At my “Journey’s Home” blog, I’ve been doing weekly, reflective essays on Bach’s sacred cantatas (as explained in the one below for the first Sunday of Advent). These essays will end in late November, when I will have traversed the Christian calendar with Bach. In the meantime, since this blog has its own small following, I think I’ll copy those essays here, a few at a time, so they’ll be available at both sites.
My Bach Devotional Pilgrimage: First Sunday of Advent
Many people have heard of the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.” The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. To commemorate the occasion, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, but the pieces were also recorded. Deutsche Grammophon was willing to release only a few of the cantatas so Gardiner established his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to release the rest. Those words, “to the glory of God alone,” were Bach’s dedication of each cantata.
The cantatas have been released in sets over these years and feature photographs by photojournalist Steve McCurry of people from around the world. (His famous picture is that of Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan girl,” although that particular photo is not used on these sets.) The photos give a sense of the universality of the music of Bach and its themes.
When all of the cantatas were released this fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com. Then I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner’s!) and listen to the cantatas on the Sundays represented by each. I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I’m so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. I’ll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year, on the Sundays they represent.
I’m starting with Disc 52, which is the First Sunday in Advent—today! (The next CD, disc 53, is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, so I’ve some time until the next installment) The photo is of a Tibetan woman. These are two cantatas both named “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Come now, Savior of the Gentiles”), which are BWV* 61 and 62, and also “Schwingt freudig each empor” (“Soar joyfully aloft to the sublime stars”), which is BVW 36. The notes indicate that all three used a famous Advent chorale, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heildand,” Martin Luther’s use of an Ambrosian Advent hymn ‘Veni redemptor gentium.”
Gardiner’s notes indicate that these chorals would have been welcome for Bach’s Leipzig and Weimar churches after “all those self-absorbed feelings of guilt, fear, damnation and hellfire that dominated the final Sundays of the Trinity season.” Not only was Luther’s hymn popular but Bach’s festive music would have given worshipers a happy sense of “having at last turned a corner.”
Interestingly, in the BWV 61 cantata, Bach switches themes a little after the aria “Komm, Jesu” (with its repeated prayer “Komm”), from the praise of Christ’s appearance to the presence of the Lord in the believer’s heart.
Open up, my whole heart,
Jesus comes and enters in.
Though I be but dust and earth,
He shall not despise me,
but takes delight
to see that I become His dwelling.
Oh, how blessed shall I be!
In BWV 62, Christ becomes a “mighty hero” with the tone of the messianic psalms (and Isaiah’s messianic poems) characterizing the texts (by Luther and an anonymous writer), with joy and praise concluding the cantata. In BWV 36, Bach sets the words “Even with subdued, weak voices God’s majesty is revered” with a soft soprano and a muted violin. We also have the theme in this cantata of Christ as the bridegroom of the soul—and, of course, the joy analogous to a wedding.
Pray the strings in Cythera
and let sweet Musica
sound out with naught but joy,
that I may with little Jesus,
this exquisite groom of mine,
pilgrimage in constant love.
According to the CD notes, the English translations are by Richard Stokes
*If you’re new to Bach: “BWV” means “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” (“Bach works catalogue”). It’s the standard numbering and identification of Bach’s works, according to themes and genres rather than chronology.
Sin and Hypocrisy: Bach’s Fourth Advent Sunday Cantatas
Many people have heard of the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.” The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. To commemorate the occasion, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas (186 in all) in over sixty churches—in one year. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, but the pieces were also recorded. Deutsche Grammophon was willing to release only a few of the cantatas so Gardiner established his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to release the rest. Those words, “to the glory of God alone,” were Bach’s dedication of each cantata.
The cantatas have been released in sets over these years and feature photographs by photojournalist Steve McCurry of people from around the world. (His famous picture is that of Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan girl,” although that particular photo is not used on these sets.) The photos give a sense of the universality of the music of Bach and its themes. When all of the cantatas were released this fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com.
I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I’m so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. So I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner’s!) and listen to the cantatas on the days represented by each. I’ll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year.
On December 1st, I began with Disc 52, cantatas for the First Sunday in Advent. Now I’m continuing with Disc 53 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The picture on the disc is a man from Rajasthan, India.
