Now Thank We All our God

Nun Danket Alle Gott (Now Thank We All Our God) W. Zeitler

A YouTube is here

The Reformation of course had its dark side: many political powers-that-be didn’t care about Luther’s or Calvin’s reforms, but saw them as an opportunity to end their political and financial servitude to Rome. And so war erupted, perhaps most notably the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Measured by the percentage of the population that perished (as direct casualties or due to the famine and plagues it caused), some scholars suggest that the Thirty Years War was the deadliest in European history.

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 it afforded some small measure of safety, and thus became a refuge for the dispossessed. The result, however, was overcrowding, and deadly 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 couldn’t be persuaded to return. The other two perished in plagues. So the Rinkart home became a refuge for victims, 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 in a day. 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.

Apparently when a tsunami of calamity receded, Pastor Rinkart would find himself performing a surfeit of weddings — as widows and widowers (and their surviving children) regrouped into new family units — necessary for survival, methinks. Soon followed by yet another plague, or famine, or army. (Although on one occasion Pastor Rinken was able to talk a commanding general out of sacking the city.) 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 come in unexpected ways, and to our great astonishment ultimately bring us Home — as we are ultimately brought Home musically in this piece.