Saturday, May 31, 2014

Though Tempests Gather: Bach's Cantatas for the Sunday after Ascension Day

The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner performed all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. Happening primarily in 2000, this "pilgrimage" commemorated the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. During ensuing years, the cantatas were available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner's own Soli Deo Gloria label). Eventually all of them were assembled 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 all of the cantatas on the appropriate days (or, generally, those weekends) as a year-long "spiritual journey." I began with the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent (disc 52 of the 56). With this weekend's listening, I'm now halfway through the cantatas---and the church year.

The Sunday after Ascension Day (June 1 this year---tomorrow) is called Exaudi Sunday from the first Latin word of the Introit, “Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice.” I had not thought of this Sunday as liturgically a solemn Sunday: Jesus has left his disciples, but the Holy Spirit has not yet been given. We are in a ten-day period when the disciples struggled not to feel abandoned by the Lord but instead to live according to his promise. Of course, the Holy Spirit is given to them on the following Sunday, Pentecost.

Bach’s cantatas for Exaudi are both entitled “Sie werden euch in den Bann tun” (BWV 44 and BWV 183, “They shall put you out of the synagogues”). This disc (#21 of this set) also includes the liturgically unspecified “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (BWV 150, “Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul”), and a short piece by Johann Christoph Bach, “Fürchte dich nicht” (“Fear not”). The cover photo is of a man in Pol-e Khomri, Afghanistan.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that BWV 150 is an early cantata, the theme of which is “the believer’s hopes of redemption in the hurly-burly of life,” which “is particularly apt in the period between Easter and Ascension.” In the CD notes he writes interestingly of Bach’s musical development from this comparatively youthful piece. One of Bach’s inspirations was the music of his first-cousin-once removed, Johann Christoph Bach, whom I just mentioned. Gardiner writes concerning some of the musical research still being done about the older Bach and how he influenced Johann Sebastian. (This man is not to be confused with J.S. Bach’s older brother Johann Christoph Bach, nor with J.S.’s son Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach.)

Back to the two cantatas called “Sie werden euch in den Bann tun.” Gardiner writes, “Both in their separate ways depict an earthly voyage beginning with the prophecy of imminent persecution and the need for submission and surrender to the Holy Spirit.” The earlier cantata focuses upon persecution as well as the eventual joy experience by Christians.

Christians on earth

must be Christ’s true disciples.
Attendant on them every hour

are torment, exile and sore affliction,
till they be blissfully overcome...

It ever remains the Christians’ comfort
that God watches over His church.
So even though tempests gather,

after such tribulations

the sun of gladness has always soon laughed.

The later cantata, though similar in terms of overall mood, gives “a more positive gloss to the Gospel reading” (Gardiner), with passages of serenity and comfort, as well as those with dance rhythms and joy. The joy is the Spirit’s guidance and consolation.

Highest Comforter, Holy Ghost,
Thou who dost show me the path
on which I should journey,

help my weakness by interceding,
for I cannot pray for myself;
I know Thou carest for my welfare!

Thou art a Spirit that teaches
how one should pray aright;
thy prayers are granted,

thy singing sounds well…

Neither cantata, though, is as upbeat and major-key hopeful as the "Ascension Oratorio," which was BWV 11 this past Thursday.

I find biblical texts about persecution unsettling, for a different reason than the usual. I think these texts  inspire for some churchgoers a morbid fascination: "Christians suffer today in different parts of the world as they did in the Roman empire. Maybe being a Christian is too easy for us. But look how 'they' are trying to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance and Christ out of Christmas. Our beliefs are under attack, too!" I just don't think this is healthy, sensible thinking, and it's often extremely partisan.

Some biblical texts are anti-Jewish, too: "those Jews kicked Christians out of the synagogues when they should have been accepting Jesus, too." These kinds of biblical texts subtlety inspire modern-day disdain for Jews and Judaism.

That's not to say religious persecution doesn't exist today. Something I've been doing lately is to look for news reports about different religious groups that are experiencing persecution---and to fit prayers for them in my busy and forgetful schedule. Christians are suffering in Syria, for instance, but Muslims are suffering in Myanmar, anti-Muslim sentiment is growing online, and Jewish researchers have observe a recent rise in worldwide anti-Semitism. To me, we live in enough of a pluralistic, globalized world that we can consider intolerance to any religious group as worthy of our concern and prayers.

That's one reason why the use of worldwide people as CD cover photos was a wonderful idea for this set. When I first looked at the 2-CD releases, my first shameful thought was, "What does some kid in Tibet or Myanmar have to do with Bach's music?" Bach's faith and texts are Christian, but his music speaks to a wide range of human feelings and experience. For this Sunday, that experience is the feeling of lostness and difficult hope when one clings to faith but isn't at all sure what's going to happen next.

(All English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

God Is Gone Up: Bach's Cantatas for Ascension Day

The Ascension of Christ by Rembrandt
This past weekend, as I listened to Bach's cantatas for Rogate Sunday in my motel room, I was not only on the road but also sick from some food. It's good to be home again and feeling well for this religious holiday. Ascension Day has a specialness not all Christians appreciate.

Bach’s cantatas for Ascension Day are “Gott faehret auf mit Jauchzen” (BWV 43, “God is gone up with a shout”), “Wer da glaeubet und getauft wird” (BWV 37, “He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved”), “Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein” (BWV 128, “On Christ’s ascent to heaven alone”), and “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen” (BWV 11, “Praise God in his kingdoms”).

The CD picture is a smiling though hard-eyed man from Kabul, Afghanistan. It was interesting to realize that these four cantatas were not recorded during the "Pilgrimage" year (December 1999-December 2000) because of audio difficulties, but rather in 2012.

BWV 43 is a two-part cantata. The first part connects Psalm 47:5-6 with Christ’s leave-taking, followed in part 2 with the reflection of the believer upon Christ’s victory. That Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father means the salvation from sin and death , the promise of eternal dwelling with God, and help through the troubles and sorrows of life.

I see already in spirit

how He at God’s right hand
smites all His enemies,

to set free all His servants

from grief, affliction and shame.
I stand here by the wayside
and gaze on Him yearningly.

BWV 37 includes a kind of dialogue of the Christian soul with itself, as conductor Gardiner puts it, in which the different soloists reflect upon the promise of Christ who had not at all left us abandoned. Christ’s victory and Christ’s provision are full of help and promise for those who believe.

Faith provides the soul with pinions,
on which it shall soar to heaven,
baptism is the seal of mercy,
that brings us God’s blessing;
a blest Christian is therefore one
who believes and is baptised.

This dialogical form is similarly found in BWV 128, where the alto and tenor seem “to depict the believer scanning the distant heavens for Christ’s vanished presence” but they return to earth to reflect upon “the mystery of his ominpotence.” But (Gardiner continues), “the two voices seem to be the allegorical personification of Hope and Doubt” found in cantatas like BWV 60.

The fourth cantata is Bach’s “Ascension Oratorio.” “It is a heart-warming work,” writes Gardiner. “Even by Bach’s festive standards the two choruses are moments to treasure, full of rhythmic swagger, a jazz-like nonchalance, plenty of stratospheric glitter for the high trumpets and vocal acrobatics for the choir.” He notes that the fourth number is a memorable plea to the about-to-ascend Christ to stay longer.