The first cantata is “Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet!” (BWV 70). It captures the Advent theme of expectation for the Second Coming: “Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! Be prepared at all times till the Lord of Glory brings this world to an end…. When will the day come, when we leave the Egypt of this world? Ah, let us soon flee Sodom before the fire overwhelms us! Awaken, souls, from your complacency and believe; this is the final hour.” In the notes, Gardiner points out that Bach alternates orchestra and choir to conjure “the terrifying moment … when ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat’.”
Advent reminds us of the future final hour of Christ’s coming—though we must also be mindful of our own deaths as well. But those who pray and watch have consolation: “Lift up your heads and be comforted, you righteous ones, so that your souls might flourish! You shall blossom in Eden and serve God eternally.”
“Beretet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!” (BWV 132) is next. “Prepare the ways and level the paths of faith and life for the Highest; the Messiah draws nigh!” The person of faith has great promises: “Through the springs of blood and water your clothes have been cleansed, that had been stained by sin. Christ gave you new clothes, dressed you in crimson and white silk, such is a Christian’s finery.” According to Gardiner, Bach assigns an aria to the bass soloist as well as bass instruments “to express all that the text implies: the vigorous declamatory denunciation of sin and hypocrisy.” Advent is a time for us to reflect upon changes we can make in our lives.
Sin and hypocrisy are themes in all three cantatas. The third, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (147), begins, “Heart and mouth and deed and life must give witness of Christ without fear and hypocrisy, that He is both God and Savior.” Jesus is our joy and comfort, strength and treasure, and so the believer should not let Jesus out of heart or sight. The familiar tune, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” is used in the song “Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe.” The faithful person holds to Jesus amid distress and grief, though his/her heart might break, for Jesus is faithful and loving and provides rest and help.
As we consider our own sin and hypocrisy—as well as our griefs and troubles—how great to hold onto God’s promises for us. Though the scriptural words of judgment are frightening, those who trust in the Lord find tenderness and faithfulness.
(The English translations in the CD notes are by Richard Stokes.)
Hump Day Christmas: Bach’s Cantatas for Christmas Day
Continuing my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. today I’m listening to CD 1 in the 56-CD set, the cantatas for Christmas Day. The cover photograph is of a child in Hardiwar, India.
The first CD is “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (BWV 63), “Christians, etch this day in metal and marble.” Gardiner’s notes that this was first concert of the year-long pilgrimage (see my December 1st post). This concert happened in Weimar, a city of notable cultural history. But eight kilometers away, lies the notorious place Buchenwald. For Gardiner, this contrast reminds us, among other things, that “Bach’s music is overwhelming testimony to the strength and resilience of the human spirit,” with its need to find meaning and its endurance through life’s horrors.
It makes me think, too, of the sometimes jarring contrast each Christmas when we sing “peace on earth” in a world that has never known lasting peace. And yet the day is etched permanently in human experience. One thinks of the famous, unofficial “Christmas truces” that happened along the Western Front in 1914, mocking the supposed need for nations to go to war.
This BWV 63 cantata has a symetrical form and contrasting moods, for instance Bach’s transition from E minor to A major when moving to Jesus’ birth. Among the several numbers, the singers declare, “O blessed day! O wondrous day on which the Saviour of the world, the Shiloh promised by God in paradise to the human race.” “Call and implore heaven, come, ye Christians, come to the dance, you should rejoice at God’s deeds today!”
The other cantata is “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (BWV 191), the words and song of the angels which, in Bach’s hands becomes (as Gardiner puts it) “a celebration of dance as well as song.”
Are we dancing with joy at the Good News of Christ? On Christmas Day the three of us will open presents, have lunch, and see part 2 of “The Hobbit,” plus I’ll go to our church’s half-hour morning worship. It’s a happy day, for sure. I don’t want to become chiding about our Christian experience—-as if we all “should” be dancing with joy at the Savior, and if we’re not we’re substandard Christians. But sometimes we do feel so positive about the Good News that, even if we don’t dance, we can’t sit still. If we think deeply about the Gospel promises, we can feel an even greater excitement than “hump day”!
Cling to Christ: Bach Cantatas for the Early Christmas Season
Continuing my listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … Over the next several days I’ll be listening three CDs for the Christmas season. They were recorded in 2000 at St. Bartholomew’s Church, a favorite stop whenever we visit Manhattan. Although I’m beginning my year-long “journey” with the First Sunday of Advent, these three CDs are actually the last ones in the original pilgrimage.
