The Heavens Laugh: Bach’s Cantatas for Easter Sunday
Back to my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas…
Let me reintroduce this project. 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, and 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 past 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. Disc 1 of the set is for Christmas Day, but I began with Disc 52, the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, and thus started my project at the beginning of the Christian liturgical calendar. I listened to discs 52 through 56 for Advent and Christmas, and then I began with disc 1 and have been pretty faithful to listen to each set of cantatas on the represented Sunday (or generally that weekend). I’m not quite a third of the way through.
Without many cantatas for the Lenten season, my “journey” has had a few weeks off. (It was a good time to listen again to the St. Matthew Passion, as I did last year.) Now, this weekend I’m listening to Bach’s cantatas for Easter Sunday, CD 13. The photo is of a girl in Peshawar, Pakistan. The cantatas for Easter Sunday are “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (BWV 4, “Christ lay in the bonds of death”), and “Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubliliert” (BWV 31, “The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices”)
All of the Gardiner-conducted cantatas were originally released on two-CD sets over the past several years. The cost has been around $30 per set. Hoping that the cantatas would eventually be released together, I had purchased only one—these cantatas for Easter Sunday and Monday—because they were performed at the Georgenkirche in Eisennach, Germany. My family and I had visited Bach’s birthplace in that town in 2007, during my daughter’s choir tour.
In the CD notes, Gardiner notes that BWV 4, like Luther’s hymn of the same name on which the cantata is based, calls the believer “to become a character in the play of redemption, casting aside his doubts and meeting the ephemeral Christ in tangible form.” It is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas (from 1707, when he was 23), setting all the verses of Luther’s hymn and beginning and concluding in E minor.
The minor-key cantata, filled with alleluias though it may be, focuses upon Christ’s death and the corresponding life-and-death drama of redemption.
It was an awesome battle
when Death and Life struggled.
Life won the victory
and devoured death;
the scriptures foretold it so,
how one death gobbled up the other
and made a mockery of death.
In the notes, Gardiner discusses the musical techniques that Bach uses to give mood and nuance to Luther’s hymn. For instance, in one section, the bass singers must hold a D for several beats on the first syllable of “Wuerger” (“strangler”) to emphasis the whole line, “the strangler can no longer harm us.”
Just listening to the music on my computer, without following the text, I was struck by the contrast between the minor key “Christ lag in Todesbanden” and the other surviving Easter cantata, BWV 31, where the music is much brighter from the ouset. Even the next-to-last verse of “Christ lag”, with its dance rhythms, isn’t as cheerful as the opening of the subsequent cantata:
The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices,
and all she bears within her womb.
The Creator lives! The highest triumphs
and is freed from the bonds of death.
He who has chosen the grave for rest,
the Holiest One cannot decay.
The text continues to contrast the incorruptibility and victory of Christ with the need for us believers to die spiritually to our sins and “dead works” so that Christ can live in us and be reflected in us. The suffering, as well as the difficult spiritual renewal that is necessary in this life will eventually end so that, in our final hour, we will “behold Jesus’ radiant joy and his bright light.”
Last Sunday our pastor pointed out that contemplation and celebration go together during Holy Week: we can’t celebrate Easter without first contemplating what has happened before. I thought of that as I listened to the contrasting moods of these two Easter cantatas: the second more upbeat than the first. While the second makes us feel more spontaneously happy, the more subdued alleluias of the first remind us of the themes of sin and death which, though now defeated, still give us sorrow.
The message of Easter is the victory of Christ. Part of that victory is our ability to hold to Christ and embrace the renewal available through the Spirit. At different times of my life, “holding to Christ” seemed like another difficult obligation among many. It’s easy for some of us to berate ourselves that we have not done enough for God, that we haven’t devoted ourselves to spiritual disciplines sufficiently well, etc, etc. The trick is to understand “holding to Christ” as a wonderful opportunity—to be loved and accepted, rather than burdened. Holding to Christ means trusting someone who is truly on our side.
