Saturday, November 22, 2008

"If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee": A World-Travelled Hymn by Catherine Winkworth

Our big research project for Church Music Colloquium this term was to research a hymn text and write an article about it. The article was to be the kind of thing you would find as introductory material to a text in a hymn companion; providing background information on the text and author and information about where and how it is used. I really enjoyed doing this project and was able to dive into journals, other hymn companions, and various online resources. It's a great thing to know how to do as a musician, because every hymn and piece of music has a story, and it's really enriching to begin to uncover that story before performing it.

Dr. Hawn really liked my paper. :) We all have to edit our papers down and then we'll get them published in a United Methodist magazine (I think like The Presbyterian Record for the UMC).

So for those who are interested, here is my paper on "If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee," translated by Catherine Winkworth (of "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star," and "Now Thank We All Our God" fame).

In their 1998 article for Music Reference Services Quarterly, William E. Studwell and Dorothy Jones lament the relative obscurity of translators, noting by way of illustration that the benchmark Library of Congress system neglects making them a catalogue access point.[1] However, Studwell and Jones uphold Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) as an important exception. Scholar and hymn writer Erik Routley posits that what John Mason Neale (1818-1866) and company were to the translation of Latin and Greek hymns in the mid-nineteenth century, so near its end Catherine Winkworth was to the promulgation of German hymnody in English.[2] At a time when increasing interest in the scholarship and theology of continental Europe meant the Protestant church in Britain was taking a particular interest in the Pietism of Germany, Winkworth sought to explore the hymn texts of "the real birthplace of congregational hymnody."[3] Today, to say Winkworth's translations are well-known in English-speaking European and North American congregations would be an understatement, and through her craft they stand alone as texts in their own right. However, her original intent was not the publication and dissemination of the hymns; she undertook the translation of nearly 400 texts by some 170 authors as a personal devotional exercise, the manipulation of the language (of which she was expertly skilled) being an end in itself.[4] She published her first volume, Lyra Germanica, in 1855, and in 1858 followed it with Lyra Germanica: Second Series: The Christian Life. Both of these contained verse translations without music. The latter contains a single text by poet Georg Neumark, "If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee".

Neumark (1621-1681) wrote his original text ("Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten") in 1641 and published it in Jena in 1657 in his Fortgepflantzter musikalisch-poetischer Lustwald, in seven verses of six lines to an original tune in g-minor (usually identified as Wer nur den lieben Gott). The tune is in a dance-like triple meter and is in bar form. The occasion of its composition was his appointment as tutor in the household of judge Stephan Henning at Kiel,[5] a point of much relief for him after a period of misfortune and instability. His text – which he referred to as a Trostlied or song of consolation[6] – admonishes Christians to truly put their faith in God. Based on parts of Psalm 55 as well as the Epistle for the fifth Sunday after Trinity (1 Peter 3:8-15), which contains instructions to honour life and seek peace, it is especially poignant in light of its being written during the violence of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). The haunting melody has been used in various contexts: J. S. Bach's Cantata BWV 93 employs the full text, and the final chorale of his Trauungskantate BWV 197 modifies Neumark's final verse in order suit the sacrament of marriage.[7] The hymn is also featured in the 1987 Academy Award-winning film Babettes Gœstebud (Babette’s Feast) with text in Danish, and thus has traveled, to quote hymnologist Lawrence L. Lohr, "from Jena in Germany to Oscar night in Hollywood."[8]

