Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wake Up, Cries the Watchmen: Bach's Cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity

Christ the King 
This coming Sunday, November 23rd, is the final Sunday of the liturgical year!

As I've written before, I purchased this 56-CD set of Bach's sacred cantatas last fall. I listened to CDs 52-56 first (cantatas corresponding to Advent and Christmas), and then listened to 1 through 51, and so I've reached the end of my "journey" of listening this week as I arrive at CD 51, the cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The CD photo is of an old woman from Rajasthan, India, and the cantatas are: "Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott" (BWV 139, “Happy is he who can trust his God”), "Nur jedem das Seine!" (BWV 163, “To each only his due”), "Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht!" (BWV 52, “False world, I do not trust you!”). Added to these is the cantata for the seldom-occurring 27th Sunday: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (BWV 140, “Wake up, cries the watchmen’s voice”).

This coming Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, is also Christ the King Sunday. The theme of the three 23rd Sunday pieces is the question posted to Jesus concerning paying taxes to Caesar. One can stretch that meaning to affirm that Christ is our true ruler above all others, whether emperor, premier, or fussy Congress. BWV 139, which Gardiner writes exists in parts that have to be augmented rather than a complete score, is filled with contrasts between the sincere trust of the believer to the raging of the devil to assurance in God’s care for the believer. Satan also figures in BWV 163, wherein the writer of the text, Salomo Franck who was a frequent librettist for Bach, connects the money of Caesar symbolically with the counterfeit currency of the devil.

BWV 52 returns to the theme of some earlier cantatas: the "false world" that cannot satisfy.

False world, I do not trust you!
Here I must dwell among scorpions
and false serpents.
Your countenance,
though outwardly so friendly,
secretly plots ruin....

For the opening sinfonia Bach uses a previous draft of the first movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto. Because the theme of the cantata is the disappointment of the world (compared to the true peace of God and Heaven), Bach seems to be drawing a connection between the everyday pursuits in which we’re all involved, with the assurance and lasting joy of “God’s companionability” (Gardiner).

Because Easter usually doesn’t fall so early to allow for a 27th Sunday after Trinity, it's sad that Bach's cantata for this day was thus seldom heard in his churches during his own day. BWV 140, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” is a long-time favorite and one of Bach’s most famous. “a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, techincally, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order,” writes a musicologist quoted by Gardiner. In the CD notes the conductor describes several of Bach’s techniques, including a sense of telescoped time---in this case, the always necessary need for watchfulness. And since the theme is the coming of the Bridegroom in Jesus’ parables, “Bach has no compunction in stealing the clothes of contemporary operative love-duets” in his sacred music.

Statue at Bach's birthplace,
Eisenach, Germany
Listening to all of Bach's sacred cantatas, on the weeks of the Sundays (or feast days) for which they were written, has been a lovely experience. I've an old 6-LP set of Bach's Advent and Christmas cantatas, and I used to have a 2-LP set of popular cantatas like "Ein Feste Burg" and "Wachet Auf." I've played these often over the years, and now I've listened to nearly 180 more. It's difficult to wrap one's mind around the lifetime accomplishment of Bach, for he wrote a LOT more music than this.

I'm having a difficult time writing concluding words for this "journey" of listening, because I'm not really done. Now, I want to go back and re-listen to pieces that were particularly beautiful and meaningful. I'm also reluctant to stop a project that has been helpful during a year of bereavement, a health scare, and some ongoing challenges. How wonderful to pause during the middle of each week, listen to beautiful music in the early morning, read the CD notes, glance at the birds outside, and let my mind and heart wander a bit. I want to find a comparable habit for the upcoming liturgical year.

Racial and social issues have been in the news of my community, St. Louis, during the past several weeks. As I write this, no one is sure what is going to happen next, but a grand jury announcement is imminent. (Thus I've posted this a little early.) I found words from the cantata "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied!" (BWV 190, on CD 56), that offer hope for times ahead.

Now Jesus grant that with the new year
His anointed one too may flourish;
may He bless both trunk and branches,
that their fortune rise to the clouds.
Let Jesus bless both church and school,
may He bless all true teachers,
may He bless those who hear His teaching;
may He bless both council and court;
may He pour over every house
in our town the springs of blessing;
may He grant that once again
both peace and faith
may embrace within our borders.
Thus we shall live throughout the year in blessing.

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

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