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.]

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.

Mr. Suzuki’s Bach Passion

Masaaki SuzukiHere 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.

Click here to go to listen on the BBC website. I don’t know whether it is available to listen to outside the UK)

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.

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.