God Is Gone Up: Bach’s Cantatas for Ascension Day
This past weekend, as I listened to Bach’s cantatas for Rogate Sunday in my motel room, I was not only on the road but also sick from some food. It’s good to be home again and feeling well for this religious holiday. Ascension Day has a specialness not all Christians appreciate.
Bach’s cantatas for Ascension Day are “Gott faehret auf mit Jauchzen” (BWV 43, “God is gone up with a shout”), “Wer da glaeubet und getauft wird” (BWV 37, “He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved”), “Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein” (BWV 128, “On Christ’s ascent to heaven alone”), and “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen” (BWV 11, “Praise God in his kingdoms”).
The CD picture is a smiling though hard-eyed man from Kabul, Afghanistan. It was interesting to realize that these four cantatas were not recorded during the “Pilgrimage” year (December 1999-December 2000) because of audio difficulties, but rather in 2012.
BWV 43 is a two-part cantata. The first part connects Psalm 47:5-6 with Christ’s leave-taking, followed in part 2 with the reflection of the believer upon Christ’s victory. That Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father means the salvation from sin and death , the promise of eternal dwelling with God, and help through the troubles and sorrows of life.
I see already in spirit
how He at God’s right hand
smites all His enemies,
to set free all His servants
from grief, affliction and shame.
I stand here by the wayside
and gaze on Him yearningly.
BWV 37 includes a kind of dialogue of the Christian soul with itself, as conductor Gardiner puts it, in which the different soloists reflect upon the promise of Christ who had not at all left us abandoned. Christ’s victory and Christ’s provision are full of help and promise for those who believe.
Faith provides the soul with pinions,
on which it shall soar to heaven,
baptism is the seal of mercy, that brings us God’s blessing;
a blest Christian is therefore one
who believes and is baptised.
This dialogical form is similarly found in BWV 128, where the alto and tenor seem “to depict the believer scanning the distant heavens for Christ’s vanished presence” but they return to earth to reflect upon “the mystery of his ominpotence.” But (Gardiner continues), “the two voices seem to be the allegorical personification of Hope and Doubt” found in cantatas like BWV 60.
The fourth cantata is Bach’s “Ascension Oratorio.” “It is a heart-warming work,” writes Gardiner. “Even by Bach’s festive standards the two choruses are moments to treasure, full of rhythmic swagger, a jazz-like nonchalance, plenty of stratospheric glitter for the high trumpets and vocal acrobatics for the choir.” He notes that the fourth number is a memorable plea to the about-to-ascend Christ to stay longer.
Ah, stay, my dearest life,
ah, do not flee so soon from me!
Thy parting and Thy early leaving
cause me untold suffering,
ah yes, so stay yet here awhile;
else pain will quite encompass me.
Christ rose on Easter, and he completed that rising on Ascension Day. But he soon returned on Pentecost to our midst when the Holy Spirit was given to humanity. We can think of Good Friday-Easter-Ascension-Pentecost as the great work of Christ on our behalf.
With the Ascension Christ rose to Heaven and is established in his divinity with God the Father. But as he rose in both his divine and human natures, he also continues to experience and understand the pain that we suffer as members of his body, the church. Of course, he can identify with and help us in our pain, because his presence is more pervasive through the Spirit than was the case when he was among his disciples.
In Bach’s texts, the anxiety of the disciples is also our anxiety as we struggle with difficulties and temptations. But as the Resurrection and Ascension demonstrated Christ’s power and authority to the disciples, we too are able to look toward the rising and risen Christ and know that he is not really gone. He is more present than ever. Since we don’t always sense or feel that presence—and, in fact, we despair of it sometimes—people like Bach are great gifts to us.
All English translations in the CD notes are by Richard Stokes.
Though Tempests Gather: Bach’s Cantatas for the Sunday after Ascension Day
The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner performed all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. Happening primarily in 2000, this “pilgrimage” commemorated the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. During ensuing years, the cantatas were available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner’s own Soli Deo Gloria label). Eventually all of them were assembled as a 56-CD box set (available at this link). All the cover photos are of people from around the world, symbolizing Bach’s universality.
