Wake Up, Cries the Watchmen: Bach’s Cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity
This coming Sunday, November 23rd, is the final Sunday of the liturgical year!
As I’ve written before, I purchased this 56-CD set of Bach’s sacred cantatas last fall. I listened to CDs 52-56 first (cantatas corresponding to Advent and Christmas), and then listened to 1 through 51, and so I’ve reached the end of my “journey” of listening this week as I arrive at CD 51, the cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The CD photo is of an old woman from Rajasthan, India, and the cantatas are: “Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott” (BWV 139, “Happy is he who can trust his God”), “Nur jedem das Seine!” (BWV 163, “To each only his due”), “Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht!” (BWV 52, “False world, I do not trust you!”). Added to these is the cantata for the seldom-occurring 27th Sunday: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 140, “Wake up, cries the watchmen’s voice”).
This coming Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, is also Christ the King Sunday. The theme of the three 23rd Sunday pieces is the question posted to Jesus concerning paying taxes to Caesar. One can stretch that meaning to affirm that Christ is our true ruler above all others, whether emperor, premier, or fussy Congress. BWV 139, which Gardiner writes exists in parts that have to be augmented rather than a complete score, is filled with contrasts between the sincere trust of the believer to the raging of the devil to assurance in God’s care for the believer. Satan also figures in BWV 163, wherein the writer of the text, Salomo Franck who was a frequent librettist for Bach, connects the money of Caesar symbolically with the counterfeit currency of the devil.
BWV 52 returns to the theme of some earlier cantatas: the “false world” that cannot satisfy.
False world, I do not trust you!
Here I must dwell among scorpions
and false serpents.
though outwardly so friendly,
secretly plots ruin….
For the opening sinfonia Bach uses a previous draft of the first movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto. Because the theme of the cantata is the disappointment of the world (compared to the true peace of God and Heaven), Bach seems to be drawing a connection between the everyday pursuits in which we’re all involved, with the assurance and lasting joy of “God’s companionability” (Gardiner).
Because Easter usually doesn’t fall so early to allow for a 27th Sunday after Trinity, it’s sad that Bach’s cantata for this day was thus seldom heard in his churches during his own day. BWV 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” is a long-time favorite and one of Bach’s most famous. “a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, techincally, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order,” writes a musicologist quoted by Gardiner. In the CD notes the conductor describes several of Bach’s techniques, including a sense of telescoped time—in this case, the always necessary need for watchfulness. And since the theme is the coming of the Bridegroom in Jesus’ parables, “Bach has no compunction in stealing the clothes of contemporary operative love-duets” in his sacred music.
Listening to all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, on the weeks of the Sundays (or feast days) for which they were written, has been a lovely experience. I’ve an old 6-LP set of Bach’s Advent and Christmas cantatas, and I used to have a 2-LP set of popular cantatas like “Ein Feste Burg” and “Wachet Auf.” I’ve played these often over the years, and now I’ve listened to nearly 180 more. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the lifetime accomplishment of Bach, for he wrote a LOT more music than this.
I’m having a difficult time writing concluding words for this “journey” of listening, because I’m not really done. Now, I want to go back and re-listen to pieces that were particularly beautiful and meaningful. I’m also reluctant to stop a project that has been helpful during a year of bereavement, a health scare, and some ongoing challenges. How wonderful to pause during the middle of each week, listen to beautiful music in the early morning, read the CD notes, glance at the birds outside, and let my mind and heart wander a bit. I want to find a comparable habit for the upcoming liturgical year.
Racial and social issues have been in the news of my community, St. Louis, during the past several weeks. As I write this, no one is sure what is going to happen next, but a grand jury announcement is imminent. (Thus I’ve posted this a little early.) I found words from the cantata “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied!” (BWV 190, on CD 56), that offer hope for times ahead.
Now Jesus grant that with the new year
His anointed one too may flourish;
may He bless both trunk and branches,
that their fortune rise to the clouds.
Let Jesus bless both church and school,
may He bless all true teachers,
may He bless those who hear His teaching;
may He bless both council and court;
may He pour over every house
in our town the springs of blessing;
may He grant that once again
both peace and faith
may embrace within our borders.
Thus we shall live throughout the year in blessing.
(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes)
Grace Much Greater than My Sins: Bach’s Cantatas for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity
Knowing that there were only two CDs in my “journey” to go, and with late-semester busyness at hand, I decided to listen to these last cantatas a little early. So the weekend of November 8-9 featured a lot of Bach music for me! Listening to Bach is a wonderful way to spend any day, however.
Bach’s cantatas for this coming weekend, the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, are: “Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht” (BWV 55, “I, wretched man, a slave to sin”), “Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?” (BWV 89, “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?”), and “Mache dich, mein Geist, beret” (BWV 115, “Prepare yourself, my soul”). The cantata for the 24th Sunday, included in this concert, is: “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60, “Eternity, O word of thunder”). This is CD 50 of the set, and the photo is of an older man, with a beautiful red beard, from Srinagar, Kashmir.
