Now Thank We All Our God (Nun Danket)

“Now Thank We All Our God” W. Zeitler [ORGAN & BRASS]

(A YouTube is here)

Martin Rinkart (1586–1649) was a Lutheran pastor who came to Eilenburg, Saxony at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. As a walled city Eilenburg afforded some small measure of safety, and thus became a refuge for the dispossessed. The result, however, was overcrowding, pestilence and famine. And armies overran it three times in spite of its walls.

Eilenburg started with four pastors: one left town to “visit relatives” and wouldn’t return. The other two pastors perished in plagues. So the Rinkart home became a refuge for the refugees, even though he was often hard-pressed to provide for his own family. During the height of the Great Plague of 1637, as the only surviving minister in Eilenburg, Pastor Rinkart conducted as many as 50 funerals a day. (Assuming, say, a 10 hour day, that’s roughly one funeral every 12 minutes.) All in all he performed more than 4000 funerals, including one for his wife. Eventually the death rate became so extreme that services over mass graves were all that could be managed. The plague was followed by a famine so extreme that thirty or forty persons might be seen fighting in the streets over a dead animal for food.

Apparently when a tsunami of calamity receded, Pastor Rinkart found himself performing a surfeit of weddings — as widows and widowers (and their surviving children) regrouped into new family units — terribly necessary for survival, methinks. Sadly, these respites were too soon followed by yet another plague, and/or famine, and/or army. (Although on one occasion Pastor Rinken did manage to talk a commanding general out of sacking his city — one less sacking is a very good thing!) Ultimately Pastor Rinkart lived to see the signing of the Peace of Westphalia which ended the war — he died the following year.

In all of this, in all of THIS, Pastor Rinkart found time to write hymns. One of them, “Now Thank We All our God” was originally intended as a ‘grace’ to be sung before meals (when meals could be had) — but the hymn soon took on a life of its own. By the end of the Thirty Years War it was popular throughout Germany — and now throughout the world.

My setting of this hymn for the prelude opens with trumpet gestures suggestive of war – the context in which this hymn was originally written. I didn’t use the usual ‘easy harmonies’ for this hymn because to remain thankful in the midst of famine, plague and war is hardly easy. So my setting is optimistic, but a certain ‘backbone’ is required. The piece moves along well enough until the phrase towards the end “has blessed us on our way”. At this point the harmonic center of the piece goes completely off beam – that’s how it is in Life, isn’t it, when things go completely awry for us and we lose our way. But the hymn continues “with countless gifts of Love” — yes, those gifts of Love — sometimes they are ‘fierce graces’ — they come to us nonetheless in unexpected ways that turn everything around. And to our great astonishment they ultimately bring us Home — as we are ultimately brought Home musically in this piece.