New Year Hope: Bach’s Cantatas for New Year’s Day
Continuing my listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … this morning I listened to the Christmas Season cantatas for New Years Day (disc 2 in this 56-CD set). The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a child in Amdo, Tibet, wearing an appropriately warm-looking hat.
All these cantatas contrast the year’s ending and the new year’s start: we praise God for the protection and blessings of the past, and we trust in God’s care amid life’s uncertainties and the devil’s traps. The first cantata, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 143, “Praise the Lord, O my soul”) is (according to Gardiner, in his commentary notes) of questionable authenticity; it may be a much earlier piece of Bach’s own reused at a later date, or a student’s work composed under Bach’s direction. The piece has an aria that considers grace amid life’s troubles:
Thousandfold misfortune, terror,
sadness, fear and sudden death,
enemies littering the land,
cares and even more distress
are what other countries see—
we, instead, a year of grace.
But the believer still must trust in Jesus as “our refuge in the future, that this year may bring us good fortune.” The believer knows to remain watchful everywhere for the Lord’s guidance. The music itself, composed (as Gardiner writes) when horrors of war and death pale in comparison to the 20th century’s, inspire in us a universal longing for blessing and care amid the particular distresses of our times and places.
A more mature work (according to Gardiner) than 143, the next cantata, “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” (BWV 41, “Jesus, now be praised”) seeks the same favors from Christ: that Christ’s goodness that has kept us safe through the outgoing year may keep us protected in the new year, since “the foe both day and night lies awake to harm us.”
“Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (BWV 16, “Lord God, we give Thee praise”) is (as Gardiner puts it) ebullient and concise compared to the more expansive 41. As the previous cantata had beseeched Christ’s care in both “town and country” (Stadt und Land), this cantata request blessing for both “church and school” (Kirch und Schule), because Satan’s wickedness lies in wait there, too.
“Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm” (BWV 171, “According to thy Name, O God, so is Thy praise”) asks the believer to complete the year in praise of God, with the name of Jesus being the new year’s first word and the believer’s final word.
Probably many people wonder, as do I, what a new year will bring. Think of how differently the world looked at the beginning of 2001 than it did at year’s end. 1914 is another year of that sort. Think of years in your own experience when some event changed the character of the whole year and beyond. 1999 and 2012, when my parents died, are personal examples. I also think of a Facebook friend who lost a loved one on January 1; this friend’s year changed dramatically on the very first day.
Bach’s cantatas give us lovely experiences of hope. We are human and recognize the perils and capricious qualities of life, but we place our trust and hope in God to guide us through. For Bach and his lyricists, God is really the sole source for confidence and happiness. In today’s cantatas, Christ’s is the overarching name that begins a calendar year, ends it, begins the next…. and finally closes our lives as we are ushered into everlasting life.
English translations by Richard Stokes
All We Have in Life: Bach’s Cantatas for Sunday After New Year and for Epiphany
Continuing my enjoyment of Bach’s cantatas on the Sunday and special days for which they were written…. It’s a snowy morning in St. Louis, with more snow to come. I’m feeling terrible because of a cold; tomorrow I’ll call our doctor and get some advice. Plows haven’t been on my street yet, so I won’t go to church, which is about two miles away. According to our local news, two people about my age or slightly older died shoveling snow and working their snow blowers. (Prayers for their families.)
This morning I’m listening to Disc 3 of the 56-CD set, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, of all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas. Today is the Sunday after New Year, and tomorrow is Epiphany, and this CD (featuring a photo of a Kabul man with frost in his hair, eyebrows and eye lashes and beard) features two cantatas for each day. Disc 4 will be cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany.
The first two, for the Sunday after New Year, are “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” (BWV 153, “Behold, dear God, how mine enemies”) and “Ach, Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 58, “Ah God, what deep affliction”). “Schau, lieber Gott” begins and continues through several anguished pleas for help. By the second choral piece, “Und ob gleich alle Teufel”, with familiar tune “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the piece lyrically turns to hope: “even though all the evils were to oppose you, there would be no question of God retreating.” Like several of the biblical psalms, the first half of the piece is all anguish and pain while the second half affirms God’s faithful care even in very difficult circumstances.
“Ach, God,” a dialogue between the soprano and bass, is a dialogue between a troubled and beleaguered soul and an assuring angel. By the end, the soul (the soprano) declares assurance in an upbeat final aria: “Be consoled, consoled, Oh hearts, to reach Thee in heaven’s paradice… the joy of that day for which Thou hast shed Thy blood outweighs all pain.”