Ah, stay, my dearest life,

ah, do not flee so soon from me!
Thy parting and Thy early leaving
cause me untold suffering,

ah yes, so stay yet here awhile;
else pain will quite encompass me.

Christ rose on Easter, and he completed that rising on Ascension Day. But he soon returned on Pentecost to our midst when the Holy Spirit was given to humanity. We can think of Good Friday-Easter-Ascension-Pentecost as the great work of Christ on our behalf.

With the Ascension Christ rose to Heaven and is established in his divinity with God the Father. But as he rose in both his divine and human natures, he also continues to experience and understand the pain that we suffer as members of his body, the church. Of course, he can identify with and help us in our pain, because his presence is more pervasive through the Spirit than was the case when he was among his disciples.

In Bach's texts, the anxiety of the disciples is also our anxiety as we struggle with difficulties and temptations. But as the Resurrection and Ascension demonstrated Christ's power and authority to the disciples, we too are able to look toward the rising and risen Christ and know that he is not really gone. He is more present than ever. Since we don't always sense or feel that presence---and, in fact, we despair of it sometimes---people like Bach are great gifts to us.

All English translations in the CD notes are by Richard Stokes.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On the Road with Wagner's "Ring"

In 1910 and 1911 Arthur Rankham published
several of his scenes from Wagner's Ring.
I’m driving across the American Midwest, on flat interstate highways for twelve hours….

Three maidens sing and play deep within the river Rhine. They are also guarding the gold of the Rhine, which if made into a ring will allow its wearer to rule the earth--but only if that person renounces love. As the maidens swim, a Nibelung dwarf named Alberich tries to woo and play with them, but they mock his ugliness. Hearing the story of the gold from the maidens, who don’t realize his evil potential, Alberich renounces love, makes off with the gold, and sets himself up as ruler of his land Nibelheim.

Meanwhile, the gods in their own realm have a problem. The chief god Wotan has authorized construction of their castle, Valhalla, and the giants who have built the castle demand the goddess Freia as payment. Without Freia’s golden apples, however, the gods will age and die. Realizing that the Rhine gold is now in Nibelheim, Wotan and the fire god Loge descend to the dwarf land, seize Alberich and the gold, and gives the giants the gold and the ring.

But Alberich curses the ring, so that its owners will eventually be killed and robbed of the ring. Sure enough, the giants fight for its ownership and one is killed.

Both Loge and the earth goddess Erda warn Wotan that the ring should be returned to the Rhine maidens, but Wotan (who rules through treaties carved onto the shaft of his spear) is bound to forgo the gold as per the authorization of Valhall’s construction.

The gods proceed into Valhalla (all but Loge, who believes he may someday destroy the gods for their deceit and acquisitions, but he's still not sure). Wotan, however, is haunted by Erda’s prophecies and begins a relationship with her (reluctantly tolerated by his wife Fricka) to gain more information. The resultant offspring of Erda and Wotan are the Valkyries, immortal warrior women who take the souls of fallen heroes to form Valhalla’s army. Wotan also fathered offspring by a mortal woman, so that an offspring (who unlike Wotan is not bound by treaty to the surviving giant, Fafner) may someday seize the ring.

Years later, the home of warrior Hunding and his wife Sieglinde are visited by a fleeing man, who identifies himself as Wehwalt. They give Wehwalt hospitality, and he tells his story. He has been wandering ever since discovering his mother dead and his twin sister abducted. Circumstances have left him pursued by enemies but without suitable weapons for himself. Hunding identifies himself as one of his pursuers and, although he is obliged to give him hospitality, they must fight in the morning. As Hunding sleeps, however, Sieglinde expresses her hope for a hero to save her from their awful marriage. Falling in love with each other, they realize that a sword, left in the ash tree at Sieglinde’s house, was in fact left by his father years before. Further, they realize they are the separated twins and that he is Siegmund. He pulls the sword from the tree (something no one else had been able to do) and they escape the house.

A little later, the goddess Fricka informs Wotan of this situation and demands that Siegmund must die for his crime of incest and adultery. Wotan confides in his favorite Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, the whole story of the gold, the giant, and his bitterness at having to kill Siegmund. Wotan is at an impasse, because of his treaty with the giants he cannot just steal the ring, but the ring can only be taken by “a free hero,” and Siegmund (Wotan realizes) is just as much as servant of the gods as the Valkyries.

Wotan orders Brünnhilde to assist in Siegmund’s death and take him to Valhalla. But when Brünnhilde meet the fleeing twins, Siegmund refuses to go because Sieglinde cannot accompany him. In fact, he swears to kill both himself and Sieglinde, which causes a moved and impressed Brünnhilde to take his side.

When Hunding arrives, however, Wotan shatters Siegmund’s sword and allows Hunding to kill him. Disobeying the god, Brünnhilde takes both Sieglinde and the shattered sword and escapes.

When Wotan catches up to her, he punishes Brünnhilde by declaring she must become mortal, placed in a magic sleep on the mountainside, and thus be available to any man who discovers her. She challenges that she disobeyed Wotan because she actually understood his true desire--she acted according to his own secret will. In sorrow, he carries out his judgment but summons Loge to surround her with magic fire. She will be mortal but will not be victim to any passerby: "Whoever fears the point of my spear," declares the god, "shall not pass through the fire."

Hidden away, Sieglinde is pregnant by Siegmund’s child, who is named Siegfried. (The name, combinations of words for “freedom” and “victory,” signals that he is the hero---unattached to Wotan through any treaties or subservient relationships---on whom Wotan has pinned his hopes).

We haven’t heard from the Nibelung dwarfs for a while, but now we return to them. Sieglinde is cared for by Mime, the brother of Alberich. She dies in childbirth, and Alberich raises Siegfried. But his motives aren’t altruistic; understanding Siegfried’s significance, Mime hopes the boy will slay the giant Fafner, who guards the magic ring. Mime wants the ring for himself. Once the boy understands his own background story, he takes the remains of his father’s sword, recasts it (which Mime had been unable to do), and sets out.

The giant Fafner, sleeping in a cave in the form of a dragon, is awakened by Siegfried’s horn. Unafraid (because he has never learned fear), Siegfried soon slays the dragon and takes the ring. Mime tries to take the ring for himself by poisoning Siegfried, but Siegfried understands the dwarf’s plans and slays him, too.

A songbird tells Siegfried of a woman sleeping on a rock on the mountainside. Meanwhile, Wotan--who has been close by all this time--meets earth goddess Erda and informs him he no longer dreads the prophesied end of the gods. He believes that Siegfriend and Brünnhilde will eventually be able to bring about the world’s redemption after the gods’ ends.

Siegfried arrives, and Wotan tries to block his way. But Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, ending the god’s power and authority. He sadly tells Siegfried, "Zieh hin! Ich kann dich nicht halten!" (Forward then, I cannot stop you) and vanishes. Uncomprehending, Siegfried wonders aloud where "the coward" went and proceeds toward the ring of fire. Having proved his fearlessness of Wotan’s spear, he enters the fire easily and discovers Brünnhilde in her magic sleep. Realizing she is a woman---and he has never seen a woman before---he instinctively knows to kiss her, though he is for the first time in his life filled with fear.

