07 April, 2010

The Chorale and Classical Lyric Poetry

[Please excuse the length of this post, but please read on!]

Part of our argument at Renascentes Musae is that the fullness of the Lutheran tradition just is not available apart from something we might call Lutheran culture—Lutheran higher culture. Now, to be sure, none of us would be willing to admit that the Gospel is culture-dependent, that what the Gospel is and delivers, the forgiveness of sins through faith alone in Christ alone, requires a certain cultural background. But, together with Scripture (e.g., 1 Tim. 2.2; Phil. 4.8) and the old “standard” Prayer of the Church, we recognize that in human culture certain things can be done or not done to foster or hinder the Gospel. Our confessions recognize, too, the role of human culture in fostering a Christocentric, sacramental piety when they note that ceremonies, the “Latin parts” of the liturgy, and “German hymns” are “needed to this end alone, that the unlearned may be taught” (AC 24.1–9, esp. 1–4).

The passage in AC referred to above was both informed by contemporary practice and informed subsequent practice, particularly in the blooming of the Lutheran chorale. During the 16th and 17th centuries, literally thousands of chorales were written by Lutheran theologians, pastors, and poets in German, Danish, Icelandic, Swedish, Finnish, Latvian, and the like. When the preaching of the Gospel flourished so did the singing of the Church, since the Church responds to kerygma by her confession, and her confession is, in a prophetically and apostolically normative way, her song (see, e.g. Exod. 15.1–18, along with Miriam’s song as a coda, v. 21; and Eph. 5.19).

But the Church’s song isn’t just ‘any old song,’ just folk lyric or popular lyric. Addressed by the Most High God in His Word, the Church responds in clothing her song, her offering to God, by singing at the very peaks of human culture. When Paul in Eph. 5.19 encourages the singing of “hymns,” he has in mind that pinnacle of Greek lyric, the hymn.

Greek lyric. A pagan form—now baptized by the Gospel. Tertullian need not have asked, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” because the Apostle had already answered it. Tertullian’s synecdochal “Athens” was Augustine’s Egyptian gold, not intended for making idolatrous calves (Exod. 32), but for the worship of the God of Israel. In the case of the gold from Egypt, it was the substance that was neutral and the form it took (an idol) that was evil; in the case of “Athens,” the heritage of the Greco-Roman world, it was the form (the “hymn”) that Paul viewed as neutral, even if its substance, riddled with the worship of pagan deities, was not.

The Lutheran Reformers understood this well. On the churchly side of culture, all that had gone before was good so long as it did not militate against the Gospel (AC 15); on the secular side of culture, what was best was also good, so long as it could be conscripted into the militia Evangelii, the “service of the Gospel.” And what was best lay in the classical culture of Greco-Roman antiquity (as we’ve had occasion to point out, by today’s standards a quaint notion, but quite serious to the Reformers). To that end, Philipp Melanchthon devoted himself tirelessly to a living appropriation of classical culture so that he himself was regarded among the best composers of, e.g., Greek and Latin epigrams, and so that he inspired an entire Lutheran educational system devoted to the study and living appropriation of Greco-Roman antiquity. His students and their own students went on to compose epigrams, propemptica, elegies, plays and sacred poetry (also known as hymns, aka “chorales”) in Greek, Latin, and German. (Here I refer the reader to Manfred P. Fleischer’s, “Melanchthon as Praeceptor of Late-Humanist Poetry,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 20.4 (1989), 559–80.)

“Okay. So what?” the reader may ask. Indeed. But the proof is, as they say, in the pudding. The lyrical production of the Reformers and their heirs down through the Age of Orthodoxy is nothing if not stunning—and deeply indebted, both self-consciously and unself-consciously—to Greco-Roman antiquity. This was driven home to me over Holy Week and through a conversation I had about it with Mark Preus, who himself has a blog devoted to the “revival of the Lutheran hymn.”