Last fall, I purchased the box set and decided to listen to all of the cantatas on the appropriate days (or, generally, those weekends) as a year-long “spiritual journey.” I began with the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent (disc 52 of the 56). With this weekend’s listening, I’m now halfway through the cantatas—and the church year.
The Sunday after Ascension Day (June 1 this year—tomorrow) is called Exaudi Sunday from the first Latin word of the Introit, “Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice.” I had not thought of this Sunday as liturgically a solemn Sunday: Jesus has left his disciples, but the Holy Spirit has not yet been given. We are in a ten-day period when the disciples struggled not to feel abandoned by the Lord but instead to live according to his promise. Of course, the Holy Spirit is given to them on the following Sunday, Pentecost.
Bach’s cantatas for Exaudi are both entitled “Sie werden euch in den Bann tun” (BWV 44 and BWV 183, “They shall put you out of the synagogues”). This disc (#21 of this set) also includes the liturgically unspecified “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (BWV 150, “Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul”), and a short piece by Johann Christoph Bach, “Fürchte dich nicht” (“Fear not”). The cover photo is of a man in Pol-e Khomri, Afghanistan.
Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that BWV 150 is an early cantata, the theme of which is “the believer’s hopes of redemption in the hurly-burly of life,” which “is particularly apt in the period between Easter and Ascension.” In the CD notes he writes interestingly of Bach’s musical development from this comparatively youthful piece. One of Bach’s inspirations was the music of his first-cousin-once removed, Johann Christoph Bach, whom I just mentioned. Gardiner writes concerning some of the musical research still being done about the older Bach and how he influenced Johann Sebastian. (This man is not to be confused with J.S. Bach’s older brother Johann Christoph Bach, nor with J.S.’s son Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach.)
Back to the two cantatas called “Sie werden euch in den Bann tun.” Gardiner writes, “Both in their separate ways depict an earthly voyage beginning with the prophecy of imminent persecution and the need for submission and surrender to the Holy Spirit.” The earlier cantata focuses upon persecution as well as the eventual joy experience by Christians.
Christians on earth
must be Christ’s true disciples.
Attendant on them every hour
are torment, exile and sore affliction,
till they be blissfully overcome…
It ever remains the Christians’ comfort
that God watches over His church.
So even though tempests gather,
after such tribulations
the sun of gladness has always soon laughed.
The later cantata, though similar in terms of overall mood, gives “a more positive gloss to the Gospel reading” (Gardiner), with passages of serenity and comfort, as well as those with dance rhythms and joy. The joy is the Spirit’s guidance and consolation.
Highest Comforter, Holy Ghost,
Thou who dost show me the path
on which I should journey,
help my weakness by interceding,
for I cannot pray for myself;
I know Thou carest for my welfare!
Thou art a Spirit that teaches
how one should pray aright;
thy prayers are granted,
thy singing sounds well…
Neither cantata, though, is as upbeat and major-key hopeful as the “Ascension Oratorio,” which was BWV 11 this past Thursday.
I find biblical texts about persecution unsettling, for a different reason than the usual. I think these texts inspire for some churchgoers a morbid fascination: “Christians suffer today in different parts of the world as they did in the Roman empire. Maybe being a Christian is too easy for us. But look how ‘they’ are trying to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance and Christ out of Christmas. Our beliefs are under attack, too!” I just don’t think this is healthy, sensible thinking, and it’s often extremely partisan.
Some biblical texts are anti-Jewish, too: “those Jews kicked Christians out of the synagogues when they should have been accepting Jesus, too.” These kinds of biblical texts subtlety inspire modern-day disdain for Jews and Judaism.