Winkworth's translation first appeared in her earlier Lyra Germanica, in what is now a less familiar version that opens with "Leave God to order all thy ways." In praise of this work, Jane Stuart Smith and Betty Carlson note that Winkworth "had a special gift for serving the spirit of the great German hymns while translating them."[9] Routley points out that in translating, Winkworth often ignored the German meters.[10] Indeed, Winkworth herself is quoted as saying that "a hymn that sounds popular and homelike in its own language must sound so in ours if it is to be really available for devotional purposes, and it seems to me allowable for this object to make such alterations in the meter as lie in the different nature of the language."[11] Later, encouraged by musicians and convinced it would meet a need, Winkworth in 1863 published the famous Chorale-Book for England containing around 200 of her translations set to music. In this book appears her more familiar treatment of Neumark's text, readjusted to fit the meter of his tune. In style her translations reflect the Pietistic tenor of the time and her Evangelical Lutheran upbringing, and are sincere, devotional and direct. Hymnologist John Julian states in his Dictionary of Hymnology that "they have had more to do with the modern revival of the English use of German hymns than the versions of any other writer."[12] When it has been included in English-language hymnals, "If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee" has usually been cut down to three or four stanzas – most often stanzas 1, 2, 3 (or 6), and 7. More recently, Neumark’s tune was set to a text in the Book of Praise (Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997) by American hymn writer Pat Michaels which explores the many faces of healing (“Sometimes a Healing Word is Comfort”). While the original text stresses trust in God and waiting for God to bring comfort in God’s own time, Michael’s text explores the human aspect of caring, peace and justice. This fresh new text stands in contrast to the notably Victorian syntax of Winkworth’s treatment. Opinions are divided on how best to content with the now somewhat dated language of Winkworth’s translations; some hymnals include her text largely in its original form but with andro-centric language for God altered (as in The United Methodist Hymnal of 1989).

Though she struggled throughout her life with frailness due to continual illness, Catherine Winkworth's output was prolific and she enjoyed a measure of renown in her own time. She was also, in the words of religious scholar Martin E. Marty, "a pioneer in women's higher education, a founder of Clifton High School, and she prepared the ground for the establishment of the University College at Bristol."[13] In his preface to Paul Westermeyer's book With Tongues of Fire: Profiles in 20th-Century Hymn Writing, Marty recalls seeing at a church picnic a one-act play with an all-female cast – admittedly, he notes, of questionable quality – in which Winkworth was the heroine.[14] He characterizes Winkworth as a sort of "proto-feminist"[15]; one who was a proponent of young women making the journey into the city to obtain an education, and who was possessed of "a hunger for learning and self-expression."[16]

The web-based Dictionary of North American Hymnology (, a project of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, identifies 104 hymnals in which Winkworth's "If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee" has appeared between 1867 (its first North American publication, in The Book of Worship by Clark and Maynard in New York) and 1976.[17] Though Lohr notes that Neumark’s text is less commonly used than some of Winkworth's other translations (notably "Now Thank We All Our God" and "Oh Morning Star, how Fair and Bright") it has been a cherished hymn for German-speaking congregations over the centuries,[18] and is an excellent and satisfying text which still resonates today. As noted sacred music scholar Robin A. Leaver expressed in his book on Catherine Winkworth, she "faithfully transplanted Germany's best hymns and made them bloom with fresh beauty in their new gardens."[18] The seed Winkworth planted blooms anew each time "If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee" is sung for personal devotion or congregational praise.

[1] Dorothy Jones and William E. Studwell, “Catherine Winkworth and Theodore Baker: Translators Extraordinary,” Music Reference Services Quarterly 6 no. 4 (April 1998): 39.
[2] Eric Routley, “Hymns from German and Italian Sources,” in A Panorama of Christian Hymnody (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2005), 179.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Betty Carlson and Jane Stuart Smith, Great Christian Hymn Writers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 185.
[5] John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology: Setting Forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of All Ages and Nations, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1907), 796.
[6] Lawrence L. Lohr, “’If Thou but Suffer God to Guide Thee’: The Journey of a Lutheran Hymn,” The Hymn 49, no. 3 (July 1998): 30.
[7] Ibid., 31.
[8] Ibid., 33.
[9] Carlson and Stuart, 183.
[10] Routley, 179.
[11] Margaret J. Shaen, review of “Memorials of Two Sisters: Susanna and Catherine Winkworth,” in The Musical Times 50, no 793 (Mark 1, 1909): 171-172.
[12] Julian, 185.
[13] Paul Westermeyer, With Tongues of Fire: Profiles in 20th-Century Hymn Writing (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1995), 7.
[14] Westermeyer, 7.
[15] Ibid., 8.
[16] Ibid.
[17] The Dictionary of North American Hymnology,
[18] Robin A. Leaver, Catherine Winkworth – The Influence of Her Translations on English Hymnody (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1987), quoted in Carlson and Smith, 183.

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