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Reforming Hymns

Nicolaus Gottschovius
Lupus Hellinck
Orlande de Lassus
Matthaeus le Maistre
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Mogens Pedersøn
Erasmus Rotenbucher
Arnolt Schlick
Ludwig Senfl
Johann Walter

Reforming Hymns

Fredrik Bock, Søren Christian Vestergaard, Musica Ficta, Bo Holten

★★★★★ »Academic reseach delivered at the highest level« Magasinet Klassisk
»It's a remarkably well-constructed programme« Gramophone Magazine

During the Reformation, hymns were used to alter the world view of the population. In Denmark, many of the hymns were adapted from mediaeval traditions or borrowed from other languages. As a result, hymns, too, were reformed to fit Protestant purposes. On this 30-track release, the Copenhagen-based vocal ensemble Musica Ficta join forces with the music scholar Bjarke Moe to explore the Danish Reformation hymnody from an international perspective, with links to European musical works from the 16th century.

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Like any good historical presentation, Reforming Hymns answers some questions and raises others
Tobias Lund, Sydsvenskan
Record of the Week: "This is one of the most "authentic" liturgical and musical reconstructions I have heard in recent years [...] and performance-wise it is perfect"
Robert Majewski, W Kulturalny Sposób
Fine performances take the listener on a well constructed journey through other European choral styles to the full blown Protestant hymn
Stephen Page, Lark Reviews
The direction of Bo Holten, at the head of the exquisite voices of the Musica Ficta ensemble, embodies the combination of luminous monophony and luscious polyphony in a perfect balance of passion and rationality
Marçal Borotau , Sonograma Magazine
It's a remarkably well-constructed programme
Fabrice Fitch, Gramophone
The disc includes some pieces by Mogens Pedersøn, the first Danish-born composer with a wide international contact network
Tidig Musik
The recording is characterized by a lovely, refreshing freedom of expression
Hans Tjalve, Custos
Musica Ficta and the choir's conductor Bo Holten are the ideal performers for this intoxicating music
Peter Dürrfeld, Kristeligt Dagblad
Academic reseach delivered at the highest level
Mikael Garnæs, Magasinet Klassisk
An extremely interesting album where musicological study and excellence in interpretation come together
Jerónimo Marín, Ritmo
For those who have a special interest in liturgical music this disc is one they should not miss
Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International
Total runtime: 
65 min.
Reforming Hymns

By Bjarke Moe

There is, naturally, only a small region of the world which sings in Danish. The hymns sung by religious communities during the time of the Reformation in Denmark were, for the most part, borrowed from other languages and used with existing melodies. When they were translated or rewritten in the local mother tongue, ordinary people could follow them, so the songs of the Danish communities were, in their origins and use, tightly bound to European traditions.

Before the Danish Reformation was established by law in 1536, there were already hymn books in Danish, most of them with little or no musical notation. The melodies were taught by ear, and at first there was no great demand for the songs to be presented in print. Furthermore, a great number of the hymns which the new church made use of were based on melodies that were already known. In 1569 the most comprehensive collection of hymns up to that date was published, with neatly printed notes showing the status of hymn singing. The book, which was published by the Copenhagen Provost, Hans Thomissøn (1532–1573) was the first to receive royal authorisation. The book brought forward a rich legacy from the mediaeval church and at the same time laid out important lines for hymn singing, right through to the 21st century.

Singing professionals
A substantial part of singing in the new Protestant church was built on strong musical traditions from the Middle Ages. Many of the songs which bore the Reformation’s message were reworkings of Gregorian chants. The origin of the melodies were often unknown, but had been ascribed to Pope Gregor the Great around the year 600. Over centuries, these monophonic melodies had been sung by the clergy, priests, monks, nuns and professional musicians, throughout the church year.