That’s not to say religious persecution doesn’t exist today. Something I’ve been doing lately is to look for news reports about different religious groups that are experiencing persecution—and to fit prayers for them in my busy and forgetful schedule. Christians are suffering in Syria, for instance, but Muslims are suffering in Myanmar, anti-Muslim sentiment is growing online, and Jewish researchers have observe a recent rise in worldwide anti-Semitism. To me, we live in enough of a pluralistic, globalized world that we can consider intolerance to any religious group as worthy of our concern and prayers.
That’s one reason why the use of worldwide people as CD cover photos was a wonderful idea for this set. When I first looked at the 2-CD releases, my first shameful thought was, “What does some kid in Tibet or Myanmar have to do with Bach’s music?” Bach’s faith and texts are Christian, but his music speaks to a wide range of human feelings and experience. For this Sunday, that experience is the feeling of lostness and difficult hope when one clings to faith but isn’t at all sure what’s going to happen next.
O Eternal Fire: Bach’s Cantatas for Pentecost
Shavuot, or Pentecost, is the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of Torah on Sinai. That holiday is described in, among other places, Exodus 23:14-17 and Deut. 16:16-17, and is referenced in 1 Cor. 16:8 and Acts 20:16. In Acts 2, it was the day the Holy Spirit descended upon followers of Jesus, as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29, where God’s spirit would be poured out to all people. The gift also fulfilled Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8. Thus Pentecost (“fiftieth day”) is sometimes called “the birthday of the church.” In England especially, the festival is also called White Sunday or Whitsunday, after the color of the garments worn by persons to be baptized on that day. Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter, and the tenth day after Ascension Thursday.
Bach’s Whit Sunday cantatas are “Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten” (BWV 172, “Resound, ye songs, ring out, ye strings!”), two entitled “Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten” (BWV 59 and BWV 74, “If a man love me, he will keep my words”), and “O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe” (BWV 34, “O eternal fire, O source of love”). The CD photo is of a young person, covered in red powder, from Mumbai, India. It’s one of the more striking of Steve McCurry’s many photographs. I looked online and discovered that the red powder signifies the Ganesh Chaturthi Festival in Mumbai.
These cantatas are more celebratory and upbeat than the more somber and anxious pieces of last Sunday, when the disciples were waiting uncertainly between Ascension and Pentecost. Some of this joy stems not only from the celebration of the Holy Spirit but also the joyfulness of the harvest festivals that lay in the background of Shavuot. Even the “first fruits” language of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 seems (as conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes) to be an allusion to the holiday’s agricultural origins. Gardiner continues, “Bach often brings to the surface pre-Christian aspects and forgotten connections which mirror the turning of the agricultural year. Now…he comes up with music of unalloyed optimism and exuberance in celebration of the first gifts of newly-awakened nature, as well as the miraculous ignition of the divine Pentecostal spark which allows human beings to communicate across the language barrier.”
For instance (as Gardiner writes), BWV 172 contrasts the life-giving breath of God into the newly-created Adam with the different kind of life and breath of the Spirit at Pentecost. The cantata has several combinations of three—”three trumpets, a tripartite form, a theme moving in steps of a third and a triple address to the ‘mighty God of honour’”—providing a trinitiarian structure that also links creator God (Lord of life and harvest) with God the Spirit of Pentecost.
The first cantata entitled “Wer mich liebet” makes use of an 1524 Luther hymn, calling upon the Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit, O Lord God,
and fill with Thy most precious grace
the heart, will and mind of Thy believers.
Ignite Thine ardent love in them.
O Lord, through Thine own brilliant light,
Thou hast assembled to believe
people from every tongue and clime;
for this, O Lord, may we sing praises to Thee…
The second cantata with that title is based on a text by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, which as Gardiner writes is constructed “on three main themes: the paramount need for love, and the need to be in a state of readiness to receive the spirit… Jesus’ announcement of his Ascension and return, and its joyful implications for humankind…. and his triumph over Satan, freeing the believer from condemnation.”
BWV 34 is a later work of Bach’s (from the 1740s), adapted from a wedding cantata and now used for Pentecost. Gardiner writes that it is filled with picturesque writing, evoking the pastoral aspect of the harvest as well as the Temple of the Lord and the flames of the Holy Spirit, all leading to a joyful conclusion.
