Sunday, August 17, 2008

TRINITY 13: Love the Lord, Love Your Neighbor

You shall love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
Bach's cantata BWV 77, "Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben," begins with one of his most remarkable choruses, which majestically sets forth the two greatest commandments of Scripture. In his performance notes on this chorus, John Eliot Gardiner says,
Here is one of those breathtaking, monumental opening choruses that defy rational explanation: how an overworked, jobbing church musician, locked into numbing routines, could have come up with anything so prodigious and not, as we have seen, in an isolated work, but as part of a weekly cycle of coherent works. Bach aims to demonstrate, by means of every musical device available to him, the centrality of the two "great" commandments of the New Testament and how "on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."
Within the opening chorus, the voices state the New Testament commandment while the orchestra plays a chorale tune that his listeners would have recognized as a hymn of Martin Luther on the Ten Commandments, the Old Testament summary of God's laws. This is done in canon form, to show the inseparable relation between the two.

There are additional complexities that lend themselves to in-depth interpretation of what Bach was trying to communicate through this amazing chorus and the pieces which follow in BWV 77. Suffice it to say for our purposes that this cantata is a masterpiece of Biblical and theological communication, calling and moving us to love God and our neighbors.

Gardiner believes that Bach intentionally composed a cycle of works in Leipzig from Sundays 8-12 in Trinity, taking the Old Testament laws, reinterpreting them in terms of the Gospel passages for each Sunday, and then finding ways to apply their truths to his contemporary listeners. In fact, these cantatas may have been the work of a single librettist. In such craftsmanship, we see the power of Scripture combined with music, especially music as rich and profound as Bach's, to "teach and admonish" God's children.

The soprano aria summarizes the appropriate response to this teaching:
My God, I love You from my heart,
my entire life depends on You.
Let me only understand Your commandments
and be enflamed with such love,
that I will be able to love You forever.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

TRINITY 12: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty!

Joachim Neander, 1650-1680

One of Bach's cantatas for Trinity 12 takes a different form. Cantata BWV 137 creates variations on the five verses of Joachim Neander's great hymn,"Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren,"
which English hymn singers know as, "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty."

This happens to be one of my favorite hymns, so it is a special delight to meditate on Bach's rendition. The overall impression of the piece is like that of a small stream that grows in depth and fullness as it moves toward the sea. The melody becomes more and more prominent as the cantata unfolds, until the chorale of the final verse, where the hymn is heard in all its glory.
Praise the Lord, who surely blesses your condition,
who from heaven rains down streams of love;
consider this,
what the Almighty can do,
who comes to meet you with love!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Long Season of Trinity (Pentecost)

The season of "ordinary" time (time marked by days instead of seasons) is a long one in the liturgical calendar. My posts during this period have been fewer, primarily because I don't have access to as many of the recordings of the cantatas that were written for these Sundays. However, I just procured John Eliot Gardiner's recording for Sundays 12-13 in Trinity, so I will be listening to those and sharing thoughts in the next two weeks.

My summer vacation is now over. Back to Bach!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

First Sunday after Trinity

Bach wrote three cantatas for the first Sunday after Trinity.
  • Cantata BWV 20, "O eternity, O word of thunder," is an emotional meditation on eternity, particularly the mournful state of an eternal existence separated from God.
  • Cantata BWV 75, "The wretched shall eat that they become satisfied," is about the joy of having true spiritual riches, though one may experience poverty and hardship in this life.
  • Cantata BWV 39, "Break your bread with the hungry," which we shall deal with in this post.
This moving piece praises the generosity of God to humans, who could not take a breath without his gracious provision, and then calls upon us to act with similar beneficence toward those less fortunate. The following prayer expresses this beautifully.
How shall I then, Lord, sufficiently repay you
for the good that you have done for my body and soul?
Yes, what I still receive, and that by no means seldom,
since at every hour I can give you praise?
I have nothing of my own but my soul to give to you,
to my neighbour, the desire that I may be of service to him,
to the poor, what you have granted me in this life
and when it pleases you, this weak body to the earth.
I bring what I can, may it please you
that someday I may gather from it what you have promised.
This portion of the church year, known as the season after Pentecost, the Trinity season, or "ordinary" time (time marked day by day), is when the church learns to live out the salvation bestowed on her by God's grace, the great acts of which are celebrated in the first part of the liturgical calendar.

There is no better way to begin this season than to remember that we who have been saved by grace must live grateful and gracious lives.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday is a fitting ending for the first half of the church year, during which we celebrate God's saving acts in history through Jesus Christ, from the promise of his coming (Advent) to his ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit (Pentecost). Trinity Sunday steps back from the historical focus of these liturgical seasons and fixes our attention theologically on the Triune God, who has brought us redemption.

Bach's cantata 129, "Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott," is pure celebration of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here is the text.

Praised be the Lord,
my God, my light, my life,
my creator, who has given to me
my body and soul,
my father, who protects me
from my mother's womb,
who at every moment
has done much good for me.

Praised be the Lord,
my God, my salvation, my life,
the Father's dearest son
who gave himself for me,
who has redeemed me
with his precious blood,
who in faith bestows on me
his very self, the greatest good.