CD 54 contain the cantatas “Gelobet seist du, Jesus Christ” (BWV 91, “All Praise to you, Jesus Christ”) and “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (110, “Let our mouth be full of laughter”) for Christmas Day, and then “Christum wir sollen loben schon” (121, “To Christ we should sing praises”) and “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes” (40, “For this purpose the Son of God”) for Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas. On the CD’s cover is photograph of a child in Amdo, Tibet. According to the notes, “Gelobet, seist du” is full of expectation and danceable-rhythms, with its emphasis on praise of God’s work in Christ—the small way in which the creator of the universe appeared for our benefit.
“Christum wir sollen” is based on a 5th century Latin hymn is similar in its content: “God, who was so boundless, took on servile form and poverty.” “Dazu its erschienen” has several contrasts of darkness and light—and the admonition that we should not be anxious and fearful for the “ancient serpent,” for Christ has conquered Satan. “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” is, for Gardiner, the “most festive and prilliant” of these four with an “irresistible swagger” “Let your mouth be full of laughter and our tongue of singing. For the Lord has done great things for us.”
CD 55 contain the cantatas for the third day of Christmas, also recorded at St. Barth’s: “Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget” (BWV 64, “Behold, what manner of love”), “Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt” (151, “Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes”), “Selig ist der Mann” (57, “Blessed is the man”), and a cantata for the second day of Christmas, “Ich freue mich in dir” (133, “I rejoice in thee”). The cover is photo of a baby in Zigaze Tibet.
Gardiner calls attention to the trombone choir in “Sehet, welch eine Liebe”, which I look forward to hearing. He notes that this cantata connects thematically to the theme of Christus victor in the previous day’s cantata “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes”, as well as the Christmas cantata “Sehet, welch eine Liebe.” Gardiner writes that Bach uses the trombone to depict the “vertical and horizontal” dimensions of faith: Christ’s descent to the world to save us and our eventual ascent to heaven to gain the full divine promises.
“Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt” is an “intimate and beguiling” cantata has, among other things the use of oboes and violins “in praise of the spiritual riches to be found in Jesus’ spiritual poverty.”
His wretched state reveals to me
naught but salvation and well-being,
yea, His wondrous hand
will weave me naught but garlands of blessing.
In “Selig ist der Mann,” we find a kind of dialogue between Christ and the soul, and thus a connection of Christ’s love with the soul of the suffering believer. In the arias and recitatives, Jesus promises his heart to the believer—and his hand to strike the believer’s enemies and accusers. Meanwhile, the believer declares that he/she has nothing to count on but Jesus.
Finally, “Ich freue mich in dir” is an exhilarating cantata which connects to the believer’s need for Christ seen in “Selig ist der Mann” and the other cantatas.
…. I shall,
O Jesus, cling to Thee,
even if the world
were to shatter in a thousand pieces.
The last CD of pre-New Year Christmas music is the actual last CD of the entire set, also recorded at St. Bartholomew’s. The cover photo is a child from Sarif, Afghanistan.These cantatas are for the Sunday after Christmas: the motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (225, “Sing unto the Lord a new song”), “Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn” (152, “Tread the path of faith”), “Das neugeborne Kindelein (122, “The newborn infant child”), “Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende” (28, “Praise God! The year now draws to a close”), and “ Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (190, “Sing unto the Lord a new song”).
Gardiner notes that the BWV 225 “Singet dem Herrn” “distances itself from the mode of the incarnation and anticipates Christ’s coming Passion, crucifixion and death” with a small ensemble, a soprano and basis and six instruments). He also notes that the motet invites believers to the path of faith, as does” Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn,” which is “as close as [Bach] ever got to the traditional Christmas carol-like image of the infant Jesus.” “Gottlob!” takes us into the area of the end of the year’s journey, while the BWV 190 “Singet dem Herrn” reminds us continually of Jesus (in this case, the lesson is his circumcision and naming). Gardiner notes that the cantata begins and ends in D major, creating a little circle with the journey of the past year and the new one to begin.
All good interrelated themes to ponder in our hearts: the weakness and poverty of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, contrasted with the strength of Christ’s grace on which the believer relies. That strength, in turn, is that which we must turn to again and again through the journeys of our years—and the upcoming journey of the new year.
English translations by Richard Stokes