Friday, October 31, 2014

A Mighty Fortress is Our God: Bach's Cantatas for the Feast of the Reformation

Luther window in Wehrli Chapel,
Eden Theological Seminary,
where I'm an adjunct instructor.
With only five posts to go, I'll recap my year-long project one more time…. 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. The CD notes testify to the logistical challenges of moving a choir, orchestra, and recording equipment around to different cities, every single week.

During ensuing years, the cantatas have been available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner's own Soli Deo Gloria label). They are still available that way, and also 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 the cantatas in conjunction to the liturgical year. I began with the First Sunday of Advent and have stayed with the "journey" pretty faithfully all year.

October 31 is Reformation Day, and these cantatas were appropriately performed in the university church of Luther, the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. The CD cover photo, of a wide- and dark-eyed little girl, is from Kandahar, Afghanistan. One cantata is a long-time favorite on LPs, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80), based on Luther’s hymn.

The first piece is the festive “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild" (BWV 79), “The Lord God is sun and shield”). The pageantry of this commemorative piece even includes a drum beat that (as Gardiner writes) could imaginatively echo the hammering of the 95 Theses upon the church door. Gardiner describes the numerous techniques with which Bach creates a profoundly moving piece.

Now thank we all our God

with heart and voice and hands,
who doth work great things for us
wherever we may be,

who since our mother’s womb
and from our infancy

hath favoured us so many times
and continues so to do.

“Now thank we all our God” is the title of the second cantata (BWV 192, “Nun danket alle Gott”), a much smaller work with “modest instrumentation that nevertheless “provides an attractive contrast, an alternative and less bombastic approach to the celebrations.”

Back to “Ein feste Burg” (BWV 80, “A mighty fortress is our God”). In the CD notes, Gardiner writes that Bach revised the cantata three times before this late version, which he “constructed a stupendous and elaborate new contrapuntal opening movement,” without instrumental prelude. He points out that Bach uses Luther’s hymn in three different numbers of the piece, with the last number being closest to the tune with which we're familiar. For a long time I had difficulty singing this hymn in church, because it had been sung at the funeral of a Lutheran pastor who had been a mentor. Bach's setting of the hymn helped me move toward healing.

We can do nothing with our own might,
all too soon we are lost.

It is the righteous man,

chosen by God, who fights for us.

We who at baptism swore loyalty
on Christ’s bleeding banner,

his spirit conquers evermore.
Do you ask who He is?
He is called Jesus Christ,
the Lord of Sabaoth,
there is no other God,
He must hold the field.

But I owe a greater debt to Luther himself. Writing in my last post about New England, I thought to myself about days in the Yale library, where I loved to read from Luther's works. I was a divinity school student, feeling lost and inadequate, struggling to find my way. Luther's themes of sola fide, sola scriptura spoke deeply to me. I filled dozens of index cards (which I still have) with quotations and citations from his works. I wanted to learn his theology but most of all I wanted God's unconditional love to "sink in." Luther was a perfect teacher.

I read an article online (and unfortunately didn't bookmark it) that raised the question of whether Reformation Day should be celebrated. After all, there is greater theological concord between the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches than in Luther's day, and even Bach's day. Plus, there have been several historical moments when the church experienced a reformation or a course-correction when it had strayed from the Gospel in some way. I believe that the way many dominations are addressing LGBTQ inclusion is a kind of contemporary reformation, and so is the hard work of churches (in my own community of St. Louis and others) to address the tragedies of racism. Reformation goes hand in hand with repentance and renewal.

So we could speak of "reformation days" that have happened and, by God's grace, will continue to happen.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Visions of Belonging": New England and the Sense of Place

Childe Hassam, "The Ledges, October in
Old Lyme, Connecticut", 1907 
When I arrived Yale Divinity School in the fall of 1979, I fell in love with New England, in the sense of an instant, overwhelming emotion of belonging. That love was bittersweet, because I knew I’d likely not remain beyond the three years of my program. I wrote about those years here.

Given my feelings about New England and my interest in “place,” you’d understand why I grabbed a book I saw in a bookstore this summer: Visions of Belonging: New England Art and the Making of American Identity, by Julia B. Rosenbaum (Cornell University Press, 2006). I had been unfamiliar with the book but the themes of New England and of place made it a necessary purchase.

