Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Bach of a Sunday

"Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful."
--- The Republic of Plato, tr. by Benjamin Jowett

Of all the extraordinary human achievements in the arts, few can compete, in grandeur of conception and perfection of form, with the collected cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the past, it was customary to overlook the cantatas in favor of the Passions and Oratorios, to relegate Bach's work-a-day cantatas to second place. Needless to say, I think that's a forced dichotomy: the cantatas ought to be studied for their own sake, not as also-rans but as integral part of Bach's musical cosmos.

When I lived in New York, I was fortunate enough to hear several cantatas in their proper liturgical context and as prescribed by the Lutheran church year. This fine opportunity was the work of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA). (Holy Trinity's Bach Vespers were, incidentally, my conversion, or the beginning of my conversion, to authentic performance.)

As a believing and practicing catholic Christian, I never cease to wonder at the profundity of Bach's Incarnational art: any Christian could profitably meditate on both the libretto and the musical setting. And to do so would be as fine a Christian education as any man could procure today. (I leave to one side the question of how a non-believer could relate to the music, a vexing inquiry that cannot easily be answered either with pious platitudes or secular-aesthetic ratiocination.) In concert with the day's lectionary appointments, Bach's cantatas are a potent reflection on and elaboration of the Christian life. And as such, they might be commended to ordinary believers and clergy alike.

To that end and to show the way, I have vowed to listen, every Sunday and festal day, to one of the appointed cantatas.

It's a project that will take several years to complete. I may not have the opportunity or time to reflect on the experience here, every Sunday, but I will do so as often as I can. And with an eye to elucidating the theological significance of the work in question. Unhappily, I can't boast the theoretical knowledge of my co-blogger.

Today's cantata, appointed for the 17th Sunday after Trinity (lectionary readings are here), is BWV 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost (Ah, fellow Christians, be consoled). The English translation can be found here. I will be using Alfred Dürr's Cantatas of J.S. Bach as the source for my English translations and textual commentary.

And for the all-important recordings, I will be listening to Ton Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Baroque Orchestra. Koopman is a fine and faithful interpreter of Bach's music: I am particularly impressed by the clarity and strength of tone he gets from his instrumentalists. An early (and not entirely unjustified) complaint about authentic practice performers was the weak sound: Koopman's ensemble is entirely innocent of such shortcomings, however. And his own personal enthusiasm for Bach's music is infectious.


  1. Several comments:

    1.) It was your co-blogger Vertucci that introduced me to the cantatas earlier this year, through his post pointing to the documentary on John Gardiner's cantata pilgrimage. I admit it - I've watched the documentary at least 10 times now.

    2.) I think I might actually like to listen to a full cantata, but I don't do it because I'm afraid it will be 50% singing scripture recitation, like the evangelist does in the passions. (I've also only heard bits and pieces of those, and I find the scripture singing tedious so far... the scripture cadenzas are to me unwelcome and too-frequent distractions from the real music. I need to learn to like it because I don't want to miss out on anything.)

    3.) Regarding your comment: I leave to one side the question of how a non-believer could relate to the music, a vexing inquiry that cannot easily be answered either with pious platitudes or secular-aesthetic ratiocination. I for one know what it is like on both sides of the belief divide. Bach has become for me a way to try to get back to faith in *something*. Whatever it is that Bach does, it turns a lot of people who are otherwise quite hostile to Christianity into reverent, even militant, devotees. This cannot be bad even if it is not intelligible. If God is there, He is winking.

    4.) I'd love to join you in your project, but I don't have a recording of any cantata. Just this week I've been looking at Gardiner's site and wondering if I should plunk down almost $30 for one of his CDs. I do hope to be able to read along though.

  2. 1) I'm delighted to hear that your introduction to the cantatas came by way of this blog.

    2) I'll try, in a future post, to address your issues with the recitatives.

    3) To listen to Bach's music is to come up against something startlingly otherworldly. As a believer, I don't have to justify its formal beauty at the expense of its theological content: Bach and I share, at root, the same metaphysical beliefs. I know unbelievers and Jews have been equally moved by his music, and I'm not certain, as I said, how to account for that, except, perhaps, to suggest that a very few things are intrinsically universal: they are catholic in the fundamental sense of that word. And as such, as supreme manifestations of the true, the good, and the beautiful, they are beloved of all who follow the Tao.

    4) I purchase the cantatas one a time: each track individually at .99 amounts only to 5-7 dollars. I similarly can't afford to buy a $30 CD every week. And there are usually free recordings floating around: not always of the highest quality, but still.