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“I Am Content”: Bach’s Septuagesima Cantatas

Continuing my “journey” through J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. this weekend I’m listening to CD 9 in this 56-CD set of Bach’s sacred cantatas, having begun with the first Sunday of Advent. I’m a fourth of the way through the set!

CD 9 contains the cantatas for Septuagesima Sunday, which this year is February 16. I did some research about these next three Sundays, which are the Sundays immediately preceding Lent. They are Septuagesima Sunday (the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday), Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday), and Quinquasima (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). The words mean 70th, 60th, and 50th respectively, but technically only Quinquagesima is mathematically correct, truly the 50th day from Easter, while the other two are 57 and 64 days from Easter. Since 1970, the Roman Catholic Church has not included these Sundays on the liturgical calendar. Nor do most provinces of the Anglican church, except those provinces that still use the 1662 and 1928 prayer books.

The 9th century liturgist Amalarius of Metz wrote that Septuagesima can mystically represent the 70-year Babylonian Captivity. In my other blog writing, here, I’ve thought about the importance of the 6th century BCE Exile, a truly key event in the entire biblical history and one that still shapes our religious imagination whether we realize it or not. This year I’m inspired to meditate more about the meaning of the Exile, and perhaps introduce an additional spiritual discipline of some sort, as we approach Easter from this earlier vantage point.

Bach wrote cantatas for all three of these Sundays. Bach’s cantatas for Septuagesima are “Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin” (BWV 144, “Take that thine is, and go thy way”), “Ich bin vergnuegt mit meinem Gluecke” (BWV 84, “I am content with my good fortune”), and “Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn (BWV 92, “I have surrendered to God’s heart and mind”). The sleeve photograph (all of which are of international people, symbolizing the universal message of Bach’s music) is of a smiling girl from Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the text for this Sunday is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew’s gospel. (I wrote more about this parable here.) The librettist to cantata 144 takes this message to heart and urges us to be satisfied with the things of our lives. Bach’s music also takes it to heart: in the opening, for instance (writes Gardiner), Bach repeats several times the figure “gehe him” (“go thy way!”), urging the believer to “take whatever life has to offer on the chin.”

I love Gardiner’s exposition of BWV 84, where he calls attention to Bach’s career-long concern for being paid according to the current rate for his work. At Leibzig, though, he was often torn between doing his work for the glory of God, “and the need to put up with ‘almost continual vexation, envy and persecution’.” It’s nice to know that Bach, too, struggled with everyday feelings of resentment—-and with the need to be paid what he was worth. But meanwhile, the text of the cantata is the same as 144: be content with what you have.

Yet this cantata (writes Gardiner) isn’t the uniform placidity of contentment but is “dynamic and fluctuating” with moods “wistful, resigned, elegiac even” to “sheer high spirits.” I love the peppy middle movement, for instance. In the text, the believer finally arrives at the place where “I live meanwhile content in Thee/and die, all sorrow laid aside.”

BWV 92 is a nine-movement chorale not specifically assigned to the biblical readings but has the same theme of surrender to God.

It is only because He wishes to test me
to see whether I remember Jonah,
whether, like Peter, I shall remember him…
See, see how all things snap, break, fall
that are not held by God’s own mighty arm…
Let Satan rage, rave and storm,
our mighty God will render us invincible…
I shall remain true to my Shepherd
Though He fill my cup of pain
For after weeping,
the sun of Jesus will shine again.

A few things strike me this week as I listen to this music and think about these words. The fact that Bach struggled to be paid fairly for his hard and difficult work shows us that humble contentment needs to be connected to the Serendity Prayer. Some things in life we can change, some we cannot, but we seek the wisdom that helps us discern.

On the other hand, many of us have plenty (in terms of money and possessions) but still we’re not content; we’d like just a little more and we’d feel more secure. Then we have a little more, and we’re still not secure-feeling…. and so on. This, too, is a matter of growing in wisdom and discernment. Seeking trust, gratitude, and contentment for our hearts helps us have perspective upon our lives and resources.

Many things in life cannot be changed: loss, chronic illness, and different kinds of trouble. In these cases, learning resilience and courage goes hand in hand with faith in God. Satan may rage, but Satan is not all-powerful. In fact, Satan’s final defeat is already guaranteed. Knowing this means holding to Christ whose light shines amid our struggles.

English translation of the cantata texts by Richard Stokes

As Rain Waters the Earth: Bach’s Sexagesima Cantatas

Continuing my journey through Bach’s sacred cantatas…. As I wrote last week, Sexagesima Sunday is the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or (approximately) the sixtieth day before Easter. This year it’s February 23rd. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.

Before a busy weekend, I spent some quiet time yesterday with this Sunday’s three cantatas: “Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel faellt (BWV 18: “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven”), “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (BWV 181, “Frivolous fibbertigibbets”), and “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” (BWV 126, “Uphold us, Lord in Thy Word”). This is CD 10 of the 56-CD set. The sleeve photo is of a wide-eyed little girl in Mumbai, India.

Gardiner comments that these three cantatas are among “Bach’s most original and startlingly different pre-Lenten cantatas,” “characterised by his vivid pictorial imagination, an arresting sense of drama, and by music of freshness and power.” All three are focused upon “the overwhelming power of the Word… in the process of faith,” via the parable of the sower. The first, BWV 18, “has unusual orchestration like four violas and basso continuo, bringing a “dark-hued sonority” that for Gardiner represents “the warm topsoil, fertile and well irrigated, forming an ideal seed-bed in which God’s Word may germinate and prosper.”

For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth… so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth….
My soul’s true treasure is God’s Word
all other treasures are mere snares…

BWV 181 also takes the parable as a text. The word Flattergeister means the fickle and shallow people in which the Word does not germinate but is stolen by birds. And Bach orchestrates this aspect of the parable with staccato tempoes and trills, like flighty birds. Some measures are so jumpy, I become edgy listening to them! Maybe that’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t be the kinds of folk to whom Jesus refers in this parable.

BWV 126 is not connected to this parable but does emphasize the power of God’s Word. It’s a robust and dramatic cantata that harken to the threat of the Turks against Catholic Christendum in Luther’s day. Gardiner comments that this threat was long abated by Bach’s time, but the strength of God’s blessings amid perilous times is a timeless subject.

Man’s favour and might shall be of little avail
if Thou wilt not protect Thy wretched flock,
God, Holy Ghost, dear comforter…
Make Thy people to be of one accord on earth,
that we, members of Christ’s body,
may be one in faith and united in life.
Stand by us in our extremity!

I thought about the parable of the sower as I listened to the music. A conscientious and prayerful believer hopes very deeply to be “good soil” for God’s word. The human heart has a tremendous capacity for self-delusion; the “frivolous fibbertigibbets” probably think they’re the best Christians ever. But a longing to be “good soil” is a sign that the Spirit is working in your life.

But a conscientious believer can feel discouraged if his or her witnessing and faithful behavior doesn’t seem to be successful. However, the parable teaches that sewing seed IS the act of faithfulness. Whether the seed thrives is really up to the other people: they’re the good or poor soil and they need to figure out (with God’s help) which one they are.

Some of the previous cantatas have had to do with trust and faith amid life’s difficulties. That theme is present here, too: the only treasure worth having is God, and all else is ephemeral and unreliable. If we want to be “good soil” and faithful sowers, how can we use trouble to grow spiritually? (To be crude about it: remember that old saying “s*** happens.” How can that “s***” be turned with the soil that is our lives and be rich for God’s word?) Trouble makes a lot of us bitter, grumpy and fearful of the future—but that makes for hard, rocky soil. Bach’s cantatas show some ways toward faith, richness and depth.

English translations of Bach’s librettos are by Richard Stokes

Journey to Jerusalem: Bach’s Quinquagesima Cantatas

My “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas continues…. Quinquagesima is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or the fiftieth day (hence the name) before Easter. This year, the Sunday is March 2. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.

CD 11 of this set of Bach’s sacred cantatas contain four for this Sunday. As conductor Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach seems to have wanted his church (St. Thomas in Leipzig) to have good music before entering the solemn Lenten season.

(The music on CD 12 of this set will be Palm Sunday, so this year-long feature of my blog will be back on April 13. That’s good, because I’ve a ton of grading to accomplish in March!)

These Quinquagesima cantatas are: “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe” (BWV 22, “Jesus took unto Him the twelve”), “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” (BWV 23, “Thou very God and David’s Son”), “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” (BWV 127, “Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God”), and “Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem” (BWV 159, “Behold! We go up to Jerusalem”). The sleeve photo is of a woman from Gao, Mali.

Gardiner points out that in the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Luke 18:31-43, Jesus predicts his passion to the disciples and also restores a blind man’s sight. Gardiner discusses Bach’s use dance rhythms and “a skittish fugal chorus to point up the disciples’ incomprehension.” He notes that Bach’s Leipzig audience was that way themselves: neither dissatisfied nor very appreciative or enthused about Bach’s 26-year efforts on their behalf. The cantata does end with comprehension, however:

My Jesus, draw me on, and I shall come,
for flesh and blood cannot comprehend at all,
like Thy disciples, the words Thou didst utter.

This cantata and BWV 23 were written to precede and follow the sermon, with 23 to be performed during the Eucharist. They are also his “audition” pieces when he applied for the cantor post at St. Thomas. More solemn than 22, this “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” “emphasises the way in which Jesus actively sought out the sick and handicapped—and therefore social outcasts—and healed them.” An opening duet that pleads to Christ for compassion is followed by an aria in which the oboe plays the Lutheran Agnus Dei, which in turn is echoed in the setting of Psalm 145: “The eyes of all, O Lord, Theou almighty God, wait upon Thee…” In the final chorale, the singers beseech the Lamb of God, “have mercy on us!’

BWV 127 is (according to Gardiner) “arresting in its musical presentation of the dualism of God and man and the relationship of the invidiual believer to Christ’s cross and Passion.” Among other things, the cantata leads the believer (aware of death’s inevitability) along the path of Christ’s crucification. Anyone having the notes for this cantata (which is Volume 21 of the original release) can follow Gardiner’s several indications of the theological and artistic complexity of 127; it’s all interesting to me, but too much material to quote here. Cantata 159 continues the believer’s journey with Christ; for instance, Bach has a “walking” bass line in the first number, and overall communicates the pathos and pain of the journey to the cross, similarly to Bach’s two passions.

Ah, do not go! 
The cross is already prepared for Thee,
where Thou must suffer bloody death…
But if Thou wert to remain behind,
I myself would not have to journey to Jerusalem,
ah! but regrettably to hell.