As Bach tied together several themes for Pentecost, we can see how the narratives and promises of Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost interconnect. In chapter 14-17 of John, Jesus teaches his disciples that he must leave (die, rise, and ascend to the Father) in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation. So Good Friday, Easter, and Ascension are part of the same divine work. But although Christ ascends and leaves the disciples, the Spirit will come and will remain with the disciples forever. In fact, the Spirit is how we have a relationship with Christ today; we may wish we’d known Jesus in the flesh but we’re actually closer to him today!
One thing we forget, is that because Christ is one with the Father and the Spirit in their trinitarian unity, we are closer to one another, too. We understand ourselves to be in unity with one another, not because we share a God-soul as some religions understand it, but because the love of Christ (in his death and resurrection, and in the advocacy of the Holy Spirit) broke down barriers between us and God and between other people. The Spirit, in turn, provides us the divine gifts of love, gentleness, kindness, and other “fruit” that help and heal our relationships with one another. God gives us the gift of eternal life and the gifts of love for God and for one another.
All English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.
The Comfort of Thy People: Bach’s Cantatas for Whit Monday and Tuesday
Bach wrote four cantatas for Pentecost, and also five for Whit Monday and Whit Tuesday. I listened to these over the weekend (CDs 23 and 24 of the set). The CD photo for Whit Monday is of a girl in Jaipur India, and the other photo is of a child in Ghazni Afghanistan.
The Whit Monday cantatas are “Erhohtes Fleisch und Blut” (BWV 173, “Exalted flesh and blood”), “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt” (BWV 68, “God so loved the world”), and “Ich liebe den Hochsten von ganzem Gemute” (BWV 174, “I love the Almighty with all my heart”). Conductor John Eliot Gardiner describes ways that BWV 173 was transformed from earlier music written for a former employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. The happy dance music of some of the earlier music becomes music for the granting of the Spirit of God to the Gentiles and the love of God who gives his blessings to us.
A sanctified soul
sees and tastes the goodness of the Lord.
Praise, sing, tune your strings,
to propagate God’s goodness!
BWV 68 has a text by a writer Bach turned to on other occasions, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler. Although the title is from the happy John 3:16, Ziegler’s text continues with John 3:18 and “the chilling choice between salvation or judgement in the present life,” as Gardiner writes. “The second day of Pentecost may have been a time of rejoicing… but in postulating this bald division of the world into believers and sceptics, Bach left the congregation with food for thought.”
Bach makes use of the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto #3 (BWV 1048) as prelude for BWV 174, apparently (according to Gardiner) to make use of good instrumentalists available for the original occasion and giving the Whit Monday a wonderful celebration.
I love the Almighty with all my heart,
He loves me also exceedingly.
God alone shall be the soul’s treasure,
where I have the eternal source of goodness….
And even if my heart should break,
you are still my trust,
my salvation and my heart’s comfort,
who hath redeemed me through His blood.
For the Whit Tuesday performance, Gardiner augments the two surviving cantatas with that same concerto. He comments that the three violins, three violas, and three cellos of the concerto provides a trinitarian association that Bach perhaps didn’t realize when he wrote the piece.
In the cantata “Erwünschtes Freudenlicht” (BWV 184, “Longed-for light of joy”), Bach (and his unknown librettist) combined images of the Good Shepherd in John 10 with the granting of the Holy Spirit in Samaria in Acts 8. We gain a vision of Christ’s eternal presence for us with an overall pastoral beauty.
Good shepherd, comfort of Thy people,
grant us only Thy life-giving word!
Let Thy gracious countenance shine brightly,
remain our God and refuge,
who through almighty hands
shall guide our steps to life!
The title of the other Whit Tuesday cantata, “Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen” (BWV 175, “He calleth His own sheep by name”) alerts us that the music will also have a bucolic atmosphere. But we also experience the unhappiness of the “sheep” when the Shepherd seems to be missing.