Then the next two cantatas on this disc are those for Epiphany: “Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen” (BWV 65, “All they from Sheba shall come”), and “Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen” (BWV 123, “Dearest Emmanuel, Lord of the righteous”). As Gardiner indicates in his notes, the first cantata opens with a sense of procession, antiquity, and Near Eastern ambiance to depict the arrival, not of the Queen of Sheba, but of the Magi who brings the Christ child gifts. A theme familiar to this holiday–what gifts can we figuratively bring the Christ?—is answered: “Jesus would have your heart. Officer this, O Christian throng, to Jesus at the New Year!” Christ, in turn, gives to us more precious gifts than the Magi’s: Christ gives us the gift of himself, and with him the “wealth” of promised Heaven.
“Liebster Immanuel” has dance-like rhythms as it, at first, urges Jesus to return quickly, for Jesus is the believer’s delight and most dear gift through life’s “bitter nourishment of tears.” Gardinar comments that the bass aria “Lass, o Welt,” is one of Bach’s most lonely pieces, as the singer declares, “Leae me, O scornful world, to sadness and loneliness! Jesus…shall stay with me for all my days.” Yet, in one of Bach’s many wonderful techniques, lets a solo flute accompany the lonely singer with more assuring music, as if the flute were the singer’s consoling angel.
I’m struck by the sorrowfulness of some of the pieces. I don’t know if people in Bach’s time made “New Year’s resolutions,” but now that the new year has gotten started, people are back into the difficulties and challenges of life.
But the cantatas are psalm-like in their honesty of pain, loneliness, and people’s scorn, contrasted with the promise of God’s unfailing love, power, and eternal promises. Something I want to keep thinking about this coming year, is the theme of several cantatas so far: God in Christ is, really, all we have in life, the only permanent reality, the only sure promise. All other things, both good and bad, are ephemeral. I admit that I don’t really “feel” that promise often enough as I go about my daily life.
English translations by Richard Stokes
Losing the Lord: Bach’s Cantatas for the First Sunday After Epiphany
I’ve spent this past week dealing with an energy-sapping head cold that kept me home and unproductive. School starts tomorrow, though.
This weekend I’m listening Bach’s cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany, which is CD 4 in the box set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. These three cantatas are: “Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren” (BWV 154, “My dearest Jesus is lost”), “Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht,” (124, “I shall not forsake my Jesus”), and “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (32, “Beloved Jesus, my desire”). The lessons for this Sunday are Romans 12:1-6 and Luke 2:41-52.
All three cantatas surround the Luke passage wherein Jesus was accidentally left behind at the temple, and his family backtracks to find him. In these cantatas, the distressed believer speaks for the family: I am a sinner, I am in distress and grief and pain, and I need to be with Jesus. But Jesus is lost! Thankfully, God does not
As Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach’s skill makes his cantatas more dramatic than operas of his time; for instance, “in the bass recitative (No. 4) Bach forms a chain of seven successive notes of the chromatic scale in the continue line to emphasize the question, ‘Will not my sore-offended breast become a wilderness and den of suffering for the cruellest loss of Jesus?’” In contrast, though, the subsequent soprano-alto duet is “constructed as a gigue with a joyful abandon… that celerates release from all things worldly.”
When I feel “meh” or lost, I tend to go to the psalms, several of which express anxiety when God seems missing. Most of these psalms proceed into thanks and praise as the psalmist recovers a sense of closeness to God. The Luke story is also a wonderful scripture when one feels spiritually lost and distressed.
Have you ever felt spiritually panicked? The Luke story (and Bach’s cantatas) reminds you of a spiritual feeling that you might also sense in the psalms: that feeling of agitated distress and disorientation at losing God, as Jesus’ family panicked when they couldn’t find him.
Jesus was not really lost, of course. God is really never far away at all. But at our own spiritual and emotional levels, we may have little or no sense of God. It might take us some time to feel close to God again. What a good reminder of the happiness that await us when we get to that place.
Weighed by Sorrow: Bach’s Cantatas for the Second Sunday of Epiphany
Continuing my “journey” through J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. On disc 5 of this set, the cantatas for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (today) are “Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?” (BWV 156, “My God, how long, ah! how long?”), “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 3, “Ah, God, what deep affliction”), and “Meine Seufzer, meine Traenen” (BWV 13, “My sighs, my tears”). The Scriptures are Romans 12:6-16 and John 2:1-11. The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a man (wearing a bright red hat) from Lhasa, Tibet.
