Es kommt

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

No, not that one, that’s not for a few weeks yet.

Advent, the waiting.

And who does Advent best?

I’ve said it before – the Germans, of course.

I haven’t lived in Germany for years, but I still try to be there in Advent, and if I can’t, I bring German Advent to me. Including an Advent wreath (this year’s pictured) and a few Advent hymns I can’t do without.

The obvious one is Macht hoch die Tür (words by Georg Weissel, 1623), which you might recognise from Psalm 23/24. Catherine Winkworth did translate it as Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates (on page 10 of her 1855 translation of Lyrica Germanica: Hymns for the Sundays and Chief Festivals of the Christian Year).

But another favourite of mine is much older. It’s not quite as old as the O Antiphons, the basis for the best-known Advent hymn in English, O come, o come Emmanuel. But it’s from the same century as Adam lay y-bounden and The Cherry Tree Carol. Written before 1450, it sings of one ship sailing in, bearing God in three persons. (If you want all three ships, wait a bit longer or go to Kings College, Cambridge!)

Es kommt ein Schiff, geladen
bis an sein’ höchsten Bord,
trägt Gottes Sohn voll Gnaden,
des Vaters ewigs Wort.

Das Schiff geht still im Triebe,
es trägt ein teure Last;
das Segel ist die Liebe,
der Heilig Geist der Mast.

Der Anker haft’ auf Erden,
da ist das Schiff am Land.
Das Wort will Fleisch uns werden,
der Sohn ist uns gesandt.

Zu Bethlehem geboren
im Stall ein Kindelein,
gibt sich für uns verloren;
gelobet muß es sein.

Und wer dies Kind mit Freuden
umfangen, küssen will,
muß vorher mit ihm leiden
groß Pein und Marter viel,

danach mit ihm auch sterben
und geistlich auferstehn,
das ewig Leben erben,
wie an ihm ist geschehn.
There comes a galley, laden
Up to the highest board;
She bears a heav’nly burthen,
The Father’s eterne Word.

She saileth on in silence,
Her freight of value vast:
With Charity for mailsail,
And Holy Ghost for mast.

The ship has dropt her anchor,
Is safely come to land;
The Word eterne, in likeness
Of man, on earth doth stand.

At Bethlem in a stable,
To save the world forlorn
(O bless Him for His mercy),
Our Saviour Christ is born.

And whosoe’er with gladness
Would kiss him and adore,
Must first endure with Jesus
Great pain and anguish sore.

Must die with Him moreover,
And rise in flesh again,
To win that life eternal,
Which doth to Christ pertain.

The German is from the Catholic hymnbook Gotteslob (melody and details in German) The English is by George Ratcliffe Woodward, who translated and wrote his own hymns, including a 1910 edition of Piae Cantiones. This is Carol 31 in his Cowley Carol Book For Christmas, Easter, and Ascensiontide, (London: 1901).

We don’t know who wrote the tune to Es kommt ein Schiff geladen, but it was in the Andernacher Gesangbuch, published in Köln 1608 (image from Wikimedia Commons).

When the Berliner Solistenchor sings it, you can feel the wind in the sails and the long wait for Christmas to come.

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Posted in Christmas, music

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