“I Am Content”: Bach’s Septuagesima Cantatas
Continuing my “journey” through J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. this weekend I’m listening to CD 9 in this 56-CD set of Bach’s sacred cantatas, having begun with the first Sunday of Advent. I’m a fourth of the way through the set!
CD 9 contains the cantatas for Septuagesima Sunday, which this year is February 16. I did some research about these next three Sundays, which are the Sundays immediately preceding Lent. They are Septuagesima Sunday (the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday), Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday), and Quinquasima (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). The words mean 70th, 60th, and 50th respectively, but technically only Quinquagesima is mathematically correct, truly the 50th day from Easter, while the other two are 57 and 64 days from Easter. Since 1970, the Roman Catholic Church has not included these Sundays on the liturgical calendar. Nor do most provinces of the Anglican church, except those provinces that still use the 1662 and 1928 prayer books.
The 9th century liturgist Amalarius of Metz wrote that Septuagesima can mystically represent the 70-year Babylonian Captivity. In my other blog writing, here, I’ve thought about the importance of the 6th century BCE Exile, a truly key event in the entire biblical history and one that still shapes our religious imagination whether we realize it or not. This year I’m inspired to meditate more about the meaning of the Exile, and perhaps introduce an additional spiritual discipline of some sort, as we approach Easter from this earlier vantage point.
Bach wrote cantatas for all three of these Sundays. Bach’s cantatas for Septuagesima are “Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin” (BWV 144, “Take that thine is, and go thy way”), “Ich bin vergnuegt mit meinem Gluecke” (BWV 84, “I am content with my good fortune”), and “Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn (BWV 92, “I have surrendered to God’s heart and mind”). The sleeve photograph (all of which are of international people, symbolizing the universal message of Bach’s music) is of a smiling girl from Afghanistan.
In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the text for this Sunday is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew’s gospel. (I wrote more about this parable here.) The librettist to cantata 144 takes this message to heart and urges us to be satisfied with the things of our lives. Bach’s music also takes it to heart: in the opening, for instance (writes Gardiner), Bach repeats several times the figure “gehe him” (“go thy way!”), urging the believer to “take whatever life has to offer on the chin.”
I love Gardiner’s exposition of BWV 84, where he calls attention to Bach’s career-long concern for being paid according to the current rate for his work. At Leibzig, though, he was often torn between doing his work for the glory of God, “and the need to put up with ‘almost continual vexation, envy and persecution’.” It’s nice to know that Bach, too, struggled with everyday feelings of resentment—-and with the need to be paid what he was worth. But meanwhile, the text of the cantata is the same as 144: be content with what you have.
Yet this cantata (writes Gardiner) isn’t the uniform placidity of contentment but is “dynamic and fluctuating” with moods “wistful, resigned, elegiac even” to “sheer high spirits.” I love the peppy middle movement, for instance. In the text, the believer finally arrives at the place where “I live meanwhile content in Thee/and die, all sorrow laid aside.”
BWV 92 is a nine-movement chorale not specifically assigned to the biblical readings but has the same theme of surrender to God.
It is only because He wishes to test me
to see whether I remember Jonah,
whether, like Peter, I shall remember him…
See, see how all things snap, break, fall
that are not held by God’s own mighty arm…
Let Satan rage, rave and storm,
our mighty God will render us invincible…
I shall remain true to my Shepherd
Though He fill my cup of pain
For after weeping,
the sun of Jesus will shine again.
A few things strike me this week as I listen to this music and think about these words. The fact that Bach struggled to be paid fairly for his hard and difficult work shows us that humble contentment needs to be connected to the Serendity Prayer. Some things in life we can change, some we cannot, but we seek the wisdom that helps us discern.
On the other hand, many of us have plenty (in terms of money and possessions) but still we’re not content; we’d like just a little more and we’d feel more secure. Then we have a little more, and we’re still not secure-feeling…. and so on. This, too, is a matter of growing in wisdom and discernment. Seeking trust, gratitude, and contentment for our hearts helps us have perspective upon our lives and resources.
Many things in life cannot be changed: loss, chronic illness, and different kinds of trouble. In these cases, learning resilience and courage goes hand in hand with faith in God. Satan may rage, but Satan is not all-powerful. In fact, Satan’s final defeat is already guaranteed. Knowing this means holding to Christ whose light shines amid our struggles.
