THE STORY OF A HYMN
OR HOW GEORGE NEUMARK SUNG HIS HYMN FOR THE CHURCH OF CHRIST
The Thirty Years’ War was over, and Germany rested from blood. About 1650, two years after the peace, a young man was living in one of the narrowest and filthiest lanes of Hamburg. No one visited him, and all that the people of the house knew of him was that for the most part of every day he played his violoncello with such skill and expression that they thronged round his door to catch the music. His custom was to go out about mid-day and dine in a low restaurant frequented by beggars; for the rest, he would go out in the twilight with something under his shabby cloak; and it was always noted that he paid his bill the day after such an expedition. This had not escaped the curiosity of Mistress Johannsen, his landlady; and having quietly followed him one evening, he stopped, to her dismay, at the shop of a well-known pawnbroker. It was all plain now, and the good-natured woman determined to help him, if she could.
A few days after, she tapped at his door and was filled with pity to find nothing in the room but her own scanty furniture. All the rest had been removed save the well-worn violoncello, which stood in a corner of the window, while the young man sat in the opposite window-corner, his head buried in his hands.
“Mr. Neumark”, said the landlady, “don’t take it ill that I make so free as to visit you; but as you have not left the house for two days, and we have had no music, I thought you might be sick. If I could do anything . …”
“Thank you, my good woman”, he answered wearily, and with a sad gratitude in his tone; “I am not confined to bed, and I have no fever; but I am ill, very ill.”
“Surely then you ought to go to bed.”
“No” he replied quickly, and blushed deeply.
“Oh, but you must”, cried Mistress Johannsen boldly, “Now just allow me. I’m an old woman, old enough to be your mother, and I will just see if your bed is all right.”
“Pray don’t trouble yourself, he replied, and sprang up quickly before the bedroom door.
It was too late, however, for the good woman had already seen that there was nothing but a bag of straw and that same shabby mantle in which he made the evening journeys.
“My good woman”, said Neumark quickly, “you are perhaps afraid that I will not pay the next rent; but make yourself easy; I am poor, but honourable. It is sometimes hard enough, but I have never been left utterly destitute yet.”
“Mr. Neumark”, she replied with some hesitation, and after mustering all her courage, “we have little ourselves, but sometimes more than enough; as, for instance, to-day; and as you have not been out, if you would allow me . . . .”
The young man coloured deeply again, rose from his seat, walked up and down the room, and then with apparent effort said, “You are right; I have not eaten to-day. I . …”
Without waiting for another word, the landlady had left the room, and in a few minutes returned laden with dinner.
“You must not take it ill”, she began when dinner was over, “but you are surely not a native of our town. Do you know anyone here?”
“No one. I am a stranger; and you are the first person that has spoken to me kindly. May God bless you.”
“Well now, if it would not be rude, I would like to ask you some questions. Who are you? What is your name? Where do you come from? What is your business? Are you a musician? Are your parents alive? What are you doing in Hamburg?”
Breathless rather than exhausted, she stopped; and the young man, smiling at his good-natured catechist, began: “My name is George Neumark. My parents were poor townsfolk of Mulhausen, and are both dead. I was born there nine and twenty years ago on the 16th March 1621. There have been hard times ever since; and I have had to eat, and often first to seek, my daily bread with tears. Yet I must not be impatient, and murmur and sin against the Lord my God. I know that He will help me at the last.”
“But how did you think to get your living?” interrupted the landlady.
“I studied jurisprudence; and there I fear I made a fatal mistake, since, both by disposition and from love to my Saviour, I am a man of peace, and cannot take to those quarrels and processes. Had I understood my God’s will when I commenced those studies, it had been better. But to continue my story: For ten years I suffered hunger and thirst at the Latin School at Schleusingen, a little town in the neighbourhood of my birthplace, where I learned that the wisdom of this world will not bring me bread. Then, at two and twenty I went to Konigsberg to study law. It was far to journey, but I fled from the hideous strife that wasted my fatherland. I avoided the horrors of war, but only to fall into the equal horrors of fire; and I soon lost by the flames all I had, to the last farthing, and was a beggar.”
