage. His piety and craftsmanship served to earn him honor as Germany’s most accomplished hymn-writer. In Paul Gerhardt as a Hymn Writer and his Influence on English Hymnody (Yale University Press, 1918), Theodore Brown Hewitt summarizes Gerhardt’s accomplishment and its sources:
From the close of the Thirty Years’ War until 1680 there occurred in German hymnody a transition from the churchly and confessional to the pietistic and devotional hymns. It is during this transitional period that the religious song of Germany finds its purest and sweetest expression in the hymns of Paul Gerhardt, who is as much the typical poet of the Lutheran, as Herbert is of the English church. In Gerhardt more than in any other author all the requisites for the religious poem are united. He possessed a firm conviction of the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of salvation and also a genuine sentiment for all that is purely human. His deep Christian feeling together with sterling good sense, and a fresh and healthy appreciation of life in the realm of nature and in the intellectual world are the sources for his splendid work.
Among his contemporaries were hymn-writers who were much more prolific. But among his 132 hymns (five of which are in our Hymnal) are some of the most beautiful in German hymnody. The most famous of his hymns was not original to him, but a translation of Bernard of
Clairvaux’s “Salve caput cruentatum,” which in turn was translated into English as “O sacred head, wore wounded” (#75) and sung to the same tune as is the present hymn.
From the time they were first published (beginning in 1649), Gerhardt’s hymns were popular in German churches, but they were not as much appreciated in English and American churches until the appearance of superb translations in the mid-nineteenth century.
The present hymn presents a translation of four of the twelve stanzas in Gerhardt’s original poem. One of the translators was German-born William Arthur Farlander (1898–1952), who came to the United States just after World War I for theological studies. He served as rector in a number of Episcopal parishes in California and on the commission responsible for producing the Hymnal 1940. His partner in translating this hymn and editing our Hymnal was the indefatigable Winfred Douglas (1867-1944), priest, church musician, scholar, poet, and composer.
1. Commit thou all that grieves thee
and fills thy heart with care
to him whose faithful mercy
the skies above declare,
who gives the winds their courses,
who points the clouds their way;
’tis he will guide thy footsteps
and be thy staff and stay.
2. O trust the Lord then wholly,
if thou would’st be secure;
his work must thou consider
for thy work to endure.
What profit doth it bring thee
to pine in grief and care?
God ever sends his blessing
in answer to thy prayer.
3. Thy lasting truth and mercy,
O Father, see aright
the needs of all thy children,
their anguish or delight:
what loving wisdom chooseth,
redeeming might will do,
and bring to sure fulfillment
thy counsel good and true.
4. Hope on, then, broken spirit;
hope on, be not afraid:
fear not the griefs that plague thee
and keep thy heart dismayed:
thy God, in his great mercy,
will save thee, hold thee fast,
and in his own time grant thee
the sun of joy at last.
The story of how this tune mutated from a secular song expressing the misery of unrequited love to become the PASSION CHORALE is told in this essay, which also gives more background to other compositions of Hans Leo Hassler.
In 2020, while our congregation was musically restrained, members of our choir made this recording of “Commit thou all that grieves thee,” from the relative safety of their respective homes.