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Wake Up, Cries the Watchmen: Bach’s Cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity

This coming Sunday, November 23rd, is the final Sunday of the liturgical year!

As I’ve written before, I purchased this 56-CD set of Bach’s sacred cantatas last fall. I listened to CDs 52-56 first (cantatas corresponding to Advent and Christmas), and then listened to 1 through 51, and so I’ve reached the end of my “journey” of listening this week as I arrive at CD 51, the cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The CD photo is of an old woman from Rajasthan, India, and the cantatas are: “Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott” (BWV 139, “Happy is he who can trust his God”), “Nur jedem das Seine!” (BWV 163, “To each only his due”), “Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht!” (BWV 52, “False world, I do not trust you!”). Added to these is the cantata for the seldom-occurring 27th Sunday: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 140, “Wake up, cries the watchmen’s voice”).

This coming Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, is also Christ the King Sunday. The theme of the three 23rd Sunday pieces is the question posted to Jesus concerning paying taxes to Caesar. One can stretch that meaning to affirm that Christ is our true ruler above all others, whether emperor, premier, or fussy Congress. BWV 139, which Gardiner writes exists in parts that have to be augmented rather than a complete score, is filled with contrasts between the sincere trust of the believer to the raging of the devil to assurance in God’s care for the believer. Satan also figures in BWV 163, wherein the writer of the text, Salomo Franck who was a frequent librettist for Bach, connects the money of Caesar symbolically with the counterfeit currency of the devil.

BWV 52 returns to the theme of some earlier cantatas: the “false world” that cannot satisfy.

False world, I do not trust you!
Here I must dwell among scorpions
and false serpents.
Your countenance,
though outwardly so friendly,
secretly plots ruin….

For the opening sinfonia Bach uses a previous draft of the first movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto. Because the theme of the cantata is the disappointment of the world (compared to the true peace of God and Heaven), Bach seems to be drawing a connection between the everyday pursuits in which we’re all involved, with the assurance and lasting joy of “God’s companionability” (Gardiner).

Because Easter usually doesn’t fall so early to allow for a 27th Sunday after Trinity, it’s sad that Bach’s cantata for this day was thus seldom heard in his churches during his own day. BWV 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” is a long-time favorite and one of Bach’s most famous. “a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, techincally, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order,” writes a musicologist quoted by Gardiner. In the CD notes the conductor describes several of Bach’s techniques, including a sense of telescoped time—in this case, the always necessary need for watchfulness. And since the theme is the coming of the Bridegroom in Jesus’ parables, “Bach has no compunction in stealing the clothes of contemporary operative love-duets” in his sacred music.

Listening to all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, on the weeks of the Sundays (or feast days) for which they were written, has been a lovely experience. I’ve an old 6-LP set of Bach’s Advent and Christmas cantatas, and I used to have a 2-LP set of popular cantatas like “Ein Feste Burg” and “Wachet Auf.” I’ve played these often over the years, and now I’ve listened to nearly 180 more. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the lifetime accomplishment of Bach, for he wrote a LOT more music than this.

I’m having a difficult time writing concluding words for this “journey” of listening, because I’m not really done. Now, I want to go back and re-listen to pieces that were particularly beautiful and meaningful. I’m also reluctant to stop a project that has been helpful during a year of bereavement, a health scare, and some ongoing challenges. How wonderful to pause during the middle of each week, listen to beautiful music in the early morning, read the CD notes, glance at the birds outside, and let my mind and heart wander a bit. I want to find a comparable habit for the upcoming liturgical year.

Racial and social issues have been in the news of my community, St. Louis, during the past several weeks. As I write this, no one is sure what is going to happen next, but a grand jury announcement is imminent. (Thus I’ve posted this a little early.) I found words from the cantata “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied!” (BWV 190, on CD 56), that offer hope for times ahead.

Now Jesus grant that with the new year
His anointed one too may flourish;
may He bless both trunk and branches,
that their fortune rise to the clouds.
Let Jesus bless both church and school,
may He bless all true teachers,
may He bless those who hear His teaching;
may He bless both council and court;
may He pour over every house
in our town the springs of blessing;
may He grant that once again
both peace and faith
may embrace within our borders.
Thus we shall live throughout the year in blessing.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes)

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Grace Much Greater than My Sins: Bach’s Cantatas for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity

Knowing that there were only two CDs in my “journey” to go, and with late-semester busyness at hand, I decided to listen to these last cantatas a little early. So the weekend of November 8-9 featured a lot of Bach music for me! Listening to Bach is a wonderful way to spend any day, however.

Bach’s cantatas for this coming weekend, the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, are: “Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht” (BWV 55, “I, wretched man, a slave to sin”), “Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?” (BWV 89, “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?”), and “Mache dich, mein Geist, beret” (BWV 115, “Prepare yourself, my soul”). The cantata for the 24th Sunday, included in this concert, is: “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60, “Eternity, O word of thunder”). This is CD 50 of the set, and the photo is of an older man, with a beautiful red beard, from Srinagar, Kashmir.

The Gospel lesson for the 22nd Sunday is Matthew 18:22-35, the story of the unjust steward. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that BWV 89 is Bach’s only (extant) cantata for solo tenor, and traces the journey of the steward back to his master. The steward is sorrowful and fearful about his situation. But the concluding chorale gives confidence to any of us who may be downcast about our sinfulness; grace and peace will come to us, thanks to the merciful Lord. BWV 55 makes a similar journey:

Even if hell had a bed
for me and my sins,
the wrath of God would still be there.
The earth does not protect me,
it threatens to devour that monster that I am;
and if I soar to heaven,
God is there, who judges me.

Yike! But as in Hosea, God wavers in executing judgment; Gardiner writes, “the music comes to a temporary halt at the end of each anguished question posed by the bass singer, representing God’s divided mind.” At the end, the believer has assurance:

I do not deny my guilt,
but Thy mercy and Thy grace
is much greater than my sins,
which I always find within me.

The beautiful BWV 115 concerns “the believer trusting and refusing to be blown off course by ‘Satan’s cunning’ (conveyed by a vigorous semiguaver bariolage figure) or the sounding of the last trump.” The singers take the roles of the “slumbering” sinner, the friend who is giving confidence, and the one (represented by the bass) making sure the sinner does not become complacent.

God, who watches over your soul,
detests the night of sin;
He sends you the light of His grace
and desires, in return for these gifts,
which He promises you in abundance,
but openness of spirit.

In 2000, when most of these cantatas were recorded, there were 23 post-Trinity Sundays (because of comparative lateness of Easter that year), but the season can have 27 Sundays, so as on some of the other CDs of the past few weeks, Gardiner and his musicians include other cantatas. This Sunday, the additional cantata is BWV 60 for the 24th Sunday after Trinity. Gardiner writes that Bach called this cantata a “dialogue between Fear and Hope.” The alto and tenor represent “the divided soul, the one wracked by fear of death and shaken by the terrifying sound of eternity’s ‘word of thunder’, the other sustained by simple trust in God’s mercy…” Gardiner discusses in some detail Bach’s technique for depicting this “dialogue. As one would expect, Bach gives victory to hope.

As I listen to these pieces, I think of a topic that we’ve been discussing in one of my classes: social justice. Ferguson has been in the local and national news. In our class, we’re focusing upon God’s distress over systemic sins like racism and poverty. If we were writing the texts of Bach’s pieces, we might be calling cities and national leaders to cease their slumbering and awaken to God’s judgment.

It’s a balance to walk: too great a stress on personal repentance risks neglecting social problems, and vice versa. Although the upcoming Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, it’s the end of the calendar year, when we can take stock of the previous months and contemplate next steps. How are we growing in our personal relationship with God? What about that relationship includes social service of some kind?

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Help My Unbelief: Bach’s Cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity

Three Sundays to go before Advent. My family and I have not started anything related to the holiday season, other than some early scheduling of events. In fact, our Halloween decorations are still up…

November 9 is the 21st Sunday after Trinity this year. Bach’s cantatas for this Sunday (CD 49 in this set) are “Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!” (BWV 109, “Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!”), “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (BWV 38, “Out of the depths I cry to Thee”), “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (BWV 98, “What God doth, is well done”), and “Ich habe meine Zuversicht” (BWV 188, “I have put my trust”). The CD photo is of a colorfully dressed young woman from Tibet.