“My poor man, did not that leave you in despair?”
“I won’t appear better than I was. As I strove in the great city, without friend or help, my heart sank; but the dear God had mercy on me, and if I bore the cross, I lived well in body and soul.”
“Why, what had you to live on?”
“The gift of God. You must know that I am a poet, and may have heard that I have some readiness in playing the violoncello, and by these I found many friends and benefactors who helped me Â— indeed sparingly enough.”
“And did you remain in Konigsberg till you came here?”
“No”, he answered, sighing heavily. “After five years I went to Dantzic, in the hope of earning bread there; and finding that a false hope, went on to Thorn, and there succeeded beyond my expectation. God brought to me many a dear soul that took me for friend and brother. But for all that, I could find no official position, and so I determined at last to seek in my native town what was denied me elsewhere. Hamburg lay in my way, and as I passed through it a voice seemed to say to me, ‘Abide here, and God will supply thee’. But it must have been the voice of my own will; for you know now that things are not bright with me here.”
“But tell me”, said the landlady, “what office do you seek?”
“If it were God’s will, I could earn my bread at scrivening, or a clerkship of any sort”.
“Then you are not a musician?”
“Well, I am, and I am not. I can play a little, but for my pleasure, not to win bread. This violin is my only friend in the world.”
“But how do you live?”
“My good woman”, he said with a faint smile, “I could tell you much of the wonderful goodness and mercy of God to me in all my misery. It is true, I have now nothing left but this dear old violin. But you know Mr. Siebert? He has a clerkship vacant and he is to answer my application to-day. I believe it is time for me to be with him, so you must excuse me.”
Nathan Hirsch, the Jew pawnbroker, dwelt in one of the narrow, crooked lanes that led to the harbour. Late one evening a young man in a shabby cloak entered the musty shop.
“Good evening, Mr. Neumark”, said the Jew. What brings you here so late? Have you no patience till the morning?”
“No, Nathan; if I had waited until the morning, perhaps I had not come at all. What will you give me for this violoncello?”
“Now, what am I to do with this great fiddle?” drawled the Jew.
“That you know perfectly well, Nathan. Put it in the corner there behind the clothes, where no one will see it. Now what will you give
me for it?”
Nathan took it up and examined it on every side, and said as he laid it down, “What will I give you? Is it for two pence worth of wood and a couple of old strings? I have seen fiddles with silver and mother-of-pearl; but there is nothing here but lumber.”
“Hear me,” said Neumark. “Full five years long I hoarded, farthing by farthing, full five years I suffered hunger and pain,
before I had the five pounds that bought this instrument. Lend me two on it. You shall have three should I ever redeem it?”
The Jew flung up his hands. “Two pounds; hear him! Two pounds for a pennyworth of wood? What am I to do with it if you won’t redeem it?”
“Nathan”, and the young man spoke low and strong, “you don’t know how my whole soul is in this violin. It is my earthly comfort, my only earthly friend. Wouldst thou have my soul?”
“Why not? And if you did not redeem it, it would be mine. But what would the Jew do with your soul?”
“Hush Jew. Yet the fault was my own. The Saviour, whom thy people crucified, has redeemed my soul, and I am His. I spoke in the lightness of despair. But I am His, and He will never suffer me to want. It is hard when I must sacrifice the last and dearest. But He will help me. I will pay thee back.”
“Young man, you will not deceive me with these vain hopes. The last time did you not tell me that a rich merchant would help you?”
“Siebert? Yes, I went to him at his own hour, and he said I came too late; the place was given to another.”
“I deal with you, and not with others,” returned the Jew coldly. “Take your great fiddle away.”
“Nathan, you know I am a stranger here. Remember when you were a stranger and the Christian helped the Jew. I know no one but you. Give me but thirty shillings?”
“Thirty shillings! Have I not said already that no merchant can give thirty shillings for a pennyworth of wood?”
“Thou art a hard and cruel man.” And with these words Neumark snatched up his beloved violoncello and rushed out of the shop.