I listened to the CD before I studied the notes, and I was taken by the overall somber quality of the cantatas after some of the joyful numbers of the previous Christmas and Epiphany pieces. Sure enough, Gardiner comments in the notes that even the sad titles of the cantatas seem out of place for the happy quality of the lessons and Epiphany season. But the texts describe journeys “from mourning to consolation.” Similarly, the Gospel text from the Cana wedding calls attention to the then-unfulfilled ministry of Jesus (“My hour has not yet come”), which connects to the not-yet-fulfilled journey of the believer, who still looks forward to faith’s fulfillment in Heaven.
In the first cantata, for instance, the believer is assured that God does not delight in sending afflictions but that God wants the joys of Heaven to become all the more precious as we struggle through difficulties. In the second cantata, Jesus is most certainly the one who helps us bear our crosses and keeps our hearts in faith through “mortal fright and torment.” The third cantata is particularly filled with references to tears, sorrow, grief, distress, and bitterness, including feelings of abandonment from God. But all the while God promises to “turn bitterness into joyful wine” and to console us with the promises of Heaven.
Gardiner notes the music devices Bach uses, like the six notes in chromatic descent that symbolize grief in BWV 3, which Bach tranforms into chromatic harmonies that represent the movement from grief to hope. In that same cantata, in the soprano-alto aria connects the cross of Christ to the believer’s troubles, resulting in joy. But in the last cantata, in the fifth movement, Bach uses the bass soloist with recorders and violin to depict our present life as bleakly as possible.
“Hope” in the sense of Christian hope is not only anticipation that something will happen but also trust that it will—and trust in the promiser. I hope that we get a nice tax refund this year, but it would be foolish to trust that we will. I’ll just have to get our taxes done and find out. Christian hope, though, is confidence that God’s promises of comfort and blessings are part of our lives now, as well as in the future. Heaven is in the future, but God has given us the divine life and the divine power today.
So we really live in two circumstances, so to speak, one temporary and one permanent. Our temporary circumstances are filled with things like distress, sorrow and uncertainty (as well as joy and accomplishment). But our permanent circumstance is the life with God which is already accomplished by Christ and is real and powerful. Looking to Christ’s complete fulfillment, however, is that which helps us stay grounded in the divine promises while other things in our lives weigh us down–or nearly crush us.
English translations of the texts by Richard Stokes.
“One Foot in the Grave”: Bach’s Third Sunday in Epiphany Cantatas
Continuing my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas… As I began to listen to this 56-CD set that I described in earlier posts, I started with disc 52, which are the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the Christian liturgical year from the first Sunday. Now I’ve listened to discs 52-56 and then 1-5 as I follow the Sundays in order, and this weekend I’m listening to disc 6, the cantatas for the third Sunday in Epiphany (which is tomorrow, January 26). The sleeve photo is of a child at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma.
Next Sunday, February 2, is Epiphany’s fourth Sunday but this year it’s also Candlemas. So I’ll be listening to and thinking about discs 7 and 8. Bach seems to have not written a Groundhog Day cantata….
The third Sunday cantatas are “Alles nur mach Gottes Willen” (BWV 72, “All things according to God’s will), “Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir” (BWV 73, “Lord, deal with me as Thou wilt”), “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” (BWV 111, “May my God’s will always be done”), “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe” (BWV 156, “I stand with one foot in the grave”). Musically these are more generally upbeat than last Sunday’s, but the themes are still difficult. Imagine telling your choir that Sunday’s music is called “One foot in the grave.”
In the CD notes, Gardiner explains that the time period of 72 was difficult for Bach, who must have counted on God’s mercy particularly. He and his second wife, Anna Magdalena, lost three children during that 1726-1728, and 28-year-old Anna herself was ill. (Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, was only 36 when she died unexpectedly in 1720.) In this situation, Bach set to music words like, “[w]hen affliction and suffering frighten you, [your Savior] knows your distress and frees you from affliction… if [one] is filled with faith, my Jesus will do it!”
When Bach wrote 156 in 1729, the title line, “I stand with one foot in the grave” was a reminder of life’s tragic transitory quality. But the text (and the opening oboe music) affirms (as Gardiner writes) “the believer’s desire for God alone, whether in life or in death.” In the cantata, which begins with a pretty sinfonia, the believer beseeches God for rescue, but also affirms that God’s will is best, for only in God can one find solace and salvation. I love the sound of the oboe in works by Mozart, Vaughan Williams, and others, and it’s a perfect instrument to carry this message.