Brünnhilde awakes, and they fall in love. They go on their way, but soon Siegfried sets off on an adventure but first gives Brünnhilde the ring as a pledge of faithfulness. (At this point I want to yell at her: "You're his aunt, you better watch out for him! He's not very bright.") Unfortunately, Siegfried ends up among the Gibichungs, dwellers by the Rhine, who are up to no good thanks to the king’s advisor, Hagan, who is the son of Alberich and the king's mother. Hagen plots with the king Gunther to take Brünnhilde for his wife and to give Siegfried to Gunther's sister, Gutrune. Thus, Hagen will seize the ring for himself and his father Alberich.

When Siegfried arrives, they give him a potion which makes him fall in love with Gutrune and to lose memory of Brünnhilde. He sets out to gain her for Gunther.

Meanwhile, Brünnhilde receives a surprise visit from her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute. The Valkyrie warns Brunnhilde that Wotan’s spear, with its extensive record of his covenants and bargains, is destroyed and thus his power. Furthermore he has ordered the wood of the World Tree to be gathered around Valhalla so that the kingdom can eventually be set ablaze and the days of the gods brought to an end. Because the ring’s curse is behind the doom of the gods, Waltraute begs her sister to return the ring to the maidens of the Rine. But Brünnhilde will not lose the ring which is also her lover’s pledge to her.

Waltraute leaves. Soon Siegfried arrives, but he is magically disguised as Gunther. He seizes her, takes the ring, and brings her to the Gibichungs. Gunther sounds the alarm and brings his vassals to the hall for a wedding party. Brünnhilde sees Siegfried in his natural form and, realizing she has been fooled, denounces him. Siegfried, still under the sway of the potion, swears on Hagen’s spear that she is lying, but she also swears on the spear that she tells the truth.

Unfortunately, a vow made on a weapon means that the person speaking falsely will be killed by that weapon. Assuming his treachery, Brünnhilde tells Hagen that Siegfried’s back is his vulnerable place. Hagen uses this fact to carry out the rest of his plot. He gives Siegfried a potion that restores his memory, and as Siegfried sings the praises of Brünnhilde, Hagen claims that Siegfried has shown himself a liar and stabs him.

Siegfried’s body is returned to the Gibichung Hall. In the resulting conflicts, Hagen kills Gunther and Gutrune dies of grief, but Hagen is unable to gain the ring from Siegfried’s finger. Brünnhilde, however, takes the ring herself and orders a funeral pyre for Siegfried. She lights the fire and summons Wotan's ravens to inform him of the end of the gods. Then she calls to the maidens of the nearby Rhine to regain the ring once the fire purifies it from Alberich’s curse---and with the ring in hand, she rides into the flames.

The fire blazes, igniting the Gibichung’s hall. The Rhine rises, floods, and covers the fire, allowing the maidens to regain the ring. They drown Hagen as he attempts to reclaim it. But as calm is restored to the earth and water, Valhalla can be seen engulfed in flames. The gods and heroes are no more, and all the trouble brought about by the ring's curse are over. The earth is redeemed for a new era (although Alberich is still at large….).


During a recent solitary car trip lasting twelve hours, I decided to listen straight through to Der Ring des Nibelungen of Richard Wagner, specifically the 1955 recording from the Bayreuth festival, conducted by Joseph Keilberth. This recording features some of the greatest Wagnerian singers of all time: Hans Hotter as Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde, and others like Paul Kuen, Gustav Neidlinger, Gré Brouwenstijn, Ramon VInay, Joseph Greindl, and Hermann Uhde, among others. This was also the period of the great post-war Bayreuth productions by Wagner’s grandsons Wolfgang and Wieland, as reflected in the CD sets’ photographs of the original sets and singers.

As many people know, Wagner’s Ring cycle is four operas, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Although Alberich as an on-stage character is not prominent after Das Rheingold, he is the Nibelung dwarf of the title and his influence is everywhere. His renunciation of love, allowing him to steal the Rhine gold, sets in motion the whole drama. But his theft inspires a greater wrong: the theft of the same gold from Alberich by Wotan and Loge, so that Wotan can pay for his realm Valhalla and save the gods’ youth and power by buying back Freia from the giants.

After these crimes are established in Das Rheingold, the three primary operas of the cycle dramatize the unfolding of the consequences of Wotan’s wrongdoing, his attempts to deal with the situation, his eventual acceptance of the end of the gods (“das Ende” he cries in Act 2 of the second opera), and the manner in which that ending plays out. The consequences the gold's theft are too vast even for the god.

Theft and rape are two related themes that permeate the whole drama. Alberich wants to make love to the Rhine maidens but, rejected, he steals their gold. Wotan steals the gold from Alberich to prevent the abduction/rape of Freia. But he himself compounds his problems via his illicit relationships with the Earth Mother and the mortal mother of the twins. Siegmund, in turn, carries off Sieglinde from her husband and impregnates her, and Brünnhilde's punishment for taking the twin's side (Wotan's first judgment against her) is to be placed into sleep and taken by whoever passes by. And then, of course, Siegfried is deceived into delivering Brünnhilde to another man in marriage. Only when the gold---figuratively raped from the maidens---is returned, can all be well again. That Wotan is the father or grandfather of all these characters deepens the awfulness of the several tragedies.

But love and redemption are two other related themes for the drama. The redemption of the situation---which is the redemption of the world---must happen because of two people who are more free than Wotan: Siegfried, who is a generation removed from being subject to his authority, and Brünnhilde, who can violate his authority because from the love of parent and child she acts from his own heart, not from his deals and treaties. So the opera begins with the renunciation of love and ends, sixteen hours later, with the redemption through love, which is the final leitmotif of the instrumental conclusion.

I had not listened to Wagner’s Ring cycle straight through for a long time. When I was a single pastor living in a rural parsonage, I liked to listen to the 11-LP Wilhelm Furtwängler La Scalia set (with Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde), playing in the background as I worked. At the time, I also collected the famous Georg Solti Ring, and the 1953 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss. (Krauss was known as a Strauss conductor but the year before he died he conducted this classic recording of the Ring.) This was a period of my life, about which I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, when I collected classical LPs and delighted in many musical discoveries.

A few years ago, when my wife Beth and I were in New York on her business trip, I walked up to Lincoln Center to browse its gift shop. Splurging a bit (actually more than a bit!) I bought the then-newly-released 1955 Bayreuth Ring. It had been the very first stereo recording but was never properly released because of contractual difficulties between Columbia/EMI and Decca (Decca had planned the first studio recording of the Ring, but the best Wagnerian singers of the era were signed to EMI), and because the Solti Ring (commenced in 1958) superseded the 1955 recording as not only a stereo recording but as the first studio recording.

The Solti Ring is an exciting production for listening to Wagner in one’s home (Solti’s dramatic tempos, real cattle horns instead of trombones, actual anvils being struck, the audio manipulation of Siegfried’s tenor into the baritone range when he disguises himself as Gunther). But the great singers of 1955, notably Hotter and Windgassen, were past their prime for Solti. On the other hand, they are in full splendor on that earlier recording. Finally, in the mid 00s, the Testament label released the 1955 Ring---the true first stereo recording of the epic---to great fanfare in the music press. Looking over reviews on Amazon and in print, the consensus of listeners seem to be that the 1953 Krauss Ring and the 1955 stereo Keilberth Ring are “the best” for overall interpretation and the performances of that great post-war generation of Wagnerian singers.