Rosenbaum is associate professor of art history and director of the American Studies Program at Bard College. Her introduction is an excellent summary of the whole book. Focusing upon the late 1800s-early 1900s, a prolific period for artists associated with New England, she writes about the way New England held deep significance for many Americans. She aims to understand “the regionalist impulse animating artistic production at the turn of the century” (p. 1), and the related debates about regional and national identity. She argues that New England and its artistic representation “provide a case study, a means to apprehend nationhood and the forging of a common culture it provides” (p. 2).

Thomas Hovanden, "Breaking Home Ties," 1890.
By the 1890s, Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the end of the American frontier (p. 2, 152-153), and the 1893 Word’s Fair celebrated the nation’s regional diversity. Historically, the U.S. was in a period of postbellum sectionalism, immigration, and industrialization. In this context, Americans looked for a sense of belonging and of roots that could stand for the whole nation, and New England fit the bill, for interrelated reasons (p. 2). It represented the colonial beginnings of the nation. Writers like Yale’s Timothy Dwight had celebrated New England’s benefits (pp. 5-6). Its places and characters had a secure place in the national art and literature, and the region’s architecture and furniture were esteemed.

Interestingly the World’s Fair---with its many displays featuring different states and regions---was the catalyst by which New England newly inspired Americans (pp. 6-7, 26-31). A few posts ago I discussed the new biography of Norman Rockwell, an artist so associated with New England and whose painting Breaking Home Ties is one of his most popular. It was a painting of the same name, by Thomas Hovenden, that captured people’s imaginations at the Fair and helped spur a discussion about national identity (p. 7, 32-36). Artists associated with New England sought to represent the region’s character and ideals via paintings and (especially in the case of Augustus Saint-Gaudens) statues of historical worthies. The works of Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf articulated visually “a sense of home and belonging with New England” and “helped to consolidate what I have termed an ‘iconography of belonging’,” notably beloved images of pleasant villages, churches with staples, and attractive landscapes (p. 7). The author also discusses the work of artists like John Twachtman and Julian Alden Weir, and the range of artistic styles used by the several artists.

The book contains color plates of four key works: Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties (1890), Weir’s The Laundry, Branchville (c. 1894), Hassam’s Church at Old Lyme, Connecticut (1905) and Marsden Hartley, The Last of New England--The Beginning of New Mexico (1918/1919). Other reproduced painintgs include works by Metcalf, Twachtman, Saint-Gaudens, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Theodore Robinson, Wallace Nutting, more paintings by Hassam and Weir, and other artists.

By the 1920s, artistic energy and art criticism shifted to other regions. For instance, artists like Georgia O’Keeffe were associated with the Southwest, the Ash Can School focused upon poorer sections of New York City, and Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were associated with the Midwest. New England lost its cultural prominence but not the abiding appreciation of many Americans. Rosenbaum’s book shows us how crucial to a nation's identity are art and culture, how a sense of place can inform national unity.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Strolling in Warm Autumn

The source of this picture is F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm via Facebook, from the site I love this place, a suspension bridge on a hiking trail at the F. A. Seiberling Nature Realm park in Akron, OH.

When we lived in Akron, this trail was spread with mulch and thus was soft enough for me to hike shoeless. On a recent visit I noticed that the mulch hadn't been replaced, which I understand; that stuff's expensive. But I've nice memories of feeling the trail as I walked and then strolling across this bridge (with its cool, smooth beams) to take the alternate "loop" pathway. As long as I can avoid acorns, going barefoot on autumn days has always been a simple pleasure for me.

I think of all this because the weather is so warm this weekend, 80s yesterday and again today. I love autumn because of the colors but also the varying temperatures. Changing weather can be hard on one's allergies, and planning your wardrobe can be a problem. But I like the variety between seasons, weather trying to make up its mind what to be.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Whither Shall I Flee: Bach's Cantatas for the 19th Sunday after Trinity

The 19th Sunday after Trinity is coming up! Next is Bach’s Reformation Day cantatas, and then the 20th through 23rd Sundays of Trinity in November. Advent is fast approaching. My family brought home some Christmas cards from the Papyrus store yesterday; soon I'll be starting on that late-November job. The CD for this Sunday features a girl from Herat, Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the themes of this time (the last few weeks of the post-Trinity season) include “the thorny and intractable issues of belief and doubt, “the rejection of the world by the faithful and the prospect of eventual union with God – or the horror of exclusion.” But “Bach both softens and humanises the severity of the words while in no way diminishing their impact: he has an unfailing knack of being able to vivify the doctrinal message and, when appropriate, of delivering it with a hard dramatic kick, yet balancing this with music of an emollient tenderness.” Overall, the pieces for this Sunday are more pensive (though beautiful), in contrast to those coming up for October 31.

