Bread to the Hungry: Bach’s Cantatas for the 1st and 2nd Sunday after Trinity
For the past nearly eight months, as part of a spiritual “journey” for the year, I’ve been listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas on the day (or more generally, the weekend) of the Sundays for which they were written. This is the big 56-CD set by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner; the cantatas were recorded as a “Bach Pilgrimage” during the 250th* anniversary year of Bach’s death.
When my family and I were on vacation in June, I missed two Sundays and a special feast day (John the Baptist, which I discussed in yesterday’s post). I’m going to feel dissatisfied until I catch up, and so I’m listening to the cantatas for the First and Second Sundays after Trinity Sunday, which were June 22 and 29 this year. As it turns out, the two sets of cantatas have common themes.
Disc 27 has the cantatas for the first Sunday: “Die Elenden sollen essen” (BWV 75, “The meek shall eat”), “Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot” (BWV 39, “Deal thy bread to the hungry”), and “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (BWV 20, “O eternity, O word of thunder”).The CD photo is of a man from Ladakh, India. For the second Sunday (disc 28): “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (BWV 2, “Ah, God, look down from heaven”), “Meine Seel erhebt den Herren” (BWV 10, “My soul magnifies the Lord”), and “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (BWV 76, “The heavens declare the glory of God”). The cover photo is of a child from Kashmir.
Yesterday I mentioned that the Feast of John the Baptist creates a liturgical connection with the Annunciation in March and Christmas in December. Trinity Sunday marks the end of the first half of the Christian year in a lovely manner: we have worshipped Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and at Pentecost we worshipped God the Holy Spirit who makes Christ forever present and loving in our lives. Concluding this portion of the liturgical year, we explicitly worship all three persons of the Trinity. We also transition to these Sundays after Pentecost (which will take us all the way to Advent) when we think about our Spirit-led Christian lives and how we can grow in the “fruit of the Spirit.” In the CD notes for the First Sunday cantatas, Gardiner notes that these are large-scale worships that build upon trinitarian themes. The three cantatas also are based on the Gospel lesson of Dives and Lazarus, so the music and texts consider good spiritual gifts: the love for other people that trumps the love for money.
Gardiner also writes that BWV 75 was Bach’s first cantata for Leipzig. Displaying his vast expertise in Bach, Gardiner comments that the score is even written on paper from Köthen, Bach’s previous city. The piece contrasts money and poverty, heaven and earth, the joy one finds in the Spirit instead of worldly accumulation. BWV 20, which is much more hellfire, focuses more upon God’s judgment toward those, like the coldhearted rich man of the Gospel lesson, who neglect God’s love and grace. BWV 39, which begins with a memorable and long chorus, has as its theme the need to care for the poor.
Moving to the Second Sunday after Trinity cantatas, I read in the CD notes that BWV 2 also has a theme of the plight of the poor, now within the overall context of the loneliness and affliction of the faithful. The biblical theme of refinement brightens the mood toward the end: suffering and persecution can, rightly understood, “purify” our faith as fire purifies precious metals. As obvious from its title, BWV 10 brings us back to Mary, whose Magnificat teaches the topsy-turvy priorities of God: the poor and lowly are exalted, the rich and powerful are not. Finally, BWV 76 reminds us of this mid-point in the liturgical year: as Gardiner writes, it is “the crossover from ‘the time of Christ’ (Advent to Ascension) to ‘the era of the church’ (the Trinity season dominated by the concerns of Christian believers living in the world without the physical presence of Christ but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit).” The conductor shows how the composer Heinrich Schütz (who wrote a motet with the same title: “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes”) influenced Bach.
God’s values challenge our values: the lowly and hurting are held in high esteem, while the successful and well-to-do risk losing their souls. It’s hard not to think of people who are hurting in our current time: people on both sides of the Israel and Gaza conflict, immigrant children trying to get to and stay in the U.S., those who suffer amid the growing wealth disparity in the world, people are mourn the loss of loved ones on either or both of the Malaysian flights. How is God at work in our world? Where, indeed, is God, when tragedies are so great?
