Posts Tagged ‘Der Friedensfürst’

De gustibus non disputandum

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Or, in English, matters of taste are not to be disputed. Or, to stretch the concept a little, there’s no arguing with tradition. I’m thinking of how we often feel a strong pull toward things we’ve grown up with, regardless of how our beliefs, tastes or critical faculties have changed over time. This is expressed beautifully and hilariously in the song Zen Gospel Singing by Mark Graham (recorded by Bryan Bowers). In it the singer tells how, despite having left the church become a Buddhist, he misses the four-part hymn singing. He doesn’t believe in that sin-and-salvation stuff any more, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to get his Buddhist friends to sing more than one note at a time.

I had to laugh when I heard this song, because it reminded me of the Christmas songs we used to sing at family gatherings years ago. Some of them are truly lovely; others can be either lovely or drippily sentimental, depending on the day; still others are just not very good (sorry, Mom). Bells are mentioned frequently, as in “Süsser die Glocken nie klingen” (“Sweeter the bells never ring”), “Hört Ihr nicht die Weihnachtsglocken” (“Don’t you hear the Christmas bells”), or “Kling, Glöckchen, kling” (“Ring, little bells, ring”). Christmas trees come up fairly often, too, as in one of my favorites, “Welchen Jubel, welche Freude” (“What rejoicing, what delight”). I sang all these, and loved them, long before I understood the words.

But for a certain subset of Russian Mennonites from the prairies (my extended family included), the crown jewel of Christmas music was “Der Friedensfürst” (“The Prince of Peace”). It’s different from the others: not a hymn or carol, but a choral piece probably written around the turn of the 20th century. It’s composed of several short sections, with each pair of lines in the text having a different musical setting. It sounds like it was written in the popular-song style of the day. Once, at a carol-singing evening at the church we attended in Toronto, someone brought out copies of “Der Friedensfürst” and we sang it. Those of us who knew the piece were thrilled; those who were new to it didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

To this day I am not sure if it’s a good piece of music, objectively speaking. But that’s not the point. The point is that we used to sing it every Christmas, and now we don’t. And if, at some Christmas gathering, someone were to pull out a copy of the music, and if there were at least two other people in the room who knew it, I’d sing it. With feeling.