A Musical Advent Calendar – 2. Sleepers Wake!

While not strictly written for season of Advent (it’s actually for the week before), Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) BWV140 is always closely associated with Christmas.

It’s a relatively late addition to his incredible set of over 200 (surviving) church cantatas, written as part of his project to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” As a man of deep Christian faith, Bach felt strongly his calling from God as a musician, and so as soon as he arrived in Leipzig in 1723, where he was to spend the rest of his life, he started on a bout of furious cantata composing. For three years he came up with a new work for the church service every Sunday, as well as several Passions and a variety of other music. It was an unprecedented creative burst which left a lasting legacy.

For this cantata Bach turned to a hymn from the theologian Philipp Nicolai. The epistle for the day – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – is about preparation for the Last Judgment, but the service focusses on the Gospel reading from Matthew 25:1-13, and the parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids, with Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that they should be ready and waiting for his coming again in glory.

The parable concerns a wedding and ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, who take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom – a picture of Jesus himself. The foolish ones take their lamps, but no oil – a mistake the wise ones don’t make.  The bridegroom keeps them waiting; they all grow tired and fall asleep.  Around midnight there is a shout: “Look, the bridegroom comes.” The foolish bridesmaids’ lamps have burned out and they have no oil to fill them. So while the foolish girls set off to buy more oil, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom himself. Only the five wise ones remain to join the feast, and for the rest the door to the Kingdom of Heaven remains shut.

Bach’s librettist expanded Nicolai’s three-verse hymn by adding recitative and aria texts. After the opening chorus, where we are invited to wake up, prepare, and search for the bridegroom’s return, Bach leads us in a dance with two of the most beautiful love duets in music – not between couples united in earthly love, but rather with Jesus as the bridegroom (bass) and the faithful Soul as the bride (soprano).  These beautiful movements, really trios for two soloists and instrumental obbligato, draw from the Song of Solomon, considered in Lutheran and Puritan tradition as an allegorical love song between Christ and the Church. The final chorale combines praise of God with a vision of the joy that awaits the faithful in the heavenly Jerusalem – complete with twelve pearly gates!

Truly in this cantata Bach provides us with some of his most wonderful music -and from what we know the cantata is one of the few that continued to be popular immediately after his death. It’s inspired by the Joy of Christmas, where we celebrate God with us, Jesus, Emmanuel, and the hope of his return in Glory, when his invitation to His true love to join the dance is finally fulfilled. With Bach, as it can with us, the dance starts now.

This performance is from eminent Bach interpreter Ton Koopman, and you can follow text and translation here. Worship with Bach’s congregation this Christmas (but in the warmth of your own home and without the lengthy sermon in German that would have followed this!)

Bach later took one of the movements and arranged it for organ, as he did with 5 other cantata movements to form the 6 Schubler Chorale Preludes.

 

A Musical Advent Calendar – 1. Lo He Comes

While there is more and more Christmas music available on CD and the radio and online, in some evangelical churches the traditional carols seem to be increasingly absent, which is a shame, perhaps because they don’t lend themselves to being played by a worship band.

There is so much wonderful truth – and some rather good backstories – in Advent and Christmas music, so for the next 24 days I thought I would draw attention to some of my favourites.

Where better to start than with Charles Wesley’s great Advent hymn, Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending.

According to the admirable notes from the New Oxford Book of Carols (NOBC), this hymn was written in the early days of Methodism, and based on a hymn by the Moravian John Cennick, whose original starts with the unlikely lines “Lo! he cometh; countless trumpets / Blow before his bloody sign.”

The tune first appeared in a publication by the Revd Martin Madan whose own story is about as colourful as John Cennick’s verse.[1]

But to return to the hymn, surely this is one of the greatest celebrations and anticipations of Jesus’ return, praying with Paul: “O come quickly!” – while not pulling any punches over how Jesus will be received by those who have rejected him.

Words and tune are a perfect match and always sum up Advent for me.

[1] According to the NOBC, Martin Madan was a dissipated man who underwent a sudden conversion after hearing Wesley preach (he had gone to mock his mannerisms), and eventually became a warden of a hospital for women suffering from fatal venereal infections. As a result of seeing these women driven onto the streets by poverty and the shortage of marriageable men, he wrote a treatise “…which advocated Polygamy as the lesser evil.  Forced to resign from the hospital in the resulting furore, Madan spent the rest of his life quietly in Kew, translating literary and theological works from the Latin.” As you would. 

God’s Word Dwelling Richly in Bach’s Cantatas (1)

O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe BWV 34

Cantata for Pentecost

As part of this blogs aim to look at how God’s Word can dwell richly in our music and worship, as Paul tells us it should, I hope from time to time to look at some of Bach’s Cantatas – works that seem to me to exemplify how this can be done above any other compositions I know.

Recently I was privileged to be in the audience for the last day of a week of masterclasses on Bach cantatas, and also for the final concert, both led by Mark Padmore at Snape Maltings, not far from where we live in Suffolk.

One of the arias explored during that week was from Bach’s cantata for Pentecost O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe (O eternal fire, O source of love) BWV 34, which was first performed in Leipzig in 1746/7.  The aria, for Alto, Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen (Blessed are you, you chosen souls), is a particularly beautiful one where the soloist is accompanied by two flutes and muted strings, giving it a particularly pastoral feel.  Mark Padmore made much of the players and soloist being at one in the way they phrased the music, following the words, Wohl euch, blessed are you.

The following weekend we heard the same aria, in the context of the whole cantata, when we attended the Bach Cantata Evensong at St John’s College, Cambridge. John’s perform a cantata each term as part of a Saturday evensong.  Although the liturgical setting differs considerably from what Bach would have known (his cantatas would have preceded a lengthy sermon on the same Biblical texts from the lectionary of the day which the cantata also sought to expound), it added greatly to the experience of the cantata to enter into the words and music as part of a service of worship (and evensong at John’s is, in my experience, always a service of worship rather than a performance).

