the carol that travelled

firstsnow1612This is one of the most beloved carols in the Nordic countries, but the tune is from Central Europe and it has travelled across the Atlantic in English translations. So why haven’t you heard of it yet?

Maybe it’s because people can’t agree where it starts, and there are so many different versions. Schönster Herr Jesu was a 17th century Jesuit hymn first. Translated as “Fairest Lord Jesus“, it was thought to have been sung by crusaders journeying to the Holy Land, when it was added to an 1842 collection of Silesian folksongs by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who also wrote the German national anthem.

Then it went north to Denmark. Bernhard Ingemann’s Dejlig er jorden (“The World is Wonderful”) was first published in 1850. This version still has the pilgrimage aspect but it has become a Christmas carol. There is a fascinating early recording of a six-year-old singing it into a phonograph in 1898, published by Europeana sounds.

I got to know the carol in Finnish as maa on niin kaunis (“The earth is so beautiful”), the title of the first Finnish translation in 1887. This version, still number 30 in the Lutheran hymnbook, is one of the most beloved carols in Finland. Here it is, with images to match, sung by the Cantores minores of Helsinki Cathedral:

In Swedish, it’s Härlig är jorden (hymnbook number 297 – “the earth is glorious”). Well, the Swedes were always more cheerful.

But all the Nordic lyrics tell the story of the message of the angels passing from heaven to earth. And of the pilgrimage we are all making. Here is Aarberg’s”Fair is Creation”, one of three English versions of Bernhard Ingemann’s text:

Fair is creation, Fairer God’s heaven,
Blest is the marching pilgrim throng.
Onward through lovely Regions of beauty
Go we to Paradise with song.

Ages are coming, Ages are passing
Nations arise and disappear.
Never the joyful Message from heaven
Wanes through the soul’s brief sojourn here.

Angels proclaimed it Once to the shepherds,
Henceforth from soul to soul it passed:
Unto all people Peace and rejoicing,

Us is a Savior born at last.

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas, full of rejoicing.

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Posted in Christmas, history, international, music, translation
13 comments on “the carol that travelled
  1. Philip Stainer says:

    Thank you for your history write up. I heard the Finnish version live for the first time, twice over the Christmas period and it intrigued me about the words and origin. Both the words and melody are very moving.

    I was visiting family for Christmas who attend the Lutheran Church.

  2. Erin says:

    Very interesting, thank you so much! I’m trying to figure out which English version I’ve sung of this, and unfortunately the link you have above about the three English versions doesn’t work. Any suggestions about where I could look? It’s a beautiful hymn and I’d love to share it with my non-Nordic-language-speaking friends. 🙂

  3. lolarusa says:

    I grew up singing this with the lyrics Fairest Lord Jesus, and it was more likely to be sung at Easter than at Christmas. I still enjoy singing it when I have a chance. It’s easy to sing and the chords shift so solidly and satisfyingly.

  4. Nicholaus says:

    I’d heard and sung of this song on my Catholic church in Korea. And I’d also heard this song in a moive, Unknown Soldiers, which Finnish name is Tuntematon sotilas. This song has so charming melody which makes me feels in the heaven that I like this song. Then i wondered why this song has came to Korea Catholic church. Thanks to you, i know that this song has came from Northern European countries, and though lyrics of this song are different, the mean of lyrics and melody of this song is same. Thank you again.

  5. Henrik C Strandskov says:

    Thanks for this post. I enjoyed hearing the Finnish version. Here is the translation of Ingemann’s Danish text by S. D. Rodholm, published in 1922 in a chapbook-style songbook called Hymns of the North.

    Beauty around us,
    Glory above us,
    Lovely is the earth and the smiling skies.
    Singing we pass along,
    Pilgrims upon our way
    Through these fair lands to Paradise.

    Ages are coming,
    Roll on and vanish,
    Children shall follow where fathers passed;
    Never our pilgrim song,
    Joyful and heaven-born,
    Shall cease while time and mountains last.

    First to the shepherds
    Sweetly the angels
    Sang it at midnight, a song of morn:
    “Glory to God on high!
    “Peace and good will to men!
    “Today is Christ, our Savior, born!”

  6. […] most North Americans know as “Beautiful Savior” or “Fairest Lord Jesus.”  As we learn in this excellent piece to which I am very much indebted, the tune is from Silesia and is named “Crusaders Hymn” despite having little to do with the […]

    • A little more about that last comment (which I think wordpress may have auto-generated from my blog?). Here is my version of the song that I introduce there, and you can click above for more commentary if you want. Thank you Kate for helping to spark this. BTW, there is some other stuff on the above “12 songs for Christmas” thread that are about translation, which would probably interest folks who made it here.

      Our earth is beautiful
      Pure and strong the skies above
      Home to the songs of our pilgrim choir
      Through every season
      Through generations
      We move toward paradise with song

      Hard times will surely come
      Waves of time roll over us
      Like our elders, we too must pass
      Sounds from God’s universe
      Ringing true throughout the years
      Train our ears and guide our path

      Angels once taught this song
      Shepherds learned it the night
      Still it sounds from soul to soul
      Peace to a broken world
      Joy to the beaten down
      Mysteries of grace proclaimed in sound

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