I love the 1953 Krauss ring but decided to listen to the Keilberth Ring for my 12-hour car trip. I hadn't done the set justice since I splurged on it a while back. I listened to Das Rheingold before I left town, but I still didn’t have time to play the whole cycle before arriving home. I listened to Das Rheingold and then Die Walküre, which got me from northeast Ohio to eastern Indiana. Then I listened to most of Siegfried through Indiana; Siegfried forged his sword as I was approaching Indy. Then I skipped through long passages of Götterdämmerung---the entire, very long prelude, to which I’ve listened many times--and through sections of the other acts. I tend to listen most often to this last opera of the cycle, so it was no loss to the overall “concert” if I skipped through this one.

Hearing all the operas straight through, you get a good sense of the different “sound worlds” of each. Siegfried isn’t pastoral, exactly, but it “feels” more woodland and outdoors than Die Walküre, which more than the others runs you through a gamut of emotions from anguish to joy to bitter regret to danger and flight and back to regret, though with a glimmer of hope at the end. (The Dutch singer Gré Brouwenstijn as Sieglinde stood out to me: I thought she had a lovely, expressive voice and her role really moved me. She also performs Gutrune.). Das Rheingold’s sound world is one of empty grandeur and moral ambiguity. Except for the sorrowful Rhine maidens, there is no one in the opera worth rooting for.

Götterdämmerung is the most “grand opera” of the four, the overall feeling dominated by Hagen and the Gibichungs. You’re startled to hear ensemble singing (especially the summoned vassals in Act 2) after so many hours without that opera style. Yet you can't say that the opera is a throwback to Meyerbeer, for Wagner's use of leitmotifs is notably complex and innovative in this drama.

Hans Hotter’s voice isn’t beautiful (Varnay’s and Windgassen’s are, definitely), but he gives so much expression, emotion, and authority in his characterization. He spoils me for any other Wotan. What a joy to hear him in dialogue with Varnay in Die Walküre and with Windgassen in Act 3 of Siegfried. You really do feel like the encounter between Siegfried and Wotan is a life-and-death encounter between mighty and unyielding forces. You hear the sorrow and resignation in Hotter’s voice once Wotan’s spear is destroyed.

As I crossed the Mississippi River and thus was almost home, I listened to Brünnhilde's immolation and the great conclusion of the whole cycle. (On this recording, the audience sits in silence for a few seconds before erupting in applause.) The music, rather than the Mississippi, transported me to the actual Rhine River that we were pleased to visit a few years ago during our daughter's choir tour.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Talk on Sacred Places

On Memorial Day, many of us will visit cemeteries and will perhaps refer to them as "sacred." Here is a talk that I gave last month to our local interfaith breakfast group. My theme was sacred places in religious traditions.

A few years ago I wrote this book of Christian devotional theology: You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Upper Room Books, 2006). The subject is the spirituality of the sense of place. I began with the observation that, although I received quite a bit of religious instruction as a kid, attending Sunday school at our small town church in Vandalia, IL, my most ongoing sense of religious feeling that rooted everything else was the physical space of our small church. I wondered about how the sense of place informs our religious feelings.

The title comes from Psalm 18, and my explorations had to do with ways that God creates spiritual place in our lives in the context of specific physical places.

I asked several friends to share places in their lives that they specially associate with religious growth or religious insight, whether or not it was a “big” spiritual experience. One friend talked about her college dorm room being a special place of religious growth and reorientation following her brother’s suicide. Several people recalled family farms and rural places, and several remembered places of particular beauty, like the ocean and the mountains. Another friend even talked about the way she hid under her bed as a child to get away from her loud brothers and began to feel God’s presence in the comfort of that room.

I also talked about difficult places, like accident sites or places associated with some disaster, like battlefields and the like. Cemeteries generally can be sacred places in this informal scene, but of tragedy and comfort.

For this group, I decided to dig a little more into the subject before coming back around to personal sacred places.

There are a number of “big” spiritual places,” which I didn’t really consider in this book but which are part of our religious heritage.

In his article “The Temple Mount as Sacred Space,” Tzi Freeman notes that the Bible contains what he calls “dual systems,” like Heaven and earth, G-d and humans, Creator and created, etc.  Sometimes they meet, and these we might call the sacred places beloved in different world religions.

In Judaism, for instance, there is the Temple Mount, said to be the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, the threshing floor that David purchased from Araunah the Jebusite, and the site of the two Temples. It is the place where where God chose the divine Presence in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Of course, the Temple’s destruction is mourned on Tisha B’Av, and Jews do not walk on the Mount itself. There are also four holy cities associated with different times in Jewish life: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberius.

In Christianity, sacred sites include those in Jerusalem and Israel associated with Jesus’ life.

The holiest sites common to all Muslims are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Specific holy places are the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The site on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque sites, along with the Dome of the Rock, is also called the Noble Sanctuary and is the Temple Mount in Jewish heritage. The holiest sites in Shia Islam are the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, and the Imam Husayn Shrine with the Al Abbas Mosque in Karbala.

The most sacred place in Sikhism is the Sir Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.

For Baha’is, the shrine of Bah’u’llah in Mahji near Acre Israel is the holiest site and the Qiblih, that is, the direction of prayer. The second holiest is the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa.

In Neo-Druidism, Stonehenge is a key holy site, and also Glastonbury.

In Hinduism there are tirthas, or places of pilgrimage. Benares (Varanasi) is the most famous and sone of several holy towns. There are seven ancient holy towns: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, and Sabarimala, Kerala are said to be the most major Pilgrim cities in Hinduism. Of these, Varanasi (also known as Benares) in Uttar Pradesh is considered the Holiest ancient site and it is considered by many to be the most sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus irrespective of denomination.

Among Buddhist sacred places are sites associated with Gautama Buddha: the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India; Kushinagar, India; Lumbini, Nepal; and Sarnath, India.  There are also stupa, a mound-like structure that contains relics like the ashes of a monk. These are places of meditation.

In the LDS Church, there are several sacred places in history: the grove where Joseph Smith experienced the presence of God and Christ; the Hill Cumorah where the sacred records were hidden, locations of other of Smith’s spiritual experiences, and LDS Temples.

Theology about Places 

Even though we identify sacred places among reliigous traditions, the theological distinctions about their sanctity differ.

In Judaism, the Tabernacle was a holy place which was safeguarded by limiting access to it, only priests entered it, and after the Temple was built, only the High Priest could enter the innermost place, and only on Yom Kippur.

There is of course no longer a Jerusalem Temple, and synagogues do not replace it. Synagogues are consecrated spaces that can be used only for the purpose of prayer, but a synagogue is not necessary for worship. Worship can be carried out alone or with less than a minyan, and communal Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. Worship can also be carried out alone or with fewer than ten people assembled together. However there are certain prayers that are communal prayers and therefore can be recited only by a minyan.

But Judaism also considers Shabbat a sacred place in time, an inherently holy place that does not exist in space.

In Islam, what is called the Bayt al-Ma`mur (the Much-frequented House) is located in the seventh firmament, which is the House around which those in the heavens circumambulate. This heavenly House is directly above the earthly Ka’ba and is the template for the Ka’ba, so that the Ka’ba is in turn a replica of the heavenly house where angels circumambulate, providing an important “axis mundi”.  Yet this is not the place of direct communication with God nor the place of only a select few, but is rather the axis mundi and, of course, the qibla for prayer.

