The friends of song

In our search for the context in which the choral cantatas were composed, we are trying to follow the traces of the hymnological discussions. Here, too, surprising insights are emerging, which Lydia will later incorporate into a larger article. For the readers of our website, however, this is just a taster. Who talked to who? And how did they correspond with eachother? And what were these conversations about, apart from discussing the content of the songs? It turned out that the way the early hymnologists presented their research was also an important topic. Their aim was to explain the individual songs, but how best to publish them? The ergonomics of songbook commentaries, in other words.

In search of the best presentation form

We have already provided information about Enoch Zobel and Johann Christoph Olearius. But there are other theologians who were also involved in ‘hymnology’. The protagonists of this group of ‘Lieder-Freunde’ (friends of songs) in the early days of hymnology searched together for the best way to organise this information per song. They wrote open letters to each other, provided explanations in the prefaces of local or regional hymnals and published in scholarly journals, which also emerged at this time. The most useful final result for Bach research can be found in Johann Martin Schamel(ius) Evangelischer Lied-Commentarius of 1724, but what attempts preceded this publication between 1690 and 1724? These ‘Lieder-Freunde’ are  in the picture till now, but research continues. New discoveries are being made:

  • Enoch Zobel drew up a programme of requirements in 1690 as to which aspects of the oldest Protestant songs should be investigated.
  • Johann Benedikt Carpzov (1639-1699) wrote an annual series of hymn sermons in 1689/1690 with the aim of better explaining ambiguities in hymns. This series was published posthumously in 1706.
  • Johann Christoph Olearius wrote a Kurtzer Entwurf (brief outline) for a ‘song library’ to be compiled (1702). He then actively collected these songs. He tracked down first editions of songs and song collections, mainly to find out the correct text and author.
    Olearius searched through many collections of sermons and the so-called Leichenpredigten (funeral sermons). These often contained many explanations of the hymns, with a personal note about the deceased’s use of the hymn as a consolation in life and death. But he also criticised them. They were a. confusing, b. not comprehensive about an entire song and usually contained little information about the lyricist.
  • Georg Serpilius (1668-1723) from Regensburg commented on Olearius’ Kurtzer Entwurf. He makes a suggestion in his Zufällige Gedancken (1703), using the hymn Nun komm der Heiden Heiland as an example (including the notes on Ambrosius’ original hymn, this example runs to no less than 150 pages!)
  • Georg Heinrich Götze (1667-1728) from Lübeck suggested to Olearius that he collect and publish the prefaces from the various hymnals, as not everyone was able to buy them or make them accessible. In his opinion, the prefaces in particular contained important arguments for the preservation of good hymns.
  • Olearius’ answer is a complete republication of the preface from the Coburg hymnal by Caspar Finck from 1622, which Olearius included in his four-volume Evangelischer Lieder-Schatz (1707). He dedicated part 1 to Götze and Serpilius).
    Olearius provides information on each hymn: Information about the author and the origin of the hymn, sources from other authors/hymnologists who have already written what is necessary to know about the hymn, events from the tradition in which the hymn played a role, which above all should emphasise the “Sitz im Leben” of the hymn, a schematic representation of the structure and interpretation of the hymn (Dispositio).
  • The question that these Lieder-Freunde discuss with each other is: How can the information per song be presented in a compact form?
  • In a letter to Olearius in 1706, Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756) suggested using the Weimar Bible (the Luther Bible published in Weimar in 1534) as a model. The hymnal could then be provided with marginal notes.
  • David Heermann (1655-1720) wrote his Erklärter Lieder-Schatz, which was published posthumously in 1722. In it, he gave brief explanations of each hymn in footnotes.
  • Johann Martin Schamel(ius) (1668-1742) attempted a different form in the Naumburgisches Gesangbuch, his hymnals of 1712 and 1717. He then found an improved solution in his Evangelischer Lieder-Commentarius of 1724, in which he provided each hymn verse with a simple explanation of the words directly below the verse and a more detailed commentary with footnotes below each hymn.


To be continued! See also this article about Bach’s involvement with the Lieder-Freunde.


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