Saturday, January 25, 2014

One Foot in the Grave: Bach's Third Sunday in Epiphany Cantatas

Continuing my "journey" through Bach's sacred cantatas… As I began to listen to this 56-CD set that I described in earlier posts, I started with disc 52, which are the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the Christian liturgical year from the first Sunday. Now I've listened to discs 52-56 and then 1-5 as I follow the Sundays in order, and this weekend I'm listening to disc 6, the cantatas for the third Sunday in Epiphany (which is tomorrow, January 26). The sleeve photo is of a child at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma.

Next Sunday, February 2, is Epiphany's fourth Sunday but this year it's also Candlemas. So I'll be listening to and thinking about discs 7 and 8. Bach seems to have not written a Groundhog Day cantata….

The third Sunday cantatas are “Alles nur mach Gottes Willen” (BWV 72, “All things according to God’s will), “Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir” (BWV 73, “Lord, deal with me as Thou wilt”), “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” (BWV 111, “May my God’s will always be done”), “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe” (BWV 156, “I stand with one foot in the grave”). Musically these are more generally upbeat than last Sunday's, but the themes are still difficult. Imagine telling your choir that Sunday's music is called "One foot in the grave."

In the CD notes, Gardiner explains that the time period of 72 was difficult for Bach, who must have counted on God’s mercy particularly. He and his second wife, Anna Magdalena, lost three children during that 1726-1728, and 28-year-old Anna herself was ill. (Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, was only 36 when she died unexpectedly in 1720.) In this situation, Bach set to music words like, “[w]hen affliction and suffering frighten you, [your Savior] knows your distress and frees you from affliction... if [one] is filled with faith, my Jesus will do it!”

When Bach wrote 156 in 1729, the title line, “I stand with one foot in the grave” was a reminder of life’s tragic transitory quality. But the text (and the opening oboe music) affirms (as Gardiner writes) “the believer’s desire for God alone, whether in life or in death.” In the cantata, which begins with a pretty sinfonia, the believer beseeches God for rescue, but also affirms that God’s will is best, for only in God can one find solace and salvation. I love the sound of the oboe in works by Mozart, Vaughan Williams, and others, and it's a perfect instrument to carry this message.

Gardiner notes that in 73, “Bach’s musical setting reinforces the thetorical structure and underlines the message of faith in the sovereingty of God’s will.” The soprano and tenor represent the anxiety of the believer while the chorus and the solo bass provide assurance. Trust in God’s will, and submission thereto, helps us deal with sorrow and distress, for Christ’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s rule “leads us into heaven’s kingdom” and banishes the “pangs of death, the sighs from my heart”

In contrast, 111 is from 1725, when things were happy in the Bach’s lives, although the cantata balances a happpy faith with the awareness of death at the end where the believer seeks to stay brave at life’s evils.

In my philosophy class this past week, we talked about the inevitability of death, and the fact that there are no guarantees how or when we will die, nor any assurance that a certain time or mode of death is more "fair" than others. But it will always seem so to us: it wasn't fair that this person died when and how s/he did. No amount of coldly objective thinking about the reality of death unpredictability will convince us otherwise. (That being said, I think my father died in a good way, collapsing with an aneurysm while doing things that he loved around the house.)

Yet tombstones once carried "memento mori" epitaphs, admonishing the passer-by to be reminded of death's inevitability and to prepare as best as one ever can. In our family cemetery in Illinois, the tombstone of a local blacksmith who died in 1855 warns, "Remember friends, as you pass by/as you are now, so once was I/as I am now, so you must be/prepare for death and follow me."

As I think about Bach's cantatas, I'm struck by how the texts and music struggle with those feelings of dread, distress, and grief that are part of mortal life---and how these themes are prominent here in January, still the first part of the new year, during the season of Epiphany that by its very name is about a new and hope-filled appearance of God among us.

And that consolation and promise amid the dread and reality of mortality is of course one of the most precious aspects of the Gospel message. Sometimes we preachers are careful to say (following John's gospel and other New Testament passages) that God's eternal life begins now and not just at death. We don't want people to become too "pie in the sky" in their faith. On the other hand, when a person is facing death (or when a person simply wants to accept death's inevitability prior to it becoming an issue), the power and grace of Christ becomes even more clearly the foundation of everything, and the only thing one can count on. All of these cantatas "preach" that very message.

English translations by Richard Stokes.

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