• Repertoire

    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 6

    The first line sung in the opening chorus of Part 6 reminds us that the character of Christmas is far from that of a Hallmark greeting card. “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben” can be translated “Lord, when our arrogant enemies snort with rage.” In his book, Bach’s Oratorios, which includes a complete English translation of the texts to all of Bach’s oratorios and Passions, Michael Marissen comments in a footnote about the adjective stolzen: While Stolz primarily means “proud” in a more dignified sense, it is also an archaic synonym for übermutig, in the sense of “insolent” or “cocky.” In this way the word Stolz has the same double…

  • Repertoire

    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 5

    The fifth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written to be sung on the Sunday following New Year’s Day. It opens with a rousing chorus: Let honour to you, God, be sungFor you let praise and thanks be prepared.All the world exalts youBecause our welfare is pleasing to you,Because todayAll our wishes have been achieved,Because your blessing delights us so gloriously. The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists,John Eliot Gardiner, director A tenor soloist (Evangelist) then sings a recitative with the biblical account of the arrival of the Magi: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the land of the Jews at the time of King Herod, see, there…

  • Repertoire

    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 4

    The Church’s year began on the first Sunday in Advent. On the first day of January, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, as well as the beginning of a new “secular” year. The Collect for this day explains some of the theological significance of the Circumcision: Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. In…

  • Repertoire

    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 3

    Many of the arias, recitatives, and choruses in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are reworkings of movements from two earlier cantatas which Bach composed for civic commemorations. The conventional term for such re-purposing is “parody,” although the word doesn’t suggest sarcasm or lampooning, simply imitation, and often for the best of intentions. The opening chorus of Part 3 of the Christmas Oratorio, written for performance on December 27th, the third Day of Christmas, is one of the most dramatic instances of such parody. The music is lifted from Cantata #214, which Bach composed to celebrate the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony. The text for the opening…

  • Hymns

    Wake, awake, for night is flying

    Hymn #3Text: Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608)Music: Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608)Tune name: SLEEPERS, WAKE(WACHET AUF) THE TEXT Both text and tune are the work of Philipp Nicolai, a Lutheran pastor whose parish in Westphalia witnessed the death of over 1,300 members during an epidemic which raged between July 1597 and January 1598. During those dreadful months, Nicolai found himself burying up to thirty of his parishioners every day. To maintain some sense of hope, Nicolai re-read Augustine’s City of God. The following year he published the text and tune to this hymn as an appendix to a book of meditations called Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebes (Joyful Reflection of Eternal Life). In that book’s preface, Nicolai…

  • Repertoire

    J. S. Bach, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, BWV 130

    The Feast of St Michael and All Angels (observed on September 29th and also known as Michaelmas) is an occasion for the celebration of victory over the powers of Satan. As musicologist Julian Mincham writes in a commentary on this cantata, St. Michael, who was sometimes portrayed as the dragon slayer, “was the leader of God’s army of angels, a figure who inspired fortitude and ensured the soul’s safe passage to the Throne of God. He thus symbolizes the victory of righteousness triumphing over evil.” Conductor John Eliot Gardiner suggests that Johann Sebastian Bach’s imagination was primed for decades to bring his most elaborate skills to bear when conveying the meaning and…

  • Repertoire

    J. S. Bach, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, “Search me, God, and know my heart” (Cantata BWV 136)

    The biblical readings for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity are Romans 8:12-17 (a text which affirms our identity as children of God, and thus joint-heirs with Christ), and St. Matthew 8:15-23, which warns of false prophets and more generally of hypocrisy: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” The text of this Gospel reading is the link that connects the six movements of this cantata, one of three that Bach composed for use in the liturgy on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity. The opening chorus is a text…

  • Repertoire

    “Ye now therefore have sorrow” — Music from Bach for the third Sunday after Easter

    The third Sunday after Easter is traditionally known as “Jubilate Sunday,” because the Introit — from Psalm 66 — begins with the words Jubilate Deo, “Be joyful in God.” Joy also shows up in the Gospel reading for this day from St. John 16, part of the “farewell discourse” of Jesus, his rich and enigmatic description of (among many other things) his coming departure from the disciples. In verse 20, Jesus says to them “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” Johann Sebastian Bach wrote three cantatas…

  • Repertoire

    Bach, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers Awake) BWV 140

    This may be the best-known of all of Bach’s cantatas. Written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity (which is rarely observed, since it requires that the date of Easter be as early as possible), the text to Wachet auf develops the eschatological themes inspired by both the Gospel and Epistle reading for that Sunday. The Epistle for Trinity 27 is 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11, in which St. Paul urges his readers to be watchful and sober-minded, anticipating Christ’s return with the knowledge that “the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” The Gospel reading — St. Matthew 25: 1-13 is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins,…

  • Essays,  Repertoire

    Bach to basics

    Why “Lutheran Mass” is not a contradiction in terms by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Touchstone magazine.] When the words “Bach” and “mass” appear in proximity, the subject at hand is usually the magisterial Mass in B Minor. Composed during the last two years of his life as the last great project of his musical career, the Mass in B Minor is an aural textbook of forms of musical expression that Johann Sebastian Bach had explored and mastered for decades. Bach scholar and biographer Christoph Wolff has observed that, “just as theological doctrine survived over the centuries in the words of the Mass, so Bach’s…