The peculiar combination, usual in Bach’s time, of Luther’s original hymn with his paraphrase of the mediæval antiphon, Da pacem, Domine (Verleih uns Frieden gnädliglich)creates a beautiful effect. In the space of just over 15 minutes of music, we go from the midst of a battle and all its noise and tumult, to the heavenly peace Christ is bringing to those whom He keeps steadfast in His word—or, more literally and more properly, whom He guards us by His word.
The cantata opens with the urgent sound of the bugle call:
But it closes with the most sublimely beautiful and peaceful Amen:
The more I work on Bach’s sacred cantatas for Sunday Cantata, the more impressed I become about Bach’s calibre as a theologian.
Now, sometimes Bach’s theological profundity and acumen are mis-attributed when it’s forgotten that Bach didn’t write his own libretti. That was done by men such as Picander, Salomo Franck, Erdmann Neumeister and others, many of whose identity is now unknown to us. So whatever theological brilliance there is in the texts, Bach’s credit is for choosing them. (A similar observation can be made about Handel’s Messiah.)
However, there is another level to Bach’s profundity and skill: the way he sets those texts to music. Rather than an essay, I will give you an example that struck me particularly when preparing the latest episode of Sunday Cantata.
The work in question is BWV 13, Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen. Given that the Gospel text for the second Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration was not observed at the end of the Epiphany season in Leipzig) is the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–11), the mournful tone of this cantata—to the libretto of Georg Christian Lehms—might be rather surprising. Apart from a brief, metaphorical reference to Jesus’ wine of joy at the end of one movement, there is no obvious connection between the libretto and the Gospel reading at all. One commentator whose work I consulted is not only nonplussed but also frankly dismissive of such unnecessary self-pitying wallowing.
However, a bit of thinking will show that the whole thing makes perfect sense: the point of departure for the meditation is not the overall story, or its end, but a specific point in the narrative: the moment before Jesus springs into action. That dreadful, dark moment between the revelation of one’s need and Jesus’ response. It’s obvious that many of the Psalms of lament in the Bible were written in just such moments, in the terrible silence before God speaks.
Like any decent theologian would, the librettist takes us on a journey from depths of despair to pleading with God to a reminder of His promise to confidence in His gracious goodwill.
But how does Bach adorn these words? In short: not how you might expect. Let me illustrate.
Here are the opening bars of two of the middle movements, followed by the texts of those movements. Can you work out which words go with which music?
A: Groaning and pitiful weeping
Are no help to the sickness of care;
But whoever looks towards heaven
And strives to find comfort there
For that person easily can a light of joy
Appear in his grieving breast.
The God who has promised me His support at all times Now lets himself be sought in vain In my sadness.
Ah! will he then forever Cruelly angry with me, On those who are poor can he and will he not Feel compassion now as before?
The correct answer: 1B, 2A.
Yep, Bach’s setting of the words of Johann Heermann’s hymn which appear, on the surface, to be full of despair at God’s anger, is full of confidence, while that for Lehms’ call to look away from our own self-pity to the comfort of God’s kingdom is, musically speaking, a text-book example of a lament.
The message, it seems to me, is simple: even in our sorrows, we have confidence (“God has promised me”); and we can sing of the comforts of heaven even as we cannot stop weeping for our sorrow.
For the Christian’s life is life under the cross. And the cross transforms our experience to its opposite: our despair and darkness is confidence and light by virtue the presence of God’s promise, and our weeping is comfort and joy in the light of the cross of Christ, by whose power our death and sorrow has already been banished—even as they are doing their worst to us.
And to say that, you could either write an essay. Or just set it all to music and say it without having to say anything.
Lutherans, unlike everyone else it seems, stand to pray and sit to sing. Why?
The reason for sitting for hymns is almost certainly entirely prosaic. Lutheran hymns were traditionally long, and often sung very slowly. If hymns last 20 minutes or more, sitting down is quite sensible. Since that’s rarely an issue these days, perhaps this is a tradition we would do well to reconsider.
As for prayer, the Bible knows three postures for prayer: standing, kneeling and prostration. All of these are ways of recognising the fact that when we pray we are in God’s presence.
Just as we stand in the presence of a judge or a monarch, we stand in the presence of God—unless of course we kneel or prostrate ourselves. These latter postures are expressions of humility and penitence, of our dependence on God and our unworthiness. This is why kneeling for prayers of penitence (such as the Confession) is particularly appropriate. Again, perhaps this is something for us to reconsider.
Since … salvation is given by Christ, it’s certainty can only be further planted by Christ. They must therefore progress from the concept of community which is always a subjective thing and only the consequence of the planting done by Christ and the continued planting of the certainty of salvation intended by him to the concept of an agency as an objective which first give birth to the community.