As we imagine the scripture lesson, most of us would probably visualize ourselves as the sinners and the sick, in need of Christ’s outreach. I did so, as I thought of all my weaknesses and sins (grudge-holding, wavering faith, and the like), my hope that Christ will have pity on me. Then I thought: that’s a little disingenuous, because in my position in life I’m much more like the comfortable upper-class and the religious authorities of Jesus’ time—people he by no means snubbed, but he was definitely critical of us. Nevertheless, we too need Christ’s mercy and, in our comfortableness, we need to seek it all the more.

Bach was no outcast, either. As I quoted in one of my recent posts, Gardiner points out that Bach struggled to be paid what he was worth and to gain professional respectability, as he meanwhile poured out musical glories of religious imagination that were, often enough, penitential and hopeful. So many of Bach’s cantatas thus far have focused upon Christ’s work—the salvation which is the only lasting treasure amid life’s sorrows and struggles.

Christ’s journey toward Jerusalem will be a theme of upcoming Lent. But I’m still connecting that journey with something I talked about two weeks ago: the approximately 70-day period between Septuagesima Sunday and Easter can symbolically stand for the 70 years of the exile of the “Babylonian captivity.”

A World Council of Churches essay by Peter-Ben Smit (found here) makes several interesting insights about the Exile.

* The entire Bible is, in important ways, about being in exile and longing to be redeemed from exile. The Bible begins with the exile from Eden, of course.

* Smit notes that Jesus’ death and resurrection happens within the framework of Passover, which of course points back to Egyptian slavery and that earlier “exile.”

* The liturgical traditions of the church have been language of exile, too: our desire for heaven (the home we long for, analogous to the way the Judahite exiles longed to return to the Land) as we struggle in the world.

* Smit also notes that exile functions in contemporary theology in postmodernism (the uncertainty and absence of God, theologies of liberation (the struggle of oppressed people for freedom), and peace churches (the theology of whole reliance upon God rather than violent means: the error of Israel and Judah in relying upon foreign powers). But he argues that ecumenism itself echoes exile-language within theological in discussions of the church and the world (the church as an eschatological community in “exile” in the world), hospitality (caring for others who are in exile in different ways), healing broken relationships, being “wounded healers” of others, and so on.

I don’t want to “bracket” the Jewish experience of God’s redemption and thoughtlessly appropriate it only in Christian terms. But it’s instructive to link the powerful Jewish experiences of Passover and Restoration to the work of Christ in Christian experience. Think about Lent’s 40 days as fitting within a 70-day envisioning of the ways we are in “exile.” Think about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem not only as a trip for his little group of students, but also the way Jesus’ work connects to God’s Passover salvation, God’s post-exilic Restoration promised by the prophets, and the way those prophetic teachings speak both to post-exilic Restoration and to the person and work of Christ.

All English translations are by Richard Stokes.

Beautiful the Morning Star: Bach’s Cantatas for Annunciation and Oculi Sunday

Last fall I purchased the box set of all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. (They’re available at this link.) Beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, I’ve been listening to these cantatas on the appropriate days, as a year-long “spiritual journey.”

Over three weeks ago, when I listened to CD 11 for the last Sunday before Lent, I looked at CD 12, saw “Palm Sunday,” and thought the next installment of my listening would be in April. But today I realized that the same disc contained a cantata for the Third Sunday of Lent (Oculi Sunday), which was this past Sunday, and also two cantatas for the Feast of the Annunciation (yesterday, March 25), although the Annunciation cantatas are also Palm Sunday pieces. (Oculi Sunday is so named because the first Latin word of the day’s introit from Psalm 24:15 is oculi, or “eyes”.)

Just a little late, I listened to Disc 12 on this day after Annunciation. The two cantatas for that day are “Himmelskönig sei willkommen” (BWV 182, “King of Heaven, Thou art welcome”) and “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (BWV 1, “How beautifully gleams the morning star”). The cantata for this past Sunday is “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” (BWV 54, “Stand firm against all sinning”). The cover photo (always international people, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a turbaned man in Allahabad, India.

The next cantatas in the set are for Easter Sunday, so I’ll be back with Bach in a few weeks.

In the notes, Gardiner writes that in 1714, when BWV 182 premiered, Palm Sunday coincided with Annunciation. The cantata opens with a pretty overture for violin and recorder with pizzicato accompaniment, perhaps invoking Jesus’ donkey ride, while the songs invoke the crowd’s happy greeting of Christ—and our own greeting of our Savior who, we know, will shortly suffer on our behalf.

Let us thus enter joyful Salem,
attend the King in love and sorrow.
He leads the way
and prepares the path.

But Mary’s sorrow is also suggested in the sad alto solo, accompanied by a recorder, beseeching us to give ourselves to Christ.

“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” is also a cantata for a year (1725) in which Annunciation and Palm Sunday coincided. Gardiner calls this a “jubliant spring-time cantata… opulent, regal and ‘eastern’, redolent of te Ephipany cantata BWV 65. He writes that the whole cantata is filled with dance rhythms and good spirits as the son of Mary and Son of God is “a joyous ray that has come to me from God… a perfect treasure, the Saviour’s Body and Blood… destined for us since eternity…”

BWV 54 for Oculi Sunday reminds us from the outset to “Stand firm against all sinning, or its poison will possess you.. Those who commit sin are of the devil, for he has invented sin, but if one resists his vile shackles with true devotion, sin will straightaway take flight.” Gardiner writes that Bach opens the first aria in a startling way “with a harsh dissonance, a dominant seventh chord over a tonic pedal point” which may have meant to jar listeners to do as the title says. In contrast to the cheerful “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” the cantata is appropriate for its Lenten location as an urgent reminder to renounce the devil’s ways.

Annunciation is a fixed rather than moveable feast and will, most years, fall within the Lenten season. It is interesting that Bach twice had the chance to write for both Palm Sunday and Annunciation as the same day. My own Lent has been so busy with school responsibilities that I’ve sagged a bit on devotional reading and the like. So I felt happy I could return to the Bach cantatas sooner than I’d anticipated—to get a gentle push back into the penitential, introspective time. I was also happy to be reminded of the joyous announcement to Mary: the Savior will be born to the favored young woman. To put it foolishly, it feels like a reminder of Christmas cheer (the promised birth of Jesus) within Lenten solemnity. (And it did snow a little yesterday….)

As each set of CD notes indicate, the English translations of Bach’s texts by Richard Stokes.

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New Year Hope: Bach’s Cantatas for New Year’s Day

Continuing my listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … this morning I listened to the Christmas Season cantatas for New Years Day (disc 2 in this 56-CD set). The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a child in Amdo, Tibet, wearing an appropriately warm-looking hat.

All these cantatas contrast the year’s ending and the new year’s start: we praise God for the protection and blessings of the past, and we trust in God’s care amid life’s uncertainties and the devil’s traps. The first cantata, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 143, “Praise the Lord, O my soul”) is (according to Gardiner, in his commentary notes) of questionable authenticity; it may be a much earlier piece of Bach’s own reused at a later date, or a student’s work composed under Bach’s direction. The piece has an aria that considers grace amid life’s troubles:

Thousandfold misfortune, terror,
sadness, fear and sudden death,
enemies littering the land,
cares and even more distress
are what other countries see—
we, instead, a year of grace.

But the believer still must trust in Jesus as “our refuge in the future, that this year may bring us good fortune.” The believer knows to remain watchful everywhere for the Lord’s guidance. The music itself, composed (as Gardiner writes) when horrors of war and death pale in comparison to the 20th century’s, inspire in us a universal longing for blessing and care amid the particular distresses of our times and places.

A more mature work (according to Gardiner) than 143, the next cantata, “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” (BWV 41, “Jesus, now be praised”) seeks the same favors from Christ: that Christ’s goodness that has kept us safe through the outgoing year may keep us protected in the new year, since “the foe both day and night lies awake to harm us.”

“Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (BWV 16, “Lord God, we give Thee praise”) is (as Gardiner puts it) ebullient and concise compared to the more expansive 41. As the previous cantata had beseeched Christ’s care in both “town and country” (Stadt und Land), this cantata request blessing for both “church and school” (Kirch und Schule), because Satan’s wickedness lies in wait there, too.

“Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm” (BWV 171, “According to thy Name, O God, so is Thy praise”) asks the believer to complete the year in praise of God, with the name of Jesus being the new year’s first word and the believer’s final word.

Probably many people wonder, as do I, what a new year will bring. Think of how differently the world looked at the beginning of 2001 than it did at year’s end. 1914 is another year of that sort. Think of years in your own experience when some event changed the character of the whole year and beyond. 1999 and 2012, when my parents died, are personal examples. I also think of a Facebook friend who lost a loved one on January 1; this friend’s year changed dramatically on the very first day.

Bach’s cantatas give us lovely experiences of hope. We are human and recognize the perils and capricious qualities of life, but we place our trust and hope in God to guide us through. For Bach and his lyricists, God is really the sole source for confidence and happiness. In today’s cantatas, Christ’s is the overarching name that begins a calendar year, ends it, begins the next…. and finally closes our lives as we are ushered into everlasting life.

English translations by Richard Stokes

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All We Have in Life: Bach’s Cantatas for Sunday After New Year and for Epiphany

Continuing my enjoyment of Bach’s cantatas on the Sunday and special days for which they were written…. It’s a snowy morning in St. Louis, with more snow to come. I’m feeling terrible because of a cold; tomorrow I’ll call our doctor and get some advice. Plows haven’t been on my street yet, so I won’t go to church, which is about two miles away. According to our local news, two people about my age or slightly older died shoveling snow and working their snow blowers. (Prayers for their families.)

This morning I’m listening to Disc 3 of the 56-CD set, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, of all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas. Today is the Sunday after New Year, and tomorrow is Epiphany, and this CD (featuring a photo of a Kabul man with frost in his hair, eyebrows and eye lashes and beard) features two cantatas for each day. Disc 4 will be cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany.

The first two, for the Sunday after New Year, are “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” (BWV 153, “Behold, dear God, how mine enemies”) and “Ach, Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 58, “Ah God, what deep affliction”). “Schau, lieber Gott” begins and continues through several anguished pleas for help. By the second choral piece, “Und ob gleich alle Teufel”, with familiar tune “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the piece lyrically turns to hope: “even though all the evils were to oppose you, there would be no question of God retreating.” Like several of the biblical psalms, the first half of the piece is all anguish and pain while the second half affirms God’s faithful care even in very difficult circumstances.

“Ach, God,” a dialogue between the soprano and bass, is a dialogue between a troubled and beleaguered soul and an assuring angel. By the end, the soul (the soprano) declares assurance in an upbeat final aria: “Be consoled, consoled, Oh hearts, to reach Thee in heaven’s paradice… the joy of that day for which Thou hast shed Thy blood outweighs all pain.”

