Philipp Nicolai, Hymnwriter
26 October 1608
One of the great treasures of the Christian church is its hymns, and one of the greatest contributions to that treasure is that of the early Lutheran writers, beginning with Martin Luther and reaching a peak with J S Bach. Today the Lutheran church remembers three outstanding hymn-writers from Germany in the 1600's.

Philipp Nicolai was born in 1556 in Germany, son of a Lutheran pastor. He studied theology at the universities of Erfurt and Wittenberg, 1575-1579, and became a pastor himself. It was a time of religious wars in Europe, and several times he had to flee or go into hiding and minister to his congregations secretly in house meetings. He was a theological writer, defending Lutheran theology chiefly against Calvinistic opponents. He also preached with great power and effectiveness. In 1588 he became pastor at Altwildungen, in 1596 he became pastor at Unna in Westphalia, and in 1601 pastor in Hamburg. But he is remembered today for writing two hymns.

While he was pastor in Westphalia, the plague took 1300 of his parishioners, mostly in the latter half of 1597, 170 in one week. To comfort his parishioners, he wrote a series of meditations which he called Freudenspiegel (Mirror of Joy), and to this he appended two hymns, both of which have become world-famous.

The first hymn was, "Wake, awake, for night is flying" (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme). It uses the image of the watchman on a city wall (Isaiah 52:8), and of the Parable of the Bridesmaids welcoming the Bridegroom to the Marriage Feast (Matthew 25:1-13), and of the Song of Triumph in Heaven (Revelation 19:6-9). It is a favorite Advent hymn.

The second hymn was, "How bright appears the morning star" (Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern). This also, with a wealth of imagery, hails Christ as our deliverer, and celebrates his triumph. It has become a favorite wedding hymn, but is also sung for Advent, for Christmas, for Epiphany, and and as a general hymn of praise.

Nicolai wrote both the words and the tunes, but the arrangements we know are due to Bach. The earliest English translations are those of Catherine Winkworth, but there have been many translations since, some of them (especially for the second hymn) content to reproduce the general spirit of the original words rather than their specific meaning. In addition, several hymnwriters have set their own words (in various languages) to one of Nicolai's tunes. If pure quality, without respect to quantity, were our criterion, Nicolai would have to be ranked as history's greatest chorale-writer, and one of its greatest hymn-writers.

Nicolai died 26 October 1608 after a brief (four-day) illness.

Johann Heermann, Hymnwriter
Johann Heermann was born in Silesia in Germany in 1585, the fifth and only surviving child of his parents. As a child he suffered a severe illness, and his mother vowed that if he lived he would be trained for the ministry. He became a minister, and taught at the university, but was forced to stop in 1607 because of an eye infection. In 1611 he became deacon and then pastor of the Lutheran church in the small town of Koeben near his birthplace. The Thirty Years' War was then in progress, and Koeben was burned in 1616, plundered four times between 1629 and 1634, and ravaged by pestilence in 1631. Heermann several times was forced to flee, narrowly excaping death and losing all his possessions. In 1634 a throat problem forced him to stop preaching, and he retired in 1638 and died in 1647.

During the preceding century, during and immediately following the Lutheran Reformation, most Lutheran hymns had been "objective," affirming the doctrines of the faith, but not explicitly stating an emotional response. Heermann's hymns move toward the expression of the feelings of the believer.

His best-known hymn (in English circles) is "Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?" (Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen), a Passion Chorale used by Bach in the St Matthew Passion. It is loosely based on a Latin verse (beginning "Quid commisisti, dulcissime puer, ut sic judicareris?"), variously attributed to Augustine and to Anselm, but now to Jean de Fecamp (d. 1078). The tune, by Johann Crueger, is perhaps indebted to Psalm 23 of the Geneva Psalter. Other hymns of his include: