20 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (21): ‘Lift up your
heads, you mighty gates’ (No 131)

The Altroßgärter Kirche in Königsberg ... Georg Weissel wrote ‘Lift up your heads, you mighty gates’ for use in this this church, which was demolished after the Battle of Königsberg in 1945

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning [20 December 2014], I have chosen ‘Lift up your heads, you mighty gates,’ which is Hymn 131 in the Irish Church Hymnal.

This is a translation by Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878) of a German hymn for Advent, Mach hoch die Thür, das Thor mach weit, written by Georg Weissel and based on Psalm 24: 7, 9.

Georg Weissel is one of the most important of the early hymn-writers of Prussia. He wrote about 20 hymns, the earliest of which was written for use at the consecration of his new church, the Altroßgärter Kirche (Old Rossgarten Church) in north-east Königsberg, on the Second Sunday in Advent, 1623. This hymn may also have been sung on that occasion, although it was written for the First Sunday of Advent.

The son of a Prussian judge and burgomaster or mayor, he was born in Doranau, 40 km south-east of Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania He was educated in Königsberg, and later in Wittenberg, Leipzig, Jena, Strasbourg, Basel and Marburg. After a few years working at a school near Domnau, he returned to Königsberg to resume his theological studies. In 1623 he became the pastor of the Altrossgärter Kirche and there he remained until he died on 1 August 1635.

Some of his hymns have been translated into English, including today’s hymn, Macht hoch die Thür, das Thor macht weit. This Advent hymn on the Triumph for the Entry of the King of Glory is based on part of Psalm 24. The present third stanza alludes to the thoughts in I Corinthians 3: 16: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you.”

This is One of the finest German Advent hymns, and it was first published in the Preussische Fest-Lieder in 1642.

Altrossgarten Church was heavily damaged during the bombing of Königsberg in 1944 and the Battle of Königsberg in 1945. The ruins were demolished by the Soviet administration in Kaliningrad in 1968. A silver-gilt chalice from the church is now in the Berlin archives of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

This hymn was translated by Catherine Winkworth, one of the greatest hymn writers in English, after John and Charles Wesley and John Mason Neale. She translated many hymns from German into English in Lyra Germanica (1855 and 1878) and Christian Singers of Germany (1869).

Catherine Winkworth was born in London 13 September 1829, the daughter of Henry Winkworth of Alderley Edge, Cheshire, and spent most of her early life in the Manchester area before moving to Clifton, near Bristol. She died suddenly of heart disease, at Monnetier, in Savoy, in July 1878.

The tune Wellington, supplied in the Irish Church Hymnal and the New English Hymnal for this hymn, was written by the English composer Michael Paschal Marcon Fleming (1928-2006), a former Warden of the Royal School of Church Music who had a significant influence on the standard of Anglican church music, through the RSCM and as director of music at several London churches.

He was born in 1928 in Oxford, where his father, the Revd ainGuy Fleming, was curate at the Anglo-Catholic St Mary Magdalen’s. His grandfather, Canon Arthur Fleming, was Precentor of Gloucester Cathedral and headmaster of the cathedral school.

He studied music at Durham University before moving to Cambridge as organist and choirmaster at Saint Giles, and continuing to study organ with George Guest at Saint John’s College. At Chingford Church in Essex, his teacher was Harold Darke. In 1958, Fleming was appointed Director of Music at All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London. Later, he held appointments in Croydon, Addington Palace, Saint Mary’s, Primrose Hill, where church music had been recovered for the Church of England by Percy Dearmer, and Saint Alban’s Church, Holborn.

In the early 1980s, Fleming built on Percy Dearmer’s work as a member of the editorial team of the New English Hymnal, to which he contributed much of the plainsong.

It was said that when he left Saint Alban’s, Holborn, in 1998, after 18 years the choir had the most extensive repertoire of any church in Britain. There he conducted the first liturgical performance, on All Souls’ Day 1987, and in the composer’s presence, of John Rutter’s Requiem. Bryan Kelly heard his own Like as the Hart for the first time on a visit to Saint Alban’s.

Fleming insisted that the words of hymns should be heard. Above all, he considered good music to be the handmaid of the liturgy and in 1999 he was awarded an MA Lambeth Degree “in recognition of his contribution to church music and liturgy.”

Shortly before his death he was working on the New English Hymnal supplement, New English Praise. His funeral took place on the eve of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart.

Lift up your heads, you mighty gates, by Georg Weissel, translated by Catherine Winkworth:

Lift up your heads, you mighty gates;
behold, the king of glory waits!
The King of kings is drawing near;
the Saviour of the world is here.

O blessed the land, the city blessed,
where Christ the ruler is confessed!
O happy hearts and happy homes
to whom this King in triumph comes!

Fling wide the portals of your heart;
make it a temple, set apart
from earthly use for heaven’s employ,
adorned with prayer and love and joy.

Redeemer, come, with us abide!
Our hearts to you we open wide;
let us thy inner presence feel;
your grace and love in us reveal.

Tomorrow:Gabriel’s message does away’ (New English Hymnal 4)

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