The Gospel lesson of all four is John 4:46-54, the healing of the nobleman’s son, but the title of BWV 109 is Mark 9:24. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that Bach “sets up a wonderful series of antitheses to articulate the inner conflict between belief and doubt, and the way that faith is granted only after a period of doubt.” The conductor writes of the ways Bach musically sets up the conflict among the various numbers. For instance, in the third number, Bach depicts “the fearful quivering of the soul by means of jagged melodic shapes, unstable harmonies headed towards anguished second inversion chords, and persistent dotted rhythmic figures.” The cantata is a tempestuous journey toward faith and belief. For instance, the third number echoes Isaiah 42:3:

How uncertain is my hope,
how my anxious heart wavers!
The wick of faith hardly burns,
the almost broken reed now snaps,
fear constantly creates fresh pain.

But Christ knows that we are needful of his grace.

Compose yourself, doubting heart,
for Jesus still works wonders!
The eyes of faith shall witness
the healing power of the Lord;
though fulfilment seems so distant
you can rely on his promise.

BWV 38 continues the theme of the granting of faith, using the anguished Psalm 130. This cantata, too, “delays the provision and granting of help until the last possible moment,” after we have been through “signs and wonders” of sorrow and faith.

Though my despair, like chains,
fetters one misfortune to the next,
yet shall my Saviour free me suddenly from it all.
How soon will comfort’s dawn
succeed this night of woe and sorrow!

BWV 188, like two other cantatas from this late post-Trinity season, has a sinfonia drawn from a harpischord concerto. It is q quieter work, as is BWV 98, but likewise centering around the soul’s plea for faith and salvation.

God has a heart that brims with mercy;
and when He hears us lamenting…
His heart then breaks,
that He has mercy on us.
He keeps His word;
He says: Knock,
and it shall be opened unto you!
So let us from now on,
when we are in sore distress,
lift our hearts to God alone!

What things do you struggle with in your faith? I feel very fortunate that I’ve never felt so disappointed in or questioning of God that agnosticism, let alone atheism, were ever options. That’s partly because my childhood experiences with religion were mostly positive and thus provided a good foundation, and also, I worked on my faith and incorporated (even if haphazardly sometimes) prayer book readings, devotional reading, weekly worship, and reflective projects like this one into my weekly routine. I also ask other people for their prayers when things get rough. Busyness and “blues” would likely lead me off into spiritual dullness or deadness if I didn’t have these things. Other people have different or similar ways of nourishing their faith.

One of my struggles—although I think of it as an interesting quest—is to think of Christian faith in more universal terms. I love the idea that there are many paths to God, and thus I meditate on the similarities among world religions, while also affirming the uniqueness and power of Jesus Christ. For some people, this is a wavering of my faith, a contradiction. But I don’t see it that way.

My personal witness is that I see evidence of God’s guidance in my life over the long haul. Things in my life that were emotionally horrible and disappointing made sense in time (sometimes ten or twenty years later). Or, these difficult things that never made sense led to good things. I believe that the arcs and “story lines” of my life and my family’s demonstrate the truth of Romans 8:28. But I empathize with persons who don’t see such a thing in their own experience; plus, I acknowledge that there has been privilege in my life that made painful times never entirely devoid of hope and possibility. We should be careful not to assume that our own example should be normative for others.

The difficulties that Bach’s music explores are always timeless: life has struggles, temptations, grief, difficulties that we create and difficulties that are forced upon us. Faith can be very hard, especially when we have to be patient and wait for God when things are falling apart. Like the parent in Mark 9, we’ve just enough faith to ask for help. Knowing that God’s own heart breaks for us is a beautiful image, full of comfort and promise.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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O Great Wedding Feast: Bach’s Cantatas for the 20th Sunday after Trinity

As conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, the Gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding feast, which “prompts many figurative references to the soul as bride, to travel, to clothing and to food, such as Jesus as the ‘bread of life’.” The CD photo is a girl from Manang, Nepal. The wedding theme is used in all three cantatas. They are upbeat pieces to which I’ll return again.

In “Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe” (BWV 162, “Ah! I see, now as I go to the wedding”) Bach’s text gives us the dire consequences of being on the wrong side of the “wedding,” that is, failing to put on the clothing of righteousness that signals our belonging to Christ. It is all about preparedness: when Christ comes (or when we die), we need to be ready.

“Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen” (BWV 49, “I go and seek with longing”) begins, as did BWV 169 two weeks ago, with a sinfonia that is also a movement in Bach’s BWV 1053 harpsichord concerto II in E major. Beautiful piece! This cantata is musically and lyrically more lush since the words are a loving dialogue between the Christ and soul (between bass and soprano: Magdalena Kožená is the soprano here). As Gardiner points out, the language and situation evokes the love-language of the Song of Songs.

“Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” (BWV 180, “Adorn yourself, beloved soul”) is picturesque in different ways but, in keeping with the wedding theme, remind us of journeying to the wedding, the sight of the bride, the dancing and the feast. This is another occasion where Bach shows no concern for separating “sacred” and “secular” styles but instead writes dance music for a church service. But the key is not a wedding per se, but the need for the believer to be ready for Christ, to love Christ with one’s whole heart.

Rouse yourself: your Saviour knocks,
ah, open soon the door of your heart!
Though you in your rapture can
utter only broken words of joy to your Jesus.

How precious are the gifts of the sacred supper!
Nowhere can their like be found.
The things the world is wont
to deem precious are but glittering trifles;
a child of God desires to have this treasure and says:
Ah, how my spirit hungers,
friend of man, for Thy goodness!

A personal-Bible-study project that I keep meaning to do, is to gather commentaries and study Song of Songs. I’ve read the book but not in depth. It intrigues me that medieval monks dearly loved the book for its allegorical meaning of Christ and his church. For instance, many sermons by St. Bernard of Clairvaux are based on Song texts and extol the truths of Christian doctrine. To me, it’s beautiful love poetry between two people, but the symbolic reading has a long tradition.

I admit that it’s difficult for me sometimes to think of God’s love as affection. For all of the Apostle Paul’s epistolary expressions of love and concern, he also fusses and prods his congregations a great deal—and because my own parents could be fretful and scolding, it’s easy for me to think of God’s love for me tinged with disapproval. As downbeat as some of these post-Trinity cantatas can be, they also evoke God’s unconditional love for which the believer hungers.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.)

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A Mighty Fortress is Our God: Bach’s Cantatas for the Feast of the Reformation

With only five posts to go, I’ll recap my year-long project one more time…. 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. The CD notes testify to the logistical challenges of moving a choir, orchestra, and recording equipment around to different cities, every single week.

During ensuing years, the cantatas have been available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner’s own Soli Deo Gloria label). They are still available that way, and also 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 the cantatas in conjunction to the liturgical year. I began with the First Sunday of Advent and have stayed with the “journey” pretty faithfully all year.

October 31 is Reformation Day, and these cantatas were appropriately performed in the university church of Luther, the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. The CD cover photo, of a wide- and dark-eyed little girl, is from Kandahar, Afghanistan. One cantata is a long-time favorite on LPs, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80), based on Luther’s hymn.

The first piece is the festive “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” (BWV 79), “The Lord God is sun and shield”). The pageantry of this commemorative piece even includes a drum beat that (as Gardiner writes) could imaginatively echo the hammering of the 95 Theses upon the church door. Gardiner describes the numerous techniques with which Bach creates a profoundly moving piece.

Now thank we all our God
with heart and voice and hands,
who doth work great things for us
wherever we may be,
who since our mother’s womb
and from our infancy
hath favoured us so many times
and continues so to do.

“Now thank we all our God” is the title of the second cantata (BWV 192, “Nun danket alle Gott”), a much smaller work with “modest instrumentation that nevertheless “provides an attractive contrast, an alternative and less bombastic approach to the celebrations.”

Back to “Ein feste Burg” (BWV 80, “A mighty fortress is our God”). In the CD notes, Gardiner writes that Bach revised the cantata three times before this late version, which he “constructed a stupendous and elaborate new contrapuntal opening movement,” without instrumental prelude. He points out that Bach uses Luther’s hymn in three different numbers of the piece, with the last number being closest to the tune with which we’re familiar. For a long time I had difficulty singing this hymn in church, because it had been sung at the funeral of a Lutheran pastor who had been a mentor. Bach’s setting of the hymn helped me move toward healing.

We can do nothing with our own might,
all too soon we are lost.
It is the righteous man,
chosen by God, who fights for us.

We who at baptism swore loyalty
on Christ’s bleeding banner,
his spirit conquers evermore.
Do you ask who He is?
He is called Jesus Christ,
the Lord of Sabaoth,
there is no other God,
He must hold the field.

But I owe a greater debt to Luther himself. Writing in my last post about New England, I thought to myself about days in the Yale library, where I loved to read from Luther’s works. I was a divinity school student, feeling lost and inadequate, struggling to find my way. Luther’s themes of sola fide, sola scriptura spoke deeply to me. I filled dozens of index cards (which I still have) with quotations and citations from his works. I wanted to learn his theology but most of all I wanted God’s unconditional love to “sink in.” Luther was a perfect teacher.

