Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cling to Christ: Bach Cantatas for the Early Christmas Season

Continuing my listening to Bach's sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … Over the next several days I'll be listening three CDs for the Christmas season. They were recorded in 2000 at St. Bartholomew's Church, a favorite stop whenever we visit Manhattan. Although I'm beginning my year-long "journey" with the First Sunday of Advent, these three CDs are actually the last ones in the original pilgrimage.

CD 54 contain the cantatas "Gelobet seist du, Jesus Christ” (BWV 91, "All Praise to you, Jesus Christ") and “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (110, "Let our mouth be full of laughter") for Christmas Day, and then “Christum wir sollen loben schon” (121, "To Christ we should sing praises") and “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes” (40, "For this purpose the Son of God") for Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas. On the CD's cover is photograph of a child in Amdo, Tibet. According to the notes, “Gelobet, seist du” is full of expectation and danceable-rhythms, with its emphasis on praise of God’s work in Christ---the small way in which the creator of the universe appeared for our benefit.

"Christum wir sollen" is based on a 5th century Latin hymn is similar in its content: “God, who was so boundless, took on servile form and poverty.” "Dazu its erschienen" has several contrasts of darkness and light---and the admonition that we should not be anxious and fearful for the “ancient serpent,” for Christ has conquered Satan. “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens" is, for Gardiner, the “most festive and prilliant” of these four with an “irresistible swagger” “Let your mouth be full of laughter and our tongue of singing. For the Lord has done great things for us.”

CD 55 contain the cantatas for the third day of Christmas, also recorded at St. Barth's: “Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget” (BWV 64, "Behold, what manner of love"), "Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt" (151, "Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes"), "Selig ist der Mann" (57, "Blessed is the man"), and a cantata for the second day of Christmas, "Ich freue mich in dir" (133, "I rejoice in thee"). The cover is photo of a baby in Zigaze Tibet.

Gardiner calls attention to the trombone choir in "Sehet, welch eine Liebe", which I look forward to hearing. He notes that this cantata connects thematically to the theme of Christus victor in the previous day's cantata “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes”, as well as the Christmas cantata "Sehet, welch eine Liebe." Gardiner writes that Bach uses the trombone to depict the “vertical and horizontal” dimensions of faith: Christ’s descent to the world to save us and our eventual ascent to heaven to gain the full divine promises.

"Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt" is an “intimate and beguiling” cantata has, among other things the use of oboes and violins “in praise of the spiritual riches to be found in Jesus’ spiritual poverty.”

His wretched state reveals to me
naught but salvation and well-being,
yea, His wondrous hand
will weave me naught but garlands of blessing.

In "Selig ist der Mann," we find a kind of dialogue between Christ and the soul, and thus a connection of Christ’s love with the soul of the suffering believer. In the arias and recitatives, Jesus promises his heart to the believer---and his hand to strike the believer's enemies and accusers. Meanwhile, the believer declares that he/she has nothing to count on but Jesus.

Finally, "Ich freue mich in dir" is an exhilarating cantata which connects to the believer’s need for Christ seen in "Selig ist der Mann" and the other cantatas.

…. I shall,
O Jesus, cling to Thee,
even if the world
were to shatter in a thousand pieces.

The last CD of pre-New Year Christmas music is the actual last CD of the entire set, also recorded at St. Bartholomew's. The cover photo is a child from Sarif, Afghanistan.These cantatas are for the Sunday after Christmas: the motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (225, "Sing unto the Lord a new song"), "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn" (152, "Tread the path of faith"), "Das neugeborne Kindelein (122, "The newborn infant child"), "Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende" (28, "Praise God! The year now draws to a close"), and "
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (190, "Sing unto the Lord a new song").

Gardiner notes that the BWV 225 "Singet dem Herrn" “distances itself from the mode of the incarnation and anticipates Christ’s coming Passion, crucifixion and death” with a small ensemble, a soprano and basis and six instruments). He also notes that the motet invites believers to the path of faith, as does" Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn," which is “as close as [Bach] ever got to the traditional Christmas carol-like image of the infant Jesus.” "Gottlob!" takes us into the area of the end of the year’s journey, while the BWV 190 "Singet dem Herrn" reminds us continually of Jesus (in this case, the lesson is his circumcision and naming). Gardiner notes that the cantata begins and ends in D major, creating a little circle with the journey of the past year and the new one to begin.

All good interrelated themes to ponder in our hearts: the weakness and poverty of the circumstances of Jesus' birth, contrasted with the strength of Christ's grace on which the believer relies. That strength, in turn, is that which we must turn to again and again through the journeys of our years---and the upcoming journey of the new year.  

English translations by Richard Stokes

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