“Stop, stop, young man”, cried the Jew: “trade is trade. I will give you one pound.”
“Thirty shillings, Nathan. Tomorrow I must pay one pound, and how am I to live? Have mercy.”
“I have sworn that I will not give thirty shillings, but out of old friendship I will give you five and twenty, that is, if you will note, with a penny interest on every florin for eight days, and for the next week twopence, and if you cannot pay me then, it is mine. Now what am I to do with this great piece of wood?”
“It is hard; but I must submit. May God have mercy on me.”
“He is a good and faithful God, the God of my fathers, and He helped me much, or I could not afford to lose by such bargains as this. Twelve pence and four and twenty pence make six and thirty. I may as well take it off the five and twenty shillings. It will save you bringing it back here.”
Neumark made no answer. He was gazing at his violoncello, while the tears rolled silently down his cheeks.
“Nathan, I’ve but one request. You don’t know how hard it is to part from that violin. For ten years we have been together. If I have nothing else, I have it; at the worst it spoke to me, and sung back all my courage and hope. As well give you my heart’s blood as this beloved comforter. Of all the sad hearts that have left your door, there has been none so sad as mine.”
His voice grew thick, and he paused for a moment.
“Just this one favour you must do me, Nathan, to let me play once more upon my violin.”
And he hurried to it without waiting for an answer.
“Hold” cried the Jew in a passion; “the shop should have been closed an hour ago but for you and your fiddle. Come tomorrow, or, better, not at all.”
“No, today, now” returned Neumark. “I must say farewell”; and seizing his instrument, and half embracing it, he sat down on an old chest in the middle of the shop, and began a tune so exquisitely soft that the Jew listened in spite of himself. A few more strains, and he sang to his own melody two stanzas of the hymn,
“Life is weary. Saviour take me.”
“Enough, enough”, broke in the Jew. “What is the use of all this lamentation? You have five and twenty shillings in your pocket.”
But the musician was deaf. Absorbed in his own thoughts he played on. Suddenly the key changed. A few bars and the melody poured itself out anew; but like a river which runs into the sunshine out of the shade of sullen banks he sang louder and his face lighted up with smiles.
“Yet who knows? The cross is precious.”
“That’s better. Stick by that” shouted the Jew. “And don’t forget that you have five and twenty shillings in your pocket. Now, then in a fortnight the thing is mine if you have not redeemed it.” And he turned aside, muttering mechanically, “But what am I to do with a great piece of lumber wood?”
Neumark laid his violin gently back in the corner and murmured, “Ut fiat divina voluntas”Â—”As God will. I am still;” and without a word of adieu, left the shop.
As he rushed out into the night he stumbled against a man who seemed to have been listening to the music at the door.
“Pardon me, sir, but may I ask if it was you who played and sang so beautifully just now?”
“Yes” said Neumark hurriedly, and pushed on.
The stranger seized hold of his cloak, “Pardon me, I am but a poor man, but that hymn you sang has gone through my very soul. Could you tell me, perhaps where I might get a copy? I am only a servant, but I would give a florin to get this hymn; that was just written, I do believe, for myself.”
“My good friend” replied Neumark gently, “I will willingly fulfil your wish without the florin. May I ask who you are?”
“John Cutig, at your service, and in the house of the Swedish Ambassador, Baron von Rosenkranz”.
“Well, come early tomorrow morning. My name is George Neumark; and you will find me at Mistress Johannsen’s in the crooked lane. Good night.”
One morning about a week after this, Cutig paid a second visit to Mistress Johannsen’s. Neumark received him kindly.
“Perhaps you will think that I am foolish; but I have prayed over it the whole night, and I hope I may make so bold . . . .”
“What, is it a second copy of the hymn? Of course you may have it with pleasure.”
“No, no, sir; it is not that. I have the copy you gave me in my Bible, to keep it better; though, if it were lost, I think I know it as well as the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. B ut yesterday Â— you won’t take it ill?”
“Never mind; go on.”