I read an article online (and unfortunately didn’t bookmark it) that raised the question of whether Reformation Day should be celebrated. After all, there is greater theological concord between the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches than in Luther’s day, and even Bach’s day. Plus, there have been several historical moments when the church experienced a reformation or a course-correction when it had strayed from the Gospel in some way. I believe that the way many dominations are addressing LGBTQ inclusion is a kind of contemporary reformation, and so is the hard work of churches (in my own community of St. Louis and others) to address the tragedies of racism. Reformation goes hand in hand with repentance and renewal.

So we could speak of “reformation days” that have happened and, by God’s grace, will continue to happen.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Whither Shall I Flee: Bach’s Cantatas for the 19th Sunday after Trinity

The 19th Sunday after Trinity is coming up! Next is Bach’s Reformation Day cantatas, and then the 20th through 23rd Sundays of Trinity in November. Advent is fast approaching. My family brought home some Christmas cards from the Papyrus store yesterday; soon I’ll be starting on that late-November job. The CD for this Sunday features a girl from Herat, Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the themes of this time (the last few weeks of the post-Trinity season) include “the thorny and intractable issues of belief and doubt, “the rejection of the world by the faithful and the prospect of eventual union with God – or the horror of exclusion.” But “Bach both softens and humanises the severity of the words while in no way diminishing their impact: he has an unfailing knack of being able to vivify the doctrinal message and, when appropriate, of delivering it with a hard dramatic kick, yet balancing this with music of an emollient tenderness.” Overall, the pieces for this Sunday are more pensive (though beautiful), in contrast to those coming up for October 31.

Right on cue, the title of BWV 48 is “Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom” (“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me [from the body of this death]”, which is from Romans 7:24). The first part of the cantata depicts the healing miracle of Matthew 9:1-8, with all the misery both of illness and of sin-sickness. But the second part, as we’ve seen so often before in Bach’s works, turns to the praise of Christ, who (in answer to the misery of Romans 7:24) alone can save and heal us. Similarly, the second cantata focuses upon the healing of Christ for the misery of infirmity and sin. But here, the theme is the blood of Christ. This cantata is called “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” (BWV 5, “Whither shall I flee”). Gardiner writes that the viola obbligato reminds us of “the gushing, curative effect of the divine spring” of blood.” His likening of the power of Christ’s blood to agricultural preparations for crops makes me remember something I read quite a while ago: that Gardiner maintains a farm in addition to all his musical work.

The third cantata is “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (BWV 56, “Gladly shall I bear the cross”). The piece is for orchestra, chorus, and solo bass. As Jesus occasionally crossed the sea of Galilee, all of human life is like a voyage across seas. The music carries us through waves and calm to affirm God’s ultimate salvation once we reach journey’s end.

Like last week, the cantatas for this Sunday are joined with cantatas for post-Trinity Sundays that could not fit on the 2000 liturgical calendar. A cantat for the 25th Sunday after Trinity is called “Es Reisset such ein schrecklich Ende” (BWV 90, “A terrible end shall sweep you away”). Not so calming as BWV 58, this cantata gives us the horrors of damnation, sung in arias for the men’s voices. What a relief when we cross the terrible threats and hopelessness faced by the unredeemed and affirm God’s rescue of those who believe.

When I hear the phrase “blood of Christ,” particularly as a stream that washes us, I often think of that old camp meeting song that I learned in childhood.

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Refrain
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

A very different kind of music than Bach’s, but a similar expression of hope that Christ’s power is sufficient for this life and that to come.

But the image of life as a sea voyage is another appealing theme from this week’s music. Bach’s music carries the text by Johann Frank for a lovely assurance for our faith.

My life on earth
is like a voyage at sea:
sorrow, affliction and distress
engulf me like waves
and daily frighten me to death;
my anchor, though, which sustains me, is God’s mercy,
with which He often gladdens my heart.
He calls out to me: I am with you,
I shall never leave you nor forsake you!
And when at length the raging foam is calmed,
I shall step from my ship into my own city,
which is the kingdom of Heaven,
where I with all the righteous
shall enter out of so great tribulation.

(As the CD notes indicate, all translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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God Alone Shall Have My Heart: Bach’s Cantatas for the 18th Sunday after Trinity

I’ve been feeling blue about “human nature” lately: people’s rudeness, thoughtlessness, sometimes outright meanness. I’m too sensitive about such things. A minor example among several: navigating a narrow street with cars parked along the curb, I had to stop and back up because the UPS truck was coming toward me fast, with no indication that he was going to slow down. You know how it is to feel “pecked to death by ducks” sometimes.

But I felt a strange peace when I read conductor John Eliot Gardiner’s notes for this week’s cantatas: the haughty and thoughtless treatment he and his musicians were accorded when they visited Bach’s own church, Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It wasn’t that I wanted Gardiner and his outstanding musicians to be treated poorly. But sometimes it jolts you into amused acceptance of human nature when you’re reminded that people are the same everywhere. (In other notes of this set, Gardiner describes the poor treatment to which Bach himself was sometimes subjected.) You might as well “roll with it” than be unhappy. Fortunately, Gardiner writes that the audience was visibly moved and grateful at the conclusion of the concert.

Two cantatas for this, the 18th Sunday after Trinity, are “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottessohn” (BWV 96, “Lord Christ, the only Son of God”), and “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben” (BWV 169, “God alone shall have my heart”). The CD photo is of a young man from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Gardiner comments that the first cantata, which makes beautiful use of the recorder, is based on the Matthew 22 text concerning the epithet “Son of David,” but Bach and the text also make a connection to Epiphany by praising Christ as the “morning star,” the guiding light for the Magi. As we’ve seen so often in these cantatas, the believer is depicted as one who longs for Christ but is weighed down by cares, griefs, and imperfection. But the love and acceptance of God for the struggling sinner keeps the believer hopeful and strong. The message of the second cantata is similar, with the reminder (which pertains to us who become discouraged at human nature) that love of neighbor is as key as love of God. I love the cheerful, opening sinfonia, and tried to remember where I’d heard it before. The music is also part of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto II in E major, BWV 1053.

In 2000, when nearly all these cantatas were performed and recorded, there were 23 Sundays after Trinity, out of a possible 27 (depending on how early Easter falls in a particular year). So included with the two cantatas for the 18th Sunday is a choral cantata for the 25th Sunday, “Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 116, “Thou Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ”). Interestingly, the text depicts Christ as helping us not only with the threats of Satan but the fearfulness of God the Judge. The Prince of Peace saves us because of his great love.
The final selection on this disc is BWV 668, the chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (“I herewith step before the Throne”). This is legendarily considered to be Bach’s last piece and it was performed here (as Gardiner tells us in the notes) with the musicians gathered around Bach’s resting place at the church. A beautiful, a cappella piece!

I herewith step before Thy throne,
O God, and humbly beg Thee:
turn not Thy gracious countenance
from me, an anaemic sinner.

Grant me a blessèd end,
and wake me, Lord,
at the Day of Judgement,
that I might behold Thee forever more.
Amen, Amen, hear my prayer.

Only five more Sundays (and one commemorative day) remain in the liturgical year. As I’ve said in these posts several times, I started last December with CD 52, which are cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the liturgical year. Thus, I listened to the last five CDs of this 56-CD set first then went back to CD 1 (Christmas Day). Today I looked ahead, and I’m pleased that the last cantata that I’ll listen to on this “journey” (the last one on CD 51) is an old favorite for many of us: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 140.

I think nostalgically to my first acquaintance with Bach’s cantatas: a 6-LP set (which I still have) conducted by Carl Richter, which I purchased from a used LP place during my student days. I also think of a 16-LP set of Bach’s complete organ works, which were cheaply-purchased in the 1970s from a mail-order house. Struggling away in Leipzig at his special calling, Bach couldn’t know the reach and influence of his music, across the centuries.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Give Glory unto the Lord: Bach’s Cantatas for the 17th Sunday after Trinity

This Sunday is the 17th after Trinity. Bach’s cantatas for the day are “Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens” (BWV 148, “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His Name”), “Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost” (BWV 114, “Ah, dear Christians, be comforted”), “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden” (BWV 47, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be humbled”), and also the motet “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” (BWV 226, “The Spirit helpeth our infirmities”). The CD photo is from Kandze, Tibet. After this weekend, there are only six more Sundays in the post-Pentecost season.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that the gospel text for 148 is the story of Jesus’ Sabbath healing and the subsequent controversy. The text and Bach’s music focuses on the sanctity of Sabbath worship and the goodness of a day of rest. There was (and is) little rest for church musicians and preachers on Sunday. Bach’s Sundays were hectic. So the cantata looks to the Lord for help from our struggles, and notably calls us to enjoy a Sabbath repose in God’s goodness.

