To start out a new year, I turn to a favorite hymn tune. That tune is “Laßt uns erfreuen” from a German hymn, first printed in 1623 and revised to the form in which we know it now in 1625. It was a hymn of the Counter-Reformation and therefore was for Catholic use. The first stanza mentions Mary in its second line, something that you would definitely not find in a contemporary Lutheran hymn text.
Laßt uns erfreuen herzlich sehr. Let us rejoice most heartily.
Maria seuftzt und weint nicht mehr. Mary sighs and weeps no more.
Verschwunden alle Nebel sein. All clouds have now disappeared.
Jetzt scheint der lieben Sonnenschein. And the lovely shining sun now gleams.
Words from Catholische Kirchen Gesäng, Cologne, 1625.
The tune first gained wide acceptance in the English-speaking world in 1906 when it appeared in the first printing of The English Hymnal, harmonized by Ralph Vaughan Williams. At this time, it appeared with the text “Ye watchers and ye holy ones.” This hymnal was intended for use by the Church of England, which is Protestant (Anglican), but it was also adopted by a good number of Catholic congregations in England as well.
This tune is sung with a number of English texts. I have chosen one that is based on St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun. He is said to have written in 1225 in San Damiano at the Convent of St. Clare, near Assisi. The most striking feature of his text is his praise to “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” and personifications of the four elements: wind, water, fire, and “Mother Earth.” The translation used with this tune is by William Henry Draper (1855 – 1933) an English hymnwriter and vicar. His translation is usually sung in five verses, the last half of the final verse being a paraphrased Gloria Patri or Lesser Doxology. The italicized words are added in the same place in each verse but are only put into the first verse for conciseness.
All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voice and with us sing:
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
thou silver moon with softer gleam.
O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Thou rushing wind that art so strong,
ye clouds that sail in heav’n along,
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice,
ye lights of evening, find a voice.
Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
make music for thy Lord to hear,
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
that givest man both warmth and light.
And all ye men of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part,
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
praise God and on him cast your care.
Let all things their Creator bless,
and worship him in humbleness,
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
and praise the Spirit, three in one.
Being found in hundreds of hymnals and sung in most Christian denominations both Protestant and Catholic, this hymn is very recognizable to many people who aren’t churchgoers as well. Perhaps its most irreverent use was in the pilot episode of the Britcom Mr. Bean, where the title character, played by Rowan Atkinson, goes to church and rises to sing this hymn. Not having a copy of the hymnal and being unable to share, the only words he knows are the “alleluias” which he sings very loudly. Those of us who have watched the show and who have to keep a straight face while playing or singing the hymn in the course of worship have our work cut out for us!