Right on cue, the title of BWV 48 is “Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom” (“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me [from the body of this death]”, which is from Romans 7:24). The first part of the cantata depicts the healing miracle of Matthew 9:1-8, with all the misery both of illness and of sin-sickness. But the second part, as we’ve seen so often before in Bach’s works, turns to the praise of Christ, who (in answer to the misery of Romans 7:24) alone can save and heal us. Similarly, the second cantata focuses upon the healing of Christ for the misery of infirmity and sin. But here, the theme is the blood of Christ. This cantata is called “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” (BWV 5, “Whither shall I flee”). Gardiner writes that the viola obbligato reminds us of “the gushing, curative effect of the divine spring” of blood.” His likening of the power of Christ’s blood to agricultural preparations for crops makes me remember something I read quite a while ago: that Gardiner maintains a farm in addition to all his musical work.

The third cantata is “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (BWV 56, “Gladly shall I bear the cross”). The piece is for orchestra, chorus, and solo bass. As Jesus occasionally crossed the sea of Galilee, all of human life is like a voyage across seas. The music carries us through waves and calm to affirm God’s ultimate salvation once we reach journey’s end.

Like last week, the cantatas for this Sunday are joined with cantatas for post-Trinity Sundays that could not fit on the 2000 liturgical calendar. A cantat for the 25th Sunday after Trinity is called “Es Reisset such ein schrecklich Ende” (BWV 90, “A terrible end shall sweep you away”). Not so calming as BWV 58, this cantata gives us the horrors of damnation, sung in arias for the men’s voices. What a relief when we cross the terrible threats and hopelessness faced by the unredeemed and affirm God’s rescue of those who believe.

When I hear the phrase "blood of Christ," particularly as a stream that washes us, I often think of that old camp meeting song that I learned in childhood.

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

A very different kind of music than Bach's, but a similar expression of hope that Christ's power is sufficient for this life and that to come.

But the image of life as a sea voyage is another appealing theme from this week's music. Bach's music carries the text by Johann Frank for a lovely assurance for our faith.

My life on earth
is like a voyage at sea:
sorrow, affliction and distress
engulf me like waves
and daily frighten me to death;
my anchor, though, which sustains me, is God’s mercy,
with which He often gladdens my heart.
He calls out to me: I am with you,
I shall never leave you nor forsake you!
And when at length the raging foam is calmed,
I shall step from my ship into my own city,
which is the kingdom of Heaven,
where I with all the righteous
shall enter out of so great tribulation.

(As the CD notes indicate, all translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Norman Rockwell, "American Mirror"

In the early 1960s, my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post. Dad’s shed was my “club house,” and sitting out there on summer days, I’d look through copies of the weekly magazine, stacked up in the corner. The magazine’s covers and articles were illustrated by artists. I was a decent sketcher and wondered if art might be a good career. I looked at the magazine’s website just now and found the names of illustrators of that era: not only Norman Rockwell, but also Richard Sergent, John Clymer, Robert G. Harris, Gilbert Bundy, and others. I still have a few of those old copies as childhood keepsakes. 

Browsing the Webster Groves Bookshop a few weeks ago, I purchased the new biography, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). An art critic and journalist, she had the weekly column “Questions For” in the New York Times Magazine for several years.

Rockwell (1894-1978) won Americans' devotion with his art. Saying Grace---a painting of an older woman and a boy praying over their food in a restaurant, with curious patrons looking on---topped a poll among people's favorite Post cover. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series is also popular, as well as works like Breaking Home Ties, Boy with Baby Carriage, Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, The Gossips, Tattoo Artist, Girl at Mirror, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, Jockey Weighing In, Triple Self-Portrait, Stockbridge--Main Street at Christmas, and others. He painted several portraits, including Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. LBJ preferred Rockwell’s painting of him to the official portrait. Rockwell even did a rock album cover for Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and David Bowie approached him for a portrait (but he needed it sooner than Rockwell could provide). He produced over 4000 works: magazine covers, book illustrations, posters, murals, illustrations for advertisements, and others. He never aspired to sell his paintings to collectors or to display in fine-art galleries. His meticulous technique (realistic but not photo-realistic), his ability to tell a story in a single picture, and the care with which he set up the situations in his paintings, add to his works’ appeal.

