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Music

O you joyful

We look at some of the best-known Christmas songs, examining their political, cultural and historical background. This time: "O du fröhliche" (O you joyful).

Weimar, winter 1813: after suffering a loss at the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon’s troops made their way westward, plundering towns and villages on the way. Along with the spoils of war, they also carryied a deadly disease which would kill thousands; typhoid. Living in Weimar at the time, Johannes Daniel Falk - satirist, theologian and pioneer of social pedagogy - was particularly badly hit by the epidemic. Four of his children succumbed to the disease. Falk himself barely escaped with his life.

Mass grave during the typhus epidemic in 1809

Typhoid was spread during the Napoleonic Wars

Friends in need

"God gives you life because He knows you have a heart full of love for your fellow man," noted Falk in his diary, "You should now give this to those poor children who have lost their parents." That night he changed from a biting satirist to a practicing Christian. He founded the Society for Friends in Need as well as Lutherhof, a youth center. Up until his death in 1826, around 500 orphans from the Weimar region found a new home here. The "Father of Orphans" schooled the children and even found training and work places for them.

A song for the orphans

Singing was a regular part of his weekly Sunday School, and in 1816 the children were rehearsing a new song composed by Falk himself: "O du fröhliche." The text was his own work, the melody taken from a Sicilian sea shanty "O Sanctissima," still sung today in southern Italy by fishermen before they cast out to sea. Legend has it that Falk overheard the melody being sung by an Italian boy in his orphanage. The reality is he discovered it in an 1807 collection of folk songs compiled by his friend Johann Gottfried Herder.

Father of Orphans Johannes Daniel Falk

"Father of Orphans" Johannes Daniel Falk

A sense of pride

According to the entries in Falk's diary, the children at the Luterhof center enjoyed the new song. "I am delighted with the devotion they bring to singing my songs and the speed with which they learn them," he wrote. "'O du fröhliche' has been a particular success. I read the lyrics to the children twice, and they could already sing it. It fills me with pride to see them singing with wide, bright eyes the song that I wrote for them."

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