Matthew 25:31-46 answers the question “Where is God?” God, in God’s triune fullness, is with the suffering and those in need. God calls us to be there, too. We ourselves may not be needful and meek, but we can stand beside those who are, and take their side.
The weeks after Pentecost are good times for us to freshly seek those spiritual gifts of love, kindness, generosity and others. As our hearts are changed, we respond with love and concern to those around us. That’s always a small, good thing. We won’t solve the world’s big problems. But the love that we show—the way in which we seek to live according to God’s priorities—can have an amazing reach.
(In the CD set, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.)
* Out of curiosity, I looked up the word for “250th anniversary,” and there really aren’t terms as common as “bicentennial” and “sesquicentennial” that people would readily understand. Sestercentennial, semiquincentennial, bicenquinquagenary, and quarter-millennial are all possible terms. It seems easier just to say “250th anniversary.”
A Deeply Troubled Heart: Bach’s Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Trinity
In June I faced the pleasant but enormous task of preparing and submitting a manuscript to publishers. (Anyone who has done that knows what I mean. The proof-reading, revising, and re-proof-reading seem to go on indefinitely, and one feels badly about performing other tasks until it’s finished.) Then my family and I went on a driving vacation of over 2500 miles. Not being able to spread myself so thin as I did when I was younger, I put my traversal of Bach’s cantatas on hold until now. So I’ve missed the first and second Sundays after Trinity and also the Feast of John the Baptist, but I’ll catch up with those before the summer’s over.
As I’ve written before, these posts represent a year-long “spiritual journey” through Bach’s extant sacred cantatas, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner, and available on a 56-CD set from arkivmusic.com. I’m now over halfway through the cantatas, and thus halfway through the Christian liturgical year.
There are two cantatas for the third Sunday after Trinity (disc 29 on this set): “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” (BWV 21, “My heart was deeply troubled”) and “Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder” (BWV 135, “O Lord, do not punish a poor sinner”). Conductor John Eliot Gardiner rounds out this concert (CD 29 on the 56-CD set) with Bach’s BWV 1044 concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord. The cover photo is of a young woman from Omo Valley, Ethiopia.
In the CD notes, Gardiner comments that he has always considered BWV 21 as one of Bach’s “most extraordinary and inspired” vocal works. From the beginning it has a “poignancy” and “pathos” that continue as the difficulties and struggles of the sinner-believer are depicted. Gardiner writes in detail of Bach’s many beautiful and skillful ways of depicting the longing for salvation.
What use to us are these heavy sorrows,
what use is all this grief and woe?
What use, that we each morning
bewail our hardship?
We only increase our cross and pain
through our unhappiness….
Rejoice, my soul, rejoice, my heart,
give way, sorrows; vanish, pain!
Transform yourself, tears, into pure wine,
my moaning shall turn to cries of joy!
The purest candle of love and comfort burns
and flames in my soul and heart,
for Jesus consoles me with heavenly joy.
BWV 135 is a shorter cantata that contrasts well with 21. The instruments that begin the piece provide “a slow, ritualistic portrayal of a penitential sinner seeking reprieve and is deeply affecting.” All the texts focus upon the believer’s struggles with temption, sin, and anguish at separation from God, but like the penitential Psalms, the cantata ends with words of joy at God’s salvation and compassion.
After tears and after weeping
[Jesus] makes the sun of joy to shine again;
this gloomy weather changes now,
suddenly our enemies must fall
and their arrows recoil against them.
Musically, though, 21 concludes with fairly joyous music, which 135 ends with the pensive tune used in the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and which Bach uses in the St. Matthew Passion.