Rockwell was born in New York, attended Chase Art School and the National Academy of Design, and sold his first illustration when he was eighteen. The same year (1912), he became staff artist for Boys’ Life. He was 21 when he sold his first cover to The Saturday Evening Post. Until 1963, he painted 323 covers for that magazine. He continued to provide paintings for Boys’ Life in addition to other magazines. His later paintings for Look dealt with topics on poverty, civil rights, and space exploration.

Rockwell married three times. His first marriage to Irene O’Connor was from 1916 till 1930 and ended in divorce. Living in California, he met Mary Barstow. They married and had three sons. They lived in New Rochelle, NY and then Arlington, VT, and later Stockbridge, MA. It was in Vermont and Massachusetts that Rockwell painted some of his popular depictions of small town themes. The family moved to Stockbridge so that Mary could have her alcoholism addressed at the psychiatric hospital there, but Rockwell himself also benefited at the hospital; he received treatment from psychologist Erik Erikson. After Mary died in 1959, he married “Mollie” Punderson in 1961. She survived him.

Solomon writes about the dismissal Rockwell suffered from art critics. “Rockwellesque” became a pejorative term for sentimental depictions of life. His painting The Connoisseur, depicting a man gazing at a Jackson Pollock-like painting, is for Solomon a masterpiece, and contrasts Rockwell with the abstract expressionists with whom critics compared him so unfavorably. But in recent times his work has been more honored. Solomon writes that the Guggenheim and other museums have had an exhibitions of his work, Rosie the Riveter sold at auction for nearly $5 million, and Breaking Home Ties was auctioned for over $15 million. After this biography was published, Saying Grace sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $46 million.

"Election Day," 1948.
Solomon considers Rockwell’s complicated psychology. Especially when he was a young painter, he
was known for painting boys much more often than girls, and some of his behavior would cause accusations today, such as hanging around grade schools, looking for kids who might be models for his illustrations. But there is no evidence that Rockwell acted inappropriately with any boy. He was, however, cold to one boy whom he no longer needed for modeling, which had ill effects on the boy’s psyche. The boy's tragic death seems to have weighed on the artist.

Rockwell was compulsive about cleanliness and his food preferences. He was also extremely modest, refusing even to consider himself an artist. Women made him insecure. Throughout his life he searched for brotherly, masculine companionship; yet he was not close to his own older brother. His wives were discouraged that he preferred spending time in his studio than with his family. Rockwell never mentions his wife Mary's death (or much about his family) in his 1960 autobiography. The artist emerges from Solomon’s account as a person of considerable self-caused loneliness, who found more personal happiness in depicting family life, in the emotional safety of his studio, than he ever did in his own life. Interestingly, he was not particularly nostalgic about his own childhood.

Solomon considers him a postmodern artist who “shares with the current generation a historically self-conscious approach to picture making” (p. 11). The book’s title refers to Rockwell himself, “his work mirrors his own temperament---his sense of humor, his fear of depths---and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves...” (p. 10). He wasn't all positivity. In the jarring work The Problem We All Live With, a little black girl is escorted to school accompanied by faceless law enforcement figures, with tossed fruit and racial slurs prominent against the wall by which she walks. Even in Election Day, Rockwell depicts a humorous yet sad situation: a young couple is angry at each other, divided by the Dewey-Truman presidential campaign, as the child sits, crying and ignored. But good spirits and a tenderhearted view of life prevail across his oeuvre. She writes:

"Where, in his work, are disease and death? Where is his sense of existential dread? I would argue that angst is probably overrepresented in modern art. Surely we can make room for an artist who was more interested in running toward the light. Unlike his fellow realist Edward Hopper, whose work abounds with the long shadows of late afternoon, Rockwell prefers the light of morning; his work can put you in mind of that sunny, hopeful moment right before lunch" (pp. 10-11).

Although aspects of Rockwell's personality leave us sad, Solomon interprets his art with a civic vision---a sense of the common good---that I find admirable.

“The great subject of his work was American life... a homelier version steeped in the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of America’s founding in the eighteenth century. The people in his paintings are related less by blood than by their participation in civic rituals, from voting on Election Day to sipping a soda at a drugstore counter. Doctors spend time with patients whether or not they have health insurance. Students appreciate their teachers and remember their birthdays. Citizens at town hall meetings stand up and speak their mind without getting booed or shouted down by gun-toting ragaholics. This is America... before searing divisions in our government and general population shattered any semblance of national solidarity” (pp. 4-5).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cy Avery, "Father of Route 66"

Route 66: The Highway and Its People (1988) has always been my favorite among the many histories of the fabled highway. I purchased my copy in Sedona, AZ in 1989, during the years when my family and I lived in nearby Flagstaff. The photographer Quinta Scott and the historian-writer Susan Croce Kelly researched the highway and interviewed many people associated with the road. Scott took photographs, Kelly wrote the text, and the book was published by University of Oklahoma Press. I used the book in my “American Highways and American Wanderlust” colloquium at University of Akron.

