|Luther window in Wehrli Chapel,|
Eden Theological Seminary,
where I'm an adjunct instructor.
During ensuing years, the cantatas have been available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner's own Soli Deo Gloria label). They are still available that way, and also as a 56-CD box set (available at this link). All the cover photos are of people from around the world, symbolizing Bach's universality. Last fall, I purchased the box set and decided to listen to the cantatas in conjunction to the liturgical year. I began with the First Sunday of Advent and have stayed with the "journey" pretty faithfully all year.
October 31 is Reformation Day, and these cantatas were appropriately performed in the university church of Luther, the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. The CD cover photo, of a wide- and dark-eyed little girl, is from Kandahar, Afghanistan. One cantata is a long-time favorite on LPs, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80), based on Luther’s hymn.
The first piece is the festive “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild" (BWV 79), “The Lord God is sun and shield”). The pageantry of this commemorative piece even includes a drum beat that (as Gardiner writes) could imaginatively echo the hammering of the 95 Theses upon the church door. Gardiner describes the numerous techniques with which Bach creates a profoundly moving piece.
Now thank we all our God
with heart and voice and hands,
who doth work great things for us
wherever we may be,
who since our mother’s womb
and from our infancy
hath favoured us so many times
and continues so to do.
“Now thank we all our God” is the title of the second cantata (BWV 192, “Nun danket alle Gott”), a much smaller work with “modest instrumentation that nevertheless “provides an attractive contrast, an alternative and less bombastic approach to the celebrations.”
Back to “Ein feste Burg” (BWV 80, “A mighty fortress is our God”). In the CD notes, Gardiner writes that Bach revised the cantata three times before this late version, which he “constructed a stupendous and elaborate new contrapuntal opening movement,” without instrumental prelude. He points out that Bach uses Luther’s hymn in three different numbers of the piece, with the last number being closest to the tune with which we're familiar. For a long time I had difficulty singing this hymn in church, because it had been sung at the funeral of a Lutheran pastor who had been a mentor. Bach's setting of the hymn helped me move toward healing.
We can do nothing with our own might,
all too soon we are lost.
It is the righteous man,
chosen by God, who fights for us.
We who at baptism swore loyalty
on Christ’s bleeding banner,
his spirit conquers evermore.
Do you ask who He is?
He is called Jesus Christ,
the Lord of Sabaoth,
there is no other God,
He must hold the field.
But I owe a greater debt to Luther himself. Writing in my last post about New England, I thought to myself about days in the Yale library, where I loved to read from Luther's works. I was a divinity school student, feeling lost and inadequate, struggling to find my way. Luther's themes of sola fide, sola scriptura spoke deeply to me. I filled dozens of index cards (which I still have) with quotations and citations from his works. I wanted to learn his theology but most of all I wanted God's unconditional love to "sink in." Luther was a perfect teacher.
I read an article online (and unfortunately didn't bookmark it) that raised the question of whether Reformation Day should be celebrated. After all, there is greater theological concord between the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches than in Luther's day, and even Bach's day. Plus, there have been several historical moments when the church experienced a reformation or a course-correction when it had strayed from the Gospel in some way. I believe that the way many dominations are addressing LGBTQ inclusion is a kind of contemporary reformation, and so is the hard work of churches (in my own community of St. Louis and others) to address the tragedies of racism. Reformation goes hand in hand with repentance and renewal.
So we could speak of "reformation days" that have happened and, by God's grace, will continue to happen.
(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)