This hymn is one of the oldest in the corpus of Christian hymnody, written most likely by a certain Theodulf of Orleans. A 16th-century legend records that Theodulf was a bishop imprisoned at Angers in 821 for having conspired against the king. During his imprisonment, legend has it, he composed this text (originally there were 39 stanzas). One Palm Sunday, when King Louis the Pious was processing through the town and passing under Theodulf’s cell window, Theodulf is said to have sung this out the window loudly so the king could hear. Impressed, the king allegedly released him. This story is probably not true, however, for Theodulph was imprisoned from 818 to his death in 821, and there is no record of that king ever visiting the town. Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting (if untrue!) story.
This hymn from the beginning has had a long association with being used on Palm Sundays. There are many medieval records from all over Europe of this being a standard Palm Sunday processional hymn. Some of these liturgies employed a choir of seven boys to sing the first four stanzas from a “high point” in the church, recalling Theodulph’s singing from his high cell. Often, this hymn would be sung as the congregation processed around the town; hence, 39 stanzas was not such an ungainly number as we might think today.
The tune is familiar to most of us, and was composed by Melchior Teschner and first published in 1615 to a text called “Farewell, I Gladly Bid Thee” by a Lutheran pastor at the Manger of Christ Church in Fraustadt, Germany. This text for which the tune was written is meant as a “farewell to the world” and was written by this pastor (Valerius Herberger) during a plague time, in which 2,135 people in his town had died in only a couple of years. This original text may be found in The Lutheran Hymnal #407.
I cannot help but think of the association between the original text of this tune—as a “farewell to the world” and its relationship to the historical events of Jesus’ life at Palm Sunday.