Now, Kelly (Susan Kirkpatrick) has written a wonderful biography of Cyrus Stevens Avery (1871-1963), the “Father of Route 66," also published by University of Oklahoma Press. What a fascinating life! Born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, young Avery and his parents and siblings journeyed to Indian Territory and then Missouri. He went to college in Missouri, married Essie McClelland, then moved back to Oklahoma where he was an insurance agent, moved into real estate loans, and established the Avery Oil and Gas Company. In 1907, he and his wife and children moved to Tulsa.

Automobile travel at that time was new but growing rapidly. Roads were dirt and gravel, poorly suited for cars. Consequently, the Good Roads Movement in the 1910s was an effort to improve and eventually to pave highways. Avery became interested in this effort, which would benefit Tulsa and Oklahoma. He became a leader in the movement. Among his several roles, he joined the Oklahoma Good Roads Association, was president of the Albert Pike Highway Association, and was president of the Associated Highway Associations of America.

Avery was also appointed to the Joint Board of Interstate Highways, the task of which was to designate and mark a new system of federal highways. Prior to that time, roads had names, like the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Highway, the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, and many others. But as the designation of named highways had been controversial in the 1910s, with towns vying for a place on major routes, similar controversies occurred in the laying-out of federal roads. One dispute was fateful. Boosters proposed a route from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri and eventually to Los Angeles, and proposed number was U.S. 60. Avery, though, pressed for a major road from Chicago to Los Angeles, also via Springfield, MO, that would pass through Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Such a road would benefit his town and state, unlike the proposed U.S. 60 which, under the original plan, would not enter Oklahoma.

Something from my own collection:
a delegate's ribbon from a meeting
in my hometown to promote paved roads.
In the layout of federal routes, the west-east transcontinental highways would end in 0, and the principal north-south highways would end in 1. (My hometown Vandalia, IL, which Susan mentions as the terminus for the pioneer National Road, is on two of these routes: 40 and 51.) Avery wanted his route through Tulsa to be U.S. 60, identifying the road as a major route. Kentucky leaders, however, balked at that idea, since the proposed U.S. 60 would (and still does) serve that state. The number 62 was suggested (U.S. 62 is now the highway from El Paso to Niagara Falls). Avery disliked that number, but he and his associate Frank Page discovered that the euphonious number 66 had not yet been assigned to a road. Thus was born the Chicago-Los Angeles highway that became famous.

The federal highway system of numbered routes became reality in 1926. The work of improving and paving those roads continued for many years. Avery was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association and its work of paving and promoting U.S. 66. As a member of the American Association of State Highway Officials, he was also involved in the approval of the signage with which we’re all familiar, including shields for highways, octagonal stop signs, round railroad signs, yellow diamond-shaped caution signs, and rectangular speed limits signs.

Other aspects of Avery’s life are also noteworthy: his work for a Tulsa airport and for a water pipeline to the city, his tireless handling of political disagreements, his travels, and his efforts to improve race relations. During his life, he earned the animosity of the Ku Klux Klan and eventually lost his job as a state highway commissioner because of Klan manipulation. In her readable style, Susan discusses these and many other aspects of Avery’s long career in business and public service.

Avery died in 1963. He is honored in Tulsa with several memorials, and nearly any highway history will mention his work for Route 66. It’s fortunate that now he has a history of his own!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"The Doors Unhinged"

A few weeks ago, drummer John Densmore visited Euclid Records in Webster Groves, MO, to autograph copies of his 2013 book, The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison's Legacy Goes on Trial. I couldn't stand to wait in a line of well over a hundred people, a line (down the street and around a corner) which didn't move an inch during the fifteen or so minutes that I was at the shop. I did purchase a copy of the book and got a glimpse of Densmore's gray hair in the back of the store, where he sat and greeted fans. What a thrill even to be that close!