Praised be the Lord,
my God, my consolation, my life,
the Father's worthy spirit,
whom his son gave to me,
who quickens my heart,
who gives me new strength,
who in all my need
provides counsel, comfort and help.

Praised be the Lord
my God who lives for ever
whom all things praise that soar in all the breezes;
praised be the Lord
whose name is called holy,
God the Father, God the Son
and God the Holy Spirit.

To him we now "Holy"
with joy make resound
and with the angelic host
sing "Holy, holy",
who is sincerely praised and glorified
by all of Christendom:
praised be my God
in all eternity.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Day of Pentecost

Bach's exhilarating cantata 172, "Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!" (Ring out, you songs! Resound, you strings!) calls upon us to relive the coming of the Spirit, to open our hearts to his loving presence. "Up, up, prepare yourself!" he calls.

O paradise of souls
through which the Spirit of God breathes,
who blew at the creation
the Spirit, who never passes away,
up, up, prepare yourself,
the comforter draws near.

A.W. Tozer once remarked that the people who would be most surprised if the Spirit came upon us in power are those in the church. We are either so used to the status quo, so unaware of spiritual realities, so conservative and resistant to newness or, on the other hand, so attached to shallow sentimentality, emotionalism and entertainment that we fail to allow God to communicate with us in the depths of our hearts, minds and spirits.

Bach will have none of this. Listen to this passionate and thoughtful conversation between a believer (sung by the soprano) and the Holy Spirit (alto). In this gentle, intimate duet, the two melodies are interwoven tenderly to portray the loving give and take of their relationship.

Come , let me wait no longer,

come, you gentle wind of heaven,

blow through the garden of my heart!

I refresh you, my child!

Dearest love, who are so delightful,
abundance of all joys,
I shall die, if I have to be without you!

Take from me the kiss of grace!

Welcome in faith to me,
Highest love, come within!
You have taken my heart from me!

I am yours, and you are mine!

New Testament Christianity knows nothing of a merely academic, intellectual faith. Nor does it allow a faith that consists only of duty and service. As Jonathan Edwards reminded us, "religious affections" that spring from the Holy Spirit pouring out his love into our hearts are part and parcel of the Christ-following way.

How well Bach captures this on the Day of Pentecost!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Silent too long...

Like most pilgrims on the journey of spiritual disciplines, I occasionally lose my way. It's long past time to get "bach" to work here on this blog.

Thankfully, Easter is a season and not just a day, so we'll follow Lenten silence and wayward wandering with posts on several Easter cantatas later this week.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Lenten Silence

When J.S. Bach lived and worked in Leipzig, the Lenten season was strictly observed, and instrumental music was not allowed in church or home. Bach composed only one cantata for the season (BWV 80), and that was done in Weimar many years earlier. The preeminent works during Lent were the Passions, performed on Holy Week. I will be listening to the St. Matthew Passion during the entire season of Lent and posting my comments.

I have chosen the recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrielli Players. This has been a somewhat controversial reading of Bach, using the theory of OVPP (one voice per part). Aside from disagreements over this theory, the McCreesh recording has received rave reviews, and I am looking forward to listening closely to it.

Friday, February 8, 2008


Check out the Bach Cantatas Website for a comprehensive look at these wonderful pieces of music, the Lutheran Church Year, and a wide variety of other pertinent information.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008


The story of Jesus stilling the storm in Matthew 8.23-27 forms the background of BWV 81, "Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?" (Jesus sleeps, what should be my hope?).

A tenor recitative early in the cantata makes reference to the Epiphany story and thus ties the whole season together:

Lord! why do you walk so far away?
Why do you hide yourself in the time of my distress
when everything threatens me with a lamentable end?
Ah, is your eye not moved by my distress
that at other times is never accustomed to sleep?
You showed with a star
once to the newly converted wise men
the right way to travel.
Ah guide me by the light of your eyes
since this way promises nothing but danger.

He who guided the magi by the star, he who spoke the word and calmed the tempest, is the Light who will guide in all our dark times. The final word of the season is, "Jesus stands by me."

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


This week, I am officiating or participating in four funeral services. This is nearly overwhelming, and my spirit is feeling the strain of looking mortality and grief in the face day after day. Bach's cantata for the third Sunday after Epiphany, BWV 156, "Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe" (I am standing with one foot in the grave) is a godsend on a week like this.

I am standing with one foot in the grave
Do with me, God, according to your goodness,
Soon my ailing body will fall in,
help me in my sorrow,
come, dear God, if it please you,
what I request, do not deny me.
I have already set my house in order,
When my soul must depart,
take it, Lord, in your hands.
Only let my end be happy!
Everything is good, when the end is good.

This poignant appeal for God to care for one facing his earthly demise reminds us all that our lives are in his hands. Every heartbeat, every breath is a divine gift. Unless the Lord returns in our lifetime, we will all walk through the door of death someday. "Everything is good, when the end is good."

May God bless every ending and every new beginning in our lives.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


One of Bach's cantatas for this Sunday is BWV 3: "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" (Ah God, how many a heartache).

