Martin Luther and His Famous Cradle Song

Martin Luther and His Famous Cradle Song

The carol “Away in a Manger” had its earliest known publication in the “Children’s Corner” section of the Chicago-based journal The Christian Cynosure on March 2, 1882. The anonymous two-verse poem was under the heading “Luther’s Cradle Song” with the description: “The following hymn, composed by Martin Luther for his children, is still sung by many of the German mothers to their little ones.”

It is possible that this unfounded attribution to Martin Luther was made due to the coming 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth that would soon occur in 1883.

The tune used by Gaul in his organ piece is that of the song “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” composed in 1837 by Jonathan Edwards Spilman, a lawyer and Presbyterian minister from Kentucky, set to the 1791 poem by Robert Burns. The earliest known publication of an adaptation of this tune for “Away in a Manger” is in the collection Childhood Songs, edited by Mira and Mabel Rowland, published in 1898 (see below).

Gaul dedicated his piece, “To Martin Luther’s Christmas Carol,” to Max Karl Seifert (1888-1967), Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra librarian (from 1926), violinist, organist and percussionist.

— D John Apple



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