This book is about Densmore's suit against his fellow Doors, Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger, filed in 2003. Manzarek and Krieger had begun a band called The Doors of the 21st Century, and Densmore sued for breach of contract and trademark infringement. They countersued Densmore for vetoing the use of "Break On Through" for a Cadillac advertisement. Morrison's family joined the suit on Densmore's side. His concern was that Jim Morrison had insisted on a unity of all four band members, including songwriting credits and the use of the band's music. Famously, Morrison (the door "hinge" of the title) became furious when the band considered allowing Buick to use "Light My Fire" in an ad.

The book contains accounts of the grueling proceedings, as well as Densmore's memories of the group and of Morrison. It is a sad story, clearly written both as a healing process for Densmore and (especially the last chapter) as a healing offer to his former bandmates. (Sadly, Manzarek died a few weeks after this book's publication.) Densmore is as fearful of failure and financial devastation as anyone would be in a high-stakes lawsuit. But you do get the sense that he was standing up for what he considered Morrison's wishes for the band, and he expresses sorrow about what he calls "the greed gene." An image by Shepard Fairey provides a striking cover.

Densmore prevailed in his suit, the countersuit was dismissed, and a later judge upheld the original ruling.   

Friday, October 17, 2014

God Alone Shall Have My Heart: Bach's Cantatas for the 18th Sunday after Trinity

I’ve been feeling blue about “human nature” lately: people’s rudeness, thoughtlessness, sometimes outright meanness. I'm too sensitive about such things. A minor example among several: navigating a narrow street with cars parked along the curb, I had to stop and back up because the UPS truck was coming toward me fast, with no indication that he was going to slow down. You know how it is to feel "pecked to death by ducks" sometimes.

But I felt a strange peace when I read conductor John Eliot Gardiner’s notes for this week’s cantatas: the haughty and thoughtless treatment he and his musicians were accorded when they visited Bach’s own church, Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It wasn’t that I wanted Gardiner and his outstanding musicians to be treated poorly. But sometimes it jolts you into amused acceptance of human nature when you’re reminded that people are the same everywhere. (In other notes of this set, Gardiner describes the poor treatment to which Bach himself was sometimes subjected.) You might as well “roll with it” than be unhappy. Fortunately, Gardiner writes that the audience was visibly moved and grateful at the conclusion of the concert.

Two cantatas for this, the 18th Sunday after Trinity, are “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottessohn” (BWV 96, “Lord Christ, the only Son of God”), and “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben” (BWV 169, “God alone shall have my heart”). The CD photo is of a young man from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Gardiner comments that the first cantata, which makes beautiful use of the recorder, is based on the Matthew 22 text concerning the epithet “Son of David,” but Bach and the text also make a connection to Epiphany by praising Christ as the “morning star,” the guiding light for the Magi. As we’ve seen so often in these cantatas, the believer is depicted as one who longs for Christ but is weighed down by cares, griefs, and imperfection. But the love and acceptance of God for the struggling sinner keeps the believer hopeful and strong. The message of the second cantata is similar, with the reminder (which pertains to us who become discouraged at human nature) that love of neighbor is as key as love of God. I love the cheerful, opening sinfonia, and tried to remember where I'd heard it before. The music is also part of Bach's Harpsichord Concerto II in E major, BWV 1053.

In 2000, when nearly all these cantatas were performed and recorded, there were 23 Sundays after Trinity, out of a possible 27 (depending on how early Easter falls in a particular year). So included with the two cantatas for the 18th Sunday is a choral cantata for the 25th Sunday, “Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 116, “Thou Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ”). Interestingly, the text depicts Christ as helping us not only with the threats of Satan but the fearfulness of God the Judge. The Prince of Peace saves us because of his great love.

The final selection on this disc is BWV 668, the chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (“I herewith step before the Throne”). This is legendarily considered to be Bach’s last piece and it was performed here (as Gardiner tells us in the notes) with the musicians gathered around Bach’s resting place at the church. A beautiful, a cappella piece!

I herewith step before Thy throne,
O God, and humbly beg Thee:

turn not Thy gracious countenance
from me, an anaemic sinner.

Grant me a blessèd end,

and wake me, Lord,
at the Day of Judgement,
that I might behold Thee forever more.

Amen, Amen, hear my prayer.

Only five more Sundays (and one commemorative day) remain in the liturgical year. As I've said in these posts several times, I started last December with CD 52, which are cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the liturgical year. Thus, I listened to the last five CDs of this 56-CD set first then went back to CD 1 (Christmas Day). Today I looked ahead, and I'm pleased that the last cantata that I'll listen to on this "journey" (the last one on CD 51) is an old favorite for many of us: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme," BWV 140.

