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In The Musical Spotlight: Lutheran Hymnists

In celebration of Reformation at the end of October, I have chosen to highlight one hymn written by a Lutheran Hymnist for each Sunday this month. Every week, I will give a little background on the hymn's author and a little reflection on that hymn. This week's hymn is "Jesus, Priceless Treasure," and this hymn is a win-win-win. Johann Franck wrote the text of the hymn which was translated by Catherine Winkworth. The most common tune associated with the hymn was written by Johann Crüger, who you might not recognize by name but you definitely are familiar with his melodies.

Now let's begin. Once again we are travelling back in time to the Thirty Years' War on the eastern border of Germany in Guben. Here Johann Franck was born and here he would return after his education. His father died when Franck was young and he was adopted by his uncle, the town judge, who sent him to many schools including the last university left due to the war. Franck led a successful career as Guben's councilor, town mayor and eventually county elder. He was also an avid poet, writing both secular and religious poems, but is recognized most for his religious poems. The original title of this hymn is "Jesu, meine freude" and the tune was written by Johann Franck's friend Johann Crüger.

Crüger was born near Guben in Gross-Beese and would spend most of his life in Berlin where he started as a tutor and then became the cantor and organist for St. Nikolai Church. While he didn't write text, he did write the melody for many hymns, including our hymn from last week, "Nun Danket Alle Gott" or "Now Thank We All Our God." He is also well known for his work as a musicologist and his hymn collection, Praxis pietatis melica.

While I did allude to the translator of this hymn, I'm going to leave Catherine Winkworth for next week's Musical Spotlight, because I wanted to go into the fandom of this song a little. We're used to thinking of jazz and rock musicians who have their inspirations, those who will talk about how Miles Davis opened the world of jazz, or The Who inspired someone to pick up a guitar. Well, this isn't a new thing. J.S. Bach was a fan of music and moreover, he was a fan of this song. He used it in numerous pieces, some with words and some without, once using text from another hymnist. I realize that maybe he used it because it was a crowd-pleaser but he draws inspiration or directly uses it at least 10 times, so I think he pretty much dug it. Another composer who wrote variations on this chorale is Georg Philip Telemann, who was also pretty prolific for creating chorales and music at the time.

The song itself is pretty somber, beginning with a minor descent and flecks of triumphal strength sprinkled throughout. The lyrics though are very personal and speak of devotion and awe. That our salvation and Jesus' love are not things that can be traded, nor tempted away. The first verse speaks of the need for Jesus' forgiveness and love. The second verse begins, "Let your arms enfold me" and goes on to speak of the shelter and comfort God gives us. The third verse reiterates how precious and priceless Jesus is and how nothing can compare. Finally the fourth verse returns to hope and reminding that even if life is bleak (we're back in the Thirty Years' War again remember), God will protect and save, will comfort and give you peace. It is a beautiful piece that really makes one see: Jesus, priceless treasure or literally from "Jesu, meine freude" - Jesus, my joy.

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