In Christianity, although places associated with Jesus’ life are often called holy places, there are not requirements for Christians to visit these, as there is in Islam with the pillar of the hajj. You could say that in Christianity, Jesus himself is the holy “place,” present in the sacraments. For instance, when Catholics have eucharistic adoration, they affirm that Christ is right here and present in this place.

In Hinduism, temples are sacred because human have access to the gods, who are present there. At the center of the temple is the murti, or the physical image of the deity, which in turn is considered to be and treated as the living god who is attended to by worshipers. Believers can thus behold, or take darshan, of the deity, because the diety can be simulaneously and fully present in many and possibly an infinite number of different places.

Legendarily, Ashoka divided the ashes of Siddhartha and distributed them to 84,000 stupas through his realm, so that the land of Buddhism is filled with these holy places. Some believed that the enlightened mind of the person enshrined there continued at that place. Over the years, stupas were themselves ocnsidered manifestations of the sacred world. The Great Temple at Borobudur in Java, Inonesia is a series of stupas, where pilgrims circumambulate.

In the LDS Church, LDS temples are the fullest expression of sacred space, into which only church members in good standing and with a temple recommend may enter. But LDS chapels are also places of saccred ritual, without restriction of entry, and family homes are also places where the Holy Ghost can be present.

Religion as unconnected to a particular place.

As I was working on this talk, I was very intrigued by the thesis of Yi Fu Tuan, who argues that, in a very strong sense that religion is antithetical, to sacred places. (Religion: From Place to Placelessness. Text by Yi-Fu Tuan. Photographs and Essays by Martha A. Strawn. Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2009.)

One way that religion is antithetical to sacred space, is the prohibition against idolatry, which would include any notion of localizing the presence of God. Certainly a major aspect of the Ka’ba is that the Prophet Muhammad removed all idolatry from the place so that it could be wholly devoted to Allah who is never identified with any earthly thing.

Another sense of religion’s opposition to sacred place is the theological assertion that God encompasses all places. For instance, in Chinese religion, there is specification of levels of heaven and of Pure Lands. But the vastness of the universe in Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions aren’t necessarily plotted. For instance, Tuan notes, in the Comedy of Dante, Hell is geographical but Heaven is not.

In Native spirituality, too, is a belief in balance and mutuality among beings, which includes the sun and moon, meteorological phenomena, and features of the earth. “All these beings are imbued with power; all are alive in some sense.” Many locations can be sacred places, “filled with numinous aura.... alive by virtue of the narratives nad the rituals that may accompany them.” Likewise, common to the Chinese, there is a notion of cardinal points. Chinese, however, have less stress on narrative.

In Europe, however, we do not have this “clear notion of cosmic space demarcated by the cardinal points,” but rather a universe created by God in which God still acts. Thus churches can be built anywhere, because no particular natural places are specifically sacred.

Interestingly, Tuan notes that although Christianity places great stress upon the life story of Jesus, there is less stress than in Native spirituality upon the landscape, since he was always moving around. (Also, one might add, there isn’t necessarily unanimity of conviction about sites. For instance there are two traditional sites of Jesus’ tomb.)

In Christianity, too, worshipers focus not so much on places but upon worshiping "the Father in spirit and truth,” as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John. Thus, the community is broadened to encompass many places---but also to transcend time and space, since the community of Christ includes the dead as well as the living. And, like Jesus, early Christians moved around and were not very localized. Christians were called “pilgrims” in early antiquity, people who were literally or figuratively on the move, dis-placed.” One could draw a comparison with arhats in Theravada Buddhism: monks who are rootless rather than rooted to a specific place.

Judaism of coruse has no place of intrinsic holiness: that was the Temple, destroyed in 70 AD. Now, any clean room that contains Torah scrools and in which a minyan can worship becomes Makom Kadosh, or Holy Space. I began my little book with the observation that the Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as "place" because God is “the place of the world.” A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.

Sacred Space As Many Places 

The author Peter Knobel writes, “Sacred Space is where God dwells and hearts are moved.” There is the Holy Place (mikdash) of the Temple where God dwelled, and also there is the holy space in the hearts of people who are moved to zedaqah. He points to ways that Jews can create “a whole space so that God can dwell among us, perhaps in ways that create Jewish identity and community via streaming services and online education, a “synagogue without borders”

Knobel raises a different understanding of sacred space: Holy Place as the site of good deeds. But this understanding verifies Tuan’s thesis that religion is antithetical to place, for (as in Quran 2:177), piety can happen anywhere, not just in specific places, and piety can possibly be anonymous and private, known only to God.

There is also a sense that story-telling facilitates the drive toward placelessness. We may not go to a specific place with intrinsic holiness, but we can retell the story. In important ways that shifts the “location” of sacredness” to time over place, analogous to the Jewish sabbath. In my Upper Room Books study, I discussed how personal locations become “sacred”: our own sacred places become personal locations that are in turn connected to the narratives of our religious traditions. These locations are identifiable in place terms but also temporal terms: for instance, the way I experienced a deep spiritual experience of peace and healing in the summer of 1996 in a particular but very mundane location.

So our contemporary understanding of sacred space/place are complex. (1) There are locations in religious traditions that are very key within the narrative and historical existence of those traditions, and that narrative-historical existence in turn points us to, or intersects with, the spiritual world in ways understood differently in each tradition. And (2) there can be an infinite variety of more personal and communal sacred places, because they are not only connected to the sacred religious narratives but also the personal narrative of each believer's heart.

(At this point I opened for questions from our group. Several people, reflecting a spectrum of religious traditions, commented on their own understandings of sacred place. The idea of Sabbath as a "place" lead to some interesting discussions. Connected to Knobel's idea, we also thought about how the internet can create "virtual sacred places" "without borders," for instance @Virtual_Abbey on Twitter, and others.)

S. R. Burge, "Angels, Ritual and Sacred Space in Islam." Comparative Islamic Studies 5.2. (209) 221-245. Accessed at equinoxonline.

Peter S. Knobel, "Sacred Space is Where God Dwells and Hearts are Moved."

Friday, May 23, 2014

Yet I Would Gather Roses: Bach's Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Easter

Continuing the post-Easter cantatas, CD 19 of the set of Bach’s sacred cantatas bring us near to Ascension Day, when the risen Christ finally leaves his disciples, who in turn aren’t sure what to do except to wait in Jerusalem for what happens next. The cantatas for Fifth Sunday after Easter (Rogate Sunday) are: “Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch” (BWV, 86, “Verily, verily I say unto you”), “Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen” (BWV 87, “Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name”), and for this disc the liturgically unspecified “In allen meinen Taten” (BWV 97, “In all my undertakings”). The word "Rogate" comes from the Latin rogare, to ask, calling attention to the need to call upon God's care amid life's troubles. The four days before Ascension are called "rogation days."

The cover photo is of a woman from Lhasa, Tibet.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that, on the original 2000 pilgrimage, these cantatas were performed at Annenkirche in Dresden, a city which Bach loved. (Bach felt treated better there than in Leipzig and believed that musicians generally were treated well in Dresden.) My family and I visited the city in 2007 and were deeply moved, in particular its present-day beauty compared to the horror of February 1945. The text of the first cantata is Jesus’ words to the disciples (John 16): “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” The optimism of the text and the libretto, writes Gardiner, is poignant in light of the city’s wartime history, inviting “the listener to ask how these words of Jesus can be reconciled with
his or her own experience.” Bach musically traverses the libretto’s calls for confidence in God’s promises in spite of life’s pain.