I think nostalgically to my first acquaintance with Bach's cantatas: a 6-LP set (which I still have) conducted by Carl Richter, which I purchased from a used LP place during my student days. I also think of a 16-LP set of Bach's complete organ works, which were cheaply-purchased in the 1970s from a mail-order house. Struggling away in Leipzig at his special calling, Bach couldn't know the reach and influence of his music, across the centuries.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Give Glory unto the Lord: Bach's Cantatas for the 17th Sunday after Trinity

The liturgical year nears its end as autumn moves toward colder months.
This Sunday is the 17th after Trinity. Bach’s cantatas for the day are “Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens” (BWV 148, “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His Name”), “Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost” (BWV 114, “Ah, dear Christians, be comforted”), “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden” (BWV 47, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be humbled”), and also the motet “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” (BWV 226, “The Spirit helpeth our infirmities”). The CD photo is from Kandze, Tibet. After this weekend, there are only six more Sundays in the post-Pentecost season.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that the gospel text for 148 is the story of Jesus' Sabbath healing and the subsequent controversy. The text and Bach’s music focuses on the sanctity of Sabbath worship and the goodness of a day of rest. There was (and is) little rest for church musicians and preachers on Sunday. Bach's Sundays were hectic. So the cantata looks to the Lord for help from our struggles, and notably calls us to enjoy a Sabbath repose in God’s goodness.

Continuing the theme of God’s help, number 114 also returns to a theme that has been so common among the cantatas of this season: God’s consolation for the downcast soul, anxious about the prospect of death, lost and discouraged in life’s bitterness. But just as the seed must die for the wheat to grow, so we must return to the earth and be transformed. God is strong enough to address our sorrows and will not fail to save us when death comes for us.

Meanwhile, number 47 returns to another theme from recent cantatas: the awfulness of the human condition and our vast need for grace. How could God take the form of such a vile creature as man? It’s a realization that shame us from our arrogance and jolt us to be humble and grateful for God’s salvation.

Jesus, humble my heart
beneath Thy mighty hand,
that I may not forfeit my salvation like Lucifer.
Let me seek Thy humility
and abominate all pride;
give me a humble heart
that I may be pleasing to Thee!

Not only does God save us, but God also intercedes for us through the Spirit when we can’t pray as we ought. The motet BWV 226 quotes from the Roman 8 text then turns to praise:

O heavenly ardour, sweet comfort,
help us now with joy and confidence
to remain steadfast in thy service,
and not to be deflected by affliction.
O Lord, prepare us by Thy might
and strengthen the feeble flesh
that we may strive valiantly here

to attain to Thee through death and life.
Alleluja, Alleluja!

A couple years ago I took some notes on the interrelated themes of holiness and God's glory. Glory can mean honor/renown, or beauty/magnificence, or heaven/eternity itself. St. Ignatius’s famous motto was Ad maiorum Dei gloriam, “to the greater glory of God,” which I always took this to mean, “to increase God’s renown (through our devotion and service).” But the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner notes that we also share in God’s own life as we serve God.

The wonder is that God's glory---a powerful and potentially lethal force as depicted in some of the biblical narratives---is also the power which guides, consoles, and rescues us. God is our place of Sabbath repose. In these days approaching Advent, imagine yourself as safe within the "place" of God. These weeks of post-Pentecost cantatas have been heavy on penitence and introspection, but the flip side is the tender, assuring care of God.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Duality of the Accordion

My wife Beth tells the story that, when she was young, her family couldn't afford a piano, so in order to give her music lessons they bought her an accordion. She was so small the accordion had to be set on her lap when she performed at recitals. Although she no longer plays, her accordion is kept safe in our house in its case.

Ksenija Sidorova
I subscribe to the quarterly magazine "LISTEN: Life with Classical Music", published by This last issue (Summer 2014) has an article by Amanda MacBlaine about the growing visibility of the accordion in the classical world, with musicians like the Lithuanian artist Martynas Levickis, the French player Richard Galliano, the Latvian Ksenija Sidorova, the Americans Richard Schimmel and Peter Soave, and the Danish duo Bjarke Mogensen and Rasmus Kjøller recording CDs and performing popular concerts.