Both cantatas are deeply penitential, occupying the same theological world as psalms like 51. One of my “best friends forever” reminds me that I’m hard on myself and give myself insufficient credit for things. I wonder if those of us who err on the self-doubting side are often in the “penitential” mode because we will approach God feeling poorly about ourselves and our best efforts. The spontaneous mental prayers that I offer throughout the day happen from a rather “blue” point of view: unsure of myself, I ask for God’s kindness, for forgiveness for my weakness and typical struggles, for God’s mercy for me and the people I know, for the power of the Spirit to use me and my “circle” and multiply the worth and range of our efforts (and I often feel that my efforts are inadequate).
Put that way, prayer and repentance may sound rather anxious and and depressed. It occurs to me that even very humble, penitential prayer (like those reflected in Bach’s texts this weekend) should also have that element of joy, the way even the very sad psalms conclude on very upbeat, confident tones. We approach God for mercy, compassion and kindness, in a humble and contrite mood, because God will indeed show us those things, and in fact God’s compassion and kindness toward us is beyond our comprehension and is utterly trustworthy. A regretful, uncertain inner attitude is joined with a considerable joy of living because of God’s lovingkindness.
As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.
Belial’s Brood: Bach’s Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
My “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas continues. … This coming Sunday is the Fourth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. The cantatas for this day are: “Ein ungefärbt Gemüte” (BWV 24, “An unstained mind”), “Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe” (BWV 185, “Merciful heart of love everlasting”), “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 177, “I call to thee, Lord Jesus Christ”). This is CD 30 of the set; the photo is of a young man in Haridwar, India. One more cantata on this CD is for next Sunday.
Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes in the CD notes, “Whatever one’s own beliefs, how can one doubt that a sense of God’s grace was manifest to Bach in all the music he was composing, rehearsing and performing – always assuming that it was done in the spirit of devotion? Christoph Wolff refers to Bach’s ‘never-ending musical empiricism, which deliberately tied theoretical knowledge to practical experience’, and suggests that his compositions ‘as the exceedingly careful elaborations that they are, may epitomise nothing less than the difficult task of finding for himself an argument for the existence of God – perhaps the ultimate goal of his musical science’ (J S Bach, The Learned Musician).”
The text for BWV 24 is Luke 6:24-30, “judge not that you be not judged.” The text and music take up the themes of hypocrisy and honesty, which he are also themes of his Fourth Sunday of Advent cantatas. For instance, here in 24, Bach uses strings and a bass accompagnato to make a strong point about hypocrisy, which he follows by gentler measures for the tenor and oboe for penitential and then pastoral effect.
is a brood concocted by Belial.
Those who wear that mask
dress in the devil’s livery.
What? Do Christians
covet such things too?
Alas! Honesty is difficult to achieve.
Although the text beseeches God for a clear conscious, the cantata’s more pastoral atmosphere is much less sorrowfully penitential than the previous Sunday’s cantatas.
Let constancy and truth
be the base of all your thoughts,
may the words of your mouth
be the thoughts of your heart.
Being good and virtuous
makes us like God and angels.
In the CD notes, Gardiner explains in some detail how, in BWV 185, Bach took a comparatively uninspired text that paraphrases the same Gospel lesson and took it to beautiful places.
Forgive, and you shall be forgiven;
give in good measure during this life;
store up a capital which there one day
God shall repay with ample interest;
for with the same measure that ye mete withal,
it shall be measured to you again.
BWV 177, meanwhile, contains no recitatives but is a setting of a Johann Agricola hymn. Gardiner writes about the way Bach opens with concertino violin and two oboes, then full strings, then he introduces three lower voices to create a penitential effect. The arias are contrasted with moments in turn happy, poignant, and anxious.
Grant that I, from the depths of my heart,
may forgive my enemies,
forgive me also at this hour,
give me a new life;
let Thy Word always be the food
with which to nourish my soul, and defend me
when misfortune draws nigh
and threatens to sweep me away.