Yet I would gather roses,

even though the thorns prick me.
For I am confident 
that my entreaty and supplication
will go straight to God’s heart,

for He has pledged His Word.

BWV 87 has “a mood of sustained reverence and pentience,” as Gardiner puts it. While the Gospel lesson is also from John 16, Bach uses “descending minor keys (d, g, c) for the first five of its seven movements” to suggest life’s suffering that we bear while at the same time trusting Christ’s promises.

Must I be troubled?

If Jesus loves me,
 all my pain
 is sweeter than honey,

a thousand sweet kisses He presses on my heart.
Whenever pain appears His love turns to gladness
even bitter suffering.

BWV 97, not specifically written for Rogate Sunday, is a setting of a poem by Paul Fleming and set to a hymn tune (which Bach employs) by Heinrich Isaac). The theme is one we’ve seen so often, the confidence one can feel as one places faith in God and trusts that “nothing can befall me but what He has provided.”

Rereading John 16, I'm impressed again with the confidence and joy preached by Christ even though, at the same time, he predicts pain and difficulty in the disciples' lives. Challenging circumstances happen regardless of the quality of our lives. But as we have our relationship with God in order---or at least we're working on it---God is never absent from our disordered lives and, in fact, is closer to us than even that "BFFL" to whom we turn in good and bad times alike.

As stated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Interfaith Prayers

Let’s remember the terrible flooding that is happening in Bosnia and Serbia.

Let’s also remember the ongoing ethnic and religious conflicts in Myanmar. 

Persecution of the Muslim minority in India continues to be an issue.

A comprehensive study by the Anti-Defamation League reports very high levels of anti-Semitism in different parts of the world.

There has been concern for persecution of Christians in China following a church demolition there.

Add concerns of which you're aware._______________________.

We pray for service efforts of our religious organizations around the world, and we pray that somehow peace and understanding might characterize relations among religious persons (and all persons) throughout the world.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Going to the Video Store

A while back, I purchased a new wallet. Cleaning out my old one, I removed my no-longer-used laminated cards for video rental shops. I felt sad doing so, as I recalled our many trips to rent tapes and DVDs.

I looked online and learned that the first rental shop opened in 1977. The first time Beth and I used such a store was several years later, after we had left graduate work and worked at our first teaching jobs. The shop was in Flagstaff, AZ and was a cozy little place to the right of our Safeway grocery store and near our favorite local restaurant. I think they carried both VHS and Betamax tapes. I remember noticing the movie “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” and I wondered (rightly, in this case) whether it was risky to anticipate so boldly that a movie would result in sequels.

By the time we moved to Kentucky our daughter was young, and our movie watching became more kid-centered. There was a Roadrunner Video store in the nearby grocery store plaza. We frequented the place, especially in summertime. I had made the decision to stay home with our daughter during her grade school summers. At least once, we visited Roadrunner barefoot. We got all kinds of shows and videos over the years. I remember one called “The Brave Frog,” which I thought was horrible. When I looked the movie up on, I realized that my opinion was pretty much the critical concensus! Of course, we also got the Disney classics, some cartoon shows on video, and straight-to-video movies that were more enjoyable than the frog one.

A Hollywood Video place opened down the street, which we also used, but the Roadrunner eventually closed. I was sad to see it go, with all the associations I had of “field trips” with our daughter. My parents also figure into all this nostalgia. Before they became too infirm to travel, they visited us in Kentucky. I still worked on a church staff then. My parents loved Westerns, so I rented "Unforgiven" for them to watch while we were at church all morning. They had wanted to see the movie and loved it, but Mom thought the language was awfully strong. True, you probably never heard John Wayne (their favorite Western star) use words like "shit hole," etc.

Blockbuster stores predominated in the 00s, but now they’ve all closed as of January 2014. The three of us were happy to discover a little place called Family Video near our house. It operates in conjunction with a pizza store, which is a smart combination. We rented the Blu-Ray for “Silver Linings Playbook” not too long ago. There is still something very enjoyable about going to the rental place, which you don’t get from the (admittedly convenient) services Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.

I found a short feature on YouTube that expresses the pleasures of renting movie:

Friday, May 16, 2014

Where Are You Going? Bach's Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

This coming Sunday, the fourth after Easter, is Cantate Sunday, so named because the first words of the Mass introit are Cantate Domino novum canticum, “Sing ye to the Lord a new song.” The three cantatas on this disc, CD 18, are: "Wo gehest du hin?" (BWV 166 “Whither goest thou?”), "Es ist euch gut, das ich hingehe," (BWV 108, “It is expedient for you, that I go away”), and "Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut" (BWV 117, “Give laud and praise to the highest good”).

The CD sleeve picture is of a boy in Mali---Timbuktu, in fact, a name not uncommonly used as a metaphor for any place a long way away.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that these cantatas seem less dramatic than other post-Resurrection cantatas, which I thought so, too, as I listened to them in the early morning (swatting away one of our cats who wants to walk on the laptop keyboard). But (Gardiner writes), “Bach is constantly challenging his listeners to consider what it is to be alive, using his music to tease new meanings out of the Gospel texts.” In BWV 166, for instance, Bach “reminds us how ephemeral human life is, and what a potential mess we make of it and its opportunities; but how there are signposts to be read, props to lean on and compass bearings to bring us back on course, even at the times when we sense we are most alone...”

The Gospel texts have to do with Jesus’ leave-taking in John 16. Christ was going to someplace a lot farther than Timbuktu, and the disciples weren't sure how they could cope. ("Wo gehest du hin?" the singer asks over and over in the first number.) They didn't understand that the risen Christ would be more close to them than ever before. In BWV 166, we have contrasting moods: the concern of the disciples, the lively happiness of a minuet which Bach inserts into the drama, and finally the quietness of the concluding chorale. Early in the cantata, the question of the title is turned back to the disciples:

“For whether I depart or stay,

the question always occurs to me:
man, ah! man, where are you going?”

This is a theme of Bach's cantatas, as we've seen several times. We need to hold to Christ and follow Christ faithfully, which is the only smart way we'll get through. Life's uncertainty is also a theme of this piece:

"Just as rainwater soon subsides

and many colours easily fade,

so it is with pleasure in this world,
which many men think highly of;

for though one sees from time to time
one’s hoped-for fortunes bloom,
yet it can happen, when all goes well,
that the final hour will abruptly strike."

Gardiner writes that the second cantata is structurally very similar to the first, as if Bach had the earlier one on his desk as he composed the second. “Both works are constructed on a sort of arpeggiated tonal staircase of keys suggestive of the imminent descent of the holy spirit at Pentecost (leading downwards in BWV 166 from B flat to g, c, D, Bflat, and g,and in BWV108 from A to fsharp, D to b). It is significant that BWV 108 fleshes out the central issue dealt with more summarily in BWV 166. ‘Whither goest thou?’ carries with it an explanation, ‘It is expedient for you that I go away’, the following year.”

The third cantata is not written for a particular Sunday but its theme fits with the other post-Resurrection pieces: the anxiety of God’s followers in light of Jesus’ eventual departure to heaven, along with the promise that God is never “severed from His people.” All the numbers end with the words “Give honor to our God.” In the CD notes, Gardiner explains (with more detail than I should copy here) the French influences and number symbolism that Bach employs in what might otherwise have been a less colorful text.