Then the next two cantatas on this disc are those for Epiphany: “Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen” (BWV 65, “All they from Sheba shall come”), and “Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen” (BWV 123, “Dearest Emmanuel, Lord of the righteous”). As Gardiner indicates in his notes, the first cantata opens with a sense of procession, antiquity, and Near Eastern ambiance to depict the arrival, not of the Queen of Sheba, but of the Magi who brings the Christ child gifts. A theme familiar to this holiday–what gifts can we figuratively bring the Christ?—is answered: “Jesus would have your heart. Officer this, O Christian throng, to Jesus at the New Year!” Christ, in turn, gives to us more precious gifts than the Magi’s: Christ gives us the gift of himself, and with him the “wealth” of promised Heaven.

“Liebster Immanuel” has dance-like rhythms as it, at first, urges Jesus to return quickly, for Jesus is the believer’s delight and most dear gift through life’s “bitter nourishment of tears.” Gardinar comments that the bass aria “Lass, o Welt,” is one of Bach’s most lonely pieces, as the singer declares, “Leae me, O scornful world, to sadness and loneliness! Jesus…shall stay with me for all my days.” Yet, in one of Bach’s many wonderful techniques, lets a solo flute accompany the lonely singer with more assuring music, as if the flute were the singer’s consoling angel.

I’m struck by the sorrowfulness of some of the pieces. I don’t know if people in Bach’s time made “New Year’s resolutions,” but now that the new year has gotten started, people are back into the difficulties and challenges of life.

But the cantatas are psalm-like in their honesty of pain, loneliness, and people’s scorn, contrasted with the promise of God’s unfailing love, power, and eternal promises. Something I want to keep thinking about this coming year, is the theme of several cantatas so far: God in Christ is, really, all we have in life, the only permanent reality, the only sure promise. All other things, both good and bad, are ephemeral. I admit that I don’t really “feel” that promise often enough as I go about my daily life.

English translations by Richard Stokes

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Losing the Lord: Bach’s Cantatas for the First Sunday After Epiphany

I’ve spent this past week dealing with an energy-sapping head cold that kept me home and unproductive. School starts tomorrow, though.

This weekend I’m listening Bach’s cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany, which is CD 4 in the box set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. These three cantatas are: “Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren” (BWV 154, “My dearest Jesus is lost”), “Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht,” (124, “I shall not forsake my Jesus”), and “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (32, “Beloved Jesus, my desire”). The lessons for this Sunday are Romans 12:1-6 and Luke 2:41-52.

All three cantatas surround the Luke passage wherein Jesus was accidentally left behind at the temple, and his family backtracks to find him. In these cantatas, the distressed believer speaks for the family: I am a sinner, I am in distress and grief and pain, and I need to be with Jesus. But Jesus is lost! Thankfully, God does not

As Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach’s skill makes his cantatas more dramatic than operas of his time; for instance, “in the bass recitative (No. 4) Bach forms a chain of seven successive notes of the chromatic scale in the continue line to emphasize the question, ‘Will not my sore-offended breast become a wilderness and den of suffering for the cruellest loss of Jesus?’” In contrast, though, the subsequent soprano-alto duet is “constructed as a gigue with a joyful abandon… that celerates release from all things worldly.”

When I feel “meh” or lost, I tend to go to the psalms, several of which express anxiety when God seems missing. Most of these psalms proceed into thanks and praise as the psalmist recovers a sense of closeness to God. The Luke story is also a wonderful scripture when one feels spiritually lost and distressed.

Have you ever felt spiritually panicked? The Luke story (and Bach’s cantatas) reminds you of a spiritual feeling that you might also sense in the psalms: that feeling of agitated distress and disorientation at losing God, as Jesus’ family panicked when they couldn’t find him.

Jesus was not really lost, of course. God is really never far away at all. But at our own spiritual and emotional levels, we may have little or no sense of God. It might take us some time to feel close to God again. What a good reminder of the happiness that await us when we get to that place.

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Weighed by Sorrow: Bach’s Cantatas for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Continuing my “journey” through J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. On disc 5 of this set, the cantatas for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (today) are “Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?” (BWV 156, “My God, how long, ah! how long?”), “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 3, “Ah, God, what deep affliction”), and “Meine Seufzer, meine Traenen” (BWV 13, “My sighs, my tears”). The Scriptures are Romans 12:6-16 and John 2:1-11. The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a man (wearing a bright red hat) from Lhasa, Tibet.

I listened to the CD before I studied the notes, and I was taken by the overall somber quality of the cantatas after some of the joyful numbers of the previous Christmas and Epiphany pieces. Sure enough, Gardiner comments in the notes that even the sad titles of the cantatas seem out of place for the happy quality of the lessons and Epiphany season. But the texts describe journeys “from mourning to consolation.” Similarly, the Gospel text from the Cana wedding calls attention to the then-unfulfilled ministry of Jesus (“My hour has not yet come”), which connects to the not-yet-fulfilled journey of the believer, who still looks forward to faith’s fulfillment in Heaven.

In the first cantata, for instance, the believer is assured that God does not delight in sending afflictions but that God wants the joys of Heaven to become all the more precious as we struggle through difficulties. In the second cantata, Jesus is most certainly the one who helps us bear our crosses and keeps our hearts in faith through “mortal fright and torment.” The third cantata is particularly filled with references to tears, sorrow, grief, distress, and bitterness, including feelings of abandonment from God. But all the while God promises to “turn bitterness into joyful wine” and to console us with the promises of Heaven.

Gardiner notes the music devices Bach uses, like the six notes in chromatic descent that symbolize grief in BWV 3, which Bach tranforms into chromatic harmonies that represent the movement from grief to hope. In that same cantata, in the soprano-alto aria connects the cross of Christ to the believer’s troubles, resulting in joy. But in the last cantata, in the fifth movement, Bach uses the bass soloist with recorders and violin to depict our present life as bleakly as possible.

“Hope” in the sense of Christian hope is not only anticipation that something will happen but also trust that it will—and trust in the promiser. I hope that we get a nice tax refund this year, but it would be foolish to trust that we will. I’ll just have to get our taxes done and find out. Christian hope, though, is confidence that God’s promises of comfort and blessings are part of our lives now, as well as in the future. Heaven is in the future, but God has given us the divine life and the divine power today.

So we really live in two circumstances, so to speak, one temporary and one permanent. Our temporary circumstances are filled with things like distress, sorrow and uncertainty (as well as joy and accomplishment). But our permanent circumstance is the life with God which is already accomplished by Christ and is real and powerful. Looking to Christ’s complete fulfillment, however, is that which helps us stay grounded in the divine promises while other things in our lives weigh us down–or nearly crush us.

English translations of the texts by Richard Stokes.

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“One Foot in the Grave”: Bach’s Third Sunday in Epiphany Cantatas

Continuing my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas… As I began to listen to this 56-CD set that I described in earlier posts, I started with disc 52, which are the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the Christian liturgical year from the first Sunday. Now I’ve listened to discs 52-56 and then 1-5 as I follow the Sundays in order, and this weekend I’m listening to disc 6, the cantatas for the third Sunday in Epiphany (which is tomorrow, January 26). The sleeve photo is of a child at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma.

Next Sunday, February 2, is Epiphany’s fourth Sunday but this year it’s also Candlemas. So I’ll be listening to and thinking about discs 7 and 8. Bach seems to have not written a Groundhog Day cantata….

The third Sunday cantatas are “Alles nur mach Gottes Willen” (BWV 72, “All things according to God’s will), “Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir” (BWV 73, “Lord, deal with me as Thou wilt”), “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” (BWV 111, “May my God’s will always be done”), “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe” (BWV 156, “I stand with one foot in the grave”). Musically these are more generally upbeat than last Sunday’s, but the themes are still difficult. Imagine telling your choir that Sunday’s music is called “One foot in the grave.”

In the CD notes, Gardiner explains that the time period of 72 was difficult for Bach, who must have counted on God’s mercy particularly. He and his second wife, Anna Magdalena, lost three children during that 1726-1728, and 28-year-old Anna herself was ill. (Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, was only 36 when she died unexpectedly in 1720.) In this situation, Bach set to music words like, “[w]hen affliction and suffering frighten you, [your Savior] knows your distress and frees you from affliction… if [one] is filled with faith, my Jesus will do it!”

When Bach wrote 156 in 1729, the title line, “I stand with one foot in the grave” was a reminder of life’s tragic transitory quality. But the text (and the opening oboe music) affirms (as Gardiner writes) “the believer’s desire for God alone, whether in life or in death.” In the cantata, which begins with a pretty sinfonia, the believer beseeches God for rescue, but also affirms that God’s will is best, for only in God can one find solace and salvation. I love the sound of the oboe in works by Mozart, Vaughan Williams, and others, and it’s a perfect instrument to carry this message.

Gardiner notes that in 73, “Bach’s musical setting reinforces the thetorical structure and underlines the message of faith in the sovereingty of God’s will.” The soprano and tenor represent the anxiety of the believer while the chorus and the solo bass provide assurance. Trust in God’s will, and submission thereto, helps us deal with sorrow and distress, for Christ’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s rule “leads us into heaven’s kingdom” and banishes the “pangs of death, the sighs from my heart”

In contrast, 111 is from 1725, when things were happy in the Bach’s lives, although the cantata balances a happpy faith with the awareness of death at the end where the believer seeks to stay brave at life’s evils.

In my philosophy class this past week, we talked about the inevitability of death, and the fact that there are no guarantees how or when we will die, nor any assurance that a certain time or mode of death is more “fair” than others. But it will always seem so to us: it wasn’t fair that this person died when and how s/he did. No amount of coldly objective thinking about the reality of death unpredictability will convince us otherwise. (That being said, I think my father died in a good way, collapsing with an aneurysm while doing things that he loved around the house.)

Yet tombstones once carried “memento mori” epitaphs, admonishing the passer-by to be reminded of death’s inevitability and to prepare as best as one ever can. In our family cemetery in Illinois, the tombstone of a local blacksmith who died in 1855 warns, “Remember friends, as you pass by/as you are now, so once was I/as I am now, so you must be/prepare for death and follow me.”

As I think about Bach’s cantatas, I’m struck by how the texts and music struggle with those feelings of dread, distress, and grief that are part of mortal life—and how these themes are prominent here in January, still the first part of the new year, during the season of Epiphany that by its very name is about a new and hope-filled appearance of God among us.

And that consolation and promise amid the dread and reality of mortality is of course one of the most precious aspects of the Gospel message. Sometimes we preachers are careful to say (following John’s gospel and other New Testament passages) that God’s eternal life begins now and not just at death. We don’t want people to become too “pie in the sky” in their faith. On the other hand, when a person is facing death (or when a person simply wants to accept death’s inevitability prior to it becoming an issue), the power and grace of Christ becomes even more clearly the foundation of everything, and the only thing one can count on. All of these cantatas “preach” that very message.

English translations by Richard Stokes.