Ah God, how many a heartache
I meet with in this time!
The narrow way is full of affliction
by which I must travel to heaven.

Each piece after this introductory chorus is like a short Biblical psalm, which moves from lament to praise, from trouble to triumph, from distress to rest in God's salvation and endless love, revealed in Jesus. For example, the bass aria:

Although I may feel hell's anguish and pain,

yet always in my heart

there must be a true heavenly joy.

If I may only mention Jesus' name,

that can pierce even through immeasurable sorrows

as if they were a light mist.

Likewise, the splendid soprano/alto duet aria:

When cares press upon me,

I want in joy

to sing to my Jesus.

Jesus helps to bear my cross,

therefore I want to say in faith:

it is always for the best.

The Gospel lesson for the day is the story of Jesus turning water to wine (John 2.1-11). As our Lord turned the tasteless water in stone pots into the best of wine so that those attending the wedding might be blessed with joy, even so he can transform the difficult passages of our earthly journey into times when we can experience "the fellowship of His sufferings" (Philippians 3.10).

Like the Bible, Bach forces us to be realistic about life and its troubles. He and the psalmists encourage us to have the conversations with God that can ultimately help us find a way to praise him.

"In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

Saturday, January 12, 2008


In many Christian communities today, the first Sunday after the Epiphany is when we remember Jesus' baptism. The readings in the traditional lectionary, however, point to the story of the young man Jesus in the temple (Luke 2.41-52). This account reflects the third of Mary's Seven Sorrows, a traditional devotion that recalled seven grievous episodes in Mary's relationship with Jesus.

Bach's cantatas for this Sunday are meditations on this Scripture. BWV 154 begins with a poignant cry, "Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren" (My dearest Jesus is lost!). Any parent who has felt the sudden panic of having a child disappear from sight can relate to this rush of emotion. The words take us beyond these tender human bonds, however, into the spiritual angst of feeling that one has lost contact with God.

My dearest Jesus is lost:

Oh word that brings me despair!

Oh sword that pierces through my soul,

Oh thunderous word in my ears.

After a lovely chorale describing what Jesus means to the faithful and the deep longing for his presence to fill their hearts, the alto lifts up an aria, pleading with Jesus to appear once more.

Jesus, let me fnd you,

do not allow my sins

to be thick clouds

where to my horror

you will be hidden from me.
Appear again soon!

In the depths of winter, dark days and chill winds can mirror the gloom of spirits trudging through life without a sense of Christ's presence. Bach seeks to rouse us, to make us feel the urgency of Jesus' earthly parents, to leave our plodding caravans and call out for him until he answers and comes home with us again.


In Bach's Epiphany cantata BWV 248 (VI), the evil heart and treachery of Herod is contrasted with two pieces that portray worshipers in the presence of the infant Jesus.

The sweet and confident music of these pieces carries an important message for us: in the midst of a dark and sometimes dangerous world, there is a place of refuge and rest where we may gain strength and courage to face our battles. In worship, our eyes are opened to another, transcendent reality, a spiritual realm where the infant Christ, so lowly in human appearance, is Christus Victor, our triumphant Savior and Lord.

As we worship in Christ's presence we discover, "All is well, and all is well, and all manner of things shall be well" (Julian of Norwich).

First, we hear a chorale that brings to mind the magi offering their gifts to the infant King:

I stand here beside Thy manger,
O, babe Jesu, my life,
I come, bring and give to Thee
that which Thou hast given me.
Take it, it is my mind and spirit,
heart, soul and mettle, take them all,
And may it please Thee well!

And then, a tenor aria that speaks for Mary:

Now may you proud foes be affrighted,
what fear could you awake in me?
My precious, my treasure is beside me here!
You may appear as grim as may be,
threaten to lay me low completely,
but lo! my Saviour dwells here.

The sweet presence of Christ calms our fears. As we focus on our Lord in worship, we gain strength to face the foe with confidence.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Where to Find Bach Cantata Texts...

I will be using various sources for the English translations of Bach's cantata texts on this site. Most of the time, they will be drawn from liner notes of the performances to which I am listening. However, one source that you can use for reference any time is Z. Philip Ambrose's site, which contains the texts of Bach's complete vocal works.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Part six of Bach's Christmas Oratorio was to be performed, "For the Feast of Epiphany." This feast recalls the story of the Magi who followed the star, met with King Herod, and then went on to Bethlehem to worship the Child. The text for this cantata is from Matthew 2.7-12, where the evil-minded Herod meets with the Magi, who have come to Jerusalem to inquire about the newborn King. Bach sees this encounter as a paradigm for the spiritual struggle between the forces of darkness and light.

The cantata begins with a chorus expressing trust in the Lord for refuge in the spiritual battle that rages.
Lord, if proud enemies rage,
Let us then in steadfast faith

Look to thy might and help.

We will put our trust in thee alone,

So may we withstand unharmed

The talons of the fiend.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


I am starting this blog near the beginning of Epiphany. The Church Year began over a month ago, with the Advent and Christmastide seasons. If you would like to read through some studies and meditations that were written during Advent, you can find them at my Advent Thoughts site.