MacBlaine quotes Schimmel that the accordion has an "ironic duality." "It was always both hip and square.. elegant and vulgar." "There is no music that can't be played on it. You can go from Bach to Bizet to Blondie" (page 18). I'll keep this issue on hand and, among other presents, I'll order one of the featured CDs for Beth for Christmas.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Ruler over Death and Life: Bach's Cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity

Bach’s cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity are: “Komm, du süße Todesstunde” (BWV 161, “Come, O sweet hour of death”), “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?” (BWV 27, “Who knows how near is my end?”), “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” (BWV 8, “Dearest God, when shall I die?”), and “Christus, der ist mein Leben” (BWV 95, “Christ is my life”). The cover photo is from Ladakh, India.

I’ve felt sad this week because of the anniversary of my mother’s death, and I’ve been aware of friends on social media who are also struggling with the loss of parents (in some cases several years ago, but the hurt is still keen). One of my friends is dealing with the loss of her adult son.

So I looked at the titles to these cantatas, prior to listening to them, and I thought, “It’s depressing music this week." Some of Bach's post-Pentecost cantatas have been somber, but I anticipate returning to this week's cantatas again, as I'll return to those for Michaelmas earlier this week. These pieces are  meditative and pastoral without necessarily being downbeat. In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, “All four – BWV 161, 27, 8 and 95 – articulate the Lutheran yearning for death, and all but one feature the tolling of ‘Leichenglocken’, funerary bells. Yet for all their unity of theme, there is immense diversity of texture, structure and mood, and together they make a satisfying and deeply moving quartet – music that is both healing and uplifting.”

He writes that the use of triple time dominate in BWV 161, seeming to indicate the passage of time but also offers consolation. As we’ve seen and heard in other cantatas, the misery of the world causes the believer to welcome the redemption of Christ when physical death does come.

My desire

is to embrace the Saviour
and soon to be with Christ.
Though death crushes me

as mortal earth and ashes,

the pure gleam of my soul

will shine like the angels’ glory.

The cantata ends with the tune familiar from the hymn, "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," also prominent in Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

In BWV 27, Bach uses “the slow pendulum strokes in the bass of the orchestra” to suggest time’s passage, “against this the downward falling figure in the upper strings and a poignant broken theme in the oboes provide the backcloth for the haunting chorale melody, interlaced with contemplative recitative.” Gardiner notes that Bach’s daughter Christiane Sophia (1723-1726) died shortly before the composition of this piece.

World, farewell! I am weary of you,
I wish to enter heaven,

where there is true peace

and eternal, stately rest.
World, you know but war and strife,
naught but merest vanity;

in Heaven there always reigns
peace, happiness and bliss.

While BWV 27 is deeply moving, the mood is a little brighter in BWV 8. We have the suggestion of funeral bells, but also a bass aria that affirms “Jesus’ summons to a better life” (as Gardiner puts it), and also a 12/8 gigue that Gardiner calls “unabashed dance music... with some of the swagger and ebullience of the finale from the sixth Brandenburg concerto.”

Ruler over death and life,

let at the last my end be good,
teach me to give up the ghost
with courage firm and sure.
Help me earn an honest grave
next to godly Christian folk,
and finally covered by earth
never more be confounded!

BWV 95 uses cornetto and oboes to introduce Luther’s version of the Nunc Dimittis. The hour of death will come eventually; and the sooner the better, for we will be with Christ. In the second to last number, the words "schlage doch bald" ("strike then soon") repeat several times, expressing a longing to join the Lord in Heaven. ("Ach, schlage doch bald, sel’ge Stunde, den allerletzten Glockenschlag!" "Ah, strike then soon, blessèd hour, your last and final stroke!"). The cantata bids the believer to trust Christ that our destination--the next life---will be one of peace and joy after life’s struggles.

Christ is my life,

to die is my reward…
And if today I were told:
You must! I would be willing and prepared

to return my wretched body,

my wasted limbs,

mortality’s cloak,

into earth’s bosom.

I become weary of dealing with certain kinds of challenges, but I can't say I ever get weary of living. The longing for Christ expressed in these cantatas is quite understandable but (for me) it's something I feel most keenly when life is weighed down with trouble or sickness. A spiritual challenge, perhaps undertaken during the upcoming Advent season, is to let that longing "sink in," emotionally and spiritually, during times of happiness, so that we're happy in both the blessings of this life and the blessings of the life to come. Then, if life enters one of those awful periods of distress, we can address the situation while also having a strong faith in Christ.

To affirm "Christ is my life" isn't just to affirm that Christ means a great deal to me. We participate in the reality of Christ's death and resurrection---a realm of reality, so to speak, which is forceful and real for us today, even though the historical events happened long ago----so that now, our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God.  Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ” (Col. 3:3).

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)