Continuing my enjoyment of Bach’s cantatas on the Sunday and special days for which they were written.... It’s a snowy morning in St. Louis, with more snow to come. I'm feeling terrible because of a cold; tomorrow I'll call our doctor and get some advice. Plows haven’t been on my street yet, so I won’t go to church, which is about two miles away. According to our local news, two people about my age or slightly older died shoveling snow and working their snow blowers. (Prayers for their families.)
This morning I’m listening to Disc 3 of the 56-CD set, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, of all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas. Today is the Sunday after New Year, and tomorrow is Epiphany, and this CD (featuring a photo of a Kabul man with frost in his hair, eyebrows and eye lashes and beard) features two cantatas for each day. Disc 4 will be cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany.
The first two, for the Sunday after New Year, are “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” (BWV 153, “Behold, dear God, how mine enemies”) and “Ach, Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 58, “Ah God, what deep affliction”). “Schau, lieber Gott” begins and continues through several anguished pleas for help. By the second choral piece, "Und ob gleich alle Teufel", with familiar tune “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the piece lyrically turns to hope: “even though all the evils were to oppose you, there would be no question of God retreating.” Like several of the biblical psalms, the first half of the piece is all anguish and pain while the second half affirms God’s faithful care even in very difficult circumstances.
“Ach, God,” a dialogue between the soprano and bass, is a dialogue between a troubled and beleaguered soul and an assuring angel. By the end, the soul (the soprano) declares assurance in an upbeat final aria: “Be consoled, consoled, Oh hearts, to reach Thee in heaven’s paradice... the joy of that day for which Thou hast shed Thy blood outweighs all pain.”
Then the next two cantatas on this disc are those for Epiphany: “Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen” (BWV 65, “All they from Sheba shall come”), and “Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen” (BWV 123, “Dearest Emmanuel, Lord of the righteous”). As Gardiner indicates in his notes, the first cantata opens with a sense of procession, antiquity, and Near Eastern ambiance to depict the arrival, not of the Queen of Sheba, but of the Magi who brings the Christ child gifts. A theme familiar to this holiday--what gifts can we figuratively bring the Christ?---is answered: “Jesus would have your heart. Officer this, O Christian throng, to Jesus at the New Year!” Christ, in turn, gives to us more precious gifts than the Magi’s: Christ gives us the gift of himself, and with him the “wealth” of promised Heaven.
“Liebster Immanuel” has dance-like rhythms as it, at first, urges Jesus to return quickly, for Jesus is the believer’s delight and most dear gift through life’s “bitter nourishment of tears.” Gardinar comments that the bass aria “Lass, o Welt,” is one of Bach’s most lonely pieces, as the singer declares, “Leae me, O scornful world, to sadness and loneliness! Jesus...shall stay with me for all my days.” Yet, in one of Bach’s many wonderful techniques, lets a solo flute accompany the lonely singer with more assuring music, as if the flute were the singer’s consoling angel.
I'm struck by the sorrowfulness of some of the pieces. I don't know if people in Bach's time made "New Year's resolutions," but now that the new year has gotten started, people are back into the difficulties and challenges of life.
But the cantatas are psalm-like in their honesty of pain, loneliness, and people's scorn, contrasted with the promise of God's unfailing love, power, and eternal promises. Something I want to keep thinking about this coming year, is the theme of several cantatas so far: God in Christ is, really, all we have in life, the only permanent reality, the only sure promise. All other things, both good and bad, are ephemeral. I admit that I don't really "feel" that promise often enough as I go about my daily life.
English translations by Richard Stokes