Yes, another song arranged for male quartet singing. This song has several noteworthy moments for our consideration. My sight reading teacher, Clint Davis, shared this song with me one day as we were sitting on his living room couch talking about the ministry of teaching others to sing.
Composer: Johanna Kinkel
When Storms Around Are Sweeping is sung to an old German tune, composed by Johanna Kinkel. Kinkel was well-trained in many areas of music, having received private lessons from Franz Ries, Beethoven’s violin instructor. She met great success early in her professional career, but her personal life led to much turmoil and grief. She married an abusive man and left him after six months of marriage, leading to years of divorce proceedings, and debilitating depression. Felix Mendelssohn, a famous composer in his own right, encouraged her to continue her music, which she did with much continued success. After the divorce was settled, she became director of the Gesangverein (“Choral Society”) of her home, Bonn, Germany (one of the first female choir directors in Germany). She remarried, this time to a Protestant theologian, Gottfried Kinkel. As revolution swept Germany in 1848, the musical and literary circles of high society in which the Kinkels circulated collapsed. Gottfried was elected to represent Bonn in the newly-formed National Assembly. However, as often happens to revolutionaries, he was arrested and sentenced to death. Later he escaped from prison and the Kinkels fled to London where they became pillars of the local German community. Johanna continued to work in music, conducting, teaching, and writing two books on music education. Even after all of their trials, Gottfried proved to be a poor husband; history questions his faithfulness to Johanna and their four children. In 1858 Johanna’s lifeless body was discovered in the garden, below the window of her third-story bedroom. While it could not be established, suicide was suspected. The words Freiheit, Liebe und Dichtung (“Freedom, Love, and Poetry”) were inscribed on her tombstone.
Composition and Arrangement
Click here to see a great video of a German chorus singing the original lyrics.
The tune (“Kinkel”) is associated with the German song “Ritters Abschied” (Knight’s Departure). Abschied has become a traditional “going-to-war” song, the words of a knight leaving his beloved for the Kaiser’s battlefield. “Farewell, farewell my own true love,” ends each line. Accordingly, this song has several points for musical dynamics to come into play, each phrase being sung more softly or loudly than those on either side. Wistful and longing would be good terms to describe the feel of this song.
Unusual, though not unseen, is the change from 4/4 in the verses to 3/4 in the chorus.
R.J. Taylor’s hymnal Songs for Worship and Praise (2010) names the tune “Sweeping Storms,” noting that these are the words with which the tune is regularly sung. Taylor’s hymnal (and others) does not have the male quartet arrangement here, but a SATB arrangement. Some of the chords are different, but not to the point that it would be unrecognizable or musically significant. This TTBB arrangement was taken from Elmer Jorgenson’s Great Songs of the Church II.
Genre of Music
Stylistically, this is not a gospel song, nor is it quite a(n) hymn. In a stretch, it could be a highly developed gospel song (harmonies are a bit more complex than your typical I-IV-V-I [do, fa, so, do] gospel song) or a late hymn, somehow blurring the lines between the two types of song. Lyrics that are addressed to God are also more typically associated with hymns than gospel songs.
There is some slight possibility that Kinkel – who, after all, lived in England – wrote the English lyrics “When storms around are sweeping…,” but it’s considered an outside possibility at best. Most scholars do not even think that she wrote the German lyrics, but that she wrote the tune to match the folk poem.
The English lyrics are divided into three stanzas, joined by a common refrain. So joined are they that the sentences which comprise the verses each find their completion in the chorus.
The meter of the poetic lyrics is 188.8.131.52 with a refrain of 8.8, but of the available hymn tunes, none truly fit these words like “Kinkel.”
The first verse seems to be that of a watchman – whether on a ship or at sea is unclear – during a “dark and stormy night.” I suppose this is not the first dank, tiresome night for this man on guard, after all the storms are plural. Not only is he awake in the darkest night, but he alone is on duty. Finding himself surrounded by the descending fires of evil and tempters’ siren call, he appeals to El ‘Elyon. El ‘Elyon is the Hebrew term translated into English as “God Most High,” literally the Chief (or supreme) Power. The God we serve is not just strong, He’s not just a mighty one, He is the Mighty One. This is a humble song that recognizes our lack of strength to withstand the storms of life, but at the same time recognizes the unfathomable might of God.
“Save me, Mighty God, from the temptations of life!”
Does verse two echo the moments of Matthew 14 and Peter’s stroll out onto the stormy sea? The lyricist imagines that he – like the apostle – actually begins to step out on faith, but the out of control “raging motion” of the sea disturbs his faith and it begins to shrink back, causing him to sink into the water. Again, the only one who can help is The Mighty One. This is all too similar to Matthew 14:30f, “…when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’”
“Save me, Mighty God, from the weakness of my faith!”
The third and final verse visualizes yet another scenario, a man ensnared by the crushing power of sin. Like the night of the first verse, the darkness is all-pervasive. By highlighting the mortality of life in the last couplet, the singer appeals to the All-Mighty to remember him in death, much like the thief on the cross.
“Save me, Mighty God, from the power of sin!”
Throughout the Bible the faithful have implored God, “Remember me!” Samson (Judges 16:28), Hannah (I Samuel 1:11), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:14), David (Psalm 25:7) and others took their prayers before God saying, “Remember me, O Mighty One.”