This quintessential Easter hymn encompasses the joy of Easter morning, a joy which continues this Second Sunday of Easter, just as we celebrate the risen Christ every Sunday morning. We reiterate Easter joy by singing, “Since He is ours, we fear no powers, not of earth nor sin nor death.” The text is replete with the scriptural imagery of the Easter season. The poetry comes from Johann Lindemann (1549-1631) who was born in the cradle of the Reformation, Thuringia. In the 1570s he began a career as a Kantor in the German town of Gotha (“Kantor” is the old Lutheran term for “music director,” but encompassed much more—from organist, choir director, singer, the Kantor generally coordinated the congregation’s, and community’s sacred singing. This is not to be confused with a cantor as found in the modern day Catholic Church, who too often resemble pop stars, or cantors in the Jewish synagogue, who are simply singers.) Lindemann actually composed this particular text for this tune, which was a bit of a rarity in the day. The tune was contemporary, having been composed by Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, an Italian priest who was born in 1556 and worked most of his life in Mantua. Gastoldi composed a number of light, dance-like pieces called balletti. These secular pieces lent themselves well to sacred words, and when Lindemann published a collection of his hymns in 1598 in Erfurt, he included two tunes from Gastoldi, including the one we sing this morning set to this text.
The practice of taking an existing secular melody and adding sacred words is an age-old practice called contrafactum. The tune of the communion hymn “O Food to Pilgrim’s Given” is such an example, having originally been composed in the late 15th-century by Heinrich Isaak but associated with the secular text “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” (“Innsbruck, I’m leaving you now”). Later, this became “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” (world), and eventually many other sacred texts were sung to that old secular tune. Here the circumstance might have been somewhat different because the tune was contemporary and probably would not have been known by anyone in northern Germany (remember, this was the time before copyright law and composers and text-writers were free to use each other’s works without financial burden.) In many instances, such appropriations would help a composers tune (or a poet’s text) spread beyond narrow geographic boundaries. Here Lindemann takes a secular tune he would have known as a church musician aware of the latest music from Italy, and creates sacred words for liturgical use. This tune has been in use in Lutheran hymnals without break back to the seventeenth century. Bach has an organ setting of the tune which conveys the joy of the text and the season.