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.