In the CD notes, Gardiner points out that Bach took seriously the Book of Revelation, the concept of angelic armies, and “a cosmos charged with an invisible presence made of pure spirit, just beyond the reach of our normal faculties. ...The concept of a heavenly choir of angels was implanted in Bach as a schoolboy in Eisenach, when even the hymn books and psalters of the day gave graphic emblematic portrayal of this idea; the role of angels, he was instructed, was to praise God in song and dance, to act as messengers to human beings, to come to their aid, and to fight on God’s side in the cosmic battle against evil.”
Not surprisingly, then, we have four pieces for this day: “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” (BWV 50, “Now is come strength and salvation”), “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir” (BWV 130, “Lord God, we all praise Thee”), “Es erhub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19, “There arose a war”), and “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg” (BWV 149, “The voice of rejoicing and salvation”).
BWV 50 is just over three minutes but is nevertheless (in Gardiner's words) “breath-taking” and majestic. Not specifically for Michaelmas, the piece dovetails with the cantatas because the text is based on a portion of Revelation 12, where we read the defeat of the dragon by Michael and the angels.
Now is come salvation and strength,
and the kingdom of our God,
and the power of His Christ:
for the accuser of our brethren is cast down,
which accused them before our God day and night.
BWV 130 depicts the archangels in procession and in battle. The battle against the forces that vex us is not only in the past, but is ongoing. Gardiner writes, “Though there is brilliance aplenty in the steely glint of Michael’s sword (fifty-eight consecutive semiquavers for the principal trumpet to negotiate – twice!), this is not an episode in a Blitzkrieg. Bach is more concerned to evoke two superpowers squaring up to one another, the one vigilant and poised to protect the ‘kleine Häuflein’ against assault (cue the tremulant throbbing of all three trumpets in linked quavers), the other wily and deceitful (one wonders whether the kettledrums and continuo are perhaps intended to be on the dragon’s side?).”
The ancient dragon burns with envy
and constantly devises new pain
to break up that little flock....
Grant, O Prince of the Cherubim,
that this high host of heroes
may evermore tend Thy believers;
grant that the angels on Elijah’s chariot
may bear them up to Thee in Heaven.
As in 130, Bach uses trumpets to dramatic effect in BWV 19, along with intense writing for both the orchestra and the singers, to depict angelic protection of the faithful against the fury of Satan (the serpent, the dragon).
Praise God! The dragon is laid low.
The uncreated Michael
and his angelic host
have conquered him.
There he lies in the darkness,
fettered with chains,
and he shall no longer
dwell in heaven’s realm...
Let us love the countenance
of righteous angels,
and with our sins
not banish or even sadden them,
that they may be,
when the Lord commands us
to bid the world farewell,
to our great light,
our chariots to heaven.
BWV 149, meanwhile, is “festive rather than combative,” while using the same orchestral forces.
Ah Lord, let Thy dear angel
bear this soul of mine, when I die,
into Abraham’s lap,
and let my body sleep in its resting-place
most gently, free of torment and pain,
until the Day of Judgement!
And then awaken me from death,
that my eyes may behold Thee
in sheer joy, O Son of God,
my Saviour and my throne of grace!
Lord Jesus Christ, hear me, O hear me,
I will praise Thee eternally!
Tomorrow is the second anniversary of my mother's death. I admit that angels are less a part of my spirituality than for Bach. As I work and rest, I think of the Holy Spirit as the closeness of God to me. But I love the image of the "safe passage into heaven for souls," as well as the image of Heaven being filled with music and dance. A lovely quotation that I found online suggests that angels reassure us when our loved ones die, that they are safe now. I like that a lot. Perhaps I need to be more open to the idea of God's presence expressed via divine advocates who, importantly, are also beautiful singers.
(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)