The Gospel lesson for the 22nd Sunday is Matthew 18:22-35, the story of the unjust steward. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that BWV 89 is Bach’s only (extant) cantata for solo tenor, and traces the journey of the steward back to his master. The steward is sorrowful and fearful about his situation. But the concluding chorale gives confidence to any of us who may be downcast about our sinfulness; grace and peace will come to us, thanks to the merciful Lord. BWV 55 makes a similar journey:
Even if hell had a bed
for me and my sins,
the wrath of God would still be there.
The earth does not protect me,
it threatens to devour that monster that I am;
and if I soar to heaven,
God is there, who judges me.
Yike! But as in Hosea, God wavers in executing judgment; Gardiner writes, “the music comes to a temporary halt at the end of each anguished question posed by the bass singer, representing God’s divided mind.” At the end, the believer has assurance:
I do not deny my guilt,
but Thy mercy and Thy grace
is much greater than my sins,
which I always find within me.
The beautiful BWV 115 concerns “the believer trusting and refusing to be blown off course by ‘Satan’s cunning’ (conveyed by a vigorous semiguaver bariolage figure) or the sounding of the last trump.” The singers take the roles of the “slumbering” sinner, the friend who is giving confidence, and the one (represented by the bass) making sure the sinner does not become complacent.
God, who watches over your soul,
detests the night of sin;
He sends you the light of His grace
and desires, in return for these gifts,
which He promises you in abundance,
but openness of spirit.
In 2000, when most of these cantatas were recorded, there were 23 post-Trinity Sundays (because of comparative lateness of Easter that year), but the season can have 27 Sundays, so as on some of the other CDs of the past few weeks, Gardiner and his musicians include other cantatas. This Sunday, the additional cantata is BWV 60 for the 24th Sunday after Trinity. Gardiner writes that Bach called this cantata a “dialogue between Fear and Hope.” The alto and tenor represent “the divided soul, the one wracked by fear of death and shaken by the terrifying sound of eternity’s ‘word of thunder’, the other sustained by simple trust in God’s mercy…” Gardiner discusses in some detail Bach’s technique for depicting this “dialogue. As one would expect, Bach gives victory to hope.
As I listen to these pieces, I think of a topic that we’ve been discussing in one of my classes: social justice. Ferguson has been in the local and national news. In our class, we’re focusing upon God’s distress over systemic sins like racism and poverty. If we were writing the texts of Bach’s pieces, we might be calling cities and national leaders to cease their slumbering and awaken to God’s judgment.
It’s a balance to walk: too great a stress on personal repentance risks neglecting social problems, and vice versa. Although the upcoming Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, it’s the end of the calendar year, when we can take stock of the previous months and contemplate next steps. How are we growing in our personal relationship with God? What about that relationship includes social service of some kind?
(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)
Help My Unbelief: Bach’s Cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity
Three Sundays to go before Advent. My family and I have not started anything related to the holiday season, other than some early scheduling of events. In fact, our Halloween decorations are still up…
November 9 is the 21st Sunday after Trinity this year. Bach’s cantatas for this Sunday (CD 49 in this set) are “Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!” (BWV 109, “Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!”), “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (BWV 38, “Out of the depths I cry to Thee”), “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (BWV 98, “What God doth, is well done”), and “Ich habe meine Zuversicht” (BWV 188, “I have put my trust”). The CD photo is of a colorfully dressed young woman from Tibet.
The Gospel lesson of all four is John 4:46-54, the healing of the nobleman’s son, but the title of BWV 109 is Mark 9:24. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that Bach “sets up a wonderful series of antitheses to articulate the inner conflict between belief and doubt, and the way that faith is granted only after a period of doubt.” The conductor writes of the ways Bach musically sets up the conflict among the various numbers. For instance, in the third number, Bach depicts “the fearful quivering of the soul by means of jagged melodic shapes, unstable harmonies headed towards anguished second inversion chords, and persistent dotted rhythmic figures.” The cantata is a tempestuous journey toward faith and belief. For instance, the third number echoes Isaiah 42:3:
How uncertain is my hope,
how my anxious heart wavers!
The wick of faith hardly burns,
the almost broken reed now snaps,
fear constantly creates fresh pain.
But Christ knows that we are needful of his grace.
Compose yourself, doubting heart,
for Jesus still works wonders!
The eyes of faith shall witness
the healing power of the Lord;
though fulfilment seems so distant
you can rely on his promise.
BWV 38 continues the theme of the granting of faith, using the anguished Psalm 130. This cantata, too, “delays the provision and granting of help until the last possible moment,” after we have been through “signs and wonders” of sorrow and faith.
Though my despair, like chains,
fetters one misfortune to the next,
yet shall my Saviour free me suddenly from it all.
How soon will comfort’s dawn
succeed this night of woe and sorrow!