A.F.C. Vilmar, The Theology of Facts versus the Theology of Rhetoric: Confession and Defense, 71
From time to time, I add a little section called ‘Liturgical Titbits’ to the service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church. The idea is that, over time, the congregation’s knowledge and understanding of various aspects of the liturgy will grow—and bring about a growing appreciation thereof.
These pieces are, as the name suggests, very brief, so that people will bother to read them, and have little trouble learning, marking and inwardly digesting them.
Inspired by this post by John Halton, here’s last Sunday’s entry (the longest one yet). I will post others as and when.
P.S. These little snippets are never scholarly and rarely very complete. I hope they are accurate, though. So liturgiologists, don’t nit-pick!
Liturgical Titbits: Whole-Body Worship
Some people have a deep suspicion of any kind of ‘bowing and scraping’. Worship is a matter of the soul and the mind, to be done in words, not gestures.
Though this is well-meaning, it is not how the Bible speaks. The biblical words for “worship”, in both Hebrew and Greek, mean physical postures: bowing, kneeling, prostration.
Just as we were created body, mind and soul, God saves us body, mind and soul (“I believe in the resurrection of the body!”). And so it is appropriate to worship Him with body, mind and soul. At the same time, physical gestures can be helpful ways to remind and teach our minds the meaning of what we speak and sing.
Therefore, you may:
* at the altar on entering and leaving the church, to acknowledge its role as a symbol of God’s presence, and the presence of Christ in the Sacrament
* during the doxology at the end of the Psalm (‘Glory be to the Father, etc.’), as a sign of reverence for the Triune God
* during the words ‘and was incarnate … and was made man’ in the Creed, as a sign of reverence for the mystery of the incarnation (but not originally: see next page)
* during the first half of the Sanctus (‘Holy, holy, holy…’), as a sign of reverence for the presence of God.
In Isaiah 6, where this song comes from, Isaiah didn’t just bow, but prostrated himself at God’s presence.
* whenever we sing of worshipping God (e.g. in the Gloria in excelsis and the Venite in Matins), since that’s what the word ‘worship’ usually means.
Christians throughout the centuries have also bowed their head at the mention of the name of Jesus, on the basis of Philippians 2:9–11. This includes the conclusion of the Collect (… ‘through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord…’).
Kneel (or genuflect) :
* during the words “and was incarnate … and was made man” in the Creed. Bowing (see previous page) was introduced as a less arduous alternative in the 1960s.
* all the way from the Proper Preface (‘It is truly good, right and salutary…) to the end of the Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’), as a sign of reverence for the great mystery of Christ’s presence in the sacrament. Or, at least:
* during the Words of Institution. Or, at least:
* following the consecration of each element, to acknowledge and reverence the presence of Christ’s body and blood in our midst.
* whenever we sing of kneeling before God (e.g. in the Venite in Matins)
Raise your hands: This is the customary stance for prayer. Jewish people have prayed with uplifted arms for as long as we know, and it was also assumed to be the posture of prayer by St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:8).
Make the sign of the cross:
* whenever the name of the Triune God is pronounced over, or by, the Christian. This is in remembrance of our Baptism.
* during the announcing of the Gospel and the words of Christ in the Words of Institution. This is to acknowledge that Christ comes to us in grace, as at our Baptism.
Bach didn’t write any cantatas for the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, so this Sunday’s offering is for the First Sunday after the Epiphany. The libretto meditates on the Gospel selection from Luke 2:41–52, where Mary and Joseph lose the 12-year-old Jesus—and then find Him in the Temple, where He had been all along.
The unknown poet whose text Bach set takes the idea of losing, searching for, and finding, Jesus as his theme and spiritualises it: transposing Mary’s distress to the soul who has lost Jesus on account of his own sin—and then finds Him where He had been all along: in Word and Sacrament. All good CA VII stuff!
Here’s a little taster: first, the start of the opening tenor aria, with anguish and distress in every note, every diminished chord, every dramatic pause:
My dearest Jesus is lost:
Oh word that brings me despair,
Oh sword that pierces through my soul,
Oh thunderous word in my ears.
Then part of the penultimate movement, a delightful duet for alto and tenor solo, rejoicing in the happy conclusion (and proving yet again, if it were needed, that no composer does joy quite so splendidly as Bach!):
How happy I am, Jesus is found,
Now I am troubled no more.,
He whom my sould loves,
Reveals Himself to me in hours of joy.
I want never again to abandon you, my Jesus,
I want constantly to embrace you in faith.
The soloists are Gerd Türk, tenor, and the incomparable Robin Blaze, counter-tenor. The recording is from Vol. 17 of the complete cantata cycle from Bach Collegium Japan.