Gardiner notes that in 73, “Bach’s musical setting reinforces the thetorical structure and underlines the message of faith in the sovereingty of God’s will.” The soprano and tenor represent the anxiety of the believer while the chorus and the solo bass provide assurance. Trust in God’s will, and submission thereto, helps us deal with sorrow and distress, for Christ’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s rule “leads us into heaven’s kingdom” and banishes the “pangs of death, the sighs from my heart”
In contrast, 111 is from 1725, when things were happy in the Bach’s lives, although the cantata balances a happpy faith with the awareness of death at the end where the believer seeks to stay brave at life’s evils.
In my philosophy class this past week, we talked about the inevitability of death, and the fact that there are no guarantees how or when we will die, nor any assurance that a certain time or mode of death is more “fair” than others. But it will always seem so to us: it wasn’t fair that this person died when and how s/he did. No amount of coldly objective thinking about the reality of death unpredictability will convince us otherwise. (That being said, I think my father died in a good way, collapsing with an aneurysm while doing things that he loved around the house.)
Yet tombstones once carried “memento mori” epitaphs, admonishing the passer-by to be reminded of death’s inevitability and to prepare as best as one ever can. In our family cemetery in Illinois, the tombstone of a local blacksmith who died in 1855 warns, “Remember friends, as you pass by/as you are now, so once was I/as I am now, so you must be/prepare for death and follow me.”
As I think about Bach’s cantatas, I’m struck by how the texts and music struggle with those feelings of dread, distress, and grief that are part of mortal life—and how these themes are prominent here in January, still the first part of the new year, during the season of Epiphany that by its very name is about a new and hope-filled appearance of God among us.
And that consolation and promise amid the dread and reality of mortality is of course one of the most precious aspects of the Gospel message. Sometimes we preachers are careful to say (following John’s gospel and other New Testament passages) that God’s eternal life begins now and not just at death. We don’t want people to become too “pie in the sky” in their faith. On the other hand, when a person is facing death (or when a person simply wants to accept death’s inevitability prior to it becoming an issue), the power and grace of Christ becomes even more clearly the foundation of everything, and the only thing one can count on. All of these cantatas “preach” that very message.
English translations by Richard Stokes.
Calming Storms: Bach’s Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Cantatas
Over this weekend I’ll be listening to two discs in the set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. The theme of Disc 7 is Bach’s cantatas for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany (Feb. 2 this year): “Ach wie fluechtig, ach wie nichtig” (BWV 26), “Ah how fleeting, ah how trifling”), “Jesus schlaeft, was soll ich hoffen?” (BWV 81, “Jesus sleeps, what hope is there for me?”), “Waer Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” (BWV 14, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side”), Jesu, meine Freud” (BWV 227, “Jesus, my joy”). Actually the first two are Bach’s only cantatas written specifically for this Sunday, while the others two fill out the disc well with common themes. The photo—all the cover photos depict people around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music—is of a young person of Omo Valley, Ethiopia.
As the title indicates, 26 concerns the shortness of life and all its hopes. As I wrote last week, Bach had tragedy in his life: the death of his first wife and several children. I’ve read elsewhere that his parents died when he was young. For this theme of life’s shortness, Gardiner indicates that Bach’s writing “create a mood of phantasmal vapour” and also of a mountain river (symbolizing life and its hopes) rushing away. The words express sorrow at all the supposed pleasures, accomplishments and splendor of life. “All things, all things that we see shall fall at last and period. Who fears God shall live forever.”
BWV 81 is concern with another “aquatic” image, that of Jesus calming the storm. Gardiner notes that Bach uses recorders with the strings to depict the fear of God’s abandonment (in the image of Christ sleeping while the disciples are fearful). Gardiner comments that the dramatic quality of this cantata (with the long silence of Jesus, the disciples’ fear, the storm itself) gives a sense of what a Bach opera might have been like. “Though lightning cracks and flashes, though sin and Hell strike terror, Jesus will protect me.”
Bach does not repeat the water imagery for BWV 14, but the text does grapple with life’s (and Satan’s) threats to the community of believers, and the assurance of God’s protection and care. BWV 227, an eleven-movement motet included with this Sunday’s cantatas, includes those images—“Beneath Thy shield I am protected from the raging storms of all my enemies”—while more geneally affirming the sweetness and protection of God amid life’s storrow, pleasures, and honors.
How well do we look to Christ amid the metaphorical and actual storms of life? Over the years I’ve tried to sustain my faith (persistently if not consistently) through good times so that I’m less distressed when trouble comes. (As an aside, I’m a terrible worrier, but trouble that has come usually was not what I worried about but something unexpected.)
Fortunately, Christ does not wait until he is suitably impressed with the quality of our faith before he steps up to help us. The disciples were fearful and fussy amid the storm (as I would have been), and although Christ sighed at their fearfulness, he calmed both the storm and their anxieties. For some of us, that is two great miracles in one!
“It Is Enough”: Bach’s Candlemas Cantatas
No Bach cantatas for Groundhog Day…. but these cantatas (and the ones in yesterday’s post) are for February 2 commemorations.
This year, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany also falls on Candlemas (which in turns falls this year on a Sunday). Candlemas is also called the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or the Meeting of the Lord. It is the fortieth day following Christmas, a good halfway point between Christmas and the spring equinox. In the Gospel lesson for the day, Luke 2:22-40, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete Mary’s purification and to perform pidyon haben, “the redemption of the first born” (Exodus 13:12-15, Leviticus 12). Because Simeon calls Jesus a light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), the festival became known as “candle mass.”
The next Bach cantatas will be for the Third Sunday Before Lent (Septuagesima), which is February 16 this year.
Bach’s cantatas for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (disc 8 in this set) are “Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde” (BWV 83, “Joyous time of the new order”), “Ich habe genung” (BWV 82, “It is enough”), “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin” (BWV 125, “In peace and joy I now depart”), and “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” (BWV 200, “I shall acknowldge His name”), although only one movement of this cantata survives. The cover photo is a boy from Afghanistan.
Gardiner notes that “Erfreute Zeit” “contasts the old order of the law and the new order in Christ,” with Bach using the solo violin to emphasize the joy of the wors erfreute” and “freudig” (“joyous” and “joyful”). The second movement, symbolizing the “old order” uses “archaic musical forms… for the Nunc dimitiis,” while the upbeat tenor and a return of the solo violin regains the sense of joy of Christ.
BWV 125 returns us to the Nunc dimittis theme: the servant of God who is ready to leave this life because the waited-for salvation has come. By the second aria, Christ’s light reenters the formerly somber music and the believer looks forward to the prospect of being with Christ, “O unexhausted store of kindness, that has been revealed to us mortals.” The surviving movement of BWV 200 (such a pretty and assuring 4-minute piece, I wish there were more) also uses the theme of Luke 2:29. “I shall acknowledge His name, he is the Lord, He is the Christ… No death robs me of my trust: the Lord is the Light of my life.”
“Ich habe genug” is a well-known cantata, which I’ve also heard with Hans Hotter and with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the bass soloists. It is an emotional cantata but “Bach’s interpretation (writes Gardiner) contains no trace of spiritual sentimentalism, or glib triumphalism… Might the lullaby of the third movement represent a father watching helplessly as his daughter falls into death’s sleep, and the joyful dance of the final movement anticipate the healing romp of familial reunion in eternity?” The cantata premiered six months after the death one of the Bach’s children. “It is enough… that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”
This is a day for honoring Mary. I found a website (http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/calendar/day.cfm?date=2013-02-02) that quotes Pope John Paul II: “Simeon’s words seem like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow.” The site author goes on to say: “The archangel’s announcement was a fount of incredible joy because it pertained to Jesus’ messianic royalty and the supernatural character of His virginal conception. The announcement of the elderly in the temple instead spoke of the Lord’s work of redemption that He would complete associating Himself through suffering to His Mother.” So in concluding the stories of Jesus‘ infancy on this fortieth day after Christmas, we approach the end of the overall Epiphany period and come within sight of Lent and its emphasize upon suffering, renunciation, and repentance.
These cantatas also lead me to think about Simeon and Anna. Yesterday (January 31st) was the birthday of Thomas Merton, a man who has inspired so many of us with his dedication to prayer, reflection, and contemplation. Although not much is related about Simeon and Anna in the Gospel, their dedication to vocations of prayer are scriptural inspirations for us. Analogous to the appeal of a Walden Pond-like retreat, what is it about a life completely devoted to prayer that holds appeal to many of us—including those of us who really enjoy our present lives?
My own struggle is how to maintain a faithful prayer life amid the busyness of life. These Candlemas cantatas remind me yet again to step up my efforts. But what if, in the midst of faithful prayer, God calls us to a deeper kind of prayer life, wherein we might have to give up some of the hard work, hopes for professional recognizing, and even hectic ministry work that we enjoy?
But maybe that’s making things too complicated when God’s grace is really more simple. After all, Bach set these words: “It is enough… that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”
English translations by Richard Stokes