I think it’s about time for a bona fide Reformation Christmas hymn. “Vom Himmel Hoch” was written by Martin Luther in 1539 and has been translated into English by Catherine Winkworth under the title “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” (The Trinity Hymnal lists Winkworth as the translator but then uses the later modification by Winfred Douglas titled “From Heaven High I Come to You”). As a general rule, if Catherine Winkworth liked it, it’s good. Additionally, Luther tunes are always solid, and this one is classic Luther. The final bar sounds very similar to the end of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and the whole thing is very easy to pick up. The tune was made more famous by Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote five more ornate variations for the organ in his Christmas Oratario and Magnificat. Bach’s are fantastic listening, but the plainer earlier version is the one for congregational use.
But watch out friends, there are a whopping fifteen stanzas to this song! That’s far too stout for most Americans these days, and so they tend to shorten it to five or six (which is still more than most can handle). Of course, the jolliest among the faithful should demand to sing the entire song, but as that other Reformer John Calvin once said, “Good luck.” It will work best if you play it at a brisk tempo or even split it up. Continue reading