Continuing the theme of God’s help, number 114 also returns to a theme that has been so common among the cantatas of this season: God’s consolation for the downcast soul, anxious about the prospect of death, lost and discouraged in life’s bitterness. But just as the seed must die for the wheat to grow, so we must return to the earth and be transformed. God is strong enough to address our sorrows and will not fail to save us when death comes for us.

Meanwhile, number 47 returns to another theme from recent cantatas: the awfulness of the human condition and our vast need for grace. How could God take the form of such a vile creature as man? It’s a realization that shame us from our arrogance and jolt us to be humble and grateful for God’s salvation.

Jesus, humble my heart
beneath Thy mighty hand,
that I may not forfeit my salvation like Lucifer.
Let me seek Thy humility
and abominate all pride;
give me a humble heart
that I may be pleasing to Thee!

Not only does God save us, but God also intercedes for us through the Spirit when we can’t pray as we ought. The motet BWV 226 quotes from the Roman 8 text then turns to praise:

O heavenly ardour, sweet comfort,
help us now with joy and confidence
to remain steadfast in thy service,
and not to be deflected by affliction.
O Lord, prepare us by Thy might
and strengthen the feeble flesh
that we may strive valiantly here
to attain to Thee through death and life.
Alleluja, Alleluja!

A couple years ago I took some notes on the interrelated themes of holiness and God’s glory. Glory can mean honor/renown, or beauty/magnificence, or heaven/eternity itself. St. Ignatius’s famous motto was Ad maiorum Dei gloriam, “to the greater glory of God,” which I always took this to mean, “to increase God’s renown (through our devotion and service).” But the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner notes that we also share in God’s own life as we serve God.

The wonder is that God’s glory—a powerful and potentially lethal force as depicted in some of the biblical narratives—is also the power which guides, consoles, and rescues us. God is our place of Sabbath repose. In these days approaching Advent, imagine yourself as safe within the “place” of God. These weeks of post-Pentecost cantatas have been heavy on penitence and introspection, but the flip side is the tender, assuring care of God.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Ruler over Death and Life: Bach’s Cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity

Bach’s cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity are: “Komm, du süße Todesstunde” (BWV 161, “Come, O sweet hour of death”), “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?” (BWV 27, “Who knows how near is my end?”), “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” (BWV 8, “Dearest God, when shall I die?”), and “Christus, der ist mein Leben” (BWV 95, “Christ is my life”). The cover photo is from Ladakh, India.

I’ve felt sad this week because of the anniversary of my mother’s death, and I’ve been aware of friends on social media who are also struggling with the loss of parents (in some cases several years ago, but the hurt is still keen). One of my friends is dealing with the loss of her adult son.

So I looked at the titles to these cantatas, prior to listening to them, and I thought, “It’s depressing music this week.” Some of Bach’s post-Pentecost cantatas have been somber, but I anticipate returning to this week’s cantatas again, as I’ll return to those for Michaelmas earlier this week. These pieces are meditative and pastoral without necessarily being downbeat. In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, “All four – BWV 161, 27, 8 and 95 – articulate the Lutheran yearning for death, and all but one feature the tolling of ‘Leichenglocken’, funerary bells. Yet for all their unity of theme, there is immense diversity of texture, structure and mood, and together they make a satisfying and deeply moving quartet – music that is both healing and uplifting.”

He writes that the use of triple time dominate in BWV 161, seeming to indicate the passage of time but also offers consolation. As we’ve seen and heard in other cantatas, the misery of the world causes the believer to welcome the redemption of Christ when physical death does come.

My desire
is to embrace the Saviour
and soon to be with Christ.
Though death crushes me
as mortal earth and ashes,
the pure gleam of my soul
will shine like the angels’ glory.

The cantata ends with the tune familiar from the hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” also prominent in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

In BWV 27, Bach uses “the slow pendulum strokes in the bass of the orchestra” to suggest time’s passage, “against this the downward falling figure in the upper strings and a poignant broken theme in the oboes provide the backcloth for the haunting chorale melody, interlaced with contemplative recitative.” Gardiner notes that Bach’s daughter Christiane Sophia (1723-1726) died shortly before the composition of this piece.

World, farewell! I am weary of you,
I wish to enter heaven,
where there is true peace
and eternal, stately rest.
World, you know but war and strife,
naught but merest vanity;
in Heaven there always reigns
peace, happiness and bliss.

While BWV 27 is deeply moving, the mood is a little brighter in BWV 8. We have the suggestion of funeral bells, but also a bass aria that affirms “Jesus’ summons to a better life” (as Gardiner puts it), and also a 12/8 gigue that Gardiner calls “unabashed dance music… with some of the swagger and ebullience of the finale from the sixth Brandenburg concerto.”

Ruler over death and life,
let at the last my end be good,
teach me to give up the ghost
with courage firm and sure.
Help me earn an honest grave
next to godly Christian folk,
and finally covered by earth
never more be confounded!

BWV 95 uses cornetto and oboes to introduce Luther’s version of the Nunc Dimittis. The hour of death will come eventually; and the sooner the better, for we will be with Christ. In the second to last number, the words “schlage doch bald” (“strike then soon”) repeat several times, expressing a longing to join the Lord in Heaven. (“Ach, schlage doch bald, sel’ge Stunde, den allerletzten Glockenschlag!” “Ah, strike then soon, blessèd hour, your last and final stroke!”). The cantata bids the believer to trust Christ that our destination–the next life—will be one of peace and joy after life’s struggles.

Christ is my life,
to die is my reward…
And if today I were told:
You must! I would be willing and prepared
to return my wretched body,
my wasted limbs,
mortality’s cloak,
into earth’s bosom.

I become weary of dealing with certain kinds of challenges, but I can’t say I ever get weary of living. The longing for Christ expressed in these cantatas is quite understandable but (for me) it’s something I feel most keenly when life is weighed down with trouble or sickness. A spiritual challenge, perhaps undertaken during the upcoming Advent season, is to let that longing “sink in,” emotionally and spiritually, during times of happiness, so that we’re happy in both the blessings of this life and the blessings of the life to come. Then, if life enters one of those awful periods of distress, we can address the situation while also having a strong faith in Christ.

To affirm “Christ is my life” isn’t just to affirm that Christ means a great deal to me. We participate in the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection—a realm of reality, so to speak, which is forceful and real for us today, even though the historical events happened long ago—-so that now, our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God. Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ” (Col. 3:3).

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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O Prince of the Cherubim: Bach’s Cantatas for Michaelmas

Michaelmas, or (as titled here) the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, is a Western festival on September 29, near the fall equinox. (In the Eastern church, the archangels are honored on November 8.) Michael was the Archangel who defeated Lucifer and is one of the greatest angelic protectors. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that Michael figures in both testaments, the Apocrypha, and the Qur’an as well. In Christian tradition he is “venerated both as the guardian angel of Christ’s earthly kingdom and as patron saint of knights in medieval lore, and, significantly, as the being responsible for ensuring a safe passage into heaven for souls due to be presented before God.”

In the CD notes, Gardiner points out that Bach took seriously the Book of Revelation, the concept of angelic armies, and “a cosmos charged with an invisible presence made of pure spirit, just beyond the reach of our normal faculties. …The concept of a heavenly choir of angels was implanted in Bach as a schoolboy in Eisenach, when even the hymn books and psalters of the day gave graphic emblematic portrayal of this idea; the role of angels, he was instructed, was to praise God in song and dance, to act as messengers to human beings, to come to their aid, and to fight on God’s side in the cosmic battle against evil.”

Not surprisingly, then, we have four pieces for this day: “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” (BWV 50, “Now is come strength and salvation”), “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir” (BWV 130, “Lord God, we all praise Thee”), “Es erhub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19, “There arose a war”), and “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg” (BWV 149, “The voice of rejoicing and salvation”).

BWV 50 is just over three minutes but is nevertheless (in Gardiner’s words) “breath-taking” and majestic. Not specifically for Michaelmas, the piece dovetails with the cantatas because the text is based on a portion of Revelation 12, where we read the defeat of the dragon by Michael and the angels.

Now is come salvation and strength,
and the kingdom of our God,
and the power of His Christ:
for the accuser of our brethren is cast down,
which accused them before our God day and night.

BWV 130 depicts the archangels in procession and in battle. The battle against the forces that vex us is not only in the past, but is ongoing. Gardiner writes, “Though there is brilliance aplenty in the steely glint of Michael’s sword (fifty-eight consecutive semiquavers for the principal trumpet to negotiate – twice!), this is not an episode in a Blitzkrieg. Bach is more concerned to evoke two superpowers squaring up to one another, the one vigilant and poised to protect the ‘kleine Häuflein’ against assault (cue the tremulant throbbing of all three trumpets in linked quavers), the other wily and deceitful (one wonders whether the kettledrums and continuo are perhaps intended to be on the dragon’s side?).”

