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Hymns And Hymnwriters Of Denmark by Jens Christian Aaberg

Chapter Five Kingo's Psalmbook

After the publication of Spiritual Song-Choir II, Kingo stood at the very height of his fame. His hymns were sung everywhere, and nobles and commoners vied with each other in chanting his praises. But a much more difficult task now awaited him -- that of preparing a new hymnal.

Hans Thomisson's hymnal had become antiquated after serving the church for nearly one hundred and twenty-five years. It had served its purpose well. Its hymns had been sung by high and low until they had entered into the thoughts and conscience of all. A changing language and a fast developing literary taste long ago had shown their need for revision; but the people so far had opposed all attempts to change their beloved old songs. Their defects by now had become so conspicuous, however, that even the more conservative admitted the desirability of at least a limited revision. And the only man for the undertaking of such a task was, of course, Kingo.

In March, 1683, King Christian V, therefore, commissioned Thomas Kingo to prepare and publish a new church hymnal for the kingdom of Denmark and Norway. The carefully prepared instructions of his commission directed him to eliminate undesirable hymns; to revise antiquated rhymes and expressions; to adopt at least two new hymns by himself or another for every pericope and epistle of the church year, but under no circumstances to make any changes in Luther's hymns that would alter their meaning.

Kingo would undoubtedly have saved himself a great deal of disappointment if he had conscientiously followed his instructions. But the draft of the first half of the hymnal, which was sent to the king six years later, showed that, intentionally or otherwise, he had ignored them almost completely. The draft contained 267 hymns of which 137 were his own and the remainder those of various authors, both old and new. Though Kingo might reasonably have been criticized for adopting such a proportionally large number of his own compositions, it was not, however, his selection of new hymns but his treatment of the old hymns that provoked the greatest opposition. For he had not contented himself with merely revising the latter but in many instances had rewritten them so completely that they were unrecognizable. And it mattered not that the new texts were on the whole much finer than the old, for people were not yet ready to relinquish these. The opposition grew so strong that the king, though he had already approved the proposed hymnal, a few weeks later revoked not only his approval but Kingo's commission.

This summary action came as an almost stunning blow to Kingo, affecting seriously both his pride and his finances. On the strength of the king's approval, he had already bought a printing press, acquired large quantities of material and printed a large edition of the book. And these investments, which represented a large part of his private fortune, were now apparently lost. It helped but little that the king, in order to salve the wound he had inflicted upon one of his most distinguished subjects, elevated him to the nobility, for the hurt was too deep to be healed by a mere gesture.

One cannot deny, however, that the monarch had serious reason for his action. Not only had Kingo violated his instructions but he had planned a book that hardly could have proved satisfactory. It would have been both too large and too expensive for common use. He himself, on the other hand, had reason to complain that he had not been consulted before the work, on which he had spent so much of his time and substance, was summarily rejected. No doubt the king had acted with unseemly haste and lack of consideration.

The work was now held in abeyance for a few years. But the need for a new hymnal was too pressing to be permanently ignored. The king, therefore, appointed Søren Jonasson, a provost at the cathedral of Roskilde, to undertake the work. Jonasson was known as an excellent translator of German hymns, and the choice appeared reasonable. He worked fast and in less than two years was able to present a draft of his work. This contained a well balanced selection of the old hymns and about twenty new hymns by himself and various German authors, but not a single hymn by Kingo. The omission no doubt reflects the envy that the poet's quick rise to fame had stirred up against him in certain influential circles. His enemies, however, had overshot their mark. Even the king realized that it would be impossible at this time to publish a hymnal that ignored the work of the country's greatest hymnwriter. And so Jonasson's work promptly shared the fate of his predecessor's.

The troublesome problem now rested again for a few years until it was revived by the zealous efforts of the king's chaplain, Peter Jespersen, a close friend of the Norwegian hymnwriter, Peter Dass and himself a native of the northern country.

A committee was appointed to prepare and publish a new hymnal |that should give due recognition| to the work of Kingo. Although it was not specifically directed to do so, the committee proved its good will toward the harshly treated poet by entering into correspondence with him and asking him to forward the material he already possessed, and to write the additional hymns that might be needed to complete the hymnal. With this request Kingo gladly complied, hoping that thus after all the greater part of his work would be put to use. In this, however, he was disappointed. When the hymnal finally appeared it contained 297 hymns of which only 85 were by Kingo. This represented, it is true, a great change from Jonasson's proposal, but when it is remembered that the first half of the work, proposed by himself, contained 136 of his own hymns, and that he had written an additional number by the request of the committee, it will be seen that even now less than half of his hymns found a place in the hymnal.

Aside from this deplorable loss, it must be conceded that the committee had done an excellent work and that its hymnal was much better suited for general use than Kingo's proposed hymnal would have been. The committee also had shown its fairness toward Kingo by commissioning him to print the hymnal and to enjoy exclusive rights of its distribution for ten years, so that he might recoup some of the losses he had sustained by the rejection of his own book. He repaid the favor by turning out a most excellent piece of work; and the book, both in content and appearance undoubtedly rated as the finest hymnal the Danish church had so far produced. It served the church for more than a hundred years, and was always known as |Kingo's Hymnal|, for, after all, his great hymns were what gave it permanent value.

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