nota bene: I have only had these volumes for about two weeks. I’ve looked through them pretty well, but obviously I haven’t read all of both of them. Also, they don’t come with the bust of Walther, but I’m pretty sure I got mine from CPH.
Ever since the publication of Lutheran Service Book in 2006, many people asked when the promised volumes on the hymns would come out. I was definitely one of those people. As the years dragged on, the questions and jokes kept coming. I’m nearly certain that the folks at CPH got tired of being asked about it. So when the time finally came for the Companion to the Hymns to be published, I expected that with all the time spent on this project that it would be good.
And so far, it is very good indeed. When I started leafing through the two volumes, it became quite clear why it took so long to assemble all of this. To put it simply, these books contain a lot of information and they will serve as a repository for this information for generations into the future. This was a far more complex project than simply translating a monograph into English and doing page layout — the information in these volumes must have come from thousands of sources, many of which were not written in English, and many of which were incomplete or contradictory.
Basically, these two volumes are reference books which contain as much information about the hymns in LSB as one could expect to find without writing a book about each one. For that reason, church musicians and historians will be using these volumes for reference far, far into the future.
Volume 1 contains the information about each hymn, listed in the order of the LSB hymn number. That makes this volume easy to use coming from the hymn planning spreadsheet or the hymnal. Each hymn entry has a few major divisions of information:
- The Text Background section gives the history of the hymn, the occasion of its writing, brief biographical information on the author of the text, information from history that may have affected or been the inspiration for the hymn text, and the occasion and method of its publication.
- The Text Commentary section describes what the text of the hymn is about, how the text is structured, what theological and biblical themes are in the text, what certain words and phrases mean, what Bible references are found in the hymn text, how Christians can profitably use the hymn, and similar explanatory material.
- The Tune section tells who wrote the tune used or at least where it came from, which hymnals the tune appeared in, other tunes which have been associated with the hymn text, why a certain tune was chosen for Lutheran Service Book over other tunes, and notes about the composition of the tune that help shed light on how the hymn ought to be played or sung.
- Some hymns have a Use section that gives a suggestion about when a hymn might be used. For example, LSB hymn 656, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” is appointed as the Hymn of the Day for Invocabit (Lent 1) and also for Reformation Day.
- Some hymns also contain Performance notes for the church musician.
- The Historical Summary section lists sources for the hymn entry and basic important facts about the hymn: what confession the hymn comes from (evidently this was no easy feat; the editors identified no fewer than ten categories just within the Church of England), where the text and tune came from, who translated the hymn, what changes were made from previous translations for LSB, and who arranged the hymn as found in LSB.
Volume 2 contains basic biographies of 680 authors, translators, composers, and arrangers of the LSB hymns. Each one tells about the life and work of these important figures, complete with a list of hymns associated with that person and sources from which the information came. In addition, it contains almost 200 pages of essays about hymns and the Lutheran hymn tradition.
Obviously these volumes are going to be a necessary addition to any theological lending library as important works of reference. But who else would benefit from having the Companion to the Hymns?
Certainly parish pastors would benefit from having this information available. Yes, these books aren’t cheap. When you consider, though, the amount of work that went into writing them, the limited number that are likely to be printed, and the size of the books, it becomes pretty clear why they’re not cheap. But many of us parish pastors want to encourage our congregations to love the hymns as we have come to love them. If we’re going to do that, we should be able to sing the hymns and we should know something about them. I write a short couple or paragraphs in the Sunday bulletin about the Hymn of the Day, and I noticed that when I tried to get information about the hymns from internet searches there were an awful lot of hymns I couldn’t find very much about. Now that I have the LSB Companion to the Hymns I have extensive information on every single hymn, more than I would need for those hymn summaries for the bulletin.
The stories of many Lutheran hymns are useful material for sermons. For example, many people love the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God,” LSB hymn 895, and with good reason. Knowing what Martin Rinckart saw and suffered (for example, the death of his wife and four thousand funerals all in the year 1630) and still had the faith to pen this magnificent hymn of praise even in the midst of so much death and suffering, Christians can learn to praise God even in the midst of their own suffering. Likewise, knowing the persecution and suffering faced by Paul Speratus can make us appreciate all the more his bold confession of justification by grace through faith in his hymn “Salvation unto Us Has Come,” LSB 555.
Church musicians could also benefit from this knowledge as well. If the organist leads the congregation in song, and the choir director leads the choir in song, knowing the hymn well will help them to perform the hymn in a way that expresses the text clearly (for example, using tempo, dynamics, or organ registration to convey contrition, hope, or joy).
Concordia Publishing House has a PDF preview of the Companion to the Hymns available on their website, if you want to see for yourself. The sheer volume of information might make this companion a bit much for some people, but I anticipate that I will be referring to these books at least every week for a long time to come and I think that brother pastors and church musicians will find them to be as beneficial as I have found them.