Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Out of the Depths I Cry to You"

History of Hymns: "Out of the Depths I Cry to You"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Out of the Depths I Cry to You"
by Martin Luther; trans. by Gracia Grindal
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 515

Martin Luther

Out of the depths I cry to you;
O Lord, now hear me calling.
Incline your ear to my distress
in spite of my rebelling.
Do not regard my sinful deeds.
Send me the grace my spirit needs;
without it I am nothing*

The great Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546), included the composition and singing of hymns in his liturgical reforms. He began writing hymns in 1523 and composed them until his death in 1546. German hymnologist Karl Eduard Philipp Wachernagel (1800-1877) states that 54 hymns, including variants, may be ascribed to Luther. Of these, 21 were written in the prolific year of 1524.

Wachernagel places the hymns of Luther, minus the variants, into several categories:
1) Translations of Latin hymns (9)
2) Pre-Reformation versions on Latin hymns (2)
3) Hymns from pre-Reformation German sources (4)
4) Metrical Psalms (7)
5) Hymn Paraphrases (6)
6) Original hymns by Luther (8)
7) An additional poem (1)

Luther’s versification of Psalm 130, “Aus tiefer Noth schrei ich zu dir,” is one of the metrical psalms and was written early in his hymn-writing career in 1523 or 1524. Like many of Luther’s hymns, it was probably introduced first in a broadsheet and sold in the streets. However, this was one of Luther’s four early hymns printed in the collection Etlich christlich lider Lobgesang (1524). The original four-stanza hymn was soon replaced with a five-stanza version that became the norm.

Catherine Winkworth, (1827-1878), the noted Victorian translator of German hymns, comments on the reason for the success of Luther’s hymns in her authoritative book, Christian Singers of Germany (1869):

“They were not so much outpourings of the individual soul, as the voice of the congregation meant for use in public worship, or to give the people a short, clear confession of faith, easily to be remembered. But they are not written from the outside; Luther throws into them all his own fervent faith and deep devotion. The style is plain, often rugged and quaint, but genuinely popular. So, too, was their cheerful trust and noble courage; their clear, vigorous spirit, that sprang from steadfast faith in a Redeemer.”

Psalm 130, beginning “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord,” was a favorite Psalm of the Reformer. The famous British hymnologist John Julian states, “it ranks with the finest of German Psalm versions.” It was sung at Luther’s own funeral.

Catherine Winkworth prepared a translation in 1855 that has endured. Englishman Richard Massie (1800-1887) translated the hymn for his Martin Luther’s Spiritual Songs (1854). An ardent supporter of the Lutheran Reformation, his comments in the preface of the collection indicate that his motives were as political as they were academic: “For my own part, the longer I live, the more I learn to bless God for the Reformation and the Reformers, . . . [Luther] was the first to lay the axe to the root of the tree.” During the nineteenth century, a struggle ensued within the Anglican Church of England between the Tractarians of the Oxford movement who wanted to move the church toward Anglo-Catholicism, and those who saw Anglicanism as a Reformation movement descending from the Lutheran Reformation. Masse clearly aligns himself with the latter group.

Gracia Grindal

Gracia Grindal (b. 1943,) a prolific hymn writer and translator, prepared a version of "Out of the Depths I Cry to You" for The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), a hymnal for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Professor Grindal retired from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2013 after teaching there since 1984. In addition to many original hymns written to accompany the Scripture lessons in the three-year lectionary, she is known for her translations of German and Swedish hymns.

A comparison of Winkworth’s translation with the recent one by Professor Grindal (cited at the beginning of this article) reveals the beauty of both, but also how the latter speaks more clearly to English singers today. Winkworth’s translation, one that matches well the style of the King James Version and, thus, the language of Victorian piety, follows:

From depths of woe I cry to Thee,
In trial and tribulation;
Bend down Thy gracious ear to me,
Lord, hear my supplication.
If Thou rememb'rest ev'ry sin,
Who then could heaven ever win
Or stand before Thy presence?

Winkworth concludes the first stanza with the rhetorical question found in the King James Version: “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” Ms. Grindal ends with a more definitive assertion: “Without [grace] I am nothing.”

Ms. Grindal’s translation conflates the ideas of stanzas four and five in Winkworth’s translation into a single stanza four. Given the nature of the tune, this is probably wise for modern congregations who might resist singing five rather than four stanzas.

The melody deserves special mention. AUS TIEFER NOT is attributed to Martin Luther. The structure of the tune is in the characteristic bar-form (nothing to do with places for drinking alcoholic beverages), beginning with two identical phrases (Stollen-AA) followed by a longer new phrase of music (Abgesang-B). This melodic structure has its roots in the German minnesinger tradition of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. Whether Luther composed the melody or not, he was tapping into the folk heritage of the German people. This particular melody is based on an unusual and lesser-used scale called the Phrygian mode (the white notes between E to E on the piano). The half-step between the first and second pitches (E to F) gives this scale and tunes based on it a distinctive sound, a sound that is ideal for communicating the “depths” of despair with which the psalmist begins the cry. While this may sound somewhat foreign to our ears, it is indeed expressive of the text. The final verses of the psalm resolve in hope and praise. Many organists will reserve a wonderful E-major chord for the very end to capture the move from despair to joy.

*© 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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