“Well, sir, the ambassador had a secretary that wrote all his letters. Yesterday he suddenly left the house; why, no one knew;
but we believe that the master found him in default, and let him off easily. Yesterday evening, as I saw my lord to bed, he said to me, ‘Now that Mr. Secretary is gone, I know not where to look for as clever a one’. Somehow your name came into my mind; for the secretary lives in the house, and is entertained at the table, and has a hundred crowns a year paid down. So I said, ‘My lord, I know someone . . . .’ ‘You!’ he cried, and laughed; ‘have you a secretary among your friends?’ ‘No, my lord’, said I; ‘though I know him, I am much too humble to have him for a friend or acquaintance.’ So, to make a long story short, sir, I told him all . …”
“All?” interrupted Neumark. “And that you made my acquaintance on the door-step of Nathan Hirsch, the Jew pawnbroker, where I was pledging my violin?”
“Yes, all that” replied Cutig: “and if I have done wrong, I am very sorry; only my heart was so full. My lord was not offended, but bid me bring your hymn, to see how you wrote. ‘Writing and poetry both admirable’, he said as he laid it down; ‘and if the young man would come at once, I would see; perhaps he would do’. I was uneasy afterwards, lest you might be hurt, sir, and between that and wishing you might be secretary, I could scarcely wait for the morning. The ambassador likes an early visit, and if you would pardon me, sir, and think well of it, you might go to him at once.”
Neumark, instead of answering, walked up and down the room. “Yes”, he said to himself, “the Lord’s ways are surely wonderful. They that trust in the Lord shall not want any good thing.” Then ,
turning to the servant, “God reward you for what you have done. I shall go with you.”
The ambassador received him kindly.
“You are a poet, I see, by these verses. Do you compose hymns only?”
“Of the poor” said Neumark after a moment’s pause, “it is written, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. I never knew anyone who was rich and enjoyed this world, that had written a hymn. It is the cross that presses such music out of us.”
The ambassador looked surprised, but not displeased. “You certainly do not flatter us” he said. “But, young man, your experience is narrow. Yet you might remember that our king Gustavus Adolphus, though he lived in the state and glory of the throne, not only composed, but sang and played a right noble Christian hymn.. However, you are poor, very poor, if my servant’s account be correct. Has poverty made you curse your life?”
“I thank the Lord, never, though I have been near it. But He always kept the true peace in my heart. Moreover, the Lord said Â‘The poor ye have always’; and another time He called them blessed; and was Himself poor for our sakes, and commanded the gospel to be preached to the poor; and the very poor, as the apostle says, may yet make many rich. It is not so hard, after all, to be reconciled with poverty.”
“Gallantly answered, like a man of faith. We may have opportunity to speak of that again. I hear you have studied law. Do you think you could sift papers that require a knowledge of jurisprudence and politics?”
“If your grace would try me, I would attempt it.”
“Well, then, take these papers and read them through. They contain inquiries from Chancellor Oxenstiern and the answers I have been able to procure. Bring me a digest of the whole. You may take your own time, and when you are ready, knock at the next door.” Neumark left the hotel of the ambassador that evening with a radiant face; and as he walked quickly through the streets, talked with himself while a smile stole across his lips. “Yes, yes, ”
“Leave God to order all thy ways.’ ”
It was to Jew Nathan’s that he took his way.
“Give me my violoncello”, he cried.
“Here are the five-and-twenty shillings and a half-crown more. You need not be so amazed. I know you well. You took advantage of my poverty; and had I been an hour beyond the fortnight, you would have pocketed the five pounds. Still, I thank you for the five-and-twenty shillings; but for them I must have left Hamburg a beggar. Nor can I feel that you did anything yourself, but was simply an instrument in the hand of God. You know nothing of the joy that a Christian has in saving another; so I pay you, in what coin you like best, an extra half-crown. Here are the one pound seven and
sixpence in hard money. Only remember this,
‘Who trusts in God’s unchanging love,
Builds on the rock that naught can move.’ ”
Seizing his violoncello in triumph, Neumark swept homewards with hasty steps, never pausing till he reached his room. There he sat down, and began to play with such a heavenly sweetness that Mistress Johannsen rushed in upon him with a storm of questions, all of which he bore unheeding, and played and sang will his landlady scarce knew if she was in heaven or on earth.