Many of the Middle Age’s ceremonial routines were preserved through the Reformation. When Odense’s Bishop Niels Jespersen (1518–1587) in 1573 laid out a plan of the chants for all the Sundays and feasts of the year, it included Latin songs from the Middle Ages which still formed the backbone of the Mass. At the beginning of the church year, the choir in the churches of the towns or the clerk in the country parishes, should join in singing David’s psalm 24 Ad te leuaui animam meam. Jespersen found the Gregorian melodies worth retaining; they embodied the sound of true Christianity. In addition, these songs were ‘highly serviceable and useful in the church’.

The Gregorian melodies permeated the Reformation century’s church music, along with the large-scale polyphonic works composed by the era’s church musicians. The court chapel master in Munich, Orlande de Lassus (c. 1532–1594), wrote many motets, wide-ranging vocal compositions which often built on texts from the Bible, according to the calendar of Mass celebrations over the church year. This is the case with the motet on Ad te leuaui animam meam, which includes the relevant Gregorian melody. These motifs are used by Lassus as building blocks in his polyphonic composition, taking off from the liturgical melody which was used across Europe on the first Sunday of Advent.

The hymn Conditor alme siderum was also used at Advent. It had its origins in the 6th century, and the Danish reworking, O Stierners skaber i Himmelske huss, was made by the Bishop of Ribe, Hans Tausen (1494–1561). In the motet, which builds on the same hymn, Ludwig Senfl (1486–c. 1543) brings the melody in canon in two of the voices. Senfl worked in the Holy Roman (German) imperial court for many years, and was in close contact with Martin Luther (1483–1546), who prized his music highly. A copy of the work can be found in some part-books which come from the court of Christian III, an example of a work from an international repertoire which found its way to Denmark.

From professional to congregational singing
The Protestant service was built upon the Roman Mass. In the first section of the service the congregation’s responses are led by the priest with the Greek Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy. The Kyrie melody, as in the Roman church’s Graduale Romanum, known as Kyrie Missa II, embodies the melody’s basic form. The melody had long been used by the Catholic church, for example in a Mass composed by the Roman chapel master, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594), in which fragments of the melody are included. Besides the original form of the old melody with its entirely plain text, Kyrie eleision, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison, there is a wordy Latin trope which fill in the lengthy tones held on the same syllable. This Kyrie fons bonitatis is known from the 900s, and remained in use in Denmark after the Reformation as, for instance, a solemn chant for Pentecost.

For the greatest part of the church year, Danish texts to the old Kyrie melodies were used, and these Danish translations show the transference from professional Gregorian chant to a more popular style of singing. The Kyrie melody with its following sentence,Gud Fader allsom høyeste trøst, is the same as Kyrie fons bonitatis, but now with its text in Danish. This was to be used more than 40 times during the year, according to Jespersen’s scheme.

A five-part setting from 1620, composed on this Kyrie melody by the Danish royal vice chapel master, Mogens Pedersøn (c. 1583–1623), has been preserved. The movement shows that professionals were not content to sing the melodies in unison. Pedersøn himself proposed that the five-part movement should be sung on Pentecost, perhaps in place of the monophonic melody. The idea was probably that the fuller five-part version of the melody would cast an additional gloss on the service for one of the year’s greatest feasts. In this way, polyphony became a replacement for the wordy Latin trope.

From secular song to hymn
Another important musical current which was intended to carry the Protestant message was the use of secular melodies. From the beginning of the Reformation movement in the 1520s, hymns can be found which are rewritings of secular ballads. One of those who made a speciality of this was Hans Sachs (1494–1576). It was he who, in a long poem about Luther and the Reformation, described Luther as ‘The Wittenberg Nightingale’. Sachs transcribed secular ballads as hymns and published them; many of them found their way into the Danish hymnbooks. One of the old songs that Sachs reworked was Maria Zart/ von edler art, which became, in Sachs’ version, a song to Jesus. A Danish translation of O Jesu bold met megit vold appeared early on in the Reformation, and the melody was also used for other texts, showing the significance that popular melodies had to the Reformation movement. A newly written hymntext, Ich seüfftz vnd klag/ vil lannger tag, used the same melody.