English translation of the cantata texts by Richard Stokes
As Rain Waters the Earth: Bach’s Sexagesima Cantatas
Continuing my journey through Bach’s sacred cantatas…. As I wrote last week, Sexagesima Sunday is the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or (approximately) the sixtieth day before Easter. This year it’s February 23rd. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.
Before a busy weekend, I spent some quiet time yesterday with this Sunday’s three cantatas: “Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel faellt (BWV 18: “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven”), “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (BWV 181, “Frivolous fibbertigibbets”), and “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” (BWV 126, “Uphold us, Lord in Thy Word”). This is CD 10 of the 56-CD set. The sleeve photo is of a wide-eyed little girl in Mumbai, India.
Gardiner comments that these three cantatas are among “Bach’s most original and startlingly different pre-Lenten cantatas,” “characterised by his vivid pictorial imagination, an arresting sense of drama, and by music of freshness and power.” All three are focused upon “the overwhelming power of the Word… in the process of faith,” via the parable of the sower. The first, BWV 18, “has unusual orchestration like four violas and basso continuo, bringing a “dark-hued sonority” that for Gardiner represents “the warm topsoil, fertile and well irrigated, forming an ideal seed-bed in which God’s Word may germinate and prosper.”
For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth… so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth….
My soul’s true treasure is God’s Word
all other treasures are mere snares…
BWV 181 also takes the parable as a text. The word Flattergeister means the fickle and shallow people in which the Word does not germinate but is stolen by birds. And Bach orchestrates this aspect of the parable with staccato tempoes and trills, like flighty birds. Some measures are so jumpy, I become edgy listening to them! Maybe that’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t be the kinds of folk to whom Jesus refers in this parable.
BWV 126 is not connected to this parable but does emphasize the power of God’s Word. It’s a robust and dramatic cantata that harken to the threat of the Turks against Catholic Christendum in Luther’s day. Gardiner comments that this threat was long abated by Bach’s time, but the strength of God’s blessings amid perilous times is a timeless subject.
Man’s favour and might shall be of little avail
if Thou wilt not protect Thy wretched flock,
God, Holy Ghost, dear comforter…
Make Thy people to be of one accord on earth,
that we, members of Christ’s body,
may be one in faith and united in life.
Stand by us in our extremity!
I thought about the parable of the sower as I listened to the music. A conscientious and prayerful believer hopes very deeply to be “good soil” for God’s word. The human heart has a tremendous capacity for self-delusion; the “frivolous fibbertigibbets” probably think they’re the best Christians ever. But a longing to be “good soil” is a sign that the Spirit is working in your life.
But a conscientious believer can feel discouraged if his or her witnessing and faithful behavior doesn’t seem to be successful. However, the parable teaches that sewing seed IS the act of faithfulness. Whether the seed thrives is really up to the other people: they’re the good or poor soil and they need to figure out (with God’s help) which one they are.
Some of the previous cantatas have had to do with trust and faith amid life’s difficulties. That theme is present here, too: the only treasure worth having is God, and all else is ephemeral and unreliable. If we want to be “good soil” and faithful sowers, how can we use trouble to grow spiritually? (To be crude about it: remember that old saying “s*** happens.” How can that “s***” be turned with the soil that is our lives and be rich for God’s word?) Trouble makes a lot of us bitter, grumpy and fearful of the future—but that makes for hard, rocky soil. Bach’s cantatas show some ways toward faith, richness and depth.
English translations of Bach’s librettos are by Richard Stokes
Journey to Jerusalem: Bach’s Quinquagesima Cantatas
My “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas continues…. Quinquagesima is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or the fiftieth day (hence the name) before Easter. This year, the Sunday is March 2. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.
CD 11 of this set of Bach’s sacred cantatas contain four for this Sunday. As conductor Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach seems to have wanted his church (St. Thomas in Leipzig) to have good music before entering the solemn Lenten season.
(The music on CD 12 of this set will be Palm Sunday, so this year-long feature of my blog will be back on April 13. That’s good, because I’ve a ton of grading to accomplish in March!)
These Quinquagesima cantatas are: “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe” (BWV 22, “Jesus took unto Him the twelve”), “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” (BWV 23, “Thou very God and David’s Son”), “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” (BWV 127, “Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God”), and “Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem” (BWV 159, “Behold! We go up to Jerusalem”). The sleeve photo is of a woman from Gao, Mali.
