In next week’s Sunday Cantata, you will be treated to an extraordinary musical experience: a pair of oboes accompanied by a symphony of bells (as rendered by pizzicato strings). The lower strings, cellos and basses, play slow funeral bells, while the upper strings, violins and violas, play faster, more celestial bells. One set to ring good-bye from this world, the other to ring welcome from the world to come.
All to accompany these thoroughly disturbing words:
Ah, strike soon, blessed hour,
The very final stroke of the bell!
Come, come, I reach my hands towards you
Come, make an end to my distress,
You day of death for which I have long sighed!
Disturbing, because in reality most of us don’t feel like that, or even believe that one could or should. We cling to this dear life like a pig to a loaf, as we Finns say. All the while forgetting the apostle’s words—and the fact of the matter—that “for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Have a little foretaste of this musical and theological treat here. The rest will be available live on Lutheran Radio UK on Sunday and thereafter here.
English translation: Francis Browne
Performance: Bach Collegium Japan (cond. Masaaki Suzuki) and Makuto Sakurada, tenor.
Here’s an extract from the episode of Sunday Cantata on 25 August 2013 on Lutheran Radio UK. You can listen to the whole programme here. The first part of the programme demonstrates how these words apply to the cantata of the day, BWV 33.
One of the important questions for all church musicians—and indeed for clergy and congregations—is: what is the role of music in worship. Of course, much music in the church’s worship is there to set and adorn the text of the liturgy and the hymns and songs of the church. What sort of music ought to be used to set these texts? How should they be accompanied? What about other music? Should there be any other music? What kinds of music are appropriate? Can there be instrumental music? What’s it all there for?
The answer to these questions has varied from era to era and from one Christian denomination to another. It’s not uncommon to go to church services where the congregation is reduced to a concert audience, listening to and hopefully appreciating the efforts of the professionals who do the music making. This phenomenon has occurred across the board—in modern megachurches, in Anglican cathedrals of the last few centuries, in sixteenth-century Roman Catholic city churches. Other churches are so indifferent to the role of music in worship that almost anything goes and little attention is paid to anything other than that the job gets somehow done.
Both of these extremes would have been completely alien to the devout and diligent Lutheran church musician that was Johann Sebastian Bach, and to most of his colleagues. For Bach, music had a very specific task in the church, whether that music was accompanying congregational singing, or playing a chorale prelude on the organ, or performing a cantata. That task was to move the hearers, the congregation. By this, I don’t mean mere emotional manipulation. Rather, the music was there to present the words of the liturgy, the biblical text, the text of a hymn, or the libretto of a cantata, in such a way as to drive them home to the hearts of the hearers. It served as a handmaiden to theology, to assist proclamation and to give added rhetorical force to it.
This is why Baroque composers such as Bach took such pains to find the most appropriate musical expression for the words they were setting. They used all their skill to paint significant words and phrases, to create the right atmosphere and mood for the words with harmony, rhythm and instrumentation, and composed melodies best suited to bringing out the meaning and amplifying it in such a way as to make sure that the hearers, the Christian congregation, were not left untouched by what they heard. The right words combined with the right music—the perfect tool for kindling a response of faith.
This overriding concern in cantata-writing also explains why it made perfect sense to write chorale cantatas. When the words of the hymn were re-cast as poetic paraphrases and re-set as choral fantasias, arias and recitatives, the familiar congregational song was dressed in a fresh garb designed to make a fresh impact on the gathered assembly, to move them in a new way to repentance and to faith.
Contented peace, beloved delight of the soul,
You cannot be found among the sins of hell,
But only where there is heavenly harmony;
You alone strengthen the weak breast.
For this reason nothing but the gifts of virtue
Should have any place in my heart.
Some months ago, and at the end of a longer article, Pr. David Petersen quoted a hymn by Luther that was still included in The Lutheran Hymnal (no. 260) but was left out of the Lutheran Service Book. Like a lot of TLH hymns that didn’t make it into LSB, this one’s a time-tested treasure of the church. It’s a paraphrase of Psalm 12, applied to the Church.
1. O Lord, look down from heaven, behold
And let Thy pity waken:
How few are we within Thy Fold,
Thy saints by men forsaken!
True faith seems quenched on every hand,
Men suffer not Thy Word to stand;
Dark times have us o’ertaken.
2. With fraud which they themselves invent
Thy truth they have confounded;
Their hearts are not with one consent
On Thy pure doctrine grounded.
While they parade with outward show,
They lead the people to and fro,
In error’s maze astounded.
3. May God root out all heresy
And of false teachers rid us
Who proudly say: “Now, where is he
That shall our speech forbid us?
By right or might we shall prevail;
What we determine cannot fail;
We own no lord and master.”
4. Therefore saith God, “I must arise,
The poor My help are needing;
To Me ascend My people’s cries,
And I have heard their pleading.
For them My saving Word shall fight
And fearlessly and sharply smite,
The poor with might defending.”
5. As silver tried by fire is pure
From all adulteration,
So through God’s Word shall men endure
Each trial and temptation.
Its light beams brighter through the cross,
And, purified from human dross,
It shines through every nation.
6. Thy truth defend, O God, and stay
This evil generation;
And from the error of their way
Keep Thine own congregation.
The wicked everywhere abound
And would Thy little flock confound;
But Thou art our Salvation.
(Pr. Petersen also relates some incidents at the time of the reformation, when this hymn was used as an anti-heresy shield by congregations if a false preacher got up in the pulpit!)
