HYMN TUNE HISTORY: LASST UNS ERFREUEN (All Creatures of Our God and King)

Here’s the third installment in my hymn history co-blog with author and activist, Pam McAllister.  We’re exploring the history of each of the hymns on Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns.

This week, we look at the tune, LASST UNS ERFREUEN with the text, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” The text was based on a poem by St. Francis, the patron saint of ecology, while the tune was composed by a Jesuit priest who dared to speak out against church witch trials and torture in the 1600s! Here’s the fascinating history.


“Saint Francis” painting by Jen Norton. Click to view more of Norton’s artwork.

Francis of Assisi (1181?-1226) looked at the world and saw something different than the rest of us generally see.

In 1225, he composed his famous “Canticle of the Sun” which was paraphrased seven hundred years later by Anglican clergyman William H. Draper into verses for the hymn “ALL CREATURES OF OUR GOD AND KING.” In his poem, Francis gave thanks for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Mother Earth. He even wrote a verse for Sister Death.

According to the well-worn stories, Francis, sometimes called the Patron Saint of Ecology, renounced wealth and warfare, danced with Lady Poverty, rescued earth-worms, preached to the birds, negotiated with wolves, founded the Franciscan order.

What he evidently did not do was write the words Christians around the world call “The Prayer of Saint Francis.” The anonymous prayer first appeared in 1912, in a slim Paris-based Catholic devotional magazine. Written in French, it was translated into English and published in a U.S. Quaker magazine in 1927, attributed to St. Francis. During WWII, it was widely distributed by the Roman Catholic “military vicar” to U.S. troops and labeled “The Prayer of St. Francis.” While no one knows who really wrote the beloved lines, the second half of the prayer is similar to words penned by a close companion of Francis, Giles of Assisi — “Blessed is he who loves and does not therefore desire to be loved…”

“Saint Francis with Cat and Crow,” by Puerto Rican artist Cyra R. Cancel. Click to view more of Cancel’s artwork.

On or around October 4, the Feast Day of Saint Francis, many congregations in the U.S. celebrate the Blessing of the Animals. People bring their animal-companions or photos and stories to share with their church families and celebrate their personal connections to other species. In some churches, it is also a time to share information about choosing a nonviolent vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, honoring the lives even of the animals often consumed, worn, or used for labor and entertainment by humans.

What happens when we dare to look at what is most familiar and see it in a new way? Children often have this gift. They look up at the clouds and see pirate ships, dragons, mashed potatoes! Francis saw the everyday miracles at his fingertips and found his place in the family of all creation.

How would it change our national policies and global priorities if we really did think of the water as “sister,” the earth as “mother,” the wolf and the lamb as “brothers”? What if we really believed we were part of a great family of “all creatures” born to sing a chorus of “alleluia” to our creator?


Oldest existing copy, 1625

Oldest existing copy of LASST UNS ERFREUEN, 1625.

LASST UNS ERFREUEN (“Let Us Rejoice”) was originally published in the Jesuit hymnal, Ausserlesene Catlwlische Geistliche Kirchengesänge, in 1623 in Cologne, Germany. The tune is believed to have been composed by Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit priest and hymn writer who was most well known as an activist who opposed trials for witchcraft. Spee’s 1631 book, Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trialsis one of the first written works to present strong arguments against the use of torture.

Spee’s opening melodic phrase in “LASST” has its origins in a setting of Psalm 68 in the Genevan Psalter, a collection of psalm settings composed between 1539-62 in Geneva, Switzerland. While its original publication featured an Easter text, “Lasst uns erfreuen herzlich sehr” (“let us rejoice most heartily”), its most well-known version appeared in the English Hymnal in 1906, edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams reharmonized the tune and set it in a triple meter (it appears in most modern hymnals as being in 3/2 time). He also paired the tune with text by Athelstan Riley, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.”

The refrain melody in LASST
The refrain melody in LASST

The symmetry of this tune is part of the key to its popularity (the meter is 88.44.88 with refrain). The repeated four-syllable “al-le-lu-ia” phrase breaks up the longer eight-syllable pairings. Not only this, but the repeated pairs of alleluias are transposed exactly a fifth apart.

Click to view a sheet music sample of my arrangement of LASST.

This natural flow of the melody makes it a wonderful tune to arrange. In my treatment, I extend the ends of each phrase and add a bit of syncopation in addition to creating a more modern reharmonization of the tune.

“LASST” was one of my first hymn arrangements, and it’s one of my most popular. It was originally included in Bill Carter’s Swing a New Song to the Lord: Resources for Jazz Worship. Now it’s in my sheet music book with all 13 of the arrangements on Makes the Heart to Sing.  I hope that you’ll share the arrangement in your community (and write me at deannajazz@gmail.com to let me know!).



Sheet music for Deanna’s arrangement of LASST UNS ERFREUEN

Click to check out dePaola’s book at Goodreads.

Francis, the Poor Man of Assisi by Tomie de Paola. Pam’s favorite illustrator created this book of biographical stories and myths about the beloved saint.

hymnary.org — Words and Music of “All Creatures of Our God and King”

A Jesuit In the Crucible: Friedrich Spee and the Witchcraft Hysteria in Seventeenth-Century Germany” by Ronald Modras, Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, Boston College, Sept. 2003

Praying Nature — From Ireland, a blog of resources and eco-prayers for people inspired by Saint Francis.

NPR podcast, Melissa Block interviews Franciscan Jeremy Harrington, “Pope Francis’ Namesake Was Patron Saint of Animals and Ecology,” 3/14/13

Psalm 68 from the Genevan Psalter (check out the first phrase!).

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