(From heaven above to earth I come)
It would not be proper to celebrate Christmas in this Reformation anniversary year 2017 without singing Luther's famous Christmas song, well-known in all Lutheran countries, and part of it, as we shall see, in Scotland, too.
The song is based on St. Luke's Gospel, 2:8–18. The first five verses tell of the angels' message to the shepherds. The following verses are an invitation to follow the shepherds to the manger and worship the Christ-child. The last verse is a short doxology wishing all a happy New Year.
It is thought that Martin Luther wrote 'Vom Himmel hoch' in 1534 for the Christmas celebration in his own family circle. It is also likely that Luther had in mind a dramatic representation, with a soloist dressed as an angel, and everyone else dressed as shepherds.
The song was first published as a hymn with all 15 verses in the 'Wittenberg Hymnal' of 1535, with the title 'A children's song on the Nativity of Christ'. In that publication, the text was coupled to the melody of the then well-known secular song 'Ich kumm aus fremden Landen her' ('I am from foreign lands').
Then, in 1539, the hymn was published with a new melody that was most probably composed by Luther himself. This is the melody now universally associated with the text, familiar from chorale preludes by Bach, Buxtehude and others.
The Scottish Connection
The 1567 second edition of the 'Gude and Godlie Ballatis' (good and godly ballads) contained a Scots translation of 'Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her' with the title 'Followis ane sang of the birth of Christ, with the tune of Baw lula low' (Here follows a song of the birth of Christ, [to be sung] to the tune of Balulalow: cf CH4 297). The translators were the Wedderburn brothers, John, Robert and James, all Scottish Lutherans from Dundee who had spent some time in Wittenburg from 1540 onwards, during Luther's lifetime.
Verses 13 and 14 then detached themselves from the rest of the hymn and took on an independent life as a 'Scottish' lullaby, 'O my deir hart, yung Jesus sweit' (Oh, my dear heart, young Jesus sweet). With their newly-acquired 'Scottish' identity, these two verses became known as 'Balulalow'. Peter Warlock set them in 1919, and Benjamin Britten in 'A Ceremony of Carols' (1942).
Church Hymnary, Fourth Edition (CH4), the Church of Scotland's hymn book, gives part of the hymn in Scots at 297 and in English at 298, with the tune named 'Balulalow' from John Gamble's Commonplace-Book (ca.1660). This seventeenth-century manuscript collection of songs is now in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (Drexel 4257).
'Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her'
English Translation by Catherine Winkworth (1855)
Scots translation by John or Robert Wedderburn in 'The Gude and Godlie Ballatis' (1578 edition as in CH4 297, text in italics added from 1567 edition)
1. From heaven above to earth I come
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
Whereof I now will say and sing:
I come from hevin [heich] to tell
the best nowells that e'er befell.
To you thir tythings trew I bring
and I will of them say and sing.
2. To you this night is born a child
Of Mary, chosen mother mild;
This little child, of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all your earth.
This day to you is born ane Child
of Marie meik and Virgin mild.
That blissit bairn bening and kind, bening and kind,
sall you rejoyce baith hart and mind.
3. 'Tis Christ our God who far on high
Hath heard your sad and bitter cry;
Himself will your Salvation be,
Himself from sin will make you free.
It is the Lord, Christ, God and Man,
He will do for zow quhat he can:
Him self zour Sauiour will be,
Fra sin and hell, to mak zow fre.
4. He brings those blessings, long ago
Prepared by God for all below;
Henceforth His kingdom open stands
To you, as to the angel bands.
He is zour rucht Saluatioun,
From euerlasting Dampnatioun:
That ze may Ring in gloir and blis,
For euer mair in heuin with his.
5. These are the tokens ye shall mark,
The swaddling clothes and manger dark;
There shall ye find the young child laid,
By whom the heavens and earth were made.
Ze sall him find, but mark or wying,
Full sempill in ane Cribe lying:
Sa lyis he quhilk zow hes wrocht,
And all this warld maid of nocht.
6. Now let us all with gladsome cheer
Follow the shepherds, and draw near
To see this wondrous gift of God
Who hath His only Son bestowed.
Lat us rejoyis now and be blyth
and with the Hyrdis go full swyth
and see what Godis grace hes done
throu Christ to bring us to his throne.
7. Give heed, my heart, lift up thine eyes!
Who is it in yon manger lies?
Who is this child so young and fair?
The blessed Christ-child lieth there.
My saull and life stand up and see
wha lyis in ane cribbe of tree.
What Babe is that, sa gude and fair? sa gude and fair?
It is Christ, Godis Son and Air.
8. Welcome to earth, Thou noble guest,
Through whom e'en wicked men are blest!
Thou com'st to share our misery,
What can we render, Lord, to Thee!
Welcome now, gracious God of mycht,
To sinnaris vyle, pure and vnricht.
Thow come to saif vs from distres,
How can we thank thy gentilnes?
9. Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How hast Thou made Thee weak and small,
That Thou must choose Thy infant bed
Where ass and ox but lately fed!
O God that maid all Creature,
How art thow now becumit sa pure,
That on the hay and stray will ly,
Amang the Assis, Oxin and Ky?
10. Were earth a thousand times as fair,
Beset with gold and jewels rare,
She yet were far too poor to be
A narrow cradle, Lord, for Thee.
And war the warld ten times sa wide
cled ouer with gold and stanes of pride
unworthie yit it were to thee,
under they feet ane stule to be.
11. For velvets soft and silken stuff
Thou hast but hay and straw so rough,
Whereon Thou King, so rich and great,
As 'twere Thy heaven, art throned in state.
The silk and sandell thee to eis
ar hay and sempill sweilling clais
wharin thou gloris greitest King
as thou in hev'n war in thy ring.
12. Thus hath it pleased Thee to make plain
The truth to us poor fools and vain,
That this world's honour, wealth and might
Are nought and worthless in Thy sight.
Thow tuke sic panis temporall,
To mak me ryche perpetuall.
For all this warldis welth and gude,
Can na thing ryche thy celsitude.
13. Ah! dearest Jesus, Holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
O my deir hart, yung Jesus sweit
prepair thy creddill in my spreit!
And I sall rock thee in my hart
and never mair fra thee depart.
14. My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep;
I too must sing with joyful tongue
That sweetest ancient cradle-song.
Bot I sall praise thee evermoir
with sangis sweit unto thy gloir.
The kneis of my hart sall I bow,
and sing that rycht Balulalow.
15. Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto man His Son hath given!
While angels sing with pious mirth
A glad New Year to all the earth.
Gloir be to God Eternallie,
Quhilk gaif his onlie Sone for me:
The angellis Joyis for to heir,
The gracious gift of this new Zeir.
(Note that 'z' in modern English becomes 'y': i.e. 'zow' = 'thou')
Click here for Organ Music at St. Mary's Church, Dalmahoy, during December and January