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Calming Storms: Bach’s Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Cantatas

Over this weekend I’ll be listening to two discs in the set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. The theme of Disc 7 is Bach’s cantatas for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany (Feb. 2 this year): “Ach wie fluechtig, ach wie nichtig” (BWV 26), “Ah how fleeting, ah how trifling”), “Jesus schlaeft, was soll ich hoffen?” (BWV 81, “Jesus sleeps, what hope is there for me?”), “Waer Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” (BWV 14, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side”), Jesu, meine Freud” (BWV 227, “Jesus, my joy”). Actually the first two are Bach’s only cantatas written specifically for this Sunday, while the others two fill out the disc well with common themes. The photo—all the cover photos depict people around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music—is of a young person of Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

As the title indicates, 26 concerns the shortness of life and all its hopes. As I wrote last week, Bach had tragedy in his life: the death of his first wife and several children. I’ve read elsewhere that his parents died when he was young. For this theme of life’s shortness, Gardiner indicates that Bach’s writing “create a mood of phantasmal vapour” and also of a mountain river (symbolizing life and its hopes) rushing away. The words express sorrow at all the supposed pleasures, accomplishments and splendor of life. “All things, all things that we see shall fall at last and period. Who fears God shall live forever.”

BWV 81 is concern with another “aquatic” image, that of Jesus calming the storm. Gardiner notes that Bach uses recorders with the strings to depict the fear of God’s abandonment (in the image of Christ sleeping while the disciples are fearful). Gardiner comments that the dramatic quality of this cantata (with the long silence of Jesus, the disciples’ fear, the storm itself) gives a sense of what a Bach opera might have been like. “Though lightning cracks and flashes, though sin and Hell strike terror, Jesus will protect me.”

Bach does not repeat the water imagery for BWV 14, but the text does grapple with life’s (and Satan’s) threats to the community of believers, and the assurance of God’s protection and care. BWV 227, an eleven-movement motet included with this Sunday’s cantatas, includes those images—“Beneath Thy shield I am protected from the raging storms of all my enemies”—while more geneally affirming the sweetness and protection of God amid life’s storrow, pleasures, and honors.

How well do we look to Christ amid the metaphorical and actual storms of life? Over the years I’ve tried to sustain my faith (persistently if not consistently) through good times so that I’m less distressed when trouble comes. (As an aside, I’m a terrible worrier, but trouble that has come usually was not what I worried about but something unexpected.)

Fortunately, Christ does not wait until he is suitably impressed with the quality of our faith before he steps up to help us. The disciples were fearful and fussy amid the storm (as I would have been), and although Christ sighed at their fearfulness, he calmed both the storm and their anxieties. For some of us, that is two great miracles in one!

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“It Is Enough”: Bach’s Candlemas Cantatas

No Bach cantatas for Groundhog Day…. but these cantatas (and the ones in yesterday’s post) are for February 2 commemorations.

This year, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany also falls on Candlemas (which in turns falls this year on a Sunday). Candlemas is also called the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or the Meeting of the Lord. It is the fortieth day following Christmas, a good halfway point between Christmas and the spring equinox. In the Gospel lesson for the day, Luke 2:22-40, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete Mary’s purification and to perform pidyon haben, “the redemption of the first born” (Exodus 13:12-15, Leviticus 12). Because Simeon calls Jesus a light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), the festival became known as “candle mass.”

The next Bach cantatas will be for the Third Sunday Before Lent (Septuagesima), which is February 16 this year.

Bach’s cantatas for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (disc 8 in this set) are “Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde” (BWV 83, “Joyous time of the new order”), “Ich habe genung” (BWV 82, “It is enough”), “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin” (BWV 125, “In peace and joy I now depart”), and “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” (BWV 200, “I shall acknowldge His name”), although only one movement of this cantata survives. The cover photo is a boy from Afghanistan.

Gardiner notes that “Erfreute Zeit” “contasts the old order of the law and the new order in Christ,” with Bach using the solo violin to emphasize the joy of the wors erfreute” and “freudig” (“joyous” and “joyful”). The second movement, symbolizing the “old order” uses “archaic musical forms… for the Nunc dimitiis,” while the upbeat tenor and a return of the solo violin regains the sense of joy of Christ.

BWV 125 returns us to the Nunc dimittis theme: the servant of God who is ready to leave this life because the waited-for salvation has come. By the second aria, Christ’s light reenters the formerly somber music and the believer looks forward to the prospect of being with Christ, “O unexhausted store of kindness, that has been revealed to us mortals.” The surviving movement of BWV 200 (such a pretty and assuring 4-minute piece, I wish there were more) also uses the theme of Luke 2:29. “I shall acknowledge His name, he is the Lord, He is the Christ… No death robs me of my trust: the Lord is the Light of my life.”

“Ich habe genug” is a well-known cantata, which I’ve also heard with Hans Hotter and with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the bass soloists. It is an emotional cantata but “Bach’s interpretation (writes Gardiner) contains no trace of spiritual sentimentalism, or glib triumphalism… Might the lullaby of the third movement represent a father watching helplessly as his daughter falls into death’s sleep, and the joyful dance of the final movement anticipate the healing romp of familial reunion in eternity?” The cantata premiered six months after the death one of the Bach’s children. “It is enough… that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”

This is a day for honoring Mary. I found a website (http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/calendar/day.cfm?date=2013-02-02) that quotes Pope John Paul II: “Simeon’s words seem like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow.” The site author goes on to say: “The archangel’s announcement was a fount of incredible joy because it pertained to Jesus’ messianic royalty and the supernatural character of His virginal conception. The announcement of the elderly in the temple instead spoke of the Lord’s work of redemption that He would complete associating Himself through suffering to His Mother.” So in concluding the stories of Jesus‘ infancy on this fortieth day after Christmas, we approach the end of the overall Epiphany period and come within sight of Lent and its emphasize upon suffering, renunciation, and repentance.

These cantatas also lead me to think about Simeon and Anna. Yesterday (January 31st) was the birthday of Thomas Merton, a man who has inspired so many of us with his dedication to prayer, reflection, and contemplation. Although not much is related about Simeon and Anna in the Gospel, their dedication to vocations of prayer are scriptural inspirations for us. Analogous to the appeal of a Walden Pond-like retreat, what is it about a life completely devoted to prayer that holds appeal to many of us—including those of us who really enjoy our present lives?

My own struggle is how to maintain a faithful prayer life amid the busyness of life. These Candlemas cantatas remind me yet again to step up my efforts. But what if, in the midst of faithful prayer, God calls us to a deeper kind of prayer life, wherein we might have to give up some of the hard work, hopes for professional recognizing, and even hectic ministry work that we enjoy?

But maybe that’s making things too complicated when God’s grace is really more simple. After all, Bach set these words: “It is enough… that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”

English translations by Richard Stokes

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At my “Journey’s Home” blog, I’ve been doing weekly, reflective essays on Bach’s sacred cantatas (as explained in the one below for the first Sunday of Advent). These essays will end in late November, when I will have traversed the Christian calendar with Bach. In the meantime, since this blog has its own small following, I think I’ll copy those essays here, a few at a time, so they’ll be available at both sites.

My Bach Devotional Pilgrimage: First Sunday of Advent 

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, but 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 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. I’ll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year, on the Sundays they represent.

I’m starting with Disc 52, which is the First Sunday in Advent—today! (The next CD, disc 53, is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, so I’ve some time until the next installment) The photo is of a Tibetan woman. These are two cantatas both named “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Come now, Savior of the Gentiles”), which are BWV* 61 and 62, and also “Schwingt freudig each empor” (“Soar joyfully aloft to the sublime stars”), which is BVW 36. The notes indicate that all three used a famous Advent chorale, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heildand,” Martin Luther’s use of an Ambrosian Advent hymn ‘Veni redemptor gentium.”

Gardiner’s notes indicate that these chorals would have been welcome for Bach’s Leipzig and Weimar churches after “all those self-absorbed feelings of guilt, fear, damnation and hellfire that dominated the final Sundays of the Trinity season.” Not only was Luther’s hymn popular but Bach’s festive music would have given worshipers a happy sense of “having at last turned a corner.”

Interestingly, in the BWV 61 cantata, Bach switches themes a little after the aria “Komm, Jesu” (with its repeated prayer “Komm”), from the praise of Christ’s appearance to the presence of the Lord in the believer’s heart.

Open up, my whole heart,
Jesus comes and enters in.
Though I be but dust and earth,
He shall not despise me,
but takes delight
to see that I become His dwelling.
Oh, how blessed shall I be!

In BWV 62, Christ becomes a “mighty hero” with the tone of the messianic psalms (and Isaiah’s messianic poems) characterizing the texts (by Luther and an anonymous writer), with joy and praise concluding the cantata. In BWV 36, Bach sets the words “Even with subdued, weak voices God’s majesty is revered” with a soft soprano and a muted violin. We also have the theme in this cantata of Christ as the bridegroom of the soul—and, of course, the joy analogous to a wedding.

Pray the strings in Cythera
and let sweet Musica
sound out with naught but joy,
that I may with little Jesus,
this exquisite groom of mine,
pilgrimage in constant love.

*****

According to the CD notes, the English translations are by Richard Stokes

*If you’re new to Bach: “BWV” means “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” (“Bach works catalogue”). It’s the standard numbering and identification of Bach’s works, according to themes and genres rather than chronology.

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Sin and Hypocrisy: Bach’s Fourth Advent Sunday Cantatas

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 (186 in all) in over sixty churches—in one year. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, but 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 fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com.

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. So I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner’s!) and listen to the cantatas on the days represented by each. I’ll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year.

On December 1st, I began with Disc 52, cantatas for the First Sunday in Advent. Now I’m continuing with Disc 53 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The picture on the disc is a man from Rajasthan, India.

The first cantata is “Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet!” (BWV 70). It captures the Advent theme of expectation for the Second Coming: “Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! Be prepared at all times till the Lord of Glory brings this world to an end…. When will the day come, when we leave the Egypt of this world? Ah, let us soon flee Sodom before the fire overwhelms us! Awaken, souls, from your complacency and believe; this is the final hour.” In the notes, Gardiner points out that Bach alternates orchestra and choir to conjure “the terrifying moment … when ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat’.”

Advent reminds us of the future final hour of Christ’s coming—though we must also be mindful of our own deaths as well. But those who pray and watch have consolation: “Lift up your heads and be comforted, you righteous ones, so that your souls might flourish! You shall blossom in Eden and serve God eternally.”

“Beretet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!” (BWV 132) is next. “Prepare the ways and level the paths of faith and life for the Highest; the Messiah draws nigh!” The person of faith has great promises: “Through the springs of blood and water your clothes have been cleansed, that had been stained by sin. Christ gave you new clothes, dressed you in crimson and white silk, such is a Christian’s finery.” According to Gardiner, Bach assigns an aria to the bass soloist as well as bass instruments “to express all that the text implies: the vigorous declamatory denunciation of sin and hypocrisy.” Advent is a time for us to reflect upon changes we can make in our lives.

