The Agnus Dei for Passiontide

Posted on: 20 March 2021, by :

This Sunday, the fifth in Lent, is sometimes called ‘Passion Sunday’, marking the start of the two weeks of Passiontide (the second being Holy Week). One of the most loved Passiontide songs is O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (O Lamb of God, innocent), with a 500-year-old text and an even older tune. Both its words, from c1522, and its setting to a medieval melody are attributed to Nikolaus Decius, one of the early leaders of the Reformation. The earliest printed versions show that Decius had devised it as Das Agnus Dei (‘The Agnus Dei’) in German for use in the Communion service of the Reformed church, to be sung three times like its model in the Latin Mass. After that function was taken instead by Luther’s own hymn Christe, du Lamm Gottes (set to a Gregorian melody), it remained popular instead as a Passiontide hymn.

Later composers enhanced the hymn with special harmonizations, and on occasion it was incorporated it into the church dramas performed in Holy Week (it appears, for example, in the opening movement of the St Matthew Passion by Picander and J. S. Bach). This fine version by Johannes Eccard (1553-1611), who served Georg Friedrich, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, was published in his collection Der Erste Theil Gheistlicher Lieder (Königsberg, 1597).

* *  This is the seventh post in a series for Lent and Holy Week, 2021 * *

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig in the version by Johannes Eccard (1597), performed last month by Margreet Rietveld and other members of the Margaretha Consort, in the Kruiskerk, Meppel, Holland.

O Lamb of God, innocent,
slaughtered on the trunk of the Cross;
you always endured patiently,
how well you were despised.
You have borne all sin,
otherwise we would have to despair.
[1, 2:] Have mercy on us, O Jesus.
[3:] Give us your peace, O Jesus. 
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig,
am Kreuzesstamm geschlachtet;
allzeit erfund'n geduldig,
wie wohl du warst verachtet.
All' Sünd hast du getragen,
sonst müßten wir verzagen.
Erbarm dich unser, o Jesu.
Gib uns deinen Fried, o Jesu.