Peter Gomes remarks that the modern European traditions of biblical interpretation, while valuable, are different from traditions of black preaching, which “endeavors to remove as many barriers between the thing preached and those to whom it is preached as quickly as possible, so that the ‘objective’ story becomes with very little effort, ‘our’ story, or ‘my’ story.”(1) In placing us within the drama of salvation, Bach’s cantatas achieve a similar result. Maybe Bach places us even more quickly into the story of salvation, since it is beautiful music and not merely the uttered Word that places us there.
1. Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 340-341, which I quoted in my book What About Religion and Science (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 106.
English translations of Bach’s texts are all by Richard Stokes, according to the CDs’ notes.
Abide with Us: Bach’s Cantatas for Easter Monday and Tuesday
My weekly journey through Bach’s sacred cantatas resumes!
Today is the Monday after Easter, and we have two cantatas for that day. One is the last selection on CD 13: “Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen” (BWV 66, “Rejoice, all ye hearts”). In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments although Bach may have been creatively weary following the production of his two Easter passions, he still gravitated to the joyfulness of Easter celebration and was able to adapt now-lost birthday serenatas for “Erfreut euch.”
Rejoice all ye hearts,
begone, all ye agonies,
the Savior lives and governs in you.
You can dispel the grieving,
the fear, the anxious trembling,
the Saviour revives the Kingdom of the Spirit…
The grave is rent asunder, and thus our woe is ended…
The other Easter Monday cantata is on CD 14, “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden” (BWV 6, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening”). The sleeve photo is of a boy in Nuristan, Afghanistan.
Gardiner writes that this is an “Emmaus” cantata that shares a mood with the St. John Passion, although this cantata lacks necessarily lacks the lamentative aspects of the Passion. “It manages to be both narrative (Evoking the grieving disciples’ journey to Emmaus as darkness falls) and universal at the same time (the basic fear of being left alone in the dark, literally and metaphorically).” Bach “paints” the theological affirmation to hold onto Christ in the Word and sacrament even though Christ is soon to depart.
Ah, abide with us, Lord Jesus Christ,
for evening now has fallen,
Thy holy Word, the bright light,
let it not cease to shine on us!
In this final, dismal hour,
lend us constancy, O Lord,
that we Thy Word and Sacrament
keep pure until our end is nigh.
CD 14 is filled out with the two cantatas for Easter Tuesday: “Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiss” (BWV 134, “A heart that knows its Jesus to be living”), and “Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergotzen” (BWV 145, “I live, O heart, for your delight”). Gardiner comments on the joyous quality of 134 and 145. Music from that earlier set of birthday serenatas have been “recycled” for this new purpose.
How fortunate are you, God has thought of you,
who are God’s hallowed property;
the Saviour lives and conquers with might
to bring you salvation; to His glory
Satan must now fear and tremble,
and hell itself be shaken
(from BWV 134)
I have my receipt here,
signed with the blood and wounds of Jesus.
And it holds good:
I am redeemed, I am set free
and live now with God in peace and unity…
(from BWV 145)
I’ve not participated in the Walk to Emmaus program for over twenty years. But the Emmaus story itself in Luke 24 has always been dear to me, as I write here. Although Bach’s texts admonish us to remain faithful to Christ and not grow lax in our discipleship, the Emmaus story reminds us that Christ seeks us whether we are righteous or not. In fact, the disciples in the story had given up and were moving on. Christ chose them to console and teach. Christ is ever compassionate to those who are afraid and uncertain. He helps them make all the connections, so to speak, and he gives them all the time and companionship they need.
The image of “God’s hallowed property” is a pleasing complement to the imagery of the Easter Sunday cantatas, of “holding to (the risen) Christ” amid temptation and trouble. When we experience difficulties, what a great thought that Christ holds onto us, so to speak, even as we seek to hold onto Christ. This is Pauline theology (“you are not your own, you were bought with a price,” 1 Cor. 6:19-20) that defines our value and embraces our particular sources of value.
(As stated in the liner notes, all English translations in this set are by Richard Stokes.)
