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Hymns And Hymnwriters Of Denmark by Jens Christian Aaberg

Chapter Fourteen The Hymnwriter


Grundtvig, Nicolai Frederik Severin, 1783-1872

tr., J. C. Aaberg

Splendid are the heavens high,

Beautiful the radiant sky,

Where the golden stars are shining,

And their rays, to earth inclining,

-: Beckon us to heaven above :-

It was on a Christmas night,

Darkness veiled the starry height;

But at once the heavens hoary

Beamed with radiant light and glory,

-: Coming from a wondrous star :-

When this star so bright and clear

Should illume the midnight drear,

Then, according to tradition,

Should a king of matchless vision

-: Unto earth from heaven descend :-

Sages from the East afar

When they saw this wondrous star,

Went to worship and adore Him

And to lay their gifts before Him

-: Who was born that midnight hour :-

Him they found in Bethlehem

Without crown or diadem,

They but saw a maiden lowly

With an infant pure and holy

-: Resting in her loving arms :-

Guided by the star they found

Him whose praise the ages sound.

We have still a star to guide us

Whose unsullied rays provide us

-: With the light to find our Lord :-

And this star so fair and bright

Which will ever lead aright,

Is God's word, divine and holy,

Guiding all His children lowly

-: Unto Christ, our Lord and King :-

This lovely, childlike hymn, the first to appear from Grundtvig's pen, was written in the fall of 1810 when its author was still battling with despair and his mind faltering on the brink of insanity. Against this background the hymn appears like a ray of sunlight breaking through a clouded sky. And as such it must undoubtedly have come to its author. As an indication of Grundtvig's simple trust in God, it is noteworthy that another of his most childlike hymns, |God's Child, Do Now Rest Thee,| was likewise composed during a similar period of distress that beset him many years later.

For a number of years Grundtvig's hymn of the Wise Men represented his sole contribution to hymnody. Other interests engaged his attention and absorbed his energy. During his years of intense work with the sagas he only occasionally broke his |engagement| with the dead to strike the lyre for the living. In 1815 he translated |In Death's Strong Bonds Our Savior Lay| from Luther, and |Christ Is Risen from the Dead| from the Latin. The three hundredth anniversary of the Reformation brought his adaptation of Kingo's |Like the Golden Sun Ascending| and translations of Luther's |A Mighty Fortress Is Our God| and |The Bells Ring in the Christmastide.| In 1820 he published his now popular |A Babe Is Born at Bethlehem| from an old Latin-Danish text, and 1824 saw his splendid rendering of |The Old Day Song,| |With Gladness We Hail the Blessed Day,| and his original |On Its Rock the Church of Jesus Stood Mongst Us a Thousand Years.|

These songs constitute his whole contribution to hymnody from 1810 to 1825. But the latter year brought a signal increase. In the midst of his fierce battle with the Rationalists he published the first of his really great hymns, a song of comfort to the daughters of Zion, sitting disconsolately at the sickbed of their mother, the church. Her present state may appear so hopeless that her children fear to remember her former glory:

Dares the anxious heart envision

Still its morning dream,

View, despite the world's derision,

Zion's sunlit height and stream?

Wields still anyone the power

To repeat her anthems strong,

And with joyful heart embower,

Zion with triumphant song.

Her condition is not hopeless, however, if her children will gather about her.

Zion's sons and daughters rally

Now upon her ancient wall!

Have her foemen gained the valley,

Yet her ramparts did not fall.

Were her outer walls forsaken

Still her cornerstone remains,

Firm, unconquered and unshaken,

Making futile all their gains.

Another of his great hymns dates from the same year. Grundtvig was in the habit of remaining up all night when he had to speak on the following day. The Christmas of 1825 was particularly trying to him. He had apparently forfeited his last vestige of honor by publishing his Reply of the Church; the suit started against him by Professor Clausen still dragged its laborious way through the court; and his anxiety over the present state of the church was greatly increased by the weight of his personal troubles. He felt very much like the shepherds watching their flocks at night, except that no angels appeared to help him with the message his people would expect him to deliver in the morning. Perhaps he was unworthy of such a favor. He rose, as was his custom, and made a round into the bedrooms to watch his children. How innocently they slept! If the angels could not come to him, they ought at least to visit the children. If they heard the message, their elders might perchance catch it through them.