Sin and hypocrisy are themes in all three cantatas. The third, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (147), begins, “Heart and mouth and deed and life must give witness of Christ without fear and hypocrisy, that He is both God and Savior.” Jesus is our joy and comfort, strength and treasure, and so the believer should not let Jesus out of heart or sight. The familiar tune, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” is used in the song “Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe.” The faithful person holds to Jesus amid distress and grief, though his/her heart might break, for Jesus is faithful and loving and provides rest and help.

As we consider our own sin and hypocrisy—as well as our griefs and troubles—how great to hold onto God’s promises for us. Though the scriptural words of judgment are frightening, those who trust in the Lord find tenderness and faithfulness.

(The English translations in the CD notes are by Richard Stokes.)

*****

Hump Day Christmas: Bach’s Cantatas for Christmas Day

Continuing my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. today I’m listening to CD 1 in the 56-CD set, the cantatas for Christmas Day. The cover photograph is of a child in Hardiwar, India.

The first CD is “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (BWV 63), “Christians, etch this day in metal and marble.” Gardiner’s notes that this was first concert of the year-long pilgrimage (see my December 1st post). This concert happened in Weimar, a city of notable cultural history. But eight kilometers away, lies the notorious place Buchenwald. For Gardiner, this contrast reminds us, among other things, that “Bach’s music is overwhelming testimony to the strength and resilience of the human spirit,” with its need to find meaning and its endurance through life’s horrors.

It makes me think, too, of the sometimes jarring contrast each Christmas when we sing “peace on earth” in a world that has never known lasting peace. And yet the day is etched permanently in human experience. One thinks of the famous, unofficial “Christmas truces” that happened along the Western Front in 1914, mocking the supposed need for nations to go to war.

This BWV 63 cantata has a symetrical form and contrasting moods, for instance Bach’s transition from E minor to A major when moving to Jesus’ birth. Among the several numbers, the singers declare, “O blessed day! O wondrous day on which the Saviour of the world, the Shiloh promised by God in paradise to the human race.” “Call and implore heaven, come, ye Christians, come to the dance, you should rejoice at God’s deeds today!”

The other cantata is “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (BWV 191), the words and song of the angels which, in Bach’s hands becomes (as Gardiner puts it) “a celebration of dance as well as song.”

Are we dancing with joy at the Good News of Christ? On Christmas Day the three of us will open presents, have lunch, and see part 2 of “The Hobbit,” plus I’ll go to our church’s half-hour morning worship. It’s a happy day, for sure. I don’t want to become chiding about our Christian experience—-as if we all “should” be dancing with joy at the Savior, and if we’re not we’re substandard Christians. But sometimes we do feel so positive about the Good News that, even if we don’t dance, we can’t sit still. If we think deeply about the Gospel promises, we can feel an even greater excitement than “hump day”!

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Cling to Christ: Bach Cantatas for the Early Christmas Season

Continuing my listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … Over the next several days I’ll be listening three CDs for the Christmas season. They were recorded in 2000 at St. Bartholomew’s Church, a favorite stop whenever we visit Manhattan. Although I’m beginning my year-long “journey” with the First Sunday of Advent, these three CDs are actually the last ones in the original pilgrimage.

CD 54 contain the cantatas “Gelobet seist du, Jesus Christ” (BWV 91, “All Praise to you, Jesus Christ”) and “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (110, “Let our mouth be full of laughter”) for Christmas Day, and then “Christum wir sollen loben schon” (121, “To Christ we should sing praises”) and “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes” (40, “For this purpose the Son of God”) for Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas. On the CD’s cover is photograph of a child in Amdo, Tibet. According to the notes, “Gelobet, seist du” is full of expectation and danceable-rhythms, with its emphasis on praise of God’s work in Christ—the small way in which the creator of the universe appeared for our benefit.

“Christum wir sollen” is based on a 5th century Latin hymn is similar in its content: “God, who was so boundless, took on servile form and poverty.” “Dazu its erschienen” has several contrasts of darkness and light—and the admonition that we should not be anxious and fearful for the “ancient serpent,” for Christ has conquered Satan. “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” is, for Gardiner, the “most festive and prilliant” of these four with an “irresistible swagger” “Let your mouth be full of laughter and our tongue of singing. For the Lord has done great things for us.”

CD 55 contain the cantatas for the third day of Christmas, also recorded at St. Barth’s: “Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget” (BWV 64, “Behold, what manner of love”), “Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt” (151, “Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes”), “Selig ist der Mann” (57, “Blessed is the man”), and a cantata for the second day of Christmas, “Ich freue mich in dir” (133, “I rejoice in thee”). The cover is photo of a baby in Zigaze Tibet.

Gardiner calls attention to the trombone choir in “Sehet, welch eine Liebe”, which I look forward to hearing. He notes that this cantata connects thematically to the theme of Christus victor in the previous day’s cantata “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes”, as well as the Christmas cantata “Sehet, welch eine Liebe.” Gardiner writes that Bach uses the trombone to depict the “vertical and horizontal” dimensions of faith: Christ’s descent to the world to save us and our eventual ascent to heaven to gain the full divine promises.

“Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt” is an “intimate and beguiling” cantata has, among other things the use of oboes and violins “in praise of the spiritual riches to be found in Jesus’ spiritual poverty.”

His wretched state reveals to me
naught but salvation and well-being,
yea, His wondrous hand
will weave me naught but garlands of blessing.

In “Selig ist der Mann,” we find a kind of dialogue between Christ and the soul, and thus a connection of Christ’s love with the soul of the suffering believer. In the arias and recitatives, Jesus promises his heart to the believer—and his hand to strike the believer’s enemies and accusers. Meanwhile, the believer declares that he/she has nothing to count on but Jesus.

Finally, “Ich freue mich in dir” is an exhilarating cantata which connects to the believer’s need for Christ seen in “Selig ist der Mann” and the other cantatas.

…. I shall,
O Jesus, cling to Thee,
even if the world
were to shatter in a thousand pieces.

The last CD of pre-New Year Christmas music is the actual last CD of the entire set, also recorded at St. Bartholomew’s. The cover photo is a child from Sarif, Afghanistan.These cantatas are for the Sunday after Christmas: the motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (225, “Sing unto the Lord a new song”), “Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn” (152, “Tread the path of faith”), “Das neugeborne Kindelein (122, “The newborn infant child”), “Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende” (28, “Praise God! The year now draws to a close”), and “
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (190, “Sing unto the Lord a new song”).

Gardiner notes that the BWV 225 “Singet dem Herrn” “distances itself from the mode of the incarnation and anticipates Christ’s coming Passion, crucifixion and death” with a small ensemble, a soprano and basis and six instruments). He also notes that the motet invites believers to the path of faith, as does” Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn,” which is “as close as [Bach] ever got to the traditional Christmas carol-like image of the infant Jesus.” “Gottlob!” takes us into the area of the end of the year’s journey, while the BWV 190 “Singet dem Herrn” reminds us continually of Jesus (in this case, the lesson is his circumcision and naming). Gardiner notes that the cantata begins and ends in D major, creating a little circle with the journey of the past year and the new one to begin.

All good interrelated themes to ponder in our hearts: the weakness and poverty of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, contrasted with the strength of Christ’s grace on which the believer relies. That strength, in turn, is that which we must turn to again and again through the journeys of our years—and the upcoming journey of the new year.

English translations by Richard Stokes

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I’m driving across the American Midwest, on flat interstate highways for twelve hours….

arthur-rackham-die-rheintoechter-necken-alberich-von-das-rheingold-und-die-walkuere-von-richard-wagner-147464

Arthur Rankham made several illustrations of scenes from the Ring.

Three maidens sing and play deep within the river Rhine. They are also guarding the gold of the Rhine, which if made into a ring will allow its wearer to rule the earth–but only if that person renounces love. As the maidens swim, a Nibelung dwarf named Alberich tries to woo and play with them, but they mock his ugliness. Hearing the story of the gold from the maidens, who don’t realize his evil potential, Alberich renounces love, makes off with the gold, and sets himself up as ruler of his land Nibelheim.

Meanwhile, the gods in their own realm have a problem. The chief god Wotan has authorized construction of their castle, Valhalla, and the giants who have built the castle demand the goddess Freia as payment. Without Freia’s golden apples, however, the gods will age and die. Realizing that the Rhine gold is now in Nibelheim, Wotan and the fire god Loge descend to the dwarf land, seize Alberich and the gold, and gives the giants the gold and the ring.

But Alberich curses the ring, so that its owners will eventually be killed and robbed of the ring. Sure enough, the giants fight for its ownership and one is killed.

Both Loge and the earth goddess Erda warn Wotan that the ring should be returned to the Rhine maidens, but Wotan (who rules through treaties carved onto the shaft of his spear) is bound to forgo the gold as per the authorization of Valhall’s construction.

The gods proceed into Valhalla (all but Loge, who believes he may someday destroy the gods for their deceit and acquisitions, but he’s still not sure). Wotan, however, is haunted by Erda’s prophecies and begins a relationship with her (reluctantly tolerated by his wife Fricka) to gain more information. The resultant offspring of Erda and Wotan are the Valkyries, immortal warrior women who take the souls of fallen heroes to form Valhalla’s army. Wotan also fathered offspring by a mortal woman, so that an offspring (who unlike Wotan is not bound by treaty to the surviving giant, Fafner) may someday seize the ring.

Years later, the home of warrior Hunding and his wife Sieglinde are visited by a fleeing man, who identifies himself as Wehwalt. They give Wehwalt hospitality, and he tells his story. He has been wandering ever since discovering his mother dead and his twin sister abducted. Circumstances have left him pursued by enemies but without suitable weapons for himself. Hunding identifies himself as one of his pursuers and, although he is obliged to give him hospitality, they must fight in the morning. As Hunding sleeps, however, Sieglinde expresses her hope for a hero to save her from their awful marriage. Falling in love with each other, they realize that a sword, left in the ash tree at Sieglinde’s house, was in fact left by his father years before. Further, they realize they are the separated twins and that he is Siegmund. He pulls the sword from the tree (something no one else had been able to do) and they escape the house.

A little later, the goddess Fricka informs Wotan of this situation and demands that Siegmund must die for his crime of incest and adultery. Wotan confides in his favorite Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, the whole story of the gold, the giant, and his bitterness at having to kill Siegmund. Wotan is at an impasse, because of his treaty with the giants he cannot just steal the ring, but the ring can only be taken by “a free hero,” and Siegmund (Wotan realizes) is just as much as servant of the gods as the Valkyries.

Wotan orders Brünnhilde to assist in Siegmund’s death and take him to Valhalla. But when Brünnhilde meet the fleeing twins, Siegmund refuses to go because Sieglinde cannot accompany him. In fact, he swears to kill both himself and Sieglinde, which causes a moved and impressed Brünnhilde to take his side.