In 1724, to mark the bicentenary of the publication of the first ever Lutheran hymnal, J.S. Bach began a project whose aim was to compose a chorale cantata for every Sunday of the church year.
Usually, church cantatas were based on biblical texts, such as the Gospel reading of the day. The chorale cantata was a new venture: to take the hymn of the day and turn it into a cantata, with the usual choir, soloists and orchestra. Usually, the text of the first and last verse would be presented as they were, while the words of the inner verses would be paraphrased in a series of recitatives and arias. The chorale tune would be heard in some version in the opening movement, and be sung in four-part harmony as the closing movement.
For reasons not entirely clear to us, Bach never completed the cycle (probably he lost his librettist), although he did get through most of the year.
The chorale cantata for the second Sunday after Trinity (last Sunday), BWV, was a setting of none other than this great anti-heresy anthem. It was my privilege to introduce it in last week’s episode of Sunday Cantata on Lutheran Radio UK.
To encourage you to go and listen to it here, here’s a little taster of the opening movement. It’s written in a deliberately archaic style, as a conscious nod to the past, as befits a project that sets out to celebrate the present benefits of a past event.
The chorale tune itself is sung by the altos of the choir, reinforced by the oboe. Around it, the choir sings a solemn fugue, based on the melody.
Coming up on Sunday Cantata next week: BWV 12, Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen.
I have often said—and in this I am far from alone—that no one does joy quite as well as Bach does. When it comes to melancholy, Mozart gives J.S. a run for his money. But then there is music like the opening sinfonia of Weinen, klagen, and the question becomes settled.
A solitary oboe singing a heart-aching lament, accompanied by ‘sighing’ strings. By the time the choir enters with the words of lament—the opening words mean rougly “Weeping, lamentation, worry, apprehension”—the listeners’ hearts have been prepared for them without a word being uttered.
This is a good example of the right use of music as an affective tool in worship: to give expression to what the words are saying in such a way as to assist the congregation in better assimilating them. All the best hymns do that, and no one did it better than Bach.
Here is a BBC radio documentary about the extraordinary story of Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan whose Bach recordings have blown away Bach performance—and opened unexpected doors for the Gospel in Japan.
These are the recordings we feature on Lutheran Radio UK’s Sunday Cantata. Listening to this, you will know why.
If you want to get hold of the BCJ Japan recordings, I can heartily recommend eClassical.com, who sell them as high-quality downloads (the more recent volumes at studio quality) at a very affordable price. You can also download the CD booklets, for no extra charge.
Here’s the blurb for the programme from BBC:
The story of how a group of remarkable Japanese musicians overthrew centuries of tradition – and prejudice – to become one of the of the world’s most brilliant baroque music ensembles. Presented by Roland Buerk.
A musical revolution is in the air. After three centuries as the undisputed masters of Johann Sebastian Bach’s legacy, Germany has found itself rudely usurped…by Japan.
The Bach Collegium Japan – and their musical director, Masaaki Suzuki – are a phenomenon. Founded in 1990, they’ve overcome the cultural prejudices of a snooty musical world to become one of the most lauded baroque musical ensembles in the world.
The BCJ have won major award after major award for their extraordinary complete series of Bach’s cantatas: the Mount Everest of baroque music, numbering more than 200 works and 50 CDs of some of the most beautiful – and challenging – music ever written.
Critics praise the remarkable clarity, finesse and sheer musicianship of their performances: readings that throw off hundreds of years of European baggage to reveal the unadorned beauty and raw devotion of the notes beneath.
Yet wasn’t always this way. When Suzuki set up the BCJ more than two decades ago, Western critics were in stitches. “Don’t worry – this isn’t Bach in kimonos”, chuckled one reviewer – after all, how could a nation with its an entirely alien musical and cultural tradition – a place where classical music and Christianity were decidedly minority interests – master some of the most complex, subtle and devotional music ever written?
They’re not laughing now. Critics and members of the public alike queue around the block to catch a glimpse of the ensemble in rehearsal – whilst their CDs sell in their hundreds of thousands across the globe.
In “Mr Suzuki’s Bach Passion”, Roland Buerk follows the BCJ as they prepare for the latest in their acclaimed series of performances – recorded in February this year, and featuring exclusive excerpts from the group’s latest series of cantata recordings, as well as their acclaimed readings of the St John and St Matthew Passions, and Bach’s B Minor Mass.
As momentum builds towards a sell-out performance at Tokyo’s vast Opera City Hall, Roland investigates the roots of Japan’s love affair with JS Bach and the BCJ – trying to pin down why a nation with less than 3% Christian population is so taken with this highly contemplative, devotional religious music.
Is there something in the Japanese national psyche that mirrors the unadorned aesthetic beauty of JS Bach’s music? How much does a musical culture require a tradition – and how much is it hindered by it? And does an age-old Western claim about Japanese society – that it is brilliant at copying and refining, yet can lack true originality – apply to the BCJ’s music? Or does it merely reflect Western prejudices?
Roland also reflects on the message of hope imbued in Bach’s music – and its power to heal – in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March this year.
Contributors include Masaaki Suzuki, director of the Bach Collegium Japan; Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music; Catholic priest Fr. Takehiro ‘Gus’ Kunii; Robert von Bahr, founder of BIS records; and the celebrated German tenor and BCJ soloist Gerd Tuerk.
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.