Cedars Before the Tempest: Bach’s Cantatas for the First Sunday After Easter
The church year moves along, and now we’re into the Easter Season and look toward Pentecost. The first Sunday after Easter is sometimes called Octave Day of Easter, and also St. Thomas Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, and Quasimodo Sunday (or Quasimodogeniti). The latter comes from the Latin “Quasi modo geniti infantes,” “like [or in the manner of] newborn infants,” which is the text of the Introit from 1 Peter 2:2
We have two cantatas for Quasimodogeniti and two others (150 and 158) that are thematically related. The four are “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (BWV 150, “Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul”), “Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ” (BWV 67, “Remember that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead”), “Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats” (BWV 42, “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week”), and “Der Friede sei mit dir” (BWV 158, “Peace be unto you”). This is CD 15 in the set. The photo is of a turbaned man from Balochistan, Pakistan.
In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that BWV 150, with its prominent chorus, is generally agreed to be Bach’s first church cantata. (The BWV numbers—short for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or “Bach Works Catalog”—is a thematic rather than a chronological ordering, so low numbers don’t necessarily mean earlier compositions.) Gardiner comments, however, that in this early piece Bach already writes well about the favorite theme: “the need to hold on to faith amid the doubts that assail us.” The text alternates between prayers and the 25th Psalm.
“Yet I am and shall remain content,
though cross, storm and other trials
may rage here on earth,
death, hell, and what must be…
Cedars must before the tempest
often suffer much torment….
do not heed what howls against you,
for His word teaches us quite otherwise.”
BWV 67, from twenty years later, depicts “the perplexed and vacillating feeings of Christ’s disciples… and to maintain the tension between Thomas’ legitimate doubts and the paramount need to keep faith.” The piece does have sections that make a listener feel unsettled! Among Bach’s interesting devices is a transition from dramatic writing for the strings, showing the nervousness of the disciples, into a slow passage depicting the appearance of Christ to the disciples in their room. The text expresses praise and relief for Christ’s help as one faces the foes and difficulties of life.
BWV 42 also has the theme of Christ’s appearance to his distressed followers, with an added dimension of Christ’s protection of the church within the difficulties of the world. The disciples in Jerusalem are an example of what happens when evil attacks God’s people.
“Do not despair, O little flock,
though the foe is disposed
to destroy you utterly….
Jesus shields His own people,
whenever persecution strikes them.”
The last cantata, BWV 158, may be a fragment and premiered on an Easter Tuesday, according to Gardiner. Its theme is the risen Christ’s greeting of Peace to the disciples, only in this case Christ’s greeting is directed to the distressed conscience.
“Your intercessor stands here.
He has annulled and torn up
your book of guilt…
My heart, why are you so downcast,
since God loves you through Christ?”
I always think that St. Thomas gets a bum wrap as “the doubter.” After all, his honest questions, as well as his openness to have them answered, gained him special attention from Christ. Faith is not the absence of distress and questions. Otherwise, we would not need frequent reminders to hold to Christ and count upon his help. These texts and their music don’t scold us for having struggles in faith. Instead, they affirm God’s trustworthy help when we’re in need—and we’ll continue to be in need up to and including physical death, as Bach’s cantatas frequently affirm.
These may be some of my favorite cantatas yet, not just their beauty but also the theme of confidence in Christ’s help. The disciples in Jerusalem had abandoned Christ—and yet Christ did not give up on them and bolstered their faith with his presence. I have not abandoned Christ, but I let a thousand things bother me, cast me down, and irk me like a stone in a shoe, especially in times of distress and uncertainty. Then I berate myself for my poor faith. My troubles fall far short of persecution, after all.
But Christ has “torn up your book of guilt”—and, in fact, he does not count any of our sin and weakness against us. We can and should remind ourselves of this truth again and again and again.
(All translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes, as credited in the CD notes.)
Faithful Shepherd: Bach’s Cantatas for the Second Sunday after Easter
Continuing my survey of the 198 surviving sacred cantatas of J.S. Bach…. This weekend’s cantatas for the Second Sunday after Easter (on CD 16 of the set) are: “Du Hirte Israel, höre” (BWV 104, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel”), “Ich bin ein guter Hirt” (BWV 85, “I am the good shepherd”), and “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt” (BWV 112, “The Lord is my faithful shepherd”). The CD photo is of a girl in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
As the titles suggest, these cantatas are all based on Psalm 23. My mom helped me memorize the psalm for Sunday school years ago, although as time went by, the psalm took a close second place behind Psalm 121 as a favorite. Likely Psalm 23 is a cherished or at least a very familiar scripture for many of us.
