Jesus lost and found

Another preview of Sunday Cantata.

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.

They shall all come from Sheba

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.

Here’s Rossetti:

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
Within itself
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.

An absolute gem…

…from Salomo Franck and J.S. Bach.

I have just finished the script for next Sunday’s Sunday Cantata on Lutheran Radio UK, on Bach’s cantata BWV 132, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn, for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. (If you haven’t heard the earlier episodes yet, visit the programme page to catch up! And send me your feedback at info@lutheranradio.co.uk or through Facebook.)

And what a delight it has been to delve into this masterpiece, a perfect marriage of music and theology. Just to think that Bach churned these out first once a month, and then once a fortnight or even weekly, for several years!

I won’t post all the music here, obviously. For that, you need to listen to the programme. Or buy the recordings. I can’t recommend highly enough the set from Bach Collegium Japan used by Lutheran Radio UK.

But do enjoy the start of the first movement, with its brilliant word painting: the soprano’s meandering crooked path (on the word ‘Bahn’)  being made straight as she sings joyfully of preparing for the coming of the Messiah.

[audio:http://simonpotamos.org.uk/audio/BWV-132-I.-Aria-soprano-Bereitet-die-Wege-bereitet-die-Bahn.mp3]

Here are the words in English. Note the wonderfully crafted movement from the promise of Christ’s coming and the need for preparation by faith and life, through the accusation of the Law, the confession of sin, and absolution on the basis of your baptism, to a prayer for God to sanctify the believer. Straight out of the Catechism!

The Cantata is based on the Gospel reading for next Sunday, John 1:19–28.

Prepare the ways and level the path!
Prepare the ways
And make the paths
Of faith and life
Quite even for the Highest.
The Messiah is coming!

If you will call yourself a child of God and Christ’s brother,
you must freely confess the Saviour with your heart and mouth.
Yes, your entire life must bear witness your faith!
If the words and teaching of Christ
Must also be sealed through your blood,
Then offer yourself willingly!
For this is the Christian’s crown and glory.
Meanwhile, my heart, prepare
Even today
The way of faith for the Lord,
And clear away the hills and the mountains
Which stand in the way!
Roll back the heavy stones of sin,
Receive your Saviour,
That He may be united with you in faith!

Who are you? Ask your conscience,
You shall have to, without hypocrisy,
Hear your just sentence, whether you are false or true.
Who are you? Consult the Commandments,
They will tell you who you are,
A child of wrath in Satan’s net,
A false and hypocritical Christian.

I shall, my God, confess to You openly,
I have until now not confessed You properly!
Although my mouth and lips have called You Lord and Father,
my heart has turned away from You.
I have denied You by my life!
How can You give a good testimony of me?
O Jesus, when Your bath of spirit and water
Cleansed me from my misdeeds,
I did in truth swear constant faith to You;
Alas! but alas! The bond of baptism’s bond has been torn asunder.
I rue my faithlessness.
O God, have mercy!
O help me, that with steadfast fidelity
I may always renew through faith the covenant of Grace!

Members of Christ, ah consider
What the Saviour has given you
Through the pure bath of baptism!
At the spring of blood and water
Your clothes become bright,
Which had been stained by misdeeds.
Christ gave you new garments,
Red purple, white silk,
These are a Christian’s garb.

Mortify us through Thy goodness,
Awaken us through Thy grace;
Make the old man sick,
That the new may live well
Here upon this earth,
To direct his mind and desires
And his thoughts towards You.

A master on a master

A wonderful little video from BIS on Masaaki Suzuki’s latest offering of Bach’s sacred choral music. It’s a great testimony to the spiritual significance of the music, not only to Bach but to all who hear it.

Enjoy!