Some thoughts on long hymns

An extract from the Sunday Cantata episode for Trinity 24, first aired on 3 November 2013 on Lutheran Radio UK.

In my life so far, I have been fortunate enough to have lived in a number of different countries. In fact, I have moved around enough to consider myself a bit of a home-grown expert on culture shock. And one of the things I have noticed is that often the experience of culture shock is greatest when the differences are small but significant, rather than really big. So, for example, moving from Northern Europe to East Africa was very interesting in all sorts of ways, but going from England to the Midwest of the USA brought about a much bigger shock to the system!

Going from a church service within one denomination to a different one can also be a bit of a culture shock. Things that you take for granted are missing, or done very differently, and you will encounter things you didn’t expect at all.

So if you engaged in a bit of time travel and went to church in Leipzig in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, when Johann Sebastian Bach was serving as the director of music to the main churches of that city, even if you are a lifelong Lutheran, I suspect that you would be quite vulnerable to a good dose of culture shock—precisely in the area where the differences are small but significant. The powdered wigs, the body odours, the strange language—those you would expect. But the three-hour service with its one-hour sermon? That might be harder to take.

But it wasn’t only the sermon that made the services last so long. There was, of course, the church cantata for the day, which would usually last between 15 and 30 minutes.

And then, there were the hymns! Lutheran hymn singing is rarely done these days as it was then. I mean, a first-time visitor to a Lutheran church in England may have a look through our hymnal and think that some of our longer hymns with, say 10 stanzas, are a bit on the long side, not to say heavy in their content. But consider this: many of those 10-verse hymns were originally much longer. Some of the longer ones have been split into two separate hymns with, say 6 or 8 verses each. And some others fell out of use altogether as people grew impatient with three-hour services and 30-minute hymns. The longest hymn I have quoted in Sunday Cantata in the course of the past church year had 32 verses. The longest Lutheran hymn I’ve ever sung has 41 verses of eight lines each.

There’s a very good reason for this phenomenon. In Lutheran theology, hymns serve a wider range of purposes than perhaps in most of the rest of Christendom. All Christians sing hymns that praise God and hymns that are prayers addressed to Him. One of the distinctive features of Lutheran hymnody is that much of it is catechetical, which is to say that it is designed to teach God’s word to the congregation. And teaching takes words, and it takes time. And so, we have long hymns—but we also had congregations who were immersed in biblical doctrine through singing it repeatedly, without a hurry. It’s hard to deny that we have lost out when we have opted to spend our time differently as a church.

The purpose of music in the church

Sunday CantataHere’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

This beautiful aria was our Communion anthem today at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, from Bach’s Cantata BWV 170, Vergnügte Ruh, to words by Georg Christian Lehms (1684–1717).

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.

As it happens, this cantata was also the subject of today’s Sunday Cantata. If you missed it, you can catch up by visiting Lutheran Radio UK’s website.

[The singer is Robin Blaze, on Vol. 37 of Bach Collegium Japan’s complete set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. Translation: Francis Brown, reproduced by permission of the translator and bach-cantats.com.]

Sorrow to joy in one simple step

How do you go from this,

and this,

to this,

and this?

Simple: by being found by the Good Shepherd!

The full story, via Bach’s cantata BWV 21,  in Sunday Cantata on Lutheran Radio UK this Sunday (16 June), and thereafter on demand on the website.

Don’t miss it!

P.S. Don’t you just love that final sucker-punch of an ‘Alleluia!’?

Anti-heresy anthem

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.

[In this recording, Bach Collegium Japan is joined by Concerto Palatino.]

How to grieve without words

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’s the music, from Vol. 3 of Bach Collegium Japan‘s complete set. Listen to the whole work on Lutheran Radio UK next Sunday.

The Right Response to a Great Tragedy

There’s a good post over on Steadfast Lutherans by Pr. Nathan Higgins on how to respond to a national tragedy. The substance of the post is summarised in the opening sentence:

Perhaps the best way to respond to a national tragedy – or any kind of tragedy, is with mourning, repentance, and faith.

In case you were wondering about this, Jesus seems to agree.

By a complete coincidence, this Sunday’s Sunday Cantata will be showcasing a cantata written for a penitential service in response to a great tragedy. That’s right: a penitential service. On 30 May, the city of Muhlhausen suffered a terrible fire, in which several hundred houses were destroyed. They responded by holding a penitential service in one of the town churches, St. Blasius. For that occasion, the newly-appointed organist of St. Blasius, 22-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach.

The text of the Cantata is Psalm 130, and no one is surprised that Bach does an absolutely sublime job on setting it. The music is full of unresolved tensions—which are only resolved on the word “Forgiveness”. And the whole piece ends on the major dominant chord: we are left waiting for God’s answer, but in full confidence that it will come.

Here is what Masaaki Suzuki, founder and director of Bach Collegium Japan, has to say:

This psalm tells of ‘the depths of our sins’, and traditionally it seems that the descending fifth interval was often employed to express these depths. Both Luther’s chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From depths of woe I cry to Thee), which Bach later used in his cantata No.38, and Psalm 130 of the Genevan Psalter, compiled by Jean Calvin, begin with this motif of the descending fifth. Bach, too, opens his cantata BWV131 with this same motif, and relates the words of the psalm with deep passion.
In fact the sense of ‘sin’ against the Absolute Being does not exist in the traditional Japanese mentality. In Japan, ‘sin’ has always been something relative, and it is believed that sins are washed away as time passes. However, ‘sin’ as taught in the Bible can be forgiven only by God, and not by one’s own self. Therefore, in this cantata, Bach stresses that only God can give forgiveness by using the dissonant major seventh chord and its resolution only once on the word ‘Vergebung’ (Forgiveness)( BWV131, No.2). The longing for God is sung fervently by the alto and tenor (opening of No.3), and the night watch waits longingly for the morning, which signifies redemption, as expressed in the sustained tone in the tenor aria (opening of No.4).

Bach’s cantatas continue to tell the Bible’s messages vividly through the universal language of music, just like the biblical stories portrayed in stained glass in churches, even in this predominantly non-Christian country, Japan.

Here’s a little taster:

War and Peace

In the next episode of Sunday Cantata, we will hear BWV 126, Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, a chorale cantata on the hymn by Luther, known in English as ‘Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word‘.

I won’t say much here—listen to the episode on Lutheran Radio UK!—except this:

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:

That says it all!