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Christmas hymn born out of anquish
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Paul Manz, 85, has written hundreds of compositions for the pipe organ and many of his choral works have been inspired with words supplied by Ruth Manz, his wife (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
A Christmas hymn created by a Minnesota composer years ago grew out of the life and death struggle of his three-year-old son. The good news is the child survived, and the hymn went on to become a big favorite. Earlier this month, 50 years after writing the hymn, composer Paul Manz was listening to a live radio broadcast and got an early Christmas present. He heard a world famous choral group sing the tune.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Minnesota Public Radio's Michael Barone was on the air sending a live radio broadcast from the St. Paul Cathedral to listeners across the Upper Midwest.

The King's College choir concert was sold out.

Ruth and Paul Manz of Minneapolis were two among many unable to get tickets. So, they were by their radio listening to the broadcast.

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Image Decades of performance bring accolades

The choir finished its program to a standing ovation. There was an encore and another ovation. Choir director Stephen Cleobury stepped to the microphone to announce the second encore to the Cathedral and radio audience. "We'd like to sing now for you a piece by a composer I think many of you will know, Paul Manz...."

Sitting by their radio in their south Minneapolis home, Ruth and Paul Manz were thrilled. They confess life for a composer doesn't get much better than this.

"We were very overwhelmed with it and very grateful," Paul says.

More on the hymn in a moment.

First, the story.

Eighty-five year old Ruth and Paul Manz are consumed by music and have devoted their lives to it. They've been married 61 years.

Sitting at his dining room table Paul Manz admits he's always been a composer, or scribbler as he puts it. He's congenitally humble, so Ruth has to prod him. The two met in college in the Chicago area.

"You wrote earlier, in college you did a lot of writing for musical groups," she reminds him. "I wrote the college alma mater, the college pep song, musicals, arrangements for groups," he says.

Ruth says she managed to escape musical training.

"I took piano lessons under duress and feigned great illness at the time of every recital but learned to love and appreciate music through Paul, of course," she says.

Paul trained under a world famous Belgian pipe organist. And, in fact, for all his choral success, Paul Manz is better known for his hundreds of pipe organ compositions. Soon he reached the top rank of North American church organists.

For years he was professor of church music at a Chicago seminary and cantor at a church there. He was also cantor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. He travelled widely, performing, teaching and giving lectures.

I think we'd reached the point where we felt that time was certainly running out so we committed it to the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus quickly come'
- Ruth Manz

You may not find Paul Manz recordings in CD bins at chain music shops. But his organ arrangements and hymn improvisations are favorites among choir directors, organists and legions of faithful churchgoers.

For all the accolades and honors, and there have been many, Paul Manz seems happiest with notes from people moved by his music.

"We got a letter from doctor or a nurse, I guess it was in Canada, Ruth you want to tell that?" he says. "In northern Minnesota, this was relating to his organ music," Ruth says. "This was from a nurse in a neo-natal hospital, and the doctor had prescribed Paul's music, the slow ones for the babies that were too agitated and the more lively ones for the children that were too placid. This was for the little neonatal babies," she says.

Early on, while making his mark as pipe organist extraordinaire disaster struck.

One of the Manz's children, their 3 year old son, came down with a childhood illness that threatened to end his life.

"And at one point he was given up by the doctor as well as the staff," Paul says.

Paul and Ruth Manz took turns at their son's bedside - Ruth by day, Paul by night.

Ruth is a gifted lyricist and always on the lookout for ways to inspire her husband's composing.

"I'm the underling. She calls the shots," Paul says, "In this particular case she was the spark plug...the spark plug that suggested the text," he says.

During their vigil Ruth brought Paul some words she'd crafted based on a text in Revelation.

"Peace be to you and grace from Him who freed us from our sins. Who loved us all and shed his blood that we might saved be. Sing holy, holy to our Lord, the Lord almighty God, who was and is and is to come, sing holy, holy Lord," Ruth says.

"That is just a compilation of the theme in Revelation, Revelation 22, where it speaks of the longing of the Advent, actually, the coming of the Christ" she adds.

"I think we'd reached the point where we felt that time was certainly running out so we committed it to the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus quickly come,'" Ruth says.

"I made a sketch that night at the bedside and miraculously through prayer by a lot of people John survived," Paul says.

That's the story of the hymn, "E'n So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come." Ruth and Paul Manz's son John is in his 50's and has the original score of the hymn written while he was ill.

The tune became a hit. It's been sung by choirs everywhere. A few years ago it notched another measure of popularity when a mandolin quartet version popped up on a Windham Hill's CD.

The gold standard, however, is the choral version. So, it was like Christmas had arrived early when one evening as they listened to their radio Ruth and Paul Manz heard one of their favorite choral groups, the Kings College choir led by Stephen Cleobury, perform the work on a live radio broadcast.

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