Where can I find Thee?
Ah, where are Thou hidden?
O, show Thyself soon to me!
I long for Thee.
Dawn, O long-awaited morning!
In the notes for Whit Monday, Gardiner comments that Bach re-used some of his own previous works for later cantatas—not always, but he did so with these pieces. “Secular” music written earlier for the rulers of Weimar (the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt) and Köthen became used for church cantatas. Some scholars have fussed about this, but for Gardiner, it was a way that “Bach could express homage to a prince and homage to God in essentially the same way. Music – his music – was there to bridge the divide between worldly and divine glory.”
A few years ago I listened to an interview with The Who’s Peter Townshend, who said he was intrigued with the idea that the meaning of life could be expressed by a musical note. I thought of that again in this context: the meaningful bridge between divine and secular sovereignty is…. music.
God of Eternity: Bach’s Cantatas for Trinity Sunday
Trinity Sunday (June 15 this year) is celebrated on Pentecost Sunday in the Eastern church but on the First Sunday after Pentecost in the Western church. The Sunday honors this fundamental doctrine of Christianity: the tri-unity of God revealed in the incarnation of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, defined by the 4th and 5th century councils of the church and affirmed in the creeds. In the tri-unity of God, God shares the divine life with Creation, gathers us into a saving relationship, and cherishes us forever.
Bach has given us four cantatas for this Sunday (CD 25 of this set): “Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest” (BWV 194, “O greatly longed-for feast of joy”), “Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding um aller Menschen Herze” (BWV 176, “There is something stubborn and fainthearted about the human heart”), “O heil’ges Geist- und Wasserbad” (BWV 165, “O sacred spring of water and the Spirit”), and “Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott” (BWV 129, “Praised be the Lord, my God”). The CD photo is of a thoughtful-looking bald child from Bagan, Burma.
BWV 165 is, according to conductor John Eliot Gardiner, “a true sermon-in-music, based on the Gospel account of Jesus’ night-time conversation with Nicodemus on the subject of ‘new life’, emphasising the spiritual importance of baptism.” Filled with images of water, the cantata flows both musically and thematically.
O sacred spring of water and the spirit,
which admits us to God’s Kingdom
and inscribes us in the book of life!
O stream that drowns all evil deeds
through its wondrous power
and bestows on us the new life!
O sacred spring of water and the spirit!
BWV 194 contains “one of those spacious, pastoral 12/8 movements (for oboe and strings) which Bach devised from time to time to convey the reassurance of God’s protective care (here it is his ‘light’)”, while another movement is “a spirited gavotte for strings to celebrate the purifying effects of Pentecostal fire.”
Holy Ghost enthroned in heaven,
as God of eternity
with the Father and the Son,
the joy and comfort of the distressed!
All the faith that I possess
hast Thou kindled in me;
govern over me with mercy
and never let Thy mercy falter.
BWV 176 returns to the subject of Nicodemus but sets up a number of interesting musical and thematic contrasts between Christ and his nighttime visitor. Rather than subjecting Nicodemus to criticism, the cantata helps us to take his place, so to speak, in approaching the Christ in weakness and shame.
So do not marvel then, O Master,
that I should question Thee by night!
I fear that by day
my weakness would not stand the test.
Yet I comfort myself: Thou shalt accept
and exalt my heart and spirit,
for whosoever believes in Thee,
shall not perish.
BWV 129, in turn, is a “genial, uplifting work” that lack the recitatives and de capo arias of other cantatas but is filled with melodies and fanfares setting an 1665 text by Johann Olearius.
Praised be the Lord,
my God, my comfort, my life,
the Father’s priceless Spirit,
given me by the Son,
who quickens my heart
and gives me new strength,
who, when I am in distress,
counsels me, comforts and helps me.
Here are some thoughts of mine from an earlier post, about why this doctrine is filled with comfort, instruction, and love for us: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2013/05/trinity-sunday.html
As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.