O Christe huor vaar din kundskaff is another hymn which Sachs based on a ballad, Rosina, wo was dein Gestalt. In the original poem, the singer tells Rosina that if Prince Paris had seen her, he would certainly have given her his apple, the one he was meant to give to the most beautiful woman. Sachs’ hymn paraphrases this story of Paris with a somewhat polemical rhetoric, stating that, if the Roman Catholic popes had really understood Christ, they would not have behaved as they did.

The singing of hymns also happened outside church walls. In his hymnbook, Thomissøn wrote that it could be used in churches, schools and houses. This is a key to understanding that hymns and songs permeated daily life in 16th century Denmark, in people’s houses, in their own homes. The hymns were used for private acts of devotion, so Thomissøn’s hymnbook contained songs for prayers at the dinner table, morning and evening songs and hymns to accompany virtually every event in a person’s life, from the cradle to the grave.

Dig Herre mild/ ieg tacke vil is a combined morning and evening song from Thomissøn’s hymnbook. The melody comes from an art-ballad tradition, with melodies that were designed to be sung by professional singers in a decorated and virtuoso style. This type of melody was not necessarily in an ordinary congregation’s repertoire, but the melodies could be used at home by those possessing the aptitude.

In especially musical homes, people also sang polyphonic settings of the hymns. The two-part movement, Von edler art/ geporen ward, builds on the before-mentioned art-ballad melody. The text deals with the baby Jesus, and the setting shows that such melodies flourished in Protestant circles, and that in the 16th century, they were popular in musical gatherings, in pairs.

The Reformation’s new core hymns
In the chorale book used by the Danish folk church today, there are 58 melodies that were in Thomissøn’s hymn book. This constitutes around a quarter of Thomissøn’s melodies, evidence that his hymnbook has provided a solid foundation for hymn singing in Denmark for 450 years. Seen from a contemporary perspective, hymns like Fader vor udi Himmerig, Nu bede vi den helligånd and Krist lå i dødsens bånde can be seen as core hymns of the Lutheran tradition. Their significance was already established in the 16th century, perhaps earlier for the two last-mentioned hymns.

Boys attending the Latin schools in the Danish market towns were at the heart of the choirs which sang in churches. There was singing on the school timetable every day in the Latin schools, an hour or two. The schools’ values were based on Lutheran theology, which described singing as an effective means of spreading the gospel, and music as beneficial to the individual: Luther thought that music drove out evil, and led one to good thoughts.

This is expressed particularly clearly in the so-called Wittenberg Choral Song Book, the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein by composer Johann Walter (1496–1570). The collection first came out in 1524 with a foreword by Luther, and contains 43 four- and five-part compositions, mostly based on the newly written Protestant hymns which Luther and his circle produced in 1523 and 1524. The publication stands as an icon for Lutheran music. The collection presented the new Protestant hymns, not for use by congregations, but for choral performance. Luther argued that the hymns could be sung as polyphonic settings in order to draw young people into the music. A hymn was not only a monophonic melody to be sung by the congregation together: it was a setting-off point for many different edifying actions, including polyphonic singing.

Fader vor vdi Himmerig is the Danish translation of Luther’s pedagogic rewriting of the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples. Each of the nine stanzas cite and explains a line of the prayer. The melody, which is thought to have been written by Luther himself, has become the basis for many compositions. Mogens Pedersøn’s five-part setting continues the Walter practice of polyphonic settings of choral melodies. An anonymous organ chorale from Gdańsk, on the other hand, embodies a form of musical reflection on the chorale that is not strongly tied to the rituals of the church.

