• Repertoire

    J. S. Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, “Christ lay in death’s bonds” (Cantata BWV 4)

    Composed for use on Easter Sunday, Christ lag in Todesbanden is one of Bach’s best-known church cantatas. It is also one of his earliest, probably written in 1708 when Bach was organist at St. Blasius church in Mühlhausen. A distinctive feature of this work is that it uses — unaltered — all 7 stanzas from a Lutheran hymn. First published in 1524. Luther’s hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden was a loose German paraphrase of an 11th-century Latin hymn, one which we sing every Easter (in English): “Christians, to the Paschal victim” (#97). In addition to adapting the Latin text for use in congregational singing in German, Luther and his colleague…

  • Repertoire

    Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday (March 21, 2020)

    In the midst of our present uncertainties, it is helpful to remember that God’s Creation is still a thing of goodness and beauty. And God has given us — some more than others — the capacity to discover and amplify the goodness and beauty implicit in Creation to a glorious level. One notably gifted servant of Creation’s and the Creator’s glory was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose birthday we celebrate today. Consider Bach’s achievement in a larger context discussed by philosopher Josef Pieper. In his book In Tune with the World, Pieper wrote: Underlying all festive joy kindled by a specific circumstance there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending…

  • 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…

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    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…

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    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…

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    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…

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    “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…