Strike soon, blessed hour

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.

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.]

More bad things done to good hymns

My researches for Sunday Cantata keep throwing up wonderful Lutheran chorales that never made it into English, or have been forgotten entirely. More distressing still is to find that hymns that have survived have been sadly mistreated by translators and/or hymnal editors.

The latest exhibit for this latter category, from BWV 166, Bach’s cantata for Cantate Sunday (5th of, or 4th after, Easter, depending on which way you like to count): Ämilie Juliane von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt’s hymn Wer weiss wie nahe mir mein Ende.

Here’s how Bach gives us verse one in that cantata:

[Performed by Bach Collegium Japan]

(Listen to the whole thing this Sunday on Lutheran Radio UK)

The original has 12 verses. TLH gave us 11 of them as Who Knows  When Death May Overtake Me (TLH 598), a translation reproduced also in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELH 483).

Question 1: If you’re willing to sing 11 verses, why not 12?

The missing verse is no. 7:

Ich weiß, in Jesu Blut und Wunden
hab ich mir recht und wohl gebett ;
da find ich Trost in Todesstunden,
und alles, was ich gerne hätt.
Mein Gott, ich bitt’ durch Christi Blut:
Mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut!

An English prose translation by Francis Browne (on the marvellous site bach-cantatas.com) reads as follows:

I know that in Jesus’ blood and wounds
It is right and good for me to make my bed;
There may I find consolation in the hour of death
And everything I would happily have.
My God, I pray through Christ’s blood:
Make sure my end is good.

Why would you want to leave that out? Makes me want to know:

Question 2: What’s wrong with the blood of Jesus?

You see, not only do they leave out the bloody verse. Jesus’ blood is veritably written out of the hymn.

If you know TLH (or ELH) well, you will know that there is a refrain at the end of each verse, which goes like this: “My God, for Jesus’ sake I pray / Thy peace may bless my dying day.”

Except that it doesn’t. The German reads:

Mein Gott, ich bitt’ durch Christi Blut:
Mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut!

That’s the blood of Christ. Something like, “My God, I pray through Jesus’ blood / Make Thou my life’s end only good.” (OK, so I’m no Shakespeare. Sorry.)

Verse11 (10 in TLH/ELH) declares in the original:

“I am and remain in his care,
fairly adorned with Christ’s blood.”

But the hymnal simply states:

“He grants the peace that stills all sorrow / Gives me a robe without a spot.”

The only blood the translators didn’t write out is the direct reference to the Lord’s Supper (verse 10/9). Which makes me wonder:

Question 3: Is it hard to tell the difference between cause and effect?

The translators seem to prefer translating Blut as ‘peace’. Now, as any well-catechised child will tell you, the blood of Christ does bring us  peace with God. That’s why we have the Pax Domini in the liturgy, and that’s why we have it where we have it.

But the blood and the peace aren’t the same thing. The one brings about the other. They are not synonymous. So why on earth would you treat them as synonymous?

Which leads us to:

Question 4: Why would the editors of a conservative Lutheran hymnal go to such lengths to avoid talking about the blood of Jesus (except in the Lord’s Supper, when they can’t get away from it)? Could it be that they were crypto-Ritschlians, perhaps without realising it?

As someone once sang, Ritschl shall reign where’er the sun

Question 5: Given that, even with such a deficient translation, this is a pretty stunning hymn (do read the whole of Browne’s translation, together with the original German, here), why would it be culled even further in the finest modern English-language Lutheran hymnbook, the Lutheran Service Book? All that remains of the 12 verses are  9, 10 and 12 in what has been re-cut as a baptismal hymn (‘Once in the Blessed Baptismal Waters’, LSB 598).

What on earth for? There are plenty of fine baptismal hymns in LSB as it is. No need to go a-butchering for another one, thus depriving the church of the opportunity to reflect on what gives us confidence on the edge of the grave.

And finally: You just heard the tune used in Bach’s time for this hymn: Georg Neumark’s Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten. Why would it be replaced by the later unremarkable creation used in TLH, ELH and LSB?

But at least that’s only a matter of opinion.

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:

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.

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!

A Musician of the Cross

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?

1:

2:

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.

B:
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.

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.