Gerhardt, Melanchthon & Pindar. On Easter Sunday at our church, St. John’s Ev.-Luth. in Topeka, we sang “Awake, My Heart with Gladness” (“Auf, auf, mein Herz”) by Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676), a Lutheran pastor who was the beneficiary of a fine Melanchthonian education. The Gerhardt chorale is, at the end of the day, a Christianized Pindaric victory ode, and Gerhardt himself points to this in the hymn. (Did Gerhardt know Pindar? Could he have? Yes. Among Melanchthon’s many accomplishments, he also produced a text, translation, and praefatio to Pindar’s victory odes; see CR 19.187ff. along with CR 9.673–4.) At the end of the fifth line of the second stanza of Gerhardt’s German chorale, we hear Christ’s cry at the devil, “Viktoria!” (in Latin, no less, which evokes the classical world, a point obscured in the English translation). The very term alludes to Pindar’s epinician (victory) odes, perhaps his most famous production. Gerhardt’s debt to Pindar is also betrayed in the final verse, where the believer looks forward to being brought to “this portal / that leads to bliss untold” and upon which “this rhyme immortal / Is found in script of gold.” Gold as a topos in this context is clearly not from Scripture. But it is Pindaric—in fact, the topos of gold in Pindar is practically emblematic of Pindar’s poetic oeuvre, so much so that Olympian 7 for Diagoras of Rhodes was even inscribed in gold on the temple walls (cp. “this portal”) at Lindos. In “Awake, My Heart,” Gerhardt thus figures Christ as an Olympic or Pythian victor—not over other human competitors, but over sin, death, and the devil. And in a final Pindaric turn, Gerhardt further lends the victor glory of Christ, by way of a “crown” (gekrönt), to all who have suffered with Christ here, just as the Pindaric victor brings his own glory to his homeland.

Heermann & Sappho. Another classical borrowing resides in the beloved chorale “O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken” (“Herzliebster Jesu”) by a poet of the generation before Gerhardt’s, Johann Heermann (1585–1647). The ‘invention’ of the sapphic stanza, three lines of 11 beats followed by a fourth line of five beats, is credited to the poetess Sappho of Lesbos. In the ancient world it was profoundly associated with erotic lyric (see, for example, Catullus c. 51, which ‘translates’ Sappho fr. 31). Sapphic lyric poetry also has a strong element of wistfulness about it, a feature found also in the Roman lyric that uses the sapphic stanza. These elements come out forcefully in Heermann’s “Herzliebster Jesu.” The poem itself is composed in sapphic stanzas. Furthermore, the very first word of the hymn, “herzliebster” (“my heart’s dearest”) is an erotic evocation, unexpected in the liturgical performance setting of the poem but very much in line with Heermann’s metrical choice. And the love theme persists throughout the poem, touched throughout by the wistfulness the permeates sapphic lyric. Again, Heermann’s encounter with sapphic verse, which motivates this famous chorale, was mediated through his Melanchthonian education.

These are but two examples of a phenomenon that has gone little explored but is key to understanding the richness of Lutheran higher culture. To put it in terms that hit a little closer to home: the lyric treasury of the Lutheran chorale, the very guts of the Lutheran Gottesdienst, is virtually inconceivable apart from the Christian Humanism that is woven into the Wittenberg Reformation. Which is to say that Lutheran higher culture, to be a living thing and not a relic, (forgive the compounding of images) requires rich fertilization in the soils of Christian Humanism.


Steve Gehrke said...

I've been mulling this post over for a few days trying to frame an intelligent question for you. But let me just ask it in this simple way:

Are you simply trying to explain why the structure and history of the Lutheran chorale yields its benefits?

Or are you suggesting that it necessary to understand the structure and historical development of the Lutheran chorale to gain its (full?) benefits?


Jon Bruss said...

I'm NOT suggesting that the average, every-day congregant need be conversant in literary history. I AM saying what is a demonstrable fact, that the beautiful flourishing of the Lutheran chorale was inspired by and based upon the Renaissance Christian Humanism that Melanchthon worked so hard to make a part of Lutheran education. Put otherwise: the cultural shape of Lutheranism as we know it is inconceivable apart from the Wittenberg embrace of Christian Humanism, and if we start stripping things away that are accounted for by Humanism's impact on Lutheranism, we have to start with a great many chorales (though not all of them, some of which are clearly much older or based upon ecclesiastical models, such as Christ' lag = Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands). Furthermore, I'm saying that a "new birth" of Lutheran culture in the States (we already had one with the arrival of the Saxons) will not reinvent itself (like the attempt is today: reaching for Evangelical, church-growth, Baptist models) but will simply take honest stock of itself--look at its own history--in order to reprise the small-s spirit that animates it.