Home History of Hymns: "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light"

History of Hymns: "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light"

"Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light"
Johann Rist; trans. by John Troutbeck
The UM Hymnal, No. 223

Johann Rist

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
and usher in the morning;

O shepherds, shrink not with affright,
but hear the angel’s warning.

This child, now weak in infancy,
our confidence and joy shall be,

the power of Satan breaking,
our peace eternal making.

This hymn for the Epiphany season is unusual in that the harmonizer of the melody, usually considered the least important part of a hymn, is the most prominent contributor of all those associated with this composition.

The author of the original German stanza is Johann Rist (1607-1667) with an English translation by John Troutbeck (1832-1899). The melody was composed by Johann Schop (ca. 1590-ca. 1664). And the harmonization of the melody was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

This hymn is one of 10 Bach chorales or Bach harmonizations of German chorale melodies contained in the UM Hymnal. Many readers may know two Bach chorales in the UM Hymnal, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (No. 286), a German text by Paul Gerhardt (1656) and a tune by Hans Leo Hassler (1601) sung during Holy Week; and “Jesus, Joy of Our Desiring” (No. 644), a German text by Martin Janus (1661) and a melody also by Johann Schop, often sung for weddings.

These melodies, mostly from the 17th century, had a very different feel in their original form, usually products of the Renaissance musical style. By the time of Bach in the 18th century, the musical preferences had changed: The rhythm of the melody was made more consistent, the tempo became much slower and the harmony more complex.

Bach usually used a chorale in his church cantatas. Including a chorale in a work otherwise written for a choir and soloists was a way to involve the congregation in the cantata. Many of the cantatas used the melodies as the basis for the choral movements as well. Bach was a genius in arranging existing tunes and adapting chorales with a variety of voices and instruments.

Our hymn first appeared in German with 11 stanzas in Johann Rist’s Himmlische Lieder (Heavenly or Celestial Songs) published in Leipzig in 1641. Stanza nine was translated by John Troutbeck around 1885 for an English edition of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a collection of six cantatas for the Christmas season.

Because the hymn only had one stanza, it was not widely used. The Hymnal Revision Committee for the UM Hymnal invited British hymn writer Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) to provide a singing English translation of two of the additional German stanzas. Pratt Green was working with German pastor Friedrich Hofmann at the time. Hoffman supplied Pratt Green with a literal English translation of the text and the two additional stanzas were added.

Stanza one allows us to internalize the meaning of Christ’s birth. The paradox of a “weak child in infancy” who becomes “our confidence and joy” is central to this stanza. In classic Lutheran theology, this child breaks the power of Satan and gives us “peace eternal.”

In stanza two the child, our brother, comes not to “destroy” but to “bid[s] us love each other.” Once again the poet emphasizes the paradox of the incarnation as he “quit[s] his kingly state” for the “humiliation” of coming to a “world of greed and hate.”

Stanza three is a prayer inviting this “dearest child into our hearts.” The child will bring a “time of grace” to us. The final line is a petition to “come, conquer and deliver this world, and us, forever.”

The tune ERMUNTRE DICH was composed by Johann Schop who served as the musical editor for collections prepared by Rist. The tune appeared in triple meter in Himmlische Lieder along with the text. Bach probably found the tune in an altered version in Johann Cruger’s Praxis Pietatis Melica (1647) and further arranged for the second cantata of his Christmas Oratorio in 1737.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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