All the words are lovely but I especially liked the final aria:

"When strength and help are lacking,
as all the world bears witness,

He comes and helps abundantly,
the Creator himself, and inclines
His Father’s eyes to those
who otherwise find no repose.
Give honour to our God!"

As I've been writing here in recent posts, my wife Beth and I lost our mothers within a 14-month time period in 2012 and 2013. Neither Beth nor I take our lives for granted, but the loss of a parent is among other things an enormous reminder of one's own mortality. We both have "good genes"---relatives who lived into old age---but that is no guarantee of the future.

Bach's recurring themes of death and trouble find expression again this week in these post-Resurrection cantatas. Another of Bach's themes is Christ's call of discipleship. It occurs to me that, in the hands of us preachers, that call can seem more demanding than happy: we say in effect, "what have you done for the Lord lately? Why aren't you serving Christ more completely?" After all, discipleship is a costly thing, so we have to remind people, lest they fall into "cheap grace."

Bach's cantatas are a lovely corrective to this one-sided emphasis. Discipleship may be costly, but it is also a cheap---and in fact, totally free---anchor for our lives. Many religious traditions teach the lasting peace that is found in affirming God, who is our true reality among the ephemeral and ultimately unsatisfying realities of life. My Muslim friends, for instance, find peace in submission to God; similarly my Hindu colleagues.

In our Christian tradition, we rely upon God's unconditional love and promise to get us through life's difficulties--to give us signposts and bearings, as Gardiner writes. In the Gospel lesson from John, Christ affirms that he goes away (i.e. dies) in order that he might be spiritually present for his followers, unlimited by time and geography. We're so accustomed to the affirmation of Christ's resurrection, that we forget what a momentous assurance it can be when we have all kinds of distress and fears.

As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of texts are by Richard Stokes.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"Prayer, Voice and Organ": Magdalena Kozená

Refining the index of this blog, and thus rereading some recent posts, I noticed how often during the past year or two that I'm going through a rough period, or that I'm struggling, or that I'm spiritually dry, and so on. My wife and I lost our mothers within a 14-month period, and other things have been difficult. These past couple weeks, though, have brought reasons to feel more positive---although, scarily, I've gotten in the habit of feeling tense and pensive, and I'm having a hard time getting back to a cheerful outlook again! Emotions are weird, and fortunately emotions don't always have to do with one's relationship with God, because God is faithful, merciful, and loving whether we're "feeling it" or not. "God is greater than our hearts," writes the author of 1 John.

As has been true throughout my life, music is a way to keep me spiritually and emotionally happy and positive. This week I’ve been listening in my car to the new CD, “Prayer: Voice and Organ” by the noted Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená, with the organist Christian Schmitt. The selections are an intriguing and enjoyable compilation of music that mixes the public and personal forms of religious belief.

For instance, the Bach selections are pieces used in hymnals, while the art songs of Schubert are not ecclesial but deal affectingly with themes of mortality and redemption in ways that are religious. Similarly, the selections from among Wolf’s Mörike Lieder reflect an intensity of feeling along with religious evocations and imagery. We have a short religious drama by Purcell, and three versions of the prayer “Ave Maria” by Verdi, Schubert, and Dvorák. The artists also perform the last work by Durufle, “Our Father,” and a Jewish prayer set by Ravel. So we have a broad spectrum of pieces by composers and a spectrum of kinds of religious feelings.

It is interesting to think about the connection of artistic expression and religious faith. From what I've read, neither Verdi nor Schubert were religious, and Dvorák was strongly religious; and all three could write an "Ave Maria" that can be appreciated as kinds of prayer, or solely as beautiful art. Kozená herself states in the CD notes: “Everything is connected, everything is a part of our lives. Faith is something very personal But, if we live on this planet, we must surely believe in a higher power, whatever that may be. That is something I feel when I perform this music.” That sense of personal feeling unites for her the private and public aspects of prayer.

The ArkivMusic site, where I ordered the disc, provides the list of these pieces:

1. Totengräbers Heimwehe, D 842 by Franz Schubert
2. Komm, süsser Tod, komm, sel'ge Ruh'!, BWV 478 by Johann Sebastian Bach
3. Mörike Lieder: no 26, Karwoche by Hugo Wolf
4. Mélodies hébraïques (2): no 1, Kaddisch by Maurice Ravel
5. Agnus Dei by Georges Bizet
6. Ellens Gesang III, D 839/Op. 52 no 6 "Ave Maria" by Franz Schubert
7. Spanisches Liederbuch: no 7, Mühvoll komm ich und beladen by Hugo Wolf
8. Tell me, some pitying angel, Z 196 "Blessed Virgin's Expostulation" by Henry Purcell
9. Ave Maria, Op. 19b/B 68 by Antonín Dvorák
10. So gibst du nun, mein Jesus, gute Nacht!, BWV 501 by Johann Sebastian Bach.
11. Himmelsfunken, D 651 by Franz Schubert
12. Mörike Lieder: no 27, Zum neuen Jahr by Hugo Wolf
13. Die goldne Sonne, voll Freud' und Wonne, BWV 451 by Johann Sebastian Bach
14. Vom Mitleiden Mariä, D 632 by Franz Schubert
15. Mörike Lieder: no 25, Schlafendes Jesuskind by Hugo Wolf
16. Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen, D 343 by Franz Schubert
17. Ave Maria by Giuseppe Verdi
18. Mörike Lieder: no 28, Gebet by Hugo Wolf
19. Der Leidende, D 432 by Franz Schubert
20. Mein Jesu, was für Seelenweh, BWV 487 by Johann Sebastian Bach
21. Notre Père, Op. 14 by Maurice Duruflé
22. Kommt, Seelen, dieser Tag, BWV 479 by Johann Sebastian Bach

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Rough Road: Bach's Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter

CD 17 of the "Bach Pilgrimage" set contain cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter, or Jubilate Sunday, named because the introit of the Catholic liturgy begins "Jubilate Deo omnis terra" ("Shout with joy to God, all the earth") from Psalm 65. (Different churches assign these names to different Easter Season Sundays; someone who knows liturgical history better than I do can sort it out.) The sleeve picture is from Myanmar: a boy in a red monk robe.

Next week's cantatas are for Cantate Sunday, then the following week is Rogate Sunday, and then that next Thursday, May 29th, will be Ascension Day. Next is Ascension Sunday on June 1, followed by Pentecost on June 8. When I get to Ascension Sunday, I'll be halfway through my "pilgrimage."

The titles of these cantatas sound less than jubilant: “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (BWV 12, “Weeping, wailing, fretting, fearing”), “Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, aber die Welt wird sich Freuen” (BWV 103, “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice”), and “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen” (BWV 146, “We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God”). Listening to them can be jarring, as some numbers are as somber as anything in the Passions while others are peppy and upbeat.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the cantatas all move as a “theological and musical progression” from sorrow and misery to joy, reflecting the morning’s scripture lesson from Psalm 126:6. The opening of the first cantata was later used for the “Crucifixus” section of the Mass in B Minor, so the section that became a musical setting of the four syllables of the word “Crucifixus” (reflecting the hammer strokes of the nails, according to Gardiner) are here the four words of this cantata’s title.