BWV 188, like two other cantatas from this late post-Trinity season, has a sinfonia drawn from a harpischord concerto. It is q quieter work, as is BWV 98, but likewise centering around the soul’s plea for faith and salvation.
God has a heart that brims with mercy;
and when He hears us lamenting…
His heart then breaks,
that He has mercy on us.
He keeps His word;
He says: Knock,
and it shall be opened unto you!
So let us from now on,
when we are in sore distress,
lift our hearts to God alone!
What things do you struggle with in your faith? I feel very fortunate that I’ve never felt so disappointed in or questioning of God that agnosticism, let alone atheism, were ever options. That’s partly because my childhood experiences with religion were mostly positive and thus provided a good foundation, and also, I worked on my faith and incorporated (even if haphazardly sometimes) prayer book readings, devotional reading, weekly worship, and reflective projects like this one into my weekly routine. I also ask other people for their prayers when things get rough. Busyness and “blues” would likely lead me off into spiritual dullness or deadness if I didn’t have these things. Other people have different or similar ways of nourishing their faith.
One of my struggles—although I think of it as an interesting quest—is to think of Christian faith in more universal terms. I love the idea that there are many paths to God, and thus I meditate on the similarities among world religions, while also affirming the uniqueness and power of Jesus Christ. For some people, this is a wavering of my faith, a contradiction. But I don’t see it that way.
My personal witness is that I see evidence of God’s guidance in my life over the long haul. Things in my life that were emotionally horrible and disappointing made sense in time (sometimes ten or twenty years later). Or, these difficult things that never made sense led to good things. I believe that the arcs and “story lines” of my life and my family’s demonstrate the truth of Romans 8:28. But I empathize with persons who don’t see such a thing in their own experience; plus, I acknowledge that there has been privilege in my life that made painful times never entirely devoid of hope and possibility. We should be careful not to assume that our own example should be normative for others.
The difficulties that Bach’s music explores are always timeless: life has struggles, temptations, grief, difficulties that we create and difficulties that are forced upon us. Faith can be very hard, especially when we have to be patient and wait for God when things are falling apart. Like the parent in Mark 9, we’ve just enough faith to ask for help. Knowing that God’s own heart breaks for us is a beautiful image, full of comfort and promise.
(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)
O Great Wedding Feast: Bach’s Cantatas for the 20th Sunday after Trinity
As conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, the Gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding feast, which “prompts many figurative references to the soul as bride, to travel, to clothing and to food, such as Jesus as the ‘bread of life’.” The CD photo is a girl from Manang, Nepal. The wedding theme is used in all three cantatas. They are upbeat pieces to which I’ll return again.
In “Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe” (BWV 162, “Ah! I see, now as I go to the wedding”) Bach’s text gives us the dire consequences of being on the wrong side of the “wedding,” that is, failing to put on the clothing of righteousness that signals our belonging to Christ. It is all about preparedness: when Christ comes (or when we die), we need to be ready.
“Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen” (BWV 49, “I go and seek with longing”) begins, as did BWV 169 two weeks ago, with a sinfonia that is also a movement in Bach’s BWV 1053 harpsichord concerto II in E major. Beautiful piece! This cantata is musically and lyrically more lush since the words are a loving dialogue between the Christ and soul (between bass and soprano: Magdalena Kožená is the soprano here). As Gardiner points out, the language and situation evokes the love-language of the Song of Songs.
“Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” (BWV 180, “Adorn yourself, beloved soul”) is picturesque in different ways but, in keeping with the wedding theme, remind us of journeying to the wedding, the sight of the bride, the dancing and the feast. This is another occasion where Bach shows no concern for separating “sacred” and “secular” styles but instead writes dance music for a church service. But the key is not a wedding per se, but the need for the believer to be ready for Christ, to love Christ with one’s whole heart.
Rouse yourself: your Saviour knocks,
ah, open soon the door of your heart!
Though you in your rapture can
utter only broken words of joy to your Jesus.
How precious are the gifts of the sacred supper!
Nowhere can their like be found.
The things the world is wont
to deem precious are but glittering trifles;
a child of God desires to have this treasure and says:
Ah, how my spirit hungers,
friend of man, for Thy goodness!
A personal-Bible-study project that I keep meaning to do, is to gather commentaries and study Song of Songs. I’ve read the book but not in depth. It intrigues me that medieval monks dearly loved the book for its allegorical meaning of Christ and his church. For instance, many sermons by St. Bernard of Clairvaux are based on Song texts and extol the truths of Christian doctrine. To me, it’s beautiful love poetry between two people, but the symbolic reading has a long tradition.
I admit that it’s difficult for me sometimes to think of God’s love as affection. For all of the Apostle Paul’s epistolary expressions of love and concern, he also fusses and prods his congregations a great deal—and because my own parents could be fretful and scolding, it’s easy for me to think of God’s love for me tinged with disapproval. As downbeat as some of these post-Trinity cantatas can be, they also evoke God’s unconditional love for which the believer hungers.
(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.)