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?
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.