The ancient dragon burns with envy
and constantly devises new pain
to break up that little flock….

Grant, O Prince of the Cherubim,
that this high host of heroes
may evermore
 tend Thy believers;
grant that the angels on Elijah’s chariot
may bear them up to Thee in Heaven.

As in 130, Bach uses trumpets to dramatic effect in BWV 19, along with intense writing for both the orchestra and the singers, to depict angelic protection of the faithful against the fury of Satan (the serpent, the dragon).

Praise God! The dragon is laid low.
The uncreated Michael
and his angelic host
have conquered him.
There he lies in the darkness,
fettered with chains,
and he shall no longer
dwell in heaven’s realm…

Let us love the countenance
of righteous angels,
and with our sins
not banish or even sadden them,
that they may be,
when the Lord commands us
to bid the world farewell,
to our great light,
our chariots to heaven.

BWV 149, meanwhile, is “festive rather than combative,” while using the same orchestral forces.

Ah Lord, let Thy dear angel
bear this soul of mine, when I die,
into Abraham’s lap,
and let my body sleep in its resting-place
most gently, free of torment and pain,
until the Day of Judgement!
And then awaken me from death,
that my eyes may behold Thee
in sheer joy, O Son of God,
my Saviour and my throne of grace!
Lord Jesus Christ, hear me, O hear me,
I will praise Thee eternally!

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of my mother’s death. I admit that angels are less a part of my spirituality than for Bach. As I work and rest, I think of the Holy Spirit as the closeness of God to me. But I love the image of the “safe passage into heaven for souls,” as well as the image of Heaven being filled with music and dance. A lovely quotation that I found online suggests that angels reassure us when our loved ones die, that they are safe now. I like that a lot. Perhaps I need to be more open to the idea of God’s presence expressed via divine advocates who, importantly, are also beautiful singers.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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What God Does is Well Done: Bach’s Cantatas for the 15th Sunday after Trinity

The cover photo for this week’s cantatas features Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan Girl,” not the famous picture but another wherein she covers the lower part of her face with her shawl. Those enormous green eyes of hers are recognizable. Photographer Steve McCurry, whose 1985 shot of Gula first appeared on a National Geographic magazine, took the pictures of the all CD covers in this set.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that some of Bach’s sacred cantatas contain “more darkness than light,” which is the case this week, too. There are four cantatas for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity: “Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz?” (BWV 138, “Why are you troubled, my heart?”), “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (BWV 99, “What God doth, is well done”), “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!” (BWV 51, “Rejoice unto God in all lands!”), and BWV 100 which is also entitled, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan.”

BWV 138 “charts the beleaguered Christian’s journey from profound distress of mind and soul, punctuated by (choral) injunctions to hold fast, to an eventual solidity of faith.” We’ve so often seen in Bach’s cantatas that distress: the believer’s confrontation with his/her sinful unworthiness, the believer’s heartache at the difficulties of life. As in the psalms, distress is more than matched by affirmations of God’s love and care. For instance, midway through this cantata, the struggling soul is assured of God’s providential care.

How can I calmly discharge my duties,
when sighs are my meat and tears my drink?

He can and will not forsake you,
He knows full well what you lack,
heaven and earth are His!

BWV 51 is generally a brighter cantata that “seems never to lose its glitter and charm – provided, of course, that there is a soprano and a trumpeter equal to its ferocious technical demands.” There is more of an emphasis here upon God’s blessings and greatness.

Rejoice unto God in all lands! Every creature
in heaven and the world must exalt His fame,
and we would likewise bring our God an offering now,
for that He has always stood beside us in affliction and distress.

BWV 99 and 100, with the same title and the same author of the texts, were written about a decade apart. (The “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” numbers reflect themes rather than chronology.) Gardiner discusses the similarities and differences between the two, both of which affirm God’s care, guidance, and faithfulness as we struggle through trials and our own faults. In the text of 100, the title repeats at the beginning of each number.

What God doth, is well done,
He will not deceive me;
He leads me on the proper path,
and so I am content
to enjoy His favour
and show patience.
He shall avert my misfortune,
He has the power to do so.

Given the cover photo, I thought of the 2002 National Geographic article about the photographers reunion with “the Afghan girl.” Her life has been very difficult, like millions of others in that part of the world. But she affirms that it was God’s will that she could be alive and located by the photographer. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text God has the power to avert misfortunate, but we also affirm that God stands by us if we remain in affliction and distress. We have to remain constant—and strong—in faith whether or not our adversity is removed. And who knows how God will surprise us with signs of providential care?

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Weak but Diligent Steps: Bach’s Cantatas for the 14th Sunday after Trinity

We’re halfway through September, with October and November to come in this post-Pentecost season. I miss the season of Kingdomtide, which was still observed in United Methodist churches when my family and I joined our local congregation in the mid 1970s. It added extra themes to the long period of ordinary time, and the name itself was pretty!

This Sunday is the 14th after Trinity Sunday. The cover photo of this CD, number 40 in the set, is from Tahoua, Niger. I had looked forward to listening to BWV 78, “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (“Jesus, who hast wrested my soul”), because my daughter’s choir in Ohio used to sing the aria “Wir eilen mit schwachen.”

We hasten with weak but diligent steps,
O Jesus, O master, to Thee.
Thou seekst to help the ailing and erring.
Ah, hearken, as we 
raise our voices,
to beg Thee for help!
May Thy gracious countenance smile upon us!

Wonderful memories of the choir’s performances in Ohio and also central Europe! The choir director noted that the melody is springy, to connote eagerness, but the continuo plods, connoting feeble steps that require divine help. The soprano-alto aria conrasts with the more serious themes and numbers of the cantata which, appropriate to the Lutheran theology of this season, emphasizes the dire human condition.

In the notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that, although Bach’s Trinity Season cantatas are full of Lutheran doctrine about sin and the fall and redemption, there is also a humanism in Bach’s consideration of the human condition. For instance, in “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe” (BWV 25, “There is no soundness in my flesh”) the text is a little depressing in its depictions of sin and estrangement as a horrid sickness.

The entire world is but a hospital
where countless human beings
and even children in the cradle
lie gravely ill.
The one is tortured in the breast
by raging fever’s wicked desires;
another lies ill
with his own honour’s odious stench;
lust for gold devours a third
and hurls him into an early grave.

Christ alone can heal us of the leprosy of sin, but Gardiner goes into detail about how Bach’s music (including some extra instruments like recorders) depicts the healing process, giving listers an audible connection to the help they gain for their human struggles.

The third cantata of this Sunday, “Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich” (BWV 17, “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth Me”) has more of an emphasis upon the Lord’s goodness, although always in contrast to the human distress that urges us to seek and praise God’s surprising mercy. Gardiner particularly praises Bach’s music of the final chorale.

As a father has mercy
on his little children,
so the Lord does unto us wretches,
if we fear Him with pure childlike awe.
He knows this feeble race,
he knows we are but dust.
Just as grass from the rake,
a flower and falling leaves,
the wind only has to pass over it
and it is no longer there:
so man too passes,
his end is always near.

Autumn, when grass and leaves will indeed be gathered and discarded, is a time of meditating upon the transitory quality of life. The words of this chorale echo (perhaps intentionally) Isaiah 40, where we are assured that although “all flesh is grass,” the Word of God never dies.

This week, that image of “hospital” stays in my mind: the world as a hospital, and all of us “sick” in some way thanks to the human condition. To extend the metaphor, Christ is both physician and patient: one who has experienced the infirmity and sickness of human being, and the only one who can heal us as we need.

But I also love that image of “weak but diligent steps”. A couple years ago, I wrote on this blog about a CD of Arvo Pärt’s music, “In Principio,” on the ECM Records label. The liner notes describe the piece called “Mein Weg” (“my path”): “The title was inspired by a short poem from ‘Livre des Questions’, the magnum opus of the poet Edmond Jabès … My path has long hours,/jolts and pains./My path has peaks and sea-troughs,/sand and sky./Mine or thine… The image of life’s portentous sea-troughs seems to have found an echo in the work’s compositional fabric with its constant, dynamically differentiated upward and downward motion.”