When Hunding arrives, however, Wotan shatters Siegmund’s sword and allows Hunding to kill him. Disobeying the god, Brünnhilde takes both Sieglinde and the shattered sword and escapes.

When Wotan catches up to her, he punishes Brünnhilde by declaring she must become mortal, placed in a magic sleep on the mountainside, and thus be available to any man who discovers her. She challenges that she disobeyed Wotan because she actually understood his true desire–she acted according to his own secret will. In sorrow, he carries out his judgment but summons Loge to surround her with magic fire. She will be mortal but will not be victim to any passerby: “Whoever fears the point of my spear,” declares the god, “shall not pass through the fire.”

Hidden away, Sieglinde is pregnant by Siegmund’s child, who is named Siegfried. (The name, combinations of words for “freedom” and “victory,” signals that he is the hero—unattached to Wotan through any treaties or subservient relationships—on whom Wotan has pinned his hopes).

0ba841f532f446e72581cb0d6b36f0caWe haven’t heard from the Nibelung dwarfs for a while, but now we return to them. Sieglinde is cared for by Mime, the brother of Alberich. She dies in childbirth, and Alberich raises Siegfried. But his motives aren’t altruistic; understanding Siegfried’s significance, Mime hopes the boy will slay the giant Fafner, who guards the magic ring. Mime wants the ring for himself. Once the boy understands his own background story, he takes the remains of his father’s sword, recasts it (which Mime had been unable to do), and sets out.

The giant Fafner, sleeping in a cave in the form of a dragon, is awakened by Siegfried’s horn. Unafraid (because he has never learned fear), Siegfried soon slays the dragon and takes the ring. Mime tries to take the ring for himself by poisoning Siegfried, but Siegfried understands the dwarf’s plans and slays him, too.

A songbird tells Siegfried of a woman sleeping on a rock on the mountainside. Meanwhile, Wotan–who has been close by all this time–meets earth goddess Erda and informs him he no longer dreads the prophesied end of the gods. He believes that Siegfriend and Brünnhilde will eventually be able to bring about the world’s redemption after the gods’ ends.

Siegfried arrives, and Wotan tries to block his way. But Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, ending the god’s power and authority. He sadly tells Siegfried, “Zieh hin! Ich kann dich nicht halten!” (Forward then, I cannot stop you) and vanishes. Uncomprehending, Siegfried wonders aloud where “the coward” went and proceeds toward the ring of fire. Having proved his fearlessness of Wotan’s spear, he enters the fire easily and discovers Brünnhilde in her magic sleep. Realizing she is a woman—and he has never seen a woman before—he instinctively knows to kiss her, though he is for the first time in his life filled with fear.

Brünnhilde awakes, and they fall in love. They go on their way, but soon Siegfried sets off on an adventure but first gives Brünnhilde the ring as a pledge of faithfulness. (At this point I want to yell at her: “You’re his aunt, you better watch out for him! He’s not very bright.”) Unfortunately, Siegfried ends up among the Gibichungs, dwellers by the Rhine, who are up to no good thanks to the king’s advisor, Hagan, who is the son of Alberich and the king’s mother. Hagen plots with the king Gunther to take Brünnhilde for his wife and to give Siegfried to Gunther’s sister, Gutrune. Thus, Hagen will seize the ring for himself and his father Alberich.

640px-Siegfried_and_the_Twilight_of_the_Gods_p_130When Siegfried arrives, they give him a potion which makes him fall in love with Gutrune and to lose memory of Brünnhilde. He sets out to gain her for Gunther.

Meanwhile, Brünnhilde receives a surprise visit from her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute. The Valkyrie warns Brunnhilde that Wotan’s spear, with its extensive record of his covenants and bargains, is destroyed and thus his power. Furthermore he has ordered the wood of the World Tree to be gathered around Valhalla so that the kingdom can eventually be set ablaze and the days of the gods brought to an end. Because the ring’s curse is behind the doom of the gods, Waltraute begs her sister to return the ring to the maidens of the Rine. But Brünnhilde will not lose the ring which is also her lover’s pledge to her.

Waltraute leaves. Soon Siegfried arrives, but he is magically disguised as Gunther. He seizes her, takes the ring, and brings her to the Gibichungs. Gunther sounds the alarm and brings his vassals to the hall for a wedding party. Brünnhilde sees Siegfried in his natural form and, realizing she has been fooled, denounces him. Siegfried, still under the sway of the potion, swears on Hagen’s spear that she is lying, but she also swears on the spear that she tells the truth.

Unfortunately, a vow made on a weapon means that the person speaking falsely will be killed by that weapon. Assuming his treachery, Brünnhilde tells Hagen that Siegfried’s back is his vulnerable place. Hagen uses this fact to carry out the rest of his plot. He gives Siegfried a potion that restores his memory, and as Siegfried sings the praises of Brünnhilde, Hagen claims that Siegfried has shown himself a liar and stabs him.
Siegfried’s body is returned to the Gibichung Hall. In the resulting conflicts, Hagen kills Gunther and Gutrune dies of grief, but Hagen is unable to gain the ring from Siegfried’s finger. Brünnhilde, however, takes the ring herself and orders a funeral pyre for 483fe0eb0bf69d6f971d8acbe4f4a3cdSiegfried. She lights the fire and summons Wotan’s ravens to inform him of the end of the gods. Then she calls to the maidens of the nearby Rhine to regain the ring once the fire purifies it from Alberich’s curse—and with the ring in hand, she rides into the flames.

The fire blazes, igniting the Gibichung’s hall. The Rhine rises, floods, and covers the fire, allowing the maidens to regain the ring. They drown Hagen as he attempts to reclaim it. But as calm is restored to the earth and water, Valhalla can be seen engulfed in flames. The gods and heroes are no more, and all the trouble brought about by the ring’s curse are over. The earth is redeemed for a new era (although Alberich is still at large….).

******

During a recent solitary car trip lasting twelve hours, I decided to listen straight through to Der Ring des Nibelungen of Richard Wagner, specifically the 1955 recording from the Bayreuth festival, conducted by Joseph Keilberth. This recording features some of the greatest Wagnerian singers of all time: Hans Hotter as Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde, and others like Paul Kuen, Gustav Neidlinger, Gré Brouwenstijn, Ramon VInay, Joseph Greindl, and Hermann Uhde, among others. This was also the period of the great post-war Bayreuth productions by Wagner’s grandsons Wolfgang and Wieland, as reflected in the CD sets’ photographs of the original sets and singers.

As many people know, Wagner’s Ring cycle is four operas, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Although Alberich as an on-stage character is not prominent after Das Rheingold, he is the Nibelung dwarf of the title and his influence is everywhere. His renunciation of love, allowing him to steal the Rhine gold, sets in motion the whole drama. But his theft inspires a greater wrong: the theft of the same gold from Alberich by Wotan and Loge, so that Wotan can pay for his realm Valhalla and save the gods’ youth and power by buying back Freia from the giants.

After these crimes are established in Das Rheingold, the three primary operas of the cycle dramatize the unfolding of the consequences of Wotan’s wrongdoing, his attempts to deal with the situation, his eventual acceptance of the end of the gods (“das Ende” he cries in Act 2 of the second opera), and the manner in which that ending plays out. The consequences the gold’s theft are too vast even for the god.

Theft and rape are two related themes that permeate the whole drama. Alberich wants to make love to the Rhine maidens but, rejected, he steals their gold. Wotan steals the gold from Alberich to prevent the abduction/rape of Freia. But he himself compounds his problems via his illicit relationships with the Earth Mother and the mortal mother of the twins. Siegmund, in turn, carries off Sieglinde from her husband and impregnates her, and Brünnhilde’s punishment for taking the twin’s side (Wotan’s first judgment against her) is to be placed into sleep and taken by whoever passes by. And then, of course, Siegfried is deceived into delivering Brünnhilde to another man in marriage. Only when the gold—figuratively raped from the maidens—is returned, can all be well again. That Wotan is the father or grandfather of all these characters deepens the awfulness of the several tragedies.

But love and redemption are two other related themes for the drama. The redemption of the situation—which is the redemption of the world—must happen because of two people who are more free than Wotan: Siegfried, who is a generation removed from being subject to his authority, and Brünnhilde, who can violate his authority because from the love of parent and child she acts from his own heart, not from his deals and treaties. So the opera begins with the renunciation of love and ends, sixteen hours later, with the redemption through love, which is the final leitmotif of the instrumental conclusion.

I had not listened to Wagner’s Ring cycle straight through for a long time. When I was a single pastor living in a rural parsonage, I liked to listen to the 11-LP Wilhelm Furtwängler La Scalia set (with Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde), playing in the background as I worked. At the time, I also collected the famous Georg Solti Ring, and the 1953 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss. (Krauss was known as a Strauss conductor but the year before he died he conducted this classic recording of the Ring.) This was a period of my life, about which I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, when I collected classical LPs and delighted in many musical discoveries.

A few years ago, when my wife Beth and I were in New York on her business trip, I walked up to Lincoln Center to browse its gift shop. Splurging a bit (actually more than a bit!) I bought the then-newly-released 1955 Bayreuth Ring. It had been the very first stereo recording but was never properly released because of contractual difficulties between Columbia/EMI and Decca (Decca had planned the first studio recording of the Ring, but the best Wagnerian singers of the era were signed to EMI), and because the Solti Ring (commenced in 1958) superseded the 1955 recording as not only a stereo recording but as the first studio recording.

The Solti Ring is an exciting production for listening to Wagner in one’s home (Solti’s dramatic tempos, real cattle horns instead of trombones, actual anvils being struck, the audio manipulation of Siegfried’s tenor into the baritone range when he disguises himself as Gunther). But the great singers of 1955, notably Hotter and Windgassen, were past their prime for Solti. On the other hand, they are in full splendor on that earlier recording. Finally, in the mid 00s, the Testament label released the 1955 Ring—the true first stereo recording of the epic—to great fanfare in the music press. Looking over reviews on Amazon and in print, the consensus of listeners seem to be that the 1953 Krauss Ring and the 1955 stereo Keilberth Ring are “the best” for overall interpretation and the performances of that great post-war generation of Wagnerian singers.

I love the 1953 Krauss ring but decided to listen to the Keilberth Ring for my 12-hour car trip. I hadn’t done the set justice since I splurged on it a while back. I listened to Das Rheingold before I left town, but I still didn’t have time to play the whole cycle before arriving home. I listened to Das Rheingold and then Die Walküre, which got me from northeast Ohio to eastern Indiana. Then I listened to most of Siegfried through Indiana; Siegfried forged his sword as I was approaching Indy. Then I skipped through long passages of Götterdämmerung—the entire, very long prelude, to which I’ve listened many times–and through sections of the other acts. I tend to listen most often to this last opera of the cycle, so it was no loss to the overall “concert” if I skipped through this one.

Hearing all the operas straight through, you get a good sense of the different “sound worlds” of each. Siegfried isn’t pastoral, exactly, but it “feels” more woodland and outdoors than Die Walküre, which more than the others runs you through a gamut of emotions from anguish to joy to bitter regret to danger and flight and back to regret, though with a glimmer of hope at the end. (The Dutch singer Gré Brouwenstijn as Sieglinde stood out to me: I thought she had a lovely, expressive voice and her role really moved me. She also performs Gutrune.). Das Rheingold’s sound world is one of empty grandeur and moral ambiguity. Except for the sorrowful Rhine maidens, there is no one in the opera worth rooting for.

Götterdämmerung is the most “grand opera” of the four, the overall feeling dominated by Hagen and the Gibichungs. You’re startled to hear ensemble singing (especially the summoned vassals in Act 2) after so many hours without that opera style. Yet you can’t say that the opera is a throwback to Meyerbeer, for Wagner’s use of leitmotifs is notably complex and innovative in this drama.

Hans Hotter’s voice isn’t beautiful (Varnay’s and Windgassen’s are, definitely), but he gives so much expression, emotion, and authority in his characterization. He spoils me for any other Wotan. What a joy to hear him in dialogue with Varnay in Die Walküre and with Windgassen in Act 3 of Siegfried. You really do feel like the encounter between Siegfried and Wotan is a life-and-death encounter between mighty and unyielding forces. You hear the sorrow and resignation in Hotter’s voice once Wotan’s spear is destroyed.

As I crossed the Mississippi River and thus was almost home, I listened to Brünnhilde’s immolation and the great conclusion of the whole cycle. (On this recording, the audience sits in silence for a few seconds before erupting in applause.) The music, rather than the Mississippi, transported me to the actual Rhine River that we were pleased to visit a few years ago during our daughter’s choir tour.

 

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Back in September, on the 13th, my local news channel featured an announcement that cassette tapes were introduced by Philips on this day in 1963. I had already been thinking about them: a “Gramophone” magazine review of a Martha Argerich CD reminded me of cassettes because I once owned a two-cassette box of Chopin music that Argerich had recorded. I hadn’t known that the famous “funeral march,” sometimes featured in my childhood’s cartoons, was actually Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. As the tape played along in the car, clicking a little in the player, it came to that movement, and I thought, “Oh!  That’s where that comes from!” Of course, Argerich’s version is compelling.

I wondered: Whatever happened to cassettes? I know I’ve not seen them in stores for many years, although they once covered several shelves in places like Sam Goody and Tower Records.

I checked Wikipedia, which had a footnoted article that indicates they are actually still being sold, but in very few numbers. The author writes: “Cassettes outsold vinyl and compact disc, respectively, from the early 80s until the early 90s.” Even in 2004, 8.6 million cassettes were sold. But by 2009, sales had plummeted to 34,000. “Of the 2,000 tapes sold year-to-date, most have been albums at least 36 months old, bought at indie retailers in the south Atlantic region, in the suburbs, according to SoundScan.”

So there’s my answer! The author notes that cassettes’ niche is specific: “Not only were tapes the way many young people first owned music in the Reagan era; from post-punk to C86 to riot grrrl to industrial and noise, cassettes also embodied the 80s underground’s do-it-yourself ethic. So much so, in fact, that many indie labels never stopped creating them….Last August, Rhizome writer Ceci Moss identified 101 cassette labels.” (http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7764-this-is-not-a-mixtape/)

That made me think of other formats. During the college years of 1976-1979, I had an eight-track player in my car, and I still enjoyed those tapes as late as 1979, a summer I had a job that involved a lot of car travel. But I doubt I purchased any thereafter. According to a Wikipedia article, eight-tracks were no longer sold in retail stores by 1982, though record clubs still sold them until 1988. The last commercial eight-track release seems to be Fleetwood Mac’s 1988 “Greatest Hits.”

Good riddance! Those tapes were terrible things: their clunkiness, and the way you had to put up with repeated songs. I see them sometimes in antique stores and groan.

My parents wonderfully purchased me a reel-to-reel recorder and player when I was in high school, around 1972. I used it to record music off the radio, especially KSHE-FM in St. Louis, and later Met Opera Saturday matinees. But I don’t think I ever purchased a pre-recorded tape. No wonder: when I looked up that format on Wikipedia, I discovered that pre-recorded reels were largely gone from stores by 1973, and a few were offered by record stores until the late 1970s.

I don’t miss cassettes much. Of course, you had to rewind or fast-forward to your favorite song, and you hoped you wouldn’t go too far or too short. But I was used to them. I don’t remember the first cassette I purchased, but I remember the first one I played: David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World” LP, which I taped at home by putting the small player/recorder next to the turntable speakers, and then I carried that same player with me in my old car, a seen-better-days 1963 Chevy. The car wasn’t worth getting a player installed (and my subsequent Dodge Dart had the 8-track player). So it was a homemade way to have favorite music in the case as I, a teenager in a small town, enjoyed my new driver’s license and freedom.

My 1979 Pontiac station wagon had a cassette player built in, so I had a lot of popular tapes. After I was married in the 80s, Beth and I like to purchase cassettes for our cars, especially for cross-country trips to visit the parental-units on holidays. We had a tape of Rossini overtures, baroque “greatest hits,” and Garrison Keillor radio shows. To this day, “William Tell Overture” reminds me of a tedious interstate rather than the Lone Ranger. We had a favorite tape that included two Vaughan Williams’ “A Lark Ascending” and “Tallis Fantasia” along with Elgar’s “Serenade in E Minor for String Orchestra” and Tippett’s “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli,” and also a cassette with Haydn’s trumpet, harp and organ concertos. All these pieces still bring to mind road trips.

Of course, the tapes were handy for compiling your own favorite songs. A good friend made me a mixtape of her favorite 70s songs, which I played a lot in my car for a long time. I had some Christian pop songs compiled on a tape, as a way to put myself in a peaceful mood when, for instance, driving to the hospital to call upon folks.

We had a little carrying case in which to store the tapes, but often they ended up being tossed into a small cardboard box. I’d dump them out onto the car seat, and they made that plastic clatter as they fell onto the seat and I sorted through them to locate good music for whatever the day’s trip was.

The last cassette I purchased was either Talking Head’s “Sand in the Vaseline,” or a Christian singer (whose name I can’t remember) singing a beautiful version of Psalm 121. This was back in the mid 1990s. By then I was purchasing CDs for home listening.  But why did I wait to begin purchasing CDs until around 1989 (seven years after their introduction) and only then when my favorite record store stopped carrying LPs? I liked LPs (still do) and my car only had a cassette player. Used to this audio technology, I was devoted to it for a long time. My 2004 Nissan Sentra had players for both cassettes and CDs, but not my 2010 Toyota Matrix.

Will I someday write a nostalgic piece about CDs? Will it (like this essay) unintentionally turn out to be a reminiscence about cars? The time is coming and is here; in my Matrix, I listen to my iPod full of downloads more often than CDs.

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Giuseppe+Verdi+PNGA post from 2010, with an update at the end….. I’m a mood-driven listener to music. Sometimes I get into moods when only rock music cranked up to “max” will do, or 80s new wave or synthpop. When my mom died last fall I blasted a favorite Jeff Beck CD in my car because I had so many strong emotions to deal with. Sometimes I want to listen to types of classical music, or to a cross-section of a composer‘s works. Other times, I want to hear a lot of the same composer. I liked Haydn’s music so I bought a 33-CD set of his symphonies. Messiaen intrigued me so I purchased his complete organ works. I loved Mozart’s 15th piano concerto so I bought an 11-CD set of all of them! That’s why I haven’t tackled Mahler; his symphonies are long, and I’m still listening to music already purchased.

I used to collect opera LPs, especially Wagner, but also some Mozart, Verdi, Britten, and others. My first opera purchase was Böhm recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with Sherrill Milnes in the title role. I recall buying it at the now defunct Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, Connecticut. My fondest set was Le Nozze di Figaro, also conducted by Böhm, with a wonderful cast including Prey, Mathis, Janowitz, Fischer-Dieskau, and Troyanos. At one point I loved Wagner and owned at least one set of his famous operas, even the early Rienzi. Similarly, I collected Benjamin Britten’s operas.  

I also found several classic Verdi recordings: Toscanini’s Falstaff and Aida, Otello with Jon Vickers in the title role, and also Rigoletto (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Guilini’s 1958 Don Carlos (the five act version but in Italian), and the Messa da Requiem. I purchased La traviata, donated it to a library book fair during a spring cleaning, then wished I had it back. (Fortunately there’s always Ebay.) I think I owned used sets of Macbeth and Luisa Miller but I don’t remember what happened to them. They probably were sacrificed with household downsizing connected with interstate moves.

I couldn’t quite get into Verdi at first. His melodies are so beautiful and memorable: “Vedi! Le fosche

Anna Netrebko is a notable Violetta and, according to her website, she performs Lady Macbeth in 2014.

Anna Netrebko is a notable Violetta and, according to her website, she performs Lady Macbeth in 2014.

notturne” from Il trovatore,  “La donna è mobile”from Rigoletto, the Triumphal March from Aida, and lots of others. But I was into Wagner, and Verdi’s operas seemed to lack the chromatic interest and visceral force of Wagner’s. My wife and I did enjoy a production of Simon Boccanegra at Santa Fe in 2004. Britten once said, “I am an arrogant and impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers.” [1] I’m not an arrogant listener but–especially since I know almost no musicology–I respond to music on a purely emotional level and know that, sometimes, I’m still growing in musical taste. I was heartened by an article by Walter Clemons who also wasn’t touched by Verdi’s music at first.[2]

Sorting through my old LPs after our recent move, I brought my Verdi operas into my office and gave them a new listen. This time I was smart, however. I’d been looking for an emotional entry into Verdi’s music and had never quite find it listening to whole operas. So I found a good collection of Verdi arias to help me, “Essential Verdi, 40 of His Masterpieces” on the Decca label.

What a wonderful set! As I listened to the two CDs (in my car), I kept grabbing the liner notes when I came

Thomas Hampson as Simon Boccanegra from thomashampson.com2012/10/10/ thomas-hampsons-blockbuster- october-at-lyric-and-carnegie/

Thomas Hampson as
Simon Boccanegra
from thomashampson.com2012/10/10/
thomas-hampsons-blockbuster-
october-at-lyric-and-carnegie/

to stop lights to see which opera aria I’d just heard. I finally appreciated Verdi’s gift for writing melodies. You hear it among old favorites like “La donna è mobile” and the Aida grand march but you also hear it in the lesser known dramas like I masnadieri. Clemons writes that he was convinced of Verdi’s greatness during a live performance of Othello’s aria “Ora e per sempre additio;” Othello despairs, yet “Verdi gives him back, in memory, the martial music of his days of glory” (p. 88). I found a similar moment in the “Ave Maria” from that same opera, sung on this set by Renee Fleming.