Gardiner points out that in the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Luke 18:31-43, Jesus predicts his passion to the disciples and also restores a blind man’s sight. Gardiner discusses Bach’s use dance rhythms and “a skittish fugal chorus to point up the disciples’ incomprehension.” He notes that Bach’s Leipzig audience was that way themselves: neither dissatisfied nor very appreciative or enthused about Bach’s 26-year efforts on their behalf. The cantata does end with comprehension, however:
My Jesus, draw me on, and I shall come,
for flesh and blood cannot comprehend at all,
like Thy disciples, the words Thou didst utter.
This cantata and BWV 23 were written to precede and follow the sermon, with 23 to be performed during the Eucharist. They are also his “audition” pieces when he applied for the cantor post at St. Thomas. More solemn than 22, this “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” “emphasises the way in which Jesus actively sought out the sick and handicapped—and therefore social outcasts—and healed them.” An opening duet that pleads to Christ for compassion is followed by an aria in which the oboe plays the Lutheran Agnus Dei, which in turn is echoed in the setting of Psalm 145: “The eyes of all, O Lord, Theou almighty God, wait upon Thee…” In the final chorale, the singers beseech the Lamb of God, “have mercy on us!’
BWV 127 is (according to Gardiner) “arresting in its musical presentation of the dualism of God and man and the relationship of the invidiual believer to Christ’s cross and Passion.” Among other things, the cantata leads the believer (aware of death’s inevitability) along the path of Christ’s crucification. Anyone having the notes for this cantata (which is Volume 21 of the original release) can follow Gardiner’s several indications of the theological and artistic complexity of 127; it’s all interesting to me, but too much material to quote here. Cantata 159 continues the believer’s journey with Christ; for instance, Bach has a “walking” bass line in the first number, and overall communicates the pathos and pain of the journey to the cross, similarly to Bach’s two passions.
Ah, do not go!
The cross is already prepared for Thee,
where Thou must suffer bloody death…
But if Thou wert to remain behind,
I myself would not have to journey to Jerusalem,
ah! but regrettably to hell.
As we imagine the scripture lesson, most of us would probably visualize ourselves as the sinners and the sick, in need of Christ’s outreach. I did so, as I thought of all my weaknesses and sins (grudge-holding, wavering faith, and the like), my hope that Christ will have pity on me. Then I thought: that’s a little disingenuous, because in my position in life I’m much more like the comfortable upper-class and the religious authorities of Jesus’ time—people he by no means snubbed, but he was definitely critical of us. Nevertheless, we too need Christ’s mercy and, in our comfortableness, we need to seek it all the more.
Bach was no outcast, either. As I quoted in one of my recent posts, Gardiner points out that Bach struggled to be paid what he was worth and to gain professional respectability, as he meanwhile poured out musical glories of religious imagination that were, often enough, penitential and hopeful. So many of Bach’s cantatas thus far have focused upon Christ’s work—the salvation which is the only lasting treasure amid life’s sorrows and struggles.
Christ’s journey toward Jerusalem will be a theme of upcoming Lent. But I’m still connecting that journey with something I talked about two weeks ago: the approximately 70-day period between Septuagesima Sunday and Easter can symbolically stand for the 70 years of the exile of the “Babylonian captivity.”
A World Council of Churches essay by Peter-Ben Smit (found here) makes several interesting insights about the Exile.
* The entire Bible is, in important ways, about being in exile and longing to be redeemed from exile. The Bible begins with the exile from Eden, of course.
* Smit notes that Jesus’ death and resurrection happens within the framework of Passover, which of course points back to Egyptian slavery and that earlier “exile.”
* The liturgical traditions of the church have been language of exile, too: our desire for heaven (the home we long for, analogous to the way the Judahite exiles longed to return to the Land) as we struggle in the world.
* Smit also notes that exile functions in contemporary theology in postmodernism (the uncertainty and absence of God, theologies of liberation (the struggle of oppressed people for freedom), and peace churches (the theology of whole reliance upon God rather than violent means: the error of Israel and Judah in relying upon foreign powers). But he argues that ecumenism itself echoes exile-language within theological in discussions of the church and the world (the church as an eschatological community in “exile” in the world), hospitality (caring for others who are in exile in different ways), healing broken relationships, being “wounded healers” of others, and so on.
