Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year Hope: Bach's Cantatas for New Year's Day

Continuing my listening to Bach's sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … this morning I listened to the Christmas Season cantatas for New Years Day (disc 2 in this 56-CD set). The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach's music) is of a child in Amdo, Tibet, wearing an appropriately warm-looking hat.

All these cantatas contrast the year's ending and the new year's start: we praise God for the protection and blessings of the past, and we trust in God's care amid life's uncertainties and the devil's traps. The first cantata, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 143, “Praise the Lord, O my soul”) is (according to Gardiner, in his commentary notes) of questionable authenticity; it may be a much earlier piece of Bach’s own reused at a later date, or a student’s work composed under Bach’s direction. The piece has an aria that considers grace amid life’s troubles:

Thousandfold misfortune, terror,
sadness, fear and sudden death,
enemies littering the land,
cares and even more distress
are what other countries see---
we, instead, a year of grace.

But the believer still must trust in Jesus as “our refuge in the future, that this year may bring us good fortune.” The believer knows to remain watchful everywhere for the Lord’s guidance. The music itself, composed (as Gardiner writes) when horrors of war and death pale in comparison to the 20th century’s, inspire in us a universal longing for blessing and care amid the particular distresses of our times and places.

A more mature work (according to Gardiner) than 143, the next cantata, “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” (BWV 41, “Jesus, now be praised”) seeks the same favors from Christ: that Christ’s goodness that has kept us safe through the outgoing year may keep us protected in the new year, since “the foe both day and night lies awake to harm us.”

“Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (BWV 16, “Lord God, we give Thee praise”) is (as Gardiner puts it) ebullient and concise compared to the more expansive 41. As the previous cantata had beseeched Christ’s care in both “town and country” (Stadt und Land), this cantata request blessing for both “church and school” (Kirch und Schule), because Satan’s wickedness lies in wait there, too.

"Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm" (BWV 171, “According to thy Name, O God, so is Thy praise") asks the believer to complete the year in praise of God, with the name of Jesus being the new year’s first word and the believer’s final word.

Probably many people wonder, as do I, what a new year will bring. Think of how differently the world looked at the beginning of 2001 than it did at year’s end. 1914 is another year of that sort. Think of years in your own experience when some event changed the character of the whole year and beyond. 1999 and 2012, when my parents died, are personal examples. I also think of a Facebook friend who lost a loved one on January 1; this friend’s year changed dramatically on the very first day.

Bach’s cantatas give us lovely experiences of hope. We are human and recognize the perils and capricious qualities of life, but we place our trust and hope in God to guide us through. For Bach and his lyricists, God is really the sole source for confidence and happiness. In today's cantatas, Christ’s is the overarching name that begins a calendar year, ends it, begins the next.... and finally closes our lives as we are ushered into everlasting life.

English translations by Richard Stokes

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