Surprise! The Greatest German Hymnist of the Post-Reformation Era Was a Wend.

This article by David Zersen and Eric Mellenbruch first appeared in Serbska Protyka in the Fall 2017.

Click on the following link to see more pictures of Jan Krygar.

The Life and Ministry of Jan Krygar

The most prolific Lutheran composer of chorale tunes following Martin Luther’s Reformation is generally remembered as the German, Johann Crüger. He was, however, baptized on April 9, 1598, as Jan Krygar, in Gross Breesen, a Sorbian village in the Niederlausitz. His father, Georg, ran a prosperous tavern in this small village north of Guben. Difficult as were the times for many who suffered from diseases, burned homes, highway robbery, and the impact of wars, young Jan was able to complete without much trouble his basic education in the Gross Breesen village school and in the Latin school in Guben.  At the age of fifteen, in 1613, he began the typical life of a European wandering student, studying in Sorau, Breslau, Olmütz in Moravia, and, finally, Regensburg, seven-hundred kilometers from home. In Regensburg he began his musical education, studying for a year under Cantor Paulus Homburger, a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, and then continued his peripatetics through Hungary, Moravia, Austria and Saxony. His exposure to various Christian approaches to theology and worship gave a tolerance to his views that helped him in later positions.  At seventeen, he became a tutor for the children of Captain Blumenthal in Berlin, and in the same year he entered the Grayfriars Gymnasium in Berlin to study the foundations necessary for subsequent work in theology. In 1620 he began his studies at the university in Wittenberg, where Luther’s grandson taught and his great-grandson studied. He continued to study music privately while at Wittenberg.

In 1622 he left Wittenberg before graduating and accepted a call to Berlin where he would serve in two capacities, as cantor of St. Nicholas Church, the oldest church in Berlin, and as Music Director of the Grayfriars Gymnasium.  Krygaŕ was twenty-four and would remain in these two positions for 40 years until his death in 1663.

Krygar was responsible for daily worship services at the Gymnasium and for teaching the boys to read and to sing music. He also taught music theory and arithmetic. The position of cantor at St. Nicholas required playing the organ for Sunday worship, as well as for funerals, weddings, baptisms and school events. Krygar experienced numerous personal tragedies during these years. His mother who had been living with his family died in 1632, his wife, Maria Beling, the daughter of the Mayor of Bern, Switzerland, whom he had married in 1628, died in 1636, and ultimately their five children also died. Additionally, both the impact on the economy of the Thirty Year War and of failed crops plus the strife created in Berlin by religious differences among Christians would have depressed anyone. Given Krygar’s very meager salary there was little cause to be positive. Since 1630 he had not written any new tunes, nor had he published anything.

However, somehow, within months after the death of his wife, he met and married Elizabeth Schmidt, a woman half his age at only seventeen years. She was a woman filled with a joi de vivre, a gifted singer, with a positive spirit. Together they had fourteen children. Three years after this marriage, his most creative period began. He collected hymns and began to compose his own. In 1643, he met Paul Gerhard who became his friend and colleague. Later, Gerhard assumed the role of Assistant Pastor at St. Nicholas Church in 1657 and worked there with Krygar until the latter’s death in 1666.

Jan Krygar died on February 23, 1662 and was buried where he had served for forty years, in St. Nicholas Lutheran Church in Berlin. Nothing is known of his wife or his children, or, specifically, whether any of them became musicians after him. For 23 years, the great Wendish tune-smith worked with Paul Gerhard, Krygar setting tunes to Gerhard’s texts. Together they created during this golden era some of the most beloved and enduring hymnody the Christian church has ever known. ‘

The Music of Jan Krygar

Krygar’s musical activities were directly related to his two official positions in Berlin. For the Gymnasium he wrote three substantial educational works: Praecepta musicae figuralis (1625), Synopsis musica (1630, 1634), and Quaestiones musicae practicae (1650). He also, especially in the years 1619–1626 and 1645–1651, wrote motets and other choral works, including sets of both German and Latin Magnificats, which might have been sung either in church or in daily school chapel services. 