What is the difference between hypocrisy and inconsistency in one’s faith? To me, hypocrisy denotes intentional falseness and dishonesty, while inconsistency denotes human weakness. I’ve known lots and lots of people who, like me, aren’t consistent in their faith, but I would hate to be judgmental and call even the most obnoxious among them “hypocrites.” Like me, they may have just been immature and poorly self-aware, saddled with personality traits and weaknesses not yet matured through the Spirit. We pray for constancy and truth, goodness and virtue, and a consistent faith.
I wonder if a really consistent kind of faith is something like what Christoph Wolff (above) writes: an ongoing effort to draw closer to God and to increase in the understanding of God. In our faith pilgrimage, we seek to “argue” so to speak for the existence of God, in the sense that we grow in faith in a God in whom we, through our experiences, trust—-but also, we hope to prove God’s existence to others, not only through our words but also the authenticity of our struggles and the honesty with which we live our faith.
As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.
God Will Have Us Searched For: Bach’s Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Here are four cantatas for this weekend, one (BWV 71) which was on CD 30 from last week, and the other three on CD 31. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner includes this cantata (“Gott ist mein König”, “God is my King”) and “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir” (BWV 131, “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord”) with the two Fifth Sunday after Trinity cantatas, “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” (BWV 93, “If you but permit the Lord to prevail”), and “Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden” (BWV 88, “Behold, I will send for many fishers”). The CD photo is of a wide-eyed young man from Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
The cantatas 71 and 131 come from his single year when the 22 year old Bach worked at Mühlhausen in his second professional post (June 1707 to 1708). From there he went to Weimar and later Leipzig, but Gardiner notes that at Mühlhausen Bach committed himself to write “a regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” BWV 131 is a penitential piece using Psalm 130, but Gardiner writes that Bach avoided simple stylistic devices and instead conveyed the emotions of the psalm and the occasion in genuine and moving ways, harkening back to works by Heinrich Schütz and Johann Christoph Bach. BWV 71, in turn, is a piece for the Mühlhausen town council elections. Gardiner writes that the piece is “laid out on such a grand scale in terms of its deployment of four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.”
Of the two Fifth Sunday after Trinity cantatas, Bach uses for BWV 93 the 1641 hymn by George Neumark, “Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten”. Gardiner discusses how Bach uses a “catechismal question-and-answer formula” to structure the cantata. The text raises anxieties about God’s mercy and patience toward us, and then responds with affirmations about God’s blessings and favor, even to the point of searching for us when we’ve left the true path.
BWV 88 also has the structure of anxiety and fear answered by God’s mercy and love. The cantata’s text is Jeremiah 16:16, wherein God send out search parties of hunters and fishermen to gather God’s people. Then in the second part, the text brings in the Gospel lesson where Jesus calls Peter the fisherman, providing a new context for the Jeremiah text.
The conductor writes, “[I]t is perhaps an early example of that ‘dialectic of modernity’ to which scholars are so partial: Bach’s way of cultivating memory on the part of his listeners.”
No, God is always eager
that we be on the right path,
sheltered by the light of His grace.
Yea, whenever we have strayed
and abandoned the proper path,
He will even have us searched for.
As I listen to and think about Bach’s works this week, what strikes me is the observation that Bach gained his lasting sense of purpose at Mühlhausen. This site gives more information about his brief but significant time there. Even though Bach’s months there were not altogether satisfactory, his work there began a long-time commitment.
Is there a place in your life that is that kind of place for you? Do you look back to a location or situation where you felt a commitment to something significant in your life? Where did you commit yourself to something for the glory of God?
If you have such a place, it can be a spiritual anchor for you, as you look back on your life and discern God’s guidance across the years, “sheltered by the light of His grace”. (To change the metaphor, you can think of such a place as the one where God set your compass and thereafter you knew where to go.) In turn, you can gain confidence in God’s eagerness to search for us, keep us, and steer us.
(According to the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)