Nu bede wi den hellig Aand was one of the most frequently used hymns at the time of the Reformation. The first stanza is known in German right back to the 13th century, while the melody can be traced back to the 15th century. Luther revised the old stanza and wrote poetry for three more. His hymn was printed in 1524 and was already issued in Danish just five years later. According to Jespersen, it should be sung around 55 times each year.

Walter’s setting of Nu bitten wyr den heyligen geyst is the first in his iconic choir book, and gives us an impression of the importance of this hymn. Walter’s successor as court chapel master to the Elector of Dresden was Matthaeus le Maistre (c. 1505–1577). He wrote numerous vocal compositions based on the Lutheran hymns. His six-part piece on Nv bitten wir den heiligen Geist is an ingenious construction around two parts which present the chorale melody in canon. Mogens Pedersøn also made a polyphonic setting of the hymn.

Luther’s hymn, Christ lag ynn todes banden, is a reworking of a mediaeval Easter hymn, that is to say, a popular religious song characterized by its closing line, Kyrie eleison or a shortened Kyrieleis, hence the description leise. The Danish translation, Christ laa i Dødsens baande, is known from the oldest preserved Danish hymnbook, dating from 1529. Luther’s German hymn is printed in four- and five-part settings in Walter’s collection (  and  ). An organ piece on the melody close the circle, as it’s based on a choral piece from a collection of the same type as Walter’s, published specifically for the benefit of German school pupils.

‘To each his own’
Today we sing hymns in a different way to that adopted over 450 years ago. Many things have changed since then, and one is that our ideal now prescribes that we sing them in time, together, and in the same way as each other. We can see that things were done differently during the Reformation if we look at the relationship between the text and the notes in the old hymnbooks.

As poetry, the Reformation’s Danish hymns are characterized by their rhythmic freedom. What structures the poems are the stressed syllables; the unstressed ones are free to vary in number and placing, so the relationship between the syllables and the notes can differ from stanza to stanza. Hymns are no longer like that. After the metrical reform in the 17th century, the Reformation’s hymns were written out in a form that is closer to our modern practice. The difference between then and now is also visible in those monophonic hymns, and whose melodies are still in use today. There were no strict rules for how the text should be distributed, so to show how a varied number of syllables can be included in a melody, in this recording we sing all seven verses of the hymn, Christe du est den klare dag. For a singing congregation, this freedom meant that everyone could sing the hymn in their own way. The important thing was not the shared singing, but that everyone took part in the service.

The text of the hymn is based on the mediaeval hymn, Christe qui lux es et dies, while the melody is built on a secular precursor. The hymn was included in many different hymn books during the first century of the Reformation, so we can see how it, like many other hymns, was sung in widely differing ways. The hymn was also used in vocal compositions. The organist from Rostock, Nicolaus Gottschovius (1575–c. 1620), often composed large-scale motets. In Christ der du bist der helle tag he uses Walter’s basic technique of quoting the whole melody, from one end to the other. At the same time he combines Walter’s practice with the freer style we hear in Orlande de Lassus’s motet.

Release date: 
January 2023
Cat. No.: 
Jewel Case
Track count: 


Recorded at KoncertKirken, Copenhagen, on 6–8 January 2022 and at Trinitatis Kirke, Copenhagen, on 19 February 2022

Recording producer: Viggo Mangor
Sound engineering, editing, mix and mastering: Viggo Mangor

℗ & © 2023 Dacapo Records, Copenhagen

Idea, research and curation: Bjarke Moe, PhD in musicology with special focus on music history in Denmark and northern Europe. He is senior editor at Society for Danish Language and Literature.

Reforming Hymns, by Bjarke Moe, translated from the Danish by Colin Roth
Proofreaders: Jens Fink-Jensen, Hayden Jones

Released in cooperation with Society for Danish Language and Literature,

The CD is resulting from the research project “Music and Language in Danish Reformation Hymns” carried out by Society for Danish Language and Literature. See further material on:

With support from Carlsbergfondet, Velux Fonden, Dansk Tennis Fond and Koda Kultur