In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the first cantata “leads” the faithful to the “meadow of heaven” by moving from G major to B minor to D major to A major. But (he writes) the effect is not only pastoral (in the sense of bucolic) and placid, because the text of the cantata is also beseeching: Christ’s followers call out to the Savior to to hear their needs.
“Though my shepherd hides too long,
though the desert frightens me,
my feeble steps still hasten on.
I cry to Thee,
and Thy Word, my shepherd, doth cause me
to utter a faithful Abba….
Happy flock, sheep of Jesus,
the world for you is a heavenly kingdom.
Here already you taste Jesus’ goodness…”
Gardiner writes that BWV 85 is the third cantata in a series: BWV 6, 42, and 85 on consecutive feast days (Easter Monday, First Sunday after Easter, and Second Sunday after Easter) have the theme of the disciples’ concern about living without the physically present Jesus. Bach uses the instrument called a cello piccolo, which “seems theologically associated with the believer’s personal relationship to Jesus.” As with so many cantatas, the believer who is in distress must hold onto Christ and not lose confidence in the risen Lord’s power and presence. By connecting Christ’s death on the cross with his love and care for his flock, this cantata is thematically related to the St Matthew Passion.
“Behold what love can do.
My Jesus takes tender care
of His own flock.
He has shed on the cross
His precious blood for them…
no calamity can touch me:
retreat, all who are my enemies…
I have God as my friend.”
The text for the third cantata, BWV 112, is more straightforwardly a statement and exposition of the twenty-third psalm. But the musical mood is different from the other two. Bach uses horns to depict (as Gardiner writes) “a much more regal portrait of the good shepherd than we have previously met.” Bach also uses strings and oboes to suggest the movement of sheep, giving the piece a certain bounce. The text, though, still grounds us in the pastoral mood of the psalm.
“The Lord is my faithful shepherd,
He has me in His care,
wherein I shall want nothing
that is good.
He feeds me continually
where the sweet-tasting grass
of His wholesome Gospel grows.”
Years ago, when I was serving a small church in a rural area, I preached a sermon on Jesus the good shepherd. I commented that shepherds weren’t so common as in Jesus’ time and so I explained some of the responsibilities of shepherds. Later, there was a cheerful laugh at my expense, because one of our church’s pillars was indeed a shepherd, though his role was (as I recall) coordinator in the animal science area for a nearby agricultural research center, specifically the center’s sheep herd.
I said last week that the cantatas for the first Sunday after Easter have been favorites so far on this “journey,” but I also love these three. We use the word “pastoral” in different ways: to refer to the work of sheepherders, to bucolic or rural life or scenery, to art that evolves landscape (I love British music, often characterized as “pastoral”), and to the work of clergy. The word “pastor” comes from the Latin word meaning “to lead to pasture,” and so there have always been etymological and metaphorical connections of pastors, their “flocks,” and shepherds.
I like the phrase “mein getreuer Hirt”—my faithful shepherd—to refer to Christ, and these three cantatas are beautiful depictions and proclamations of this aspect of Christ. I’ve felt spiritually “dry” and sad lately—not for a deep theological reason, like St. John’s dark night. I’m just tired from the about-to-end semester, feeling grief from family deaths in 2012 and 2013, and generally let-down-feeling for reasons I won’t get into here.
I need to focus on the many great people and many blessings of my life. But even a fixable attitude is something we can commit to the care of the good shepherd. My mother once commented that she thought we shouldn’t “bother” God with our everyday problems. But in this case Mom preached bad theology. The Lord is ready to listen and care for us at every moment, just as a shepherd is always patient and kind with needy, easily distressed sheep.
In this Easter season, it would be good to follow Bach’s lead and connect Jesus’ death and resurrection to the image of the good shepherd. When we are hurting, we must never think that the Lord just wants us to “deal with it,” pull ourselves up by the footsteps, and not bother him. The Lord is completely committed to us.
(All English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes)
The Rough Road: Bach’s Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter
CD 17 of the “Bach Pilgrimage” set contain cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter, or Jubilate Sunday, named because the introit of the Catholic liturgy begins “Jubilate Deo omnis terra” (“Shout with joy to God, all the earth”) from Psalm 65. (Different churches assign these names to different Easter Season Sundays; someone who knows liturgical history better than I do can sort it out.) The sleeve picture is from Myanmar: a boy in a red monk robe.
Next week’s cantatas are for Cantate Sunday, then the following week is Rogate Sunday, and then that next Thursday, May 29th, will be Ascension Day. Next is Ascension Sunday on June 1, followed by Pentecost on June 8. When I get to Ascension Sunday, I’ll be halfway through my “pilgrimage.”
The titles of these cantatas sound less than jubilant: “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (BWV 12, “Weeping, wailing, fretting, fearing”), “Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, aber die Welt wird sich Freuen” (BWV 103, “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice”), and “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen” (BWV 146, “We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God”). Listening to them can be jarring, as some numbers are as somber as anything in the Passions while others are peppy and upbeat.
In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the cantatas all move as a “theological and musical progression” from sorrow and misery to joy, reflecting the morning’s scripture lesson from Psalm 126:6. The opening of the first cantata was later used for the “Crucifixus” section of the Mass in B Minor, so the section that became a musical setting of the four syllables of the word “Crucifixus” (reflecting the hammer strokes of the nails, according to Gardiner) are here the four words of this cantata’s title.
The cantata moves through different musical keys to form a progression toward the C major violin part that links us to God’s kingdom. But the cantata is full of dualism, writes the conductor, among contrary visions of the world of trouble, the stumbling block of Christ, and the image of Christ as shepherd, as well as the joy of the kingdom.
What God doth, is well done,
to this I shall be constant.
Though I be cast onto the rough road
by affliction, death, and misery
BWV 103 also has contrasts: the joy of the Christian but also the laughter of those who mocked Christ on the cross. In fact, Gardiner writes, we might mistake the happy themes of the oboes and strings to be the happiness of the disciples rather than that of Christ’s tormentors. Once the piece moves back to Christian joy, the words convey Christ’s help to sinners needful of his healing.
Recover now, O troubled feelings,
you cause yourselves too much grief…
my Jesus shall appear again,
O joy without compare!
BWV 146 turns to the joy expressed in Psalm 126:6, the famous “bringing in the sheaves” psalm. The weeping that accompanies planting is followed by the happiness of the harvest.
I sow my tears
with anxious heart.
Yet my heart’s distress
will bear me glory
on the day of the blessed harvest.
Gardiner comments again that this music was composed a few kilometers from the place that became Buchenwald, but where Goethe and Liszt also journeyed through the woods. The juxtaposition of human genius and beauty, and human evil could hardly be more striking.
I thought about that as I looked back on this past academic year. I’ve taught three versions of a course on contemporary moral problems. I’m glad to have other subjects to teach in the fall, because such an emphasis on serious moral issues (some quite distressing and depressing) has left me emotionally drained, especially as I’m also feeling downcast from my mother’s 2012 death, and a few other things. Human ingenuity and logical analysis contrasts with our inability to address lasting problems like hunger and war.
Bach juxtaposes the misery that can characterize human existence (and which he felt in his own life) with the joy of God’s promises. Distress, temptations, difficult social problems, and death itself do not have the last word. The resurrection of Christ shines as an ongoing beacon across history, a light which we follow through the darkness.
Based on Jesus’ teachings about joy in John 15-16, you sometimes get the message that Christians should be happy and cheerful all the time. John Wesley himself began to question the validity of his 1738 experience of his “heart strangely warmed” because he didn’t have accompanying joy. The overly cheerful, summery Christians contrast with those who have (in Martin Marty’s words) a more “wintry” kind of spirituality.
Bach’s cantatas for this Sunday—with their overall subdued, even weary mood—remind us that even Christians focused upon the truth of Christ can be very weighed down by distress and trouble. You may have “theological joy” even when the emotion of joy eludes you. You can stay constant to God’s saving acts—which are God’s accomplishments, not yours—even as you struggle upon a rough road.
(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.)
Where Are You Going? Bach’s Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Easter
This coming Sunday, the fourth after Easter, is Cantate Sunday, so named because the first words of the Mass introit are Cantate Domino novum canticum, “Sing ye to the Lord a new song.” The three cantatas on this disc, CD 18, are: “Wo gehest du hin?” (BWV 166 “Whither goest thou?”), “Es ist euch gut, das ich hingehe,” (BWV 108, “It is expedient for you, that I go away”), and “Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut” (BWV 117, “Give laud and praise to the highest good”).
The CD sleeve picture is of a boy in Mali—Timbuktu, in fact, a name not uncommonly used as a metaphor for any place a long way away.
In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that these cantatas seem less dramatic than other post-Resurrection cantatas, which I thought so, too, as I listened to them in the early morning (swatting away one of our cats who wants to walk on the laptop keyboard). But (Gardiner writes), “Bach is constantly challenging his listeners to consider what it is to be alive, using his music to tease new meanings out of the Gospel texts.” In BWV 166, for instance, Bach “reminds us how ephemeral human life is, and what a potential mess we make of it and its opportunities; but how there are signposts to be read, props to lean on and compass bearings to bring us back on course, even at the times when we sense we are most alone…”
The Gospel texts have to do with Jesus’ leave-taking in John 16. Christ was going to someplace a lot farther than Timbuktu, and the disciples weren’t sure how they could cope. (“Wo gehest du hin?” the singer asks over and over in the first number.) They didn’t understand that the risen Christ would be more close to them than ever before. In BWV 166, we have contrasting moods: the concern of the disciples, the lively happiness of a minuet which Bach inserts into the drama, and finally the quietness of the concluding chorale. Early in the cantata, the question of the title is turned back to the disciples:
“For whether I depart or stay,
the question always occurs to me:
man, ah! man, where are you going?”
This is a theme of Bach’s cantatas, as we’ve seen several times. We need to hold to Christ and follow Christ faithfully, which is the only smart way we’ll get through. Life’s uncertainty is also a theme of this piece:
“Just as rainwater soon subsides
and many colours easily fade,
so it is with pleasure in this world,
which many men think highly of;
for though one sees from time to time
one’s hoped-for fortunes bloom,
yet it can happen, when all goes well,
that the final hour will abruptly strike.”
Gardiner writes that the second cantata is structurally very similar to the first, as if Bach had the earlier one on his desk as he composed the second. “Both works are constructed on a sort of arpeggiated tonal staircase of keys suggestive of the imminent descent of the holy spirit at Pentecost (leading downwards in BWV 166 from B flat to g, c, D, Bflat, and g,and in BWV108 from A to fsharp, D to b). It is significant that BWV 108 fleshes out the central issue dealt with more summarily in BWV 166. ‘Whither goest thou?’ carries with it an explanation, ‘It is expedient for you that I go away’, the following year.”
The third cantata is not written for a particular Sunday but its theme fits with the other post-Resurrection pieces: the anxiety of God’s followers in light of Jesus’ eventual departure to heaven, along with the promise that God is never “severed from His people.” All the numbers end with the words “Give honor to our God.” In the CD notes, Gardiner explains (with more detail than I should copy here) the French influences and number symbolism that Bach employs in what might otherwise have been a less colorful text.
All the words are lovely but I especially liked the final aria:
“When strength and help are lacking,
as all the world bears witness,
He comes and helps abundantly,
the Creator himself, and inclines
His Father’s eyes to those
who otherwise find no repose.
Give honour to our God!”
As I’ve been writing here in recent posts, my wife Beth and I lost our mothers within a 14-month time period in 2012 and 2013. Neither Beth nor I take our lives for granted, but the loss of a parent is among other things an enormous reminder of one’s own mortality. We both have “good genes”—relatives who lived into old age—but that is no guarantee of the future.
Bach’s recurring themes of death and trouble find expression again this week in these post-Resurrection cantatas. Another of Bach’s themes is Christ’s call of discipleship. It occurs to me that, in the hands of us preachers, that call can seem more demanding than happy: we say in effect, “what have you done for the Lord lately? Why aren’t you serving Christ more completely?” After all, discipleship is a costly thing, so we have to remind people, lest they fall into “cheap grace.”
Bach’s cantatas are a lovely corrective to this one-sided emphasis. Discipleship may be costly, but it is also a cheap—and in fact, totally free—anchor for our lives. Many religious traditions teach the lasting peace that is found in affirming God, who is our true reality among the ephemeral and ultimately unsatisfying realities of life. My Muslim friends, for instance, find peace in submission to God; similarly my Hindu colleagues.
In our Christian tradition, we rely upon God’s unconditional love and promise to get us through life’s difficulties–to give us signposts and bearings, as Gardiner writes. In the Gospel lesson from John, Christ affirms that he goes away (i.e. dies) in order that he might be spiritually present for his followers, unlimited by time and geography. We’re so accustomed to the affirmation of Christ’s resurrection, that we forget what a momentous assurance it can be when we have all kinds of distress and fears.
As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of texts are by Richard Stokes.
Yet I Would Gather Roses: Bach’s Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Easter
Continuing the post-Easter cantatas, CD 19 of the set of Bach’s sacred cantatas bring us near to Ascension Day, when the risen Christ finally leaves his disciples, who in turn aren’t sure what to do except to wait in Jerusalem for what happens next. The cantatas for Fifth Sunday after Easter (Rogate Sunday) are: “Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch” (BWV, 86, “Verily, verily I say unto you”), “Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen” (BWV 87, “Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name”), and for this disc the liturgically unspecified “In allen meinen Taten” (BWV 97, “In all my undertakings”). The word “Rogate” comes from the Latin rogare, to ask, calling attention to the need to call upon God’s care amid life’s troubles. The four days before Ascension are called “rogation days.”
The cover photo is of a woman from Lhasa, Tibet.
Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that, on the original 2000 pilgrimage, these cantatas were performed at Annenkirche in Dresden, a city which Bach loved. (Bach felt treated better there than in Leipzig and believed that musicians generally were treated well in Dresden.) My family and I visited the city in 2007 and were deeply moved, in particular its present-day beauty compared to the horror of February 1945. The text of the first cantata is Jesus’ words to the disciples (John 16): “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” The optimism of the text and the libretto, writes Gardiner, is poignant in light of the city’s wartime history, inviting “the listener to ask how these words of Jesus can be reconciled with
his or her own experience.” Bach musically traverses the libretto’s calls for confidence in God’s promises in spite of life’s pain.
Yet I would gather roses,
even though the thorns prick me.
For I am confident
that my entreaty and supplication
will go straight to God’s heart,
for He has pledged His Word.
BWV 87 has “a mood of sustained reverence and pentience,” as Gardiner puts it. While the Gospel lesson is also from John 16, Bach uses “descending minor keys (d, g, c) for the first five of its seven movements” to suggest life’s suffering that we bear while at the same time trusting Christ’s promises.
Must I be troubled?
If Jesus loves me,
all my pain
is sweeter than honey,
a thousand sweet kisses He presses on my heart.
Whenever pain appears His love turns to gladness
even bitter suffering.
BWV 97, not specifically written for Rogate Sunday, is a setting of a poem by Paul Fleming and set to a hymn tune (which Bach employs) by Heinrich Isaac). The theme is one we’ve seen so often, the confidence one can feel as one places faith in God and trusts that “nothing can befall me but what He has provided.”
Rereading John 16, I’m impressed again with the confidence and joy preached by Christ even though, at the same time, he predicts pain and difficulty in the disciples’ lives. Challenging circumstances happen regardless of the quality of our lives. But as we have our relationship with God in order—or at least we’re working on it—God is never absent from our disordered lives and, in fact, is closer to us than even that “BFF” to whom we turn in good and bad times alike.
As stated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.
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