“Are you there, good Mistress Johannsen?” he said when he had finished. “Well, perhaps you will do me the kindness to call in as many people as there are in the house and in the street. Bring them all in, and I will sing you a hymn that you never heard before, for I am the happiest man in Hamburg. Go, dear woman, go bring me a congregation, and I will preach them a sermon on my violoncello.”
In a few minutes the room was full. Then Neumark seized his bow, played a bar or two, opened his mouth and sang ….
“Leave God to order all thy ways,
And hope in Him whate’er betide;
Thou’It find Him in the evil days
An all sufficient strength and guide.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love,
Builds on the rock that naught can move.
What can these anxious cares avail
These never-ceasing moans and sighs?
What can it help us to bewail
Each painful moment as it flies?
Our cross and trials do but press
The heavier for our bitterness.
Only your restless heart keep still,
And wait in cheerful hope, content
To take whate’er His gracious will,
His all-discerning love hath sent;
Nor doubt our inmost wants are known
To Him who chose us for His own.
He knows when joyful hours are best;
He sends them as He sees it meet;
When thou hast borne its fiery test,
And now art freed from all deceit,
He comes to thee all unaware,
And makes thee own His loving care.” ‘
Here the singer stopped, for his voice trembled, and the tears ran down his cheeks. The little audience stood fixed in silent sympathy;
but at last Mistress Johannsen could contain herself no longer.
“Dear, dear sir,” she began, drying her eyes with her apron, for there was not a dry cheek in the crowd, “that is all like as if I sat in the church, and forgot all my care, and thought of God in heaven,
and Christ upon the cross. How has it all come about? You were so downcast this morning, and now you make my heart leap with joy. Has God been helping you?”
“Yes, that He has, my dear, gracious God and Father. All my need is over. Only think! I am secretary to the Swedish Ambassador here in Hamburg Â— have a hundred crowns a year; and, to complete my happiness, he gave me five-and-twenty crowns in hand, so that I have redeemed my poor violin. Is not the Lord our God a wonderful and gracious God? “”Yes, yes, my good people, be sure of this,
‘Who trusts in God’s unchanging love,
Builds on the rock that naught can move.’ ”
“And this beautiful hymn, where did you find it, sir, if I may be so bold? For I know all the hymn-book by heart, but not this. Did you make it yourself?
“I? Well, yes, I am the instrument, the harp; but God swept the strings. All I knew was this, ‘Who trusts in God’s unchanging love;’ these words lay like a soft burden on my heart. I went over them again and again, and so they shaped themselves into this song; how, I cannot tell. I began to sing and play for joy, and my soul blessed the Lord, and word followed word like water from a fountain. Stop!” he cried, “listen once more:
Nor, in the heat of pain and strife,
Think God hath cast thee off unheard;
Nor that the man whose prosperous life
Thou enviest is of Him preferred;
Time passes, and much change doth bring,
And sets a bound to everything.
All are alike before His face:
‘Tis easy to our God most high
To make the rich man poor and base
To give the poor man wealth and joy.
True wonders still of Him are wrought,
Who setteth up and brings to naught.
Sing, pray, and swerve not from His ways,
But do thine own part faithfully;
Trust His rich promises of grace,
So shall it be fulfilled in thee:
God never yet forsook at need
The soul that trusted Him indeed.
When he ceased for the second time, he was so much moved that he put away the violoncello in the corner, and the little audience quietly dispersed.
Such is the story of one of the most beautiful of all German hymns Â— one of those which has preached the truest sermon to troubled and despairing hearts. After two years, Baron von Rosenkranz procured his secretary the post of Librarian of the Archives at Weimar, and there he died peacefully in his 61st year. He wrote much, verses indeed most innumerable; but the legacy he left to the church was the hymn that the simple-hearted man played when God gave him back his beloved “Viola di Gamba”.
* From the admirable translation in the “Lyra Germanica” of the well-known “Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten.”