Some such thought must have passed through the mind of the lonely pastor as he sat musing upon his sermon throughout the night, for he appeared unusually cheerful as he ascended his pulpit Christmas morning, preached a joyful sermon, and said, at its conclusion, that he had that night begotten a song which he wished to read to them. That song has since become one of the most beloved Christmas songs in the Danish language. To give an adequate reproduction of its simple, childlike spirit in another language is perhaps impossible, but it is hoped that the translation given below will convey at least an impression of its cheerful welcome to the Christmas angels.


Grundtvig, Nicolai Frederik Severin, 1783-1872

tr., J. C. Aaberg

Be welcome again, God's angels bright

From mansions of light and glory

To publish anew this wintry night

The wonderful Christmas story.

Ye herald to all that yearn for light

New year after winter hoary.

With gladness we hear your sweet refrain

In praise of God's glory solely;

Ye will not this wintry night disdain

To enter our dwellings lowly.

And bring to each yearning heart again

The joy that is pure and holy.

In humble homes as in mansions rare

With light in the windows glowing,

We harbor the babes as sweet and fair

As flowers in meadows growing.

Oh, deign with these little ones to share

The joy from your message flowing.

Reveal the child in the manger still

With angels around Him singing

The song of God's glory, peace, good-will

That joy to all hearts is bringing,

While far over mountain, field and hill,

The bells are with gladness ringing.

God's angels with joy to earth descend

When hymns to His praise are chanted;

His comfort and peace our Lord will lend

To all who for peace have panted;

The portals of heaven open stand;

The Kingdom to us is granted.

In 1826 Grundtvig, as already related, published his hymns for the thousand years' festival of his church. But a few months later he again buried himself in his study, putting aside the lyre, which for a little while he had played so beautifully. Many had already noticed his hymns, however, and continued to plead with him for more. The new Evangelical revival, which he had largely inspired, intensified the general dissatisfaction with the rationalistic Evangelical Christian Hymnal, and called for hymns embodying the spirit of the new movement. And who could better furnish these than Grundtvig? Of those who pleaded with him for new hymns, none was more persistent than his friend, Pastor Gunni Busck. When Grundtvig wrote to him in 1832 that his Northern Mythology was nearing completion, Busck at once answered: |Do not forget your more important work; do not forget our old hymns! I know no one else with your ability to brush the dust off our old songs.| But Grundtvig was still too busy with other things to comply with the wish of his most faithful and helpful friend.

During the ensuing years, however, a few hymns occasionally appeared from his pen. A theological student, L. C. Hagen, secured a few adapted and original hymns from him for a small collection of Historical Hymns and Rhymes for Children, which was published in 1832. But the adaptations were not successful. Despite the good opinion of Gunni Busck, Grundtvig was too independent a spirit to adjust himself to the style and mode of others. His originals were much more successful. Among these we find such gems as |Mongst His Brothers Called the Little,| |Move the Signs of Grief and Mourning from the Garden of the Dead,| and |O Land of Our King,| hymns that rank with the finest he has written.

In 1835 Grundtvig at last wrote to Gunni Busck that he was now ready to commence the long deferred attempt to renew the hymnody of his church. Busck received the information joyfully and at once sent him a thousand dollars to support him during his work. Others contributed their mite, making Grundtvig richer financially than he had been for many years. He rented a small home on the shores of the Sound and began to prepare himself for the work before him by an extensive study of Christian hymnody, both ancient and modern.

|The old hymns sound beautiful to me out here under the sunny sky and with the blue water of the Sound before me,| he wrote to Busck. He did not spend his days day-dreaming, however, but worked with such intensity that only a year later he was able to invite subscriptions on the first part of his work. The complete collection was published in 1837 under the title: Songs of the Danish Church. It contains in all 401 hymns and songs composed of originals, translations and adaptations from Greek, Latin, German, Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, English and Scandinavian sources. The material is of very unequal merit, ranging from the superior to the commonplace. As originally composed, the collection could not be used as a hymnal. But many of the finest hymns now used in the Danish church have been selected or adapted from it.