Today, however, he is chiefly remembered for his work in another field: Krygar was the most important composer, adapter, and editor of Lutheran hymn-tunes in the seventeenth century. At least seventy tunes are ascribed to him, a number of which are still sung today (Spěwarske za Ewangelskich Serbow contains eleven). And of the several hymnals he compiled and edited, Praxis Pietatis Melica went through no fewer than forty-five editions between 1644 and 1737. 

Part of the enduring popularity of his tunes is due to his association with great hymn-writers such as Paul Gerhardt and Johann Franck, for many of whose texts he wrote music. But Krygar’s work has features of its own that have kept his music a part, not only of Lutheran, but also of other church cultures.

Part of his genius was in fact to draw upon various sixteenth-century Reformation traditions of congregational music – Lutheran, Calvinist, and Bohemian Brethren – as well as the work of earlier seventeenth-century hymn-writers and editors such as Schein, Gesius, and Vulpius. His own tunes were largely a matter of evolution rather than revolution from these traditions and were embedded in hymnals containing much earlier material, so much so that it can be difficult to distinguish absolutely between adaptation and composition in the works attributed to him. Today it is also sometimes easy to forget his debt to earlier material since some of his most enduringly popular melodies show some more modern characteristics.

Very many of his melodies, however, do show the influence of sixteenth-century repertories, perhaps most of all the Genevan Psalm-tunes which were so prevalent in the Berlin of his day and which form a central part of the Psalmodia Sacra (1658) he published at the behest of the Reformed Brandenburg court. He used two simple note values (long and short) almost exclusively, with few more intricate rhythms, and most of his tunes have few large skips. His melodies often show some flexibility or ambiguity between duple and triple meter and make use of some gentle syncopations. Generally, however, they have an easy flow and an underlying sense of metrical regularity. All of these characteristics ally his melodies closely with those of the Genevan Psalter, more so than with the sometimes more angular early Lutheran tunes.

On the other hand, Krygar was working with German-language verse, and he continued to use the bar-form (AAB) phrase-structure so common in German vernacular song. He also wrote some melodies clearly in triple meter with dotted rhythms, and in collections such as the Geistliche Kirchen-Melodien (1649), he was by no means afraid to introduce much more lively and varied rhythms in the accompanying parts written for violins or cornetti.

These simple examples of Italianate concerted music remind that Krygar, despite his debt to the past, was very much a musician of his time, and his hymn-tunes themselves (as did his theoretical textbooks) also show evidence of the changes in music that were taking place. The tunes begin more strongly to emphasize certain tones (especially the first, fourth, and fifth notes of the scale) and to outline triads (chords), and thus to imply particular underlying harmonies. Nor was it necessary to imagine such an accompaniment: his hymnals were printed not only with tunes but also with bass lines and symbols (figures) indicating harmonies. Some of his collections, such as the aforementioned Geistliche Kirchen-Melodien, also had four vocal parts written out, with the melody in the highest voice as was the newer fashion (the so-called Kantional style) rather than in the tenor. And although many of Krygar’s tunes conform to one of the minor modes, a major-mode feel becomes more common in his work. 

In all, this blend of old and new makes Krygar’s tunes simple, attractive, and satisfying to sing. Their linearity and simple rhythms make them easy, their combination of grace and sturdiness make them appealing, and their harmonic underpinning gives them a sense of direction and completion. Some of these characteristics were absent from earlier tunes, while others were exaggerated in the work of later composers. This moderation between extremes has guaranteed the continued use and enjoyment of Krygar’s tunes alongside the words of the hymnists of his age.

Among the best remembered tunes with texts written by others are: Jesus Meine Zuversicht, Schmücke Dich, Wie Soll Ich Dich Emfangen, Nun Danket, Auf ,Auf Mein Herz, Frölich Soll Mein Herze Springen, Jesus Meine Freude, and many others. At least eight of his chorales were used in J.S. Bach’s vocal works.

Although the Sorb, Jan Krygar, is the greatest Lutheran hymnist of the 17th Century, he has more typically been known in the Christian world as the German Johann Crüger. Those who belong to his proper ethnic tradition, however, will appreciate it being acknowledged that he was, after all, a Sorb. Historians, musicians and students of culture may also enjoy, 355 years after his death, finally being corrected.


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