The cantata moves through different musical keys to form a progression toward the C major violin part that links us to God’s kingdom. But the cantata is full of dualism, writes the conductor, among contrary visions of the world of trouble, the stumbling block of Christ, and the image of Christ as shepherd, as well as the joy of the kingdom.

What God doth, is well done,
to this I shall be constant.
Though I be cast onto the rough road
by affliction, death, and misery

BWV 103 also has contrasts: the joy of the Christian but also the laughter of those who mocked Christ on the cross. In fact, Gardiner writes, we might mistake the happy themes of the oboes and strings to be the happiness of the disciples rather than that of Christ’s tormentors. Once the piece moves back to Christian joy, the words convey Christ’s help to sinners needful of his healing.

Recover now, O troubled feelings,
you cause yourselves too much grief...
my Jesus shall appear again,
O joy without compare!

BWV 146 turns to the joy expressed in Psalm 126:6, the famous "bringing in the sheaves" psalm. The weeping that accompanies planting is followed by the happiness of the harvest.

I sow my tears
with anxious heart.
Yet my heart’s distress
will bear me glory
on the day of the blessed harvest.

Gardiner comments again that this music was composed a few kilometers from the place that became Buchenwald, but where Goethe and Liszt also journeyed through the woods. The juxtaposition of human genius and beauty, and human evil could hardly be more striking.

I thought about that as I looked back on this past academic year. I’ve taught three versions of a course on contemporary moral problems. I’m glad to have other subjects to teach in the fall, because such an emphasis on serious moral issues (some quite distressing and depressing) has left me emotionally drained, especially as I’m also feeling downcast from my mother’s 2012 death, and a few other things. Human ingenuity and logical analysis contrasts with our inability to address lasting problems like hunger and war.

Bach juxtaposes the misery that can characterize human existence (and which he felt in his own life) with the joy of God’s promises. Distress, temptations, difficult social problems, and death itself do not have the last word. The resurrection of Christ shines as an ongoing beacon across history, a light which we follow through the darkness.

Based on Jesus' teachings about joy in John 15-16, you sometimes get the message that Christians should be happy and cheerful all the time. John Wesley himself began to question the validity of his 1738 experience of his "heart strangely warmed" because he didn't have accompanying joy. The overly cheerful, summery Christians contrast with those who have (in Martin Marty's words) a more "wintry" kind of spirituality.

Bach's cantatas for this Sunday---with their overall subdued, even weary mood---remind us that even Christians focused upon the truth of Christ can be very weighed down by distress and trouble. You may have "theological joy" even when the emotion of joy eludes you. You can stay constant to God's saving acts---which are God's accomplishments, not yours---even as you struggle upon a rough road.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes.)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Faithful Shepherd: Bach's Cantatas for the Second Sunday after Easter

Continuing my survey of the 198 surviving sacred cantatas of J.S. Bach.... This weekend’s cantatas for the Second Sunday after Easter (on CD 16 of the set) are: “Du Hirte Israel, höre” (BWV 104, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel”), “Ich bin ein guter Hirt” (BWV 85, “I am the good shepherd”), and “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt” (BWV 112, "The Lord is my faithful shepherd"). The CD photo is of a girl in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

As the titles suggest, these cantatas are all based on Psalm 23. My mom helped me memorize the psalm for Sunday school years ago, although as time went by, the psalm took a close second place behind Psalm 121 as a favorite. Likely Psalm 23 is a cherished or at least a very familiar scripture for many of us.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the first cantata “leads” the faithful to the “meadow of heaven” by moving from G major to B minor to D major to A major. But (he writes) the effect is not only pastoral (in the sense of bucolic) and placid, because the text of the cantata is also beseeching: Christ’s followers call out to the Savior to to hear their needs.

"Though my shepherd hides too long,
though the desert frightens me,
my feeble steps still hasten on.
I cry to Thee,
and Thy Word, my shepherd, doth cause me
to utter a faithful Abba….
Happy flock, sheep of Jesus,
the world for you is a heavenly kingdom.
Here already you taste Jesus’ goodness…"

Gardiner writes that BWV 85 is the third cantata in a series: BWV 6, 42, and 85 on consecutive feast days (Easter Monday, First Sunday after Easter, and Second Sunday after Easter) have the theme of the disciples’ concern about living without the physically present Jesus. Bach uses the instrument called a cello piccolo, which “seems theologically associated with the believer’s personal relationship to Jesus.” As with so many cantatas, the believer who is in distress must hold onto Christ and not lose confidence in the risen Lord's power and presence. By connecting Christ's death on the cross with his love and care for his flock, this cantata is thematically related to the St Matthew Passion.

"Behold what love can do.
My Jesus takes tender care
of His own flock.
He has shed on the cross
His precious blood for them...
no calamity can touch me:
retreat, all who are my enemies...
I have God as my friend."

The text for the third cantata, BWV 112, is more straightforwardly a statement and exposition of the twenty-third psalm.  But the musical mood is different from the other two. Bach uses horns to depict (as Gardiner writes) “a much more regal portrait of the good shepherd than we have previously met." Bach also uses strings and oboes to suggest the movement of sheep, giving the piece a certain bounce. The text, though, still grounds us in the pastoral mood of the psalm.

"The Lord is my faithful shepherd,
He has me in His care,

wherein I shall want nothing
 that is good.
He feeds me continually 
on pastures
where the sweet-tasting grass
of His wholesome Gospel grows."

Years ago, when I was serving a small church in a rural area, I preached a sermon on Jesus the good shepherd. I commented that shepherds weren't so common as in Jesus' time and so I explained some of the responsibilities of shepherds. Later, there was a cheerful laugh at my expense, because one of our church's pillars was indeed a shepherd, though his role was (as I recall) coordinator in the animal science area for a nearby agricultural research center, specifically the center's sheep herd.

I said last week that the cantatas for the first Sunday after Easter have been favorites so far on this "journey," but I also love these three. We use the word "pastoral" in different ways: to refer to the work of sheepherders, to bucolic or rural life or scenery, to art that evolves landscape (I love British music, often characterized as "pastoral"), and to the work of clergy. The word "pastor" comes from the Latin word meaning "to lead to pasture," and so there have always been etymological and metaphorical connections of pastors, their "flocks," and shepherds.

I like the phrase "mein getreuer Hirt"---my faithful shepherd---to refer to Christ, and these three cantatas are beautiful depictions and proclamations of this aspect of Christ. I've felt spiritually "dry" and sad lately---not for a deep theological reason, like St. John's dark night. I'm just tired from the about-to-end semester, feeling grief from family deaths in 2012 and 2013, and generally let-down-feeling for reasons I won't get into here.

I need to focus on the many great people and many blessings of my life. But even a fixable attitude is something we can commit to the care of the good shepherd. My mother once commented that she thought we shouldn't "bother" God with our everyday problems. But in this case Mom preached bad theology. The Lord is ready to listen and care for us at every moment, just as a shepherd is always patient and kind with needy, easily distressed sheep.

In this Easter season, it would be good to follow Bach's lead and connect Jesus' death and resurrection to the image of the good shepherd. When we are hurting, we must never think that the Lord just wants us to "deal with it," pull ourselves up by the footsteps, and not bother him. The Lord is completely committed to us.

(All English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes)