Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness is an old German hymn with text by Johann Franck (1618-1677) and a tune by Johann Crüger (1598-1662). Crüger, especially, stands out as the composer of such tunes as Nun danket alle Gott (Now thank we all our God), Herzliebster Jesu (Ah, Holy Jesus), and Werde Munter (Come with us, O blessed Jesus). We know most of these hymn tunes not simply as Crüger’s work but as Bach chorales. J. S. Bach (1685-1750) was not a big hymn tune writer, but many of his sacred pieces are built upon tunes of others. In his cantatas, Bach almost always bases the whole thing on a hymn tune, ending with a re-harmonization of the tune. Many of these re-harmonizations have found their way into hymnals across the globe. Thus, it may be Crüger’s melody that is heard, but Bach’s harmony “kicks it up a notch.” However, Bach didn’t simply write re-harmonizations of these German hymns; he wove them into the fabric of ornamented preludes, partitas, and other instrumental and choral forms! On Sunday, you will hear Bach’s ornamented chorale prelude using Crüger’s tune for Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness. If you are familiar with the hymn, it can be fun to hear how Bach plays around with the melody and weaves it into an intricate texture. Even if you aren’t familiar with this tune, the music itself is beautiful, relaxing, and imparts a wonderful feeling. Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), perhaps the greatest French composer of the mid-to-late 20th century, used to play this prelude unbelievably slowly in order to savor its mood. Upon hearing Mendelssohn play this chorale prelude, Schumann declared the following.
“Thou didst play, Felix Meritis (Mendelssohn) a prelude upon one of those figured chorales. ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe seele’ [Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness] was the text; the melody seemed interlaced with garlands of gold, and the work breathed forth such happiness that you inspired in me this avowal: ‘Were life deprived of all trust, of all faith, this simple chorale would restore all to me.’ I fell into a revery [sic]: then, almost unconsciously, I found myself in the cemetery, and I felt poignant grief at not being able to cover with flowers the grave of the great Bach.” - reprinted from Suggestions for interpretation from Albert Riemenschneider’s edition of Bach’s Eighteen Large Chorales
Although it is amusing to think of Schumann helplessly falling into a reverie during a chorale prelude, it is a testament to the power of this piece. As you may have noticed, it comes from a collection of similar pieces penned by Bach, the Eighteen Large Chorales, also known as the Great Eighteen. This collection of pieces is one of only a select few that Bach worked to compile at the end of his life. In fact, the final piece, Vor deinen tron tret’ ich (Before thy throne I now appear), is thought to be the last piece Bach ever “touched.” The story goes that he revised it while on his deathbed. Interestingly, the chorale preludes in this collection, while sculpted into their final forms in Bach last years, were originally composed about thirty years prior, in Weimar. Bach carried, perfected, and certainly performed these pieces over the course of decades. It is widely known that Bach was a deeply religious person, and these chorale preludes must surely reflect not only his supreme craftsmanship but his faith as well. Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness is a beautiful meditation on the sentiments of Johann Franck’s text, the first verse of which is printed below.
“Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness, leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,
Come into the daylight’s splendor, there with joy thy praises render
Unto him whose grace unbounded hath this wondrous banquet founded;
High o’er all the heavens he reigneth, yet to dwell with thee he deigneth.”
- Translation by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)