The paths of life–including the spiritual path–filled with ups and downs, steps forward and back. Given the human condition, how could it be otherwise? So we look to the Lord, who never stops being compassionate toward us in our journeys.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Cold Hearts of Steel: Bach’s Cantatas for the 13th Sunday after Trinity

“Sure enough, after the breezy pleasures of last week’s celebratory pieces – a brief reprieve – came the cold shower of our man’s resumption of the earnest process of musical exegesis.” Thus writes conductor John Eliot Gardiner (in the CD notes) of these cantatas for the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. (This is CD 39, with a cover picture of a woman from Tibet.) Gardiner goes on to write that Bach sought to “forge audible links” between the scriptures and “the spiritual attributes of the texts.” This week, the texts are the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel, and also Galatians 3:15-22 which concerns faith and the law. But human beings are liable to evade both their responsibilities to the neighbor and to fail to keep God’s law.

During a 100-mile drive to Springfield, IL this week, I listened to these cantatas without first reading about them in the CD notes. I was moved by the wonderful opening to “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben” (BWV 77 “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God”). Sure enough, Gardiner writes, “Here is one of those breathtaking, monumental opening choruses that defy rational explanation: how an over-worked, jobbing church musician, locked into numbing routines, could have come up with anything so prodigious and not, aswe have seen, in an isolated work, but as part of a coherent cycle of weekly works.” He goes on to describe in considerable detail the wonderful structure and musical devices used by Bach in a cantata focused upon the two great commandments: Love the Lord with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.

My God, I love Thee with all my heart,
all my life clings to Thee.
Let me but know Thy law
and be so kindled with love
that I can love Thee forever.

And give me too, my God,
a Samaritan’s heart,
that I may love my neighbour…
that I may not pass him by
and abandon him in his extremity…

“Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 33, “In thee alone, Lord Jesus Christ”) is more penitential concerning our inability to be obedient to the Lord.

My God and Judge,
if Thou shouldst question me upon the law,
I would be unable,
because of my conscience,
to answer one in a thousand questions.
I am weak in spirit and devoid of love
and my sins are grave and vast…

But (in an solo that Gardiner calls one of Bach’s most beautiful ones for the alto), in Christ there is mercy and salvation.

…Jesus hears my supplication
and proclaims me to His Father.
The burden of sin weighed me down,
but Jesus helps me anew with words of comfort:
He has done enough for me.

“Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo rennet” (BWV 164, “Ye who bear the name of Christ”) begins similarly with an assertion of the hardness of the human heart toward God and other people. Gardiner notes that this “dualism” between the divine compassion and human failure permeates all three cantatas. But the divine compassion can break through and make us like the Samaritan.

Ah! melt through Thy radiant love
the cold heart of steel,
that I may daily practise,
my Saviour, true Christian love;
that my neighbour’s misery, whoever he may be,
friend or foe, heathen or Christian,
may affect my heart as much as my own suffering!

I admit that I dislike the story of the Good Samaritan, though it’s a beautiful story with which I agree. But if I think, “Oh, I should pick up that hitchhiker; the Good Samaritan story compels me to,” I’m putting myself at risk. Yet the story invites soul-searching. Whom can I help, in my everyday circumstances? How can I put my faith into practice, in a powerful if not foolhardy way?

Part of it may be simply slowing down our pace and stopping to take time with people. I hesitate to make myself an example of anything, but the other day someone approached me to talk as I was standing by the elevator. The elevator arrived and I missed it, because it was more important in that moment to talk to the person rather than hurry to my next engagement. Through the mercy extolled in these cantatas, the Lord can show us ways to “be available” to persons as we go about our daily lives.

I had just been studying Luke 10 for another writing project. The writer of the commentary that I was reading pointed out that the lawyer’s question to Jesus (how he could gain eternal life) is coupled with the affirmation of the two great commandments, which in turn is coupled with both the Good Samaritan story and the subsequent story about Mary and Martha. The commentator noted that the Samaritan and Mary showed complementary sides of faith: being caring and merciful in an everyday circumstance, and being quiet and attentive to the Lord’s teachings.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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All Things Well: Bach’s Cantatas for the 12th Sunday after Trinity

We’re rolling along with the long season after Pentecost (or after Trinity, if you count from that Sunday, as Bach does). We’re beginning to enter autumn and are up to CD 38 of this Bach set; a man from Mumbai, India looks to us from the CD photo, all by the noted photographer Steve McCurry. After this weekend, we have eleven more Sundays till Christ the King Sunday (that is, the last Sunday before Advent), plus two feast days.

I’m listening to these cantatas for enjoyment and as a spiritual discipline for this year. But I was glad to read (in the CD notes by conductor John Eliot Gardiner) that this week’s cantatas are more celebratory than the previous weeks’, which had been heavy with themes of repentance, hypocrisy, and sorrow for sin (as Gardiner puts it, “the grim doctrinal preoccupations of the Trinity season”). Though suitably conscious of my own shortcomings of faith and life, I was beginning to wonder how I was going to get through several more weeks of penitential or scolding themes. But there will probably be more.

“Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 69a, “Bless the Lord, O my soul”) opens with (in Gardiner’s words) an “exultant” opening chorus and continues “to press all one’s emotional buttons” with the “sheer zest and rhythmical élan to lift one’s spirits.” With all three cantatas Gardiner goes into some detail about Bach’s musical techniques to convey a sense of joy this Sunday.

Ah, that I had a thousand tongues,
ah, that my mouth
were devoid of vain words,
ah, that I said nothing at all,
except that which was meant to praise God,
then would I proclaim the Highest’s goodness;
for all my life He has done so much for me
that I cannot thank Him in eternity.

The title of “Geist und Seele wird verwirret” (BWV 35, “Spirit and soul become confused”) continues in the first aria, in which the alto songs of the soul’s confusion at the miracles of God. All God’s marvelous works on our behalf amaze and enliven us, even renders us speechless.

God has done all things well.
His love, his faith
are new every morning.
When fear and sorrow oppress us,
He hath always sent us ample comfort,
for He watches over us each day.

“Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren” (BWV 137, “Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honor”). Gardiner comments that this cantata is in C major and is based on a thanksgiving hymn by Joachim Neander. The tune is familiar to many of us as that of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” Bach finds all kinds of ways, from “jazzy” to festive, to convey the joy of the hymn without being constrained by the preexisting form.

Praise the Lord, who has adorned you so exquisitely,
who has given you health, and guides you kindly;
how often in your distress
has merciful God
not spread His wings over you?

Writing of the opening chorus of BWV 69a, Gardiner writes, “This type of chorus makes one aware of how fine is the membrane (if indeed it exists at all) between Bach’s sacred celebratory music and his music for secular festivities: the birthday odes, or even the quodlibets sung by his family at their annual get-togethers.” This week I’m thinking about that, in connection to a discussion we had in our Evangelism class last night at the seminary where I teach part-time: How do we live in ways that show Christ, without hitting people over the head with our message? To put it another way, how do our sacred and secular activities flow together, so that in us, there is little or no “membrane” between the two?

Coincidentally, this morning a Facebook friend posted a comment by one of her colleagues, which also seems apropos. “Imagine if we viewed every activity as a holy, or potentially holy activity.”

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Inwardly, Outwardly the Same: Bach’s Cantatas for the 11th Sunday after Trinity

We’re up to the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, and a young man from Omo Valley, Ethiopia looks out from the CD picture on the next disc of Bach’s cantatas. These cantatas feature the Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená.

The text of “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (BWV 199, “My heart is bathed in blood”) is in the first person. Like some of Bach’s other cantatas with a similar kind of text, the listener is thereby placed within the drama of salvation. The author of the CD notes writes: “The eight movements rehearse the stages of redemption: an acknowledgement of the abomination of sin, the discomfort of remorseful tears, a plea for mercy, a confession of guilt, the blessed relief of casting sins onto Christ, and the peace and joy of reconciliation with God.”

I, Thy afflicted child,
cast all my sins,
as many as there are in me
and which terrify me so,
into Thy deep wounds,
where I have always found salvation.

“Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei” (BWV 179, “See to it that they fear of God be not hypocrisy”). We’ve heard other Bach cantatas in which the theme of hypocrisy before, and although Bach felt his calling to write cantatas to God’s glory was well fulfilled in Leipzig, he faced many difficulties in the city, including self-serving leaders and other difficult people. In the CD notes, we read, “One can imagine the Leipzig gentry, sitting in the best pews, becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the shockingly direct words hit their target: the strident tenor, above obbligato oboes and violin, ringing through the cathedral proportions of St. Thomas’s like a prophetic crow.”

He who is inwardly and outwardly the same
can be called a true Christian.
Such was the tax-collector in the temple,
who smote his breast in humility;
he did not look on himself as a saint.
Let him be, O man,
 a glorious example
in your own penitence…

“Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” (BWV 113, “Lord Jesus Christ, thou highest good”) is not as dramatic about hypocrisy as 179 but confronts the listener with the sorrow for our fallen nature—as well as the joy of Christ’s love and grace.

My piteous heart
beholds now, after many tears of pain,
the bright glow of Jesus’ eyes of mercy…
Gnawing conscience can no longer torment me,
now that God has pledged all His grace
to feed the faithful and the righteous
with heavenly manna,
if we but with contrite souls
come to our Jesus.

The story of the Pharisee and the Publican captures our imagination because the reversal: the good, blameless person (the kind of person most of us strive to be) actually has it all wrong, and the person who is blameworthy, lost, and distressed gets it right. (I dislike the way we use “Pharisee” as a pejorative term; the historical Pharisees helped save Jewish faith for the ages. But this particular Pharisee is Jesus’ example of a certain approach to religious faith.) Sometimes I think I have the self-critical heart of the Publican but, nevertheless, I strive to live like the Pharisee, respected and accomplished. Do I really have my heart wholly directed to God?

The answer is no. Even my “good works done in secret” are, to some extent, motivated by my need to be liked and affirmed. But we can take our inconsistencies and offer them to God in the spirit of distressed repentance that permeates this week’s cantatas. Like many psalms, the cantatas bring us back to the relief we experience in knowing God’s love.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Bless Our Town: Bach’s Cantatas for the 10th Sunday after Trinity

My journey through Bach’s sacred cantatas continues. This week I’m listening to CD 36 of this set, with a CD photo of a boy from Afghanistan.

Sunday is the Tenth Sunday after Trinity. People in St. Louis have been pulling together this week to help out in Ferguson, MO, the city in St Louis County that has been through a lot since the Aug 9th shooting by a white officer of an unarmed black teenager. Local news reports are dominated by events and stories there, and pastors of our area (and other leaders) have been calling people to help in different ways. This coming Sunday, the prayers and help will certainly continue.

The first cantata for this coming Sunday is “Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz” (BWV 46, “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow”). You might say, this cantata is about a community in crisis. The text concerns the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which, according to conductor John Eliot Gardiner in the CD notes, might have reminded some of Bach’s families of the destruction of so many German towns during the Thirty Years War. We should not say that God’s wrath causes the destruction of communities, as the scriptures attribute Jerusalem’s troubles to God’s judgment. But the cantata skillfully moves among images (both textual and musical) of God’s anger and God’s mercy, within the context of Jerusalem. The listener is left hanging a bit at the end, holding to the hope of God’s grace.

The second cantata is “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, “Take from us, Lord, Thou faithful God”), has the same gospel lesson, Christ’s tears over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-48), and the same theme of God’s anger and mercy. Using two Luther hymns, the cantata is similarly disturbing. Gardiner writes, “Clearly, the wages of sin, the overwhelming power of retribution visited upon those tempted to stray from the Lord’s path, prompted Bach to subject his first listeners to a twin-barrelled doctrinal salvo and to compose what Robert Levin described to me as ‘the most crushing work of Bach’s career’.” These words are fearful but also hopeful:

Take from us, Lord, Thou faithful God,
the grave punishment and great distress
that we with countless sins
have truly merited.
Protect us from war and famine,
contagion, fire and grievous pain…

Lead us with Thy right hand
and bless our town and our country;
give us always Thy holy Word,
protect us from Satan’s guile and murder;
grant us one single, blessèd hour,
that we may forever be with Thee.

The third cantata is “Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!” (BWV, 102, “Lord, are not Thine eyes upon the truth!”). Gardiner goes into detail about how the music depicts the fearful text.

In waiting danger lurks;
is it your wish to lose time?
The God, who was once so merciful,
can lead you with ease to His seat of judgment.

Today you live, repent today;
before the morning dawns, all may change.
He who today is healthy, ruddy-faced, thriving,
will tomorrow be sick, or even dead.

This week, I’ve followed the local news and tried to do my small part. As the week moved toward the weekend, I listened to these cantatas and considered Bach’s themes. How does the righteous Lord hold us accountable for sin, in this case the racism so imbedded in our hearts and in our economic and social structures? How do we see God’s anger and grace at work in a social crisis?

Spiritual repentance, arising from a fresh sense of God’s righteousness, has many social implications, including a greater appreciation of the social and economic dangers into which people fall, and from which people die. Some mornings we do, indeed, awake to hear what has changed overnight, to learn from the dawn news who has suffered and died. But we also learn of people who had put themselves in harm’s way in order to be at God’s right hand, sharing God’s love.

We continue to pray for this local situation and other tragic situations in the news.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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What Care I for the World: Bach’s Cantatas for the 9th Sunday after Trinity

Sunday is the Ninth Sunday after Trinity. Fourteen more weeks of cantatas, after this week. The news this week is dominated by the death of Robin Williams, a little less so by the death of Lauren Bacall, and by awful Middle Eastern news, as well as racial and social tensions here in St. Louis. “The world resembles smoke and shadow,” is a line from the first of this week’s cantatas, and the streets of some of our neighborhoods are filled with the smoke of tear gas. We pray for God’s help for our struggles and sadness.

BWV 92 is titled “Was frag ich nach der Welt” (“What care I for the world”). The text contrasts the transitoriness of the world, both of its treasures and sorrow, with the permanence of Christ who is our only reason for rejoicing. The themes remind me both of Isaiah 40:6-8 and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The world is filled with pride and wonderful things, but with hardly a warning we could die. All the more reason to cling to Christ and his promises. So the cantata with a somber theme begins with a spritely flute and continues with numerous happy moments—happiness in Christ.

BWV 168 is “Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort” (“Give an account of thyself. Thundrous words”). The theme is simlar to 92 but while that cantata serves as a pensive reminder, 168 is more urgent and penitential: the time to get right with God, over against the world’s transitory pleasures and worries, is now!

Burst the bonds of Mammon, O heart,
hands, scatter good abroad!
Make soft my death-bed,
build for me a solid house,
that will last in heaven forever,
when all earth’s goods are scattered.

BWV 105 is “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht” (“Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord”). Here, too, the fears of the believer, mired in the sin of the world, are comforted by the promise of Christ’s redemption.

Fortunate though is he who knows his guarantor,
who redeems all his debts.
Thus will the handwriting of ordinances be blotted out,
if Jesus sprinkles it with His blood.
He Himself then nails it to the cross.
He will, at your death knell,
Himself hand to His father
the record of your goods, body and life,
and though your body be carried to the grave
and be covered with sand and dust,
your Saviour will open for you the everlasting mansions.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that Bach really did live this teaching. In his early career he had risen in his field and gained salary increases, but when he moved from “his court position in Cöthen to a civic appointment in cosmopolitan Leipzig,” his salary would drop. This might be a problem, since his family was growing, and the cost of living in Leipzig was higher. Essentially, he saw the Leipzig position as a closer one to his sense of calling. As it turned out, his work in Leipzig included long additional hours, and some of his extra work was unremunerated. Plus, persons in authority who could have helped him obstructed him, instead. These things, and the extravagant wealth of some of the Leipzig congregational members, makes the themes of these cantatas rather personal.

Fortunately, Bach had excellent financial sense, gained by being orphaned at a young age, and he found other ways to assist his income. Gardiner traces these interesting biographical details. He writes, Bach “was aware that by staying in Cöthen he could have had a more comfortable lifestyle and a larger income with which to make provision for his family after his death. But he also knew that, ultimately, true inheritance lay elsewhere, as is expressed in the final chorale of Cantata 94: ‘Die Güter müssen fort, und alle Lust verfällt; bleibt Jesus nur bei mir: Was frag ich nach der Welt!’ (‘Its goods must go, and all pleasures perish; if but Jesus stays with me: what care I for the world!’).”

(As stated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

I found the Monteverdi Choir’s website, which gives the list of each cantata by BWV number, on the particular Sundays and feast days: http://www.monteverdi.co.uk/shop/albums/cantatas/complete-set

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When Our Enemies Rage: Bach’s Cantatas for the 8th Sunday after Trinity

This coming weekend, we worship on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity. If you want to listen to Bach’s cantatas for that Sunday, they are: “Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält” (BWV 178, “If God the Lord is not on our side”), “Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz” (BWV 136, “Search me, O God, and know my heart”), and “Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist” (BWV 45, “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good”). The cover photo is from Jodhpur, India.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner calls BWV 178 an “astonishing cantata” that is demanding to perform. With the theme of Christ’s warnings against hypocrisy (from the scripture lesson, Matthew 7:15-23), some of the cantata brings to mind a storm, difficult to perform and chastening to listen to (although, to my ears, also lively and uplifting). The opening section is mostly a “continuous stream of semiquavers trafficking to and fro from instrument to instrument and voice to voice.” The scheming of evil people, including those who call themselves Christian, contrasts with the perseverence of the faithful and especially the reliability of God’s protection.

If God the Lord is not on our side
when our enemies rage against us,
and if He does not support our cause
up there in Heaven on high,
if He is not Israel’s protector,
thwarting the enemy’s cunning,
then all is lost for us.

As always, we need to persevere and trust in the Lord. Our reason tells us one thing, but we need to tell our reason to “be quiet” (that word “Schweig” is repeated several times in the next to last number) and have faith that God will vindicate us.

The themes of BWV 136 are similar, though the overall tone is less tempestuous. The faithful of God seek to be good fruit but they just thrive within “thrones of sin” and “thistles of iniquity”. But hypocrites and all their schemes and outcomes will face the judgment.

Though we be stained by the sins
that Adam’s fall has brought on us,
if we have found refuge in Jesus’ wounds,
that merciful stream of blood,
we shall be purified anew…

Thy blood, that noble sap,
has such force and strength
that even the merest drop can purify
all the world, yea, even set it free
from the devil’s jaws.

In BWV 45, too, the faithful know what is God—thus the title from Micah—and the hypocrites and false prophets will get their reward. Bach musically contrasts the destiny of the faithful with those who cause trouble.

Whosoever acknowledges God
from the very depths of his heart,
God will acknowledge also.
For he shall burn forever
who merely with his mouth
calls Him Lord.

In our time (and surely in any time) the idea that “God is on our side” can be a scary slogan justifying all kinds of terrible things. But if we affirm that God sides with us against all the things that could hypothetically separate us from God (Romans 8:37-39), then the saying is comforting. Though forces of evil are strong (often hiding in misguided zeal to please God), God is stronger still.

These cantatas have hypocrisy as a theme. I hesitate to judge people as “hypocrites,” and I especially hesitate to wish upon anyone hell fire! Many of us are inconsistent, exasperatingly so, because we’re still growing. Yet we all know people who are consistently unreliable, acting differently depending on why they’re with, and acting destructively when they do. Being lied about and/or misrepresented behind your back is particularly painful. (Famously, the Greek word hypocrisis means “play-acting”.) I’d rather hope for such people what we informally call “karma,” something that will figurative knock them in the head and help them become better people.

But instead of karma, perhaps we should be talking about the healing blood of Jesus, another theme in this week’s cantatas. It seems a theologically old-fashioned concept, biblical but different from contemporary efforts to conceptualize a non-violent Atonement. Still, instead of wishing karma upon our enemies, we could wish for a dynamic work of God to wake them up and (as my mom would’ve said) straighten them out. Think of people who oppose you and wish you ill, and if you can, claim for them Christ’s healing power. The triune Lord loves even the most awful and two-faced among us.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Fret Not, O Soul: Bach’s Cantatas for the 7th Sunday after Trinity

This weekend’s celebration is the Seventh Sunday after Trinity. Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday: “Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht” (BWV 186, “Fret not, O soul”), “Was willst du dich betrüben” (BWV 107), “Why are you distressed [O my dear soul]?”), and “Es wartet alles auf dich” (BWV 187, “These wait all upon Thee”). The cover phone (disc 33 in the set) is of a woman from Gao, Mali.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that a criticism of Christianity of Bach’s time was the humble, suffering aspect of Christ, compared to a more pallitable vision of a heavenly, powerful Christ. The “fretting” of the title has to do with anxiety about God’s strength to save and help us, if “God’s true gleaming image, is concealed in a vassal’s form.” The two-part cantata is filled with assurances of God’s mercy and understanding: the weakness and poverty suffered by Christ is by no means an indication that Christ is any less merciful and available. If we lose heart amid our own suffering, we become like the Israelites who became consumed with anxiety and angry when they were in the Wilderness.

In 107, Gardiner comments that Bach uses all seven stanzas of a Johann Heerman chorale and somehow manages not to be repetitive and rigid in his music as he fits the structured hymn lines into beautiful music. The theme is similar to 186: we must not fret and have fear, because God forsakes no one and is stronger than all of Satan’s rage. Gardiner describes all the interesting things Bach does musically before concluding with an assuring chorus.

Grant, O Lord, that all my living days
I may sincerely 
increase Thine honor
and give Thee praise and thanks!
O Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
Thou, who with purest mercy
dost avert want and harm,
be praised for evermore!

BWV 186 combines the scriptures of Psalm 104 and the story of the feeding of the thousands by Jesus. As God provides for creation, God certainly provides for us as well. We may worry about our lives, but God knows what we need. As the soprano sings in a recitative:

If I but cling to Him with childlike trust
and gratefully accept what He apportions me,
then never shall I be bereft of help,
no matter what He may have in store for me.
All grieving is in vain, it avails the despondent heart
nothing to worry about its needs;
God has taken upon Himself these cares,
and so I know that He has set aside my portion for me.

Serendipity: I had just written in Tuesday’s post about my experiences of fretfulness concerning God’s help, experiences that are always followed by some amazing blessing from God that is not only a gift for that time but also causes other things to fall into place. This has happened several times in my life. I’m glad that God puts up with me—and all of us. The words of that soprano recitative are so true.

We can also cling to him with “weak, faltering steps,” as the texts reads in an upcoming cantata (“Jesu, der du meine Seele,” BWV 78). But then we still struggle with worry and care, which help nothing.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Beloved Inner Joy: Bach’s Cantatas for the 6th Sunday after Trinity

Onward to Bach’s cantatas for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, this coming Sunday. After this weekend, there are just 17 weeks in the liturgical year. Advent will begin before we know it!

There are two surviving cantatas for this Sixth Sunday: “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (BWV 9, “Salvation has come to us”), and “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (BWV 170, “Contented rest, beloved inner joy”). Included on the CD (#32) is a motet attributed to Bach, “Der Gerechte kommt um” (“The righteous perish”). The photo is of an older woman in Llasa, Tibet.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that, in BWV 9, Bach and his text provide “a narrative thread between reflections on the Law, man’s puny attempts to give up the ‘bad habit’ of sin (‘der Sünden Unart zu verlassen’) (No.2), his need for salvation and justification by faith (No.4), and the power of the Gospel to strengthen that faith, and finally his reliance on God to determine the hour of his death (No.6).” All the recitatives are sung by the bass, in order to provide continuity to this narrative thread. Gardiner describes in some detail how Bach takes serious and somewhat abstract theological subjects and writes in a way that is comforting to the listening and even “fun-loving” in his musical inventiveness.

For BWV 170, “Bach is searching for ways to insist on spiritual peace as the goal of life, and for patterns that will allow him to make passing references to sin and physical frailty.” The mood of the cantata, to me, is peaceful but pensive until the cheerful alto aria at the end. The text by Georg Christian Lehms uses the two lessons, Matt. 5:20-27 and Romn. 6:3-11, to depict the sinful, difficult world and the protection of Christ. Christ’s love, in turn, provides peace and joy and (a theme in both cantatas) a longing for Heaven’s rest. The thought of Heaven, in fact, gives us peace as we struggle through sin and difficulty.

I am dismayed to live further,
thus accept me, Jesus!
I cower before all sins,
let me find that dwelling place
where I myself am at peace.

The narrative thread of the first cantata, following our ordo salutis, the pattern of our salvation, may be abstract, but it is also the reality of our lives. The triune God’s work on our behalf is the reality on which we place our trust and have confidence in our destiny. But we don’t always feel deeply that reality; we’re too weak, distracted, forgetful, sunk into our everyday pressures and regrets. How wonderful that Bach used his abilities to place that salvation-drama into music, to help people rely upon and trust the Lord.

This summer I had a health scare, which I’ll write about later. It was not an illness, it was one symptom that required a diagnostic test. But that meant a period of tremendous anxiety as I awaited test results. Now, with that worrisome time just past, I listened to BWV 170 with new interest.

I am confident in my salvation, which means that I’m humble, happy, and relieved in God’s vast love and mercy. I really do believe that, if I was facing certain and imminent death, I would be joyful to be soon with the Lord. But I’m also happy in my life which, right now, I’ve no desire to leave. So Bach’s text, with its Weltschmertz and sorrow about sin, seems so different from the happiness and gratitude I feel about my life, loved ones, work, and daily pleasures.

As I say, I’ll write more about this later. But I’m thinking about how we can look forward to Christ’s promised rest while also loving the lives that we have. Actually, for me, music creates a kind of arc between this life and the life to come. Music helps me experience that “beloved inner joy” of the title. Bach did his work too well: wanting us to feel confident in God’s salvation, he wrote music that makes me want to stick around this life as long as possible.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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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.)

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* 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.”

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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.

Hypocrisy 
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.)

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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.

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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.
Alleluia!

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.

Note:

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 
on pastures
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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