Bonhoeffer, Babylonian Laments, and Vuza Canons

Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing the Gregorian chants.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer1


In the next few months I will be documenting (or at least hope to) my progress on my Bonhoeffer project, a setting of his poem Wir bin Ich?, translated as Who Am I? It is a poem that has captivated me for sometime. I even set the English translation as an undergraduate composition student at Samford University some years back. Bonhoeffer wrote the poem in Tegel prison while serving a sentence for his involvement with a plot to assassinate Hitler. If you are unfamiliar with his story I would recommend picking up a copy of Eric Metaxas’ outstanding biography on him.

As I have spent time studying Bonhoeffer I became aware of his love for the hymn writer Paul Gerhardt and in thinking through this project I have thought it would be compelling to include some reference to Gerhardt. In my research I came across this hymn by Gerhardt.


The text of the hymn is about the Lamb of God going forth to bear the sins of world without complaint but rather with resolve to carry out the will of God for the good of his people. I thought this a fitting counterpoint to Bonhoeffer’s self-sacrifice on behalf of his commitment to seeing righteousness done towards the Jewish people who fell under Hitler’s oppression. I then realized an even greater connection with the music of this hymn, of which Bonhoeffer would very much have been aware. The title of the hymn tune is
An Wasserflüssen Babylon, a reference to Psalm 137.


What a great connection I thought! If you do not know this Psalm, it is a Psalm written during or is at least about the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people around 596 B.C. or so. What I found so compelling was the quote from Bonhoeffer I used to introduce this post. It seemed to me a logical connection to draw these items together into this work given Bonhoeffer’s admiration of Gerhardt, the text of the hymn, and Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the Jewish people of Europe during World War II.

How to handle this compositionally is another matter altogether. I want to draw these connections together in a musically meaningful way. Given my aesthetic interests I am certainly not content to merely quote the hymn. I have long thought of a solo cello loosely representing Bonhoeffer would carry this song. I am working through that solo right now with the framework of the solo line being based around the hymn. The remaining ensemble, 14 string players, will carry the hymn as a kind of
Vuza Canon.

In musical theory and practice a canon is contrapuntal work that employs one or more imitations of the primary melody or theme. A Vuza Canon is similar but carries with it an algebraic framework. At its most basic level, a Vuza Canon is a canon of periodic rhythms that has exactly one note per pulsation. I am still trying to get my head around the math (nothing new there) but hope to have this problem worked out within the week. I have been mulling over some papers from
IRCAM and some more rudimentary ones from Tom Johnson but still don’t quite have it figured out. I need to be able to understand it so I can then get it into OpenMusic to work out the details.


1) Eberhard Bethge,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York, Harper and Row, 1970) p. 512