I don’t want to “bracket” the Jewish experience of God’s redemption and thoughtlessly appropriate it only in Christian terms. But it’s instructive to link the powerful Jewish experiences of Passover and Restoration to the work of Christ in Christian experience. Think about Lent’s 40 days as fitting within a 70-day envisioning of the ways we are in “exile.” Think about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem not only as a trip for his little group of students, but also the way Jesus’ work connects to God’s Passover salvation, God’s post-exilic Restoration promised by the prophets, and the way those prophetic teachings speak both to post-exilic Restoration and to the person and work of Christ.
All English translations are by Richard Stokes.
Beautiful the Morning Star: Bach’s Cantatas for Annunciation and Oculi Sunday
Last fall I purchased the box set of all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. (They’re available at this link.) Beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, I’ve been listening to these cantatas on the appropriate days, as a year-long “spiritual journey.”
Over three weeks ago, when I listened to CD 11 for the last Sunday before Lent, I looked at CD 12, saw “Palm Sunday,” and thought the next installment of my listening would be in April. But today I realized that the same disc contained a cantata for the Third Sunday of Lent (Oculi Sunday), which was this past Sunday, and also two cantatas for the Feast of the Annunciation (yesterday, March 25), although the Annunciation cantatas are also Palm Sunday pieces. (Oculi Sunday is so named because the first Latin word of the day’s introit from Psalm 24:15 is oculi, or “eyes”.)
Just a little late, I listened to Disc 12 on this day after Annunciation. The two cantatas for that day are “Himmelskönig sei willkommen” (BWV 182, “King of Heaven, Thou art welcome”) and “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (BWV 1, “How beautifully gleams the morning star”). The cantata for this past Sunday is “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” (BWV 54, “Stand firm against all sinning”). The cover photo (always international people, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a turbaned man in Allahabad, India.
The next cantatas in the set are for Easter Sunday, so I’ll be back with Bach in a few weeks.
In the notes, Gardiner writes that in 1714, when BWV 182 premiered, Palm Sunday coincided with Annunciation. The cantata opens with a pretty overture for violin and recorder with pizzicato accompaniment, perhaps invoking Jesus’ donkey ride, while the songs invoke the crowd’s happy greeting of Christ—and our own greeting of our Savior who, we know, will shortly suffer on our behalf.
Let us thus enter joyful Salem,
attend the King in love and sorrow.
He leads the way
and prepares the path.
But Mary’s sorrow is also suggested in the sad alto solo, accompanied by a recorder, beseeching us to give ourselves to Christ.
“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” is also a cantata for a year (1725) in which Annunciation and Palm Sunday coincided. Gardiner calls this a “jubliant spring-time cantata… opulent, regal and ‘eastern’, redolent of te Ephipany cantata BWV 65. He writes that the whole cantata is filled with dance rhythms and good spirits as the son of Mary and Son of God is “a joyous ray that has come to me from God… a perfect treasure, the Saviour’s Body and Blood… destined for us since eternity…”
BWV 54 for Oculi Sunday reminds us from the outset to “Stand firm against all sinning, or its poison will possess you.. Those who commit sin are of the devil, for he has invented sin, but if one resists his vile shackles with true devotion, sin will straightaway take flight.” Gardiner writes that Bach opens the first aria in a startling way “with a harsh dissonance, a dominant seventh chord over a tonic pedal point” which may have meant to jar listeners to do as the title says. In contrast to the cheerful “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” the cantata is appropriate for its Lenten location as an urgent reminder to renounce the devil’s ways.
Annunciation is a fixed rather than moveable feast and will, most years, fall within the Lenten season. It is interesting that Bach twice had the chance to write for both Palm Sunday and Annunciation as the same day. My own Lent has been so busy with school responsibilities that I’ve sagged a bit on devotional reading and the like. So I felt happy I could return to the Bach cantatas sooner than I’d anticipated—to get a gentle push back into the penitential, introspective time. I was also happy to be reminded of the joyous announcement to Mary: the Savior will be born to the favored young woman. To put it foolishly, it feels like a reminder of Christmas cheer (the promised birth of Jesus) within Lenten solemnity. (And it did snow a little yesterday….)
As each set of CD notes indicate, the English translations of Bach’s texts by Richard Stokes.