Although Songs for the Danish Church is now counted among the great books in Danish, its appearance attracted little attention outside the circle of Grundtvig's friends. It was not even reviewed in the press. The literati, both inside and outside the church, still publicly ignored Grundtvig. But privately a few of them expressed their opinion about the work. Thus a Pastor P. Hjort wrote to Bishop Mynster, |Have you read Grundtvig's Songs of the Danish Church? It is a typical Grundtvigian book, wordy, ingenious, mystical, poetical and full of half digested ideas. His language is rich and wonderfully expressive. But he is not humble enough to write hymns.|

Meanwhile the demand for a new hymnal or at least for a supplement to the old had become so insistent that something had to be done. J. P. Mynster who, shortly before, had been appointed Bishop of Sjælland, favored a supplement and obtained an authorization from the king for the appointment of a committee to prepare it. The only logical man to head such a committee was, of course, Grundtvig. But Mynster's dislike of his volcanic relative was so deep-rooted that he was incapable of giving any recognition to him. And so in order to avoid a too obvious slight to his country's best known hymnwriter, he assigned the work to an already existing committee on liturgy, of which he himself was president. Thus Grundtvig was forced to sit idly by while the work naturally belonging to him was being executed by a man with no special ability for the task. The supplement appeared in 1843. It contained thirty-six hymns of which six were written by Kingo, seven by Brorson, and one by Grundtvig, the latter being, as Grundtvig humorously remarked, set to the tune of the hymn, |Lord, I Have Done Wrong.|

Mynster's influence was great enough to secure the supplement a wide circulation. The collection, nevertheless, failed to satisfy the need of the church. Dissatisfaction with it was so general that the pastors' conference of Copenhagen appointed a committee consisting of Grundtvig, Prof. Martensen, Mynster's own son-in-law, Rev. Pauli, his successor as Provost of the Church of Our Lady, and two other pastors to prepare and present a proposal for a new hymnal. It was an able committee from which a meritorious work might reasonably be expected.

Grundtvig was assigned to the important work of selecting and revising the old hymns to be included in the collection. He was an inspiring but at times difficult co-worker. Martensen recalls how Grundtvig at times aroused the committee to enthusiasm by an impromptu talk on hymnody or a recitation of one of the old hymns, which he loved so well. But he also recalls how he sometimes flared up and stormed out of the committee room in anger over some proposed change or correction of his work. When his anger subsided, however, he always conscientiously attempted to effect whatever changes the committee agreed on proposing. Yet excellent as much of his own work was, he possessed no particular gift for mending the work of others, and his corrections of one defect often resulted in another.

The committee submitted its work to the judgment of the conference in January 1845. The proposal included 109 hymns of which nineteen were by Kingo, seven by Brorson, ten by Ingemann, twenty-five by Grundtvig and the remainder by various other writers, old and new. It appeared to be a well balanced collection, giving due recognition to such newer writers as Boye, Ingemann, Grundtvig and others. But the conference voted to reject it. Admitting its poetical excellence and its sound Evangelical tenor, some of the pastors complained that it contained too many new and too few old hymns; others held that it bore too clearly the imprint of one man, a complaint which no doubt expressed the sentiment of Mynster and his friends. A petition to allow such churches as should by a majority vote indicate their wish to use the collection was likewise rejected by the Bishop.

Grundtvig was naturally disappointed by the rejection of a work upon which he had spent so much time and energy. The rejection furthermore showed him that he still could expect no consideration from the authorities with Mynster in control. He was soon able, however, to comfort himself with the fact that his hymns were becoming popular in private assemblies throughout the country, and that even a number of churches were beginning to use them at their regular services in defiance of official edicts. The demand for granting more liberty to the laymen in their church life, a demand Grundtvig long had advocated, was in fact becoming so strong that the authorities at times found it advisable to overlook minor infractions of official rulings. Noting this new policy, Grundtvig himself ventured to introduce some of the new hymns into his church. In the fall of 1845, he published a small collection of Christmas hymns to be used at the impending Christmas festival. When the innovation passed without objections, a similar collection of Easter hymns was introduced at the Easter services, after which other collections for the various seasons of the church year appeared quite regularly until all special prints were collected into one volume and used as |the hymnal of Vartov.|

The work of preparing a new authorized hymnal was finally given to Grundtvig's closest friend, Ingemann. This hymnal appeared in 1855, under the title, Roskilde Convent's Psalmbook. This book served as the authorized hymnal of the Danish church until 1899, when it was replaced by Hymnal for Church and Home, the hymnal now used in nearly all Danish churches both at home and abroad. It contains in all 675 hymns of which 96 are by Kingo, 107 by Brorson, 29 by Ingemann and 173 by Grundtvig, showing that the latter at last had been recognized as the foremost hymnwriter of the Danish church.

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