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Which was a poignant thing to sing at Brighton, where we also celebrated the confirmation service of Karina—because it was also the last time that she was with us. By this time next week, she will have settled in her new home across the North Sea.
But that is the joy of membership in the body of Christ: that the Kingdom, of which we are members, does stretch from shore to shore. That even when we are separated by land and sea—and time!—Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever; and so His body remains one and united. We may not see each other or hear each other’s voices: but our voices come together at the throne of the Lamb, wherever we are, together with the angels and the archangels, with the the apostles, the holy band of the martyrs, and Christians from all times.
If we were in the business of shopkeeping, we would never confirm a person in her final service with us. But as free citizen’s in God’s boundless kingdom, such foolish behaviour is joyful!
One of the joys of working on Sunday Cantata has been to delve into the texts of the chorales used in Bach’s cantatas. My policy has been to quote the translation in the Lutheran Service Book whenever possible, for the benefit of listeners who are familiar with the hymns.
Every now and then, however, I need to depart from the LSB translation, when it diverges too far from the German original. And that is always a bit of a worrying sign. Either the chorale in question is dodgy, which is obviously a little disappointing (I always like to think that Bach and the parish of Leipzig were not dodgy theologically); or the LSB translation has re-written a hymn for no apparent reason.
I haven’t come across any incidents of the first problem as yet in my research.
However, the other week, I did come across a depressing example of the latter type. While working on BWV 36, I was delighted at first to find the libretto include a verse from Philipp Nicolai’s ‘Queen of the Chorales’, Wie schön leuchtet. And then I discovered what the LSB (following the Lutheran Book of Worship and Lutheran Worship) does with it.
Here’s the German text of v. 6 of Nicolai’s text, with the relevant portion highlighted:
Zwingt die Saiten in Zithara
Und laßt die süße Musika
Ganz freudenreich erschallen, Daß ich möge mit Jesulein, Dem wunderschönen Bräut’gam mein, In steter Liebe wallen!
Dankt dem Herren!
Groß ist der König der Ehren!
And here’s the LBW/LW/LSB take on it:
O let the harbps break forth in sound!
Our joy be all with music crowned,
Our voices gladly blending! For Christ goes with us all the way— Today, tomorrow, ev’ry day! His love is never ending!
Sing out! Ring out!
Jubilation! Exaltation!Tell the story!
Great is He, the King of Glory!
What on earth happened there? The prayer “that I may in constant love sojourn with Jesus, my most beautiful Bridegroom” is not only turned upside-down (“Christ goes with us all the way”), but it is stripped of its very heart: Christ as the Bridegroom, whom I am to love as His bride.
Poke a little harder at the translation, and it turns out that this Bridegroom mysticism runs through the whole of Nicolai’s text—and is almost entirely removed from the LSB.
But not only from the LBW/LW/LSB. Turns out that the rot set in already in The Lutheran Hymnal.
I would be interested to know why. Anyone? I can’t think of a good reason myself. I mean, if the original was so bad, it shouldn’t be sung. And if it wasn’t, it shouldn’t have been emasculated.
In the meantime, if anyone is interested in re-translating the hymn and restoring its message, please get in touch. I will be more than happy to get it published! Mark Preus? Matthew Carver? Anyone?
This week’s episode of Sunday Cantata presents another gem, BWV 65: Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (They shall all come from Sheba), written for Epiphany 1724.
The libretto focuses on Isaiah 60:6, from the historic Epistle (these days, the Old Testament) reading for Epiphany. To whet your appetite, here’s the start of the first movement, a choral fantasia. Bach magnificently creates an atmosphere of exotic solemnity—it’s not hard to imagine an oriental caravan of camels making their way to Jerusalem from the East.
Another highlight is from the fifth movement recitative. It expresses a thought that’s familiar in the English speaking world from the final stanza of Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter—but what a difference the proper distinction of Law and Gospel makes.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
Not bad—but would benefit from a bit of a footnote, or at least a context beyond the rest of the poem (which focuses mostly on the marvel of the creator as a helpless infant).
Here’s Bach’s librettist (identity unknown):
Do not despise,
O light of my soul,
My heart, which I humbly bring to You,
For it holds such things
As are fruits of Your Spirit.
The gold of faith,
The incense of prayer,
The myrrh of patience;
These are my gifts,
Which you, Jesus, shall evermore
Have as your own and as a gift.
But give Yourself to me also,
And make me
The richest man on earth;
For, when I have you, I must
Inherit the greatest riches in abundance
One day in Heaven.
Tune in this Sunday at 3 am, 11 am, 3 pm or 9 pm (GMT), or afterwards whenever you like through the programme page.