Famously, Verdi returned after Otello with one more, remarkable opera, Falstaff, only his second comic opera among nearly thirty (the first was Un giorno di regno, his failed second opera). Verdi’s views of life were pessimistic but humanistic. As Osborne puts it, “In the Requiem … gentle resignation and joyful anticipation of an after-life were no part of his thoughts…. The intensity and compassion of his tragic view of the human condition are Shakespearian in stature: the prodigality of his technique deserves … to be called Mozartian” (p. 403). In this last opera, Verdi seems to have definitively joined his tragic view with a Mozartian comic spirit.

Falstaff ends:

Tutto nel mondo é burla.
L’uom é nato burlone,
La fede in cor gli ciurla,
Gli ciurla la ragione.
Tutti gabbati! Irride
L’un l’altro ogni mortal.
Ma ride ben chi ride
La risata final.

As translated by Vincent Sheean in the Toscanini recording: “The whole world is a jest; man was born a great jester, pushed this way and that by faith in his heart or by reason. All are cheated! Every mortal being laughs at every other one, but the best laugh of all is the one that comes last.”

I agree with some of that. We are all “pushed this way and that” and we’re all “cheated” of something. We’re silly to think we can escape life’s unfairness. Verdi suffered terrible losses early in life, the death of his two children and first wife. Over time, he transformed his suffering and pessimism into wonderful theater and melody. Clemons writes that “Verdi’s long, fertile career can now be seen as remarkable in its steady progress and deepening insight as that of Dickens.” (p. 123) Yeats comes to mind as another artist who grew steadily and ended with depth and insight.

Here’s one more quote from Clemons. “There is something clear and sunlit-square about Verdi’s music that makes it at first difficult to appreciate, if romantic mystery is what one looks for. The value of his honesty and clarity grows with acquaintance” (p. 123).

*******

Giuseppe Verdi was born October 10, 1813, 200 years ago this past week. Commemorations and articles have been happening for the past several months for his bicentennial. For instance, there are new productions of his dramas. A 75-CD set of his complete works, including multiple versions operas, was released this year. This set has I Lombardiand its adaptation Jérusalem, both versions of Simon BoccanegraStiffelio and its revisionAroldo, both the French Don Carlos and the Italian Don Carlo, and the seldom produced operas like Giovanna d’Arco, Alzira, La battaglia di Legnano, and others. Naturally, all the famous operas are there, and pieces like his String Quartet. As I said in the first paragraph, I tend to like to listen to a lot of a composer’s music, but it takes me a long time to get through the 33 CDs of Haydn’s symphonies. So I’m tempted by this set’s affordable cost but haven’t taken the plunge. Instead, I downloaded two nice anthologies of arias and pieces from several famous and less frequently performed operas.

The February 2013 issue of “Gramophone” magazine was a very nice Verdi anniversary issue. Choosing Macbeth, La traviata, Aida, and Falstaff as representative of Verdi’s genius, the articles include interviews of artists like Renee Fleming and Bryn Terfel on his roles. The articles communicate that quality of Verdi that I find appealing, his humility and sense of triumphing over odds (one of which must be his melancholy). Perhaps he had a need to portray his talents as modest—describing a period of his work as the “galley years”—but his demeanor is so distant from Wagner’s well known arrogance and sense of entitlement.  Plus, as Clemons writes, Verdi’s talents grew over time so that he became one of our greatest composers and musical dramatists.

1. Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 11.

2. Walter Clemons, “Viva Verdi! The Story of a Love Affair,” Vanity Fair, 46 (June 1983), 87-89, 122-123.

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April has been National Poetry Month since 1996. Poets.org has information about the month: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/47

For a long time I’ve loved reading poetry, especially contemporary poems, and also I hoped I would become a published poet myself. Though some of my poems have appeared in small presses, the latter dream has been mostly unfulfilled over the years. Recently I decided to get serious about pursuing that goal and have been very productive. But then I think: why do I have to take myself so damn seriously, as if my worth and productivity were the same thing? Why can’t I just enjoy reading poetry for its own sake? Fortunately I HAVE done that. In fact, given the choice between reading poetry and reading fiction, I’d always chose poetry.

My mother owned an old book, The American Album of Poetry, edited by Ted Malone and published in 1938. The poems were selected from magazines and other periodicals of the day, traditionally rhymed and themed verses of now forgotten poets—perhaps everyday people who simply enjoyed writing. Malone included two blank pages and said they were for beautiful poems never written by men who had died in the world war. Mom said she had begged her parents (Depression-era poor) to buy her the book, and later told her I wanted it as a family keepsake.

My parents had an old book called Chief American Poets (Houghton Mifflin, 1905), with selected poems by Bryant, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Whitman, and Lanier. I still have that book, too. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I’d read it as I lay in the backyard to work on my tan (a futile and tedious process, so I wanted to have a good book). I remember that Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” which he wrote when he was a teenager, Lanier’s “The Symphony” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” and most of Whitman’s poems were favorites.

In the 1980s, in the Southwest, I stopped by a feminist and New Age bookstore and found an anthology called The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. I almost left the book there because of the store’s indifferent service, but fortunately I purchased it anyway and, among the over 100 authors featured, I discovered several poets I liked (born in the 1940s and 1950s, thus the title of that 1985 book) like David Bottoms, W. S. Di Piero, Stephen Dobyns, Rita Dove, Lynn Emanuel, Louise Glück, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Hass, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, and others. I name these particular authors because, over the past thirty years, I also purchased books of their poems, and also books by Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke (in Robert Bly’s translation), Pablo Neruda, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Penn Warren, Michael Van Walleghen, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Wright, David Clewell, Dan Guillory, Jane Hirschfield, Nancy Schoenberger, Langston Hughes, John Ashbery, Jane Kenyon, Robert Pack, Amy Clampitt, Dave Smith, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Wendell Berry, John Knoepfle, W. S. Merwin, William Stafford, Hayden Carruth, Jeffrey Skinner, George Bradley, Annie Dillard, Richard Kenney, Andrew Hudgins, and Anne Sexton. Some of these—like Van Walleghen and Milosz and Charles Wright and Kenyon and Bukowski and others—I return to a lot.

That Morrow Anthology amused me slightly because of the photographs of some of the poets: the forced sense of seriousness on their expressions, and a few looked downright hostile. One poet (whom I probably shouldn’t identify) had pursed lips like she was about to spit at you.

Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, is very serious (and sometimes elegiac) in his poems but nevertheless smiles for the camera! I turn to his poems a lot because I love the sound of his poems and also the depth of his connection to the natural world; I find that inspiring and I’d like to approach that conviction in my own poems.

Berry’s poems remind me of another personal preference: some ambiguity in poems is necessary and beautiful, but too much and I become frustrated as a reader. I read Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices during our years in Virginia; the ambiguity combined with the urgency and sometimes danger of his poems left me unsettled. They were like stories for which I missed essential plot elements. Perhaps that’s Smith’s purpose. On the other hand, I love John Ashbery’s poems, about which critics debate whether they mean anything or are artistically surrealistic. (“Hasn’t the sky?” begins his poem “Clytemnestra.”)

Ashbery is often funny (for instance, his “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler WIlcox”), as is Billy Collins. As I read some of his poems I felt so pleased to be chuckling. Oh my gosh, this is wonderful, I thought, happy to find that although his poems could be serious (and they were beautiful) some of them pulled your leg. For instance, I love “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” where in vivid lines he admits he’s never fished that or any river.

I learned about Billy Collins from one of my best friends, Tom Dukes, who is a wonderful poet and teacher whose collection Baptist Confidential is one I turn to frequently. We both taught at University of Akron, and, when I wanted to take a class of his, I had to enroll as a freshman, something about which he still kids me. He sends me University of Akron Press collections that he recommends and also Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems anthologies.

It’s enjoyable to have little memories associated with certain books. I remember an intense seminary friend who picked up my recently-purchased Anne Sexton collection, hated it, and urged me to read Edna St. Vincent Millay instead. Still another day, another friend and I were on a day trip to see New England autumn leaves when we stopped at a Litchfield, CT bookstore and I purchased a paperback of Auden’s selected poems. His introduction intrigued me that he omitted some “dishonest” poems, which I later discovered were notable ones like “Spain” and “September 1, 1939.” I was in old jeans and nice shirt and barefooted one hot day when I swung by a favorite campus bookstore and, enjoying the cool indoor air on my feet, I found an Oscar Williams-edited anthology which I liked for a long time for its good selection of ancient to modern poems.

I’ve never attended a poetry reading except for one time, and it was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who visited our campus in the mid 1980s. He is a very dramatic reader of his poetry—a performer, really. A colleague read his poems in English first, and then Yevtushenko recited the same poem in his native Russian.

I read a lot of T.S. Eliot in divinity school. For some of us, seminary/divinity school can be a time of existential crisis or heartrending introspection, often spurred by a notable author. I’ve a friend who was knocked sideways by Kierkegaard. During my last year of divinity school, I spent so much time studying Eliot! I don’t remember what turned me to Eliot, but his poetry struck me with tremendous force. His now-familiar images–light, shadow, rock, dryness, fire, the dancer, the rose–and the way his poems communicated through their rhythms and sounds as much as by their words–not a new idea, but new to me at that time–awakened me and fascinated me. (Unfortunately I completely missed the antisemitic jabs in a few of his poems, being at the time naive to that, and I focused instead on the journey from despair to return.)

I purchased a book called A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem by Poem Analysis by George Williamson (Noonday Press, 1964) at a favorite store, Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany, CT. (http://www.whitlocksbookbarn.com/shop/default.asp) The old, used paperback, which I still have, opened meanings and explained many allusions and quotations. Williamson also described the poet’s influences which made him a leading voice in modernism—Dante, the Metaphysical poets, and the French Symbolists. Ezra Pound had been so startled, how Eliot had stumbled onto this combination and become modernist on his own.

Williamson quoted Eliot concerning the intersection of poetic technique and experience; both grow, but at certain intersections of the two, superior poetry results. This, too, was a new idea to me and seemed to me an excellent philosophy of life. (The end of “The Waste Land,” and of the poems of the “Four Quartets,” express that challenge.) Grad school was for me, as for many people, a circumstance where both my life-experience and my professional training were very much in process. Though not a “waste land,” the time was transitional. So during that time and after, I liked the idea of artistic wholeness (whatever artistry one may be devoted to) and spiritual growth as being two sides of a process–a process of living. Reading and occasionally writing poetry has been, for me, an important part of that process.

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