All Glory be to God on High

This hymn text was written by Nikolaus Decius, born in 1485 and an early convert to Lutheranism.  After graduating from the University of Wittenberg studying Reformation theology, Martin Luther recommended him to become an assistant pastor in Stettin.  Throughout his life he served congregations as pastor as well as cantor, or chief musician.  (It is said he played harp well.) His death date is not known, but Decius must have died sometime after Martin Luther died in 1546 since Luther continually mentioned Decius until the time Luther died.  Presumably, after his own death, Luther would not mention anyone, much less Decius. . .

This text is a paraphrase of the Gloria in excelsis.  A paraphrase takes an idea and expresses it in different words than the original, although the meaning is kept the same.  Instead of the traditional opening text of the Gloria (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace goodwill toward men”) Decius writes, “All glory be to God on high and thanks to Him forever! The Gloria continues, “We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we give thanks to Thee,” whilst Decius paraphrases in the second stanza, “We worship You, we trust in You, We give You thanks forever.”  The final stanza devotes praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively.

The tune is original to this text, with Decius having adapted it from a medieval Gloria plainchant.  Notice, though, the meter.  It is in a strict triple meter (3/4) meaning that the first beat/syllable of each measure is strong, whilst the remaining two syllables are weak.  Since dance waltzes are always in triple meter, this hymn has been ascribed the appelation, “Lutheran waltz.”  One might also think of the Christmastide “In dulci jubilo,” or “Good Christian Men Rejoice” which is similarly set in a strong triple meter.  Interestingly, Decius radically altered the character of the music, since medieval plainchant had no musical meter;  rather, its free-flowing character allowed the music to accent the text solely.  The music was completely and solely a vehicle for the text.  In fact, medieval music would avoid any hint of triple meter even when it naturally occurred in the text, for triple meter recalled the secular peasant dances and were inappropriate for divine worship.  Decius and the early Lutheran hymnists did not hold such an aversion to a triple meter and used it to their advantage.  Although this hymn may sound very “hymnlike” to us, it had a familiar sound to the common German peasant of the 16th century.  This was folk music that had grown from their community and it was a style with which they were familiar.  Unfortunately, 21st century Christians increasingly have less of a folk style upon which to draw.  Certainly there is plenty of “familiar” music out there, but it is meant 1) to sell more of itself and 2) melodically is only appropriate for soloists to sing.  Corporations and people who call themselves musicians bestow this music on the unwary populace below.  This is commercial music, not folk music as Decius was utilizing here.  Decius masterfully blended the sacred and the secular to create an enduring expression of hymn of praise to the Holy Trinity.  It is good he was not born 500 years later!