In five short movements, the anonymous librettist first calls on the Holy Spirit to come and dwell in the hearts of the listener.  Drawing on words from the gospel reading of the day from John 14, he (or, indeed, she, since nine of Bach’s cantatas had their libretti written by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler), he goes on to claim the promise made by Jesus in v.23 that:

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23 ESV)

Then in the alto aria and recitative that follows he argues that since God has promised to dwell in us by His Spirit, he cannot but then bless us, and this is the Lord’s doing (Psalm 118:23):

If God chooses the holy tabernacle, which he inhabits with salvation, then he must also pour blessing on them

The final chorus starts with the cry from Psalm 128 ‘Friede über Israel’, ‘Peace be upon Israel’ and encourages the listener to “be thankful: God has been mindful of you” (Psalm 115).

You will notice how much the librettist drew on Scripture, and this is a common theme in all Bach’s libretti, so much so that Melvin Unger has been able to write a companion, which runs to over 700 pages, showing all the scriptural references and allusions in the 200 or so church cantatas. In this cantata I count around 30 biblical references alone.

So apart from the way the Word of Christ “dwells” in the libretto itself, has Bach done anything else to draw out the meaning of the text in the way he has written the work?

The first movement (O ewiges Feuer, O eternal fire), starts with triumphant trumpets sustaining a long D (eternal?), while the rest of the orchestra have “restlessly flickering” semiquaver figures and runs (himmlische Flammen, heavenly flames, descending on each one?).   Schweitzer described them as “lambent flames that are to set the heart on fire.” This contrast of activity, and sustained long notes is passed around the orchestra, until the choir enters and the basses sing O ewiges, sustained over most of five bars, while the rest of the choir sings extended runs or melismas on the word Feuer. This is again passed around the choir, and the sustained note motif against melismas in the other parts is repeated throughout the first third of the movement, even as Bach writes a fugue on the words “enkindle our hearts and consecrate them.”  The middle section on the words “Let heavenly flames penetrate and well up…” is hardly less energetic, and then the whole first section is repeated.

As Theodore Glaser has written:

Bach paints fire and love with his music. The intentionally huge opening chorus for a large orchestra chronologically encompasses almost half of his cantatas. Musical fireworks go off as timpani and trumpets, stringed instruments, oboes and continuo make their entries. One sees and hears the crackling and licking of the flames. One feels the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit and the glow of love.

So far we have not noted the fact that this cantata is actually adapted from a Wedding Cantata written over 20 years earlier for a Lutheran pastor friend. This seems very appropriate if we recall that Pentecost is the birth of the Church, the bride of Christ. Once we know that the 3rd movement aria for alto makes much more sense. Voigt has noted that:

The beautiful alto aria gets its pastoral character from its original text which describes the peace that comes to a congregation through the protection offered it by the faithful shepherd (either Christ or the pastor.)

The original movement talks about the love Jacob had for Rachel and Bach takes that pastoral idyll of muted strings and the peaceful flutes moving in 3rds and 6ths to illustrate the “multitude of blessings” that accrue to the “chosen souls” that “God has selected for his dwelling.”

After a Bass recitative, which concludes the theological argument, the final chorus of “festive brilliance” runs on without a break using the cry from Psalm 128:6 “Peace be on Israel.”

There are other cantatas which I hope to consider in later posts, which perhaps use more complex musico-rhetorical devices, but few have a libretto that more richly engages with Scripture or a more helpful exposition of the gospel of the day. Truly, as Robin Leaver has said, Bach as Preacher.   I would encourage you to listen with libretto in hand and appreciate the promises of Scripture afresh this Sunday.

 

God as our Father, the privilege of Adoption

Recently I have been greatly helped by a blog series on Adoption from C J Mahaney and particularly the chapter on Adoption  in J. I. Packer’s book, Knowing God.

Packer says this:

Our first point about adoption is that it is the highest privilege that the gospel offers. (J. I. Packer, Knowing God)

J. I. Packer considers adoption the highest privilege of the gospel—higher even than justification—because of the richness of the relationship with God with which it is associated.

In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge [justification] is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father [adoption] is a greater.

Some time ago I started reading Thomas Watson on the Lord’s Prayer alongside a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer we were having at church and noted the following in answer to his question, “Wherein lies the happiness of having God for our Father?”  Privilege indeed.

(1) If God be our Father, he will teach us (Is 48:17)
(2) If God be our Father, he has bowels of affection towards us
(3) If God be our Father, he will be full of sympathy (Ps 103:13)
(4) If God be our Father, he will take notice of the least good he sees in us
(5) If God be our Father, he will take all we do in good part
(6) If God be our Father, he will correct us in measure
(7) If God be our Father, he will intermix mercy with all our afflictions
(8) If God be our Father, the evil one shall not prevail against us
(9) If God be our Father, no real evil shall befall us
(10) If God be our Father, we may go with cheerfulness to the throne of grace
(11) If God be our Father, he will stand between us and danger
(12) If God be our Father, we shall not want anything that he sees to be good for us
(13) If God be our Father, all the promises of the Bible belong to us. Pardon…Salvation…Healing. A Child of God may go to any promise in the Bible, and pluck comfort from it
(14) God makes all his children conquerors
(15) If God be our Father, he will now and then send us some token of his love
(16) If God be our Father, he will indulge and spare us
(17) If God be our Father, he will put honour and renown upon us at the last day
(18) If God be our Father, he will settle a good inheritance on us. ‘It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom’
(19) If God be our Father, it is a comfort in case of the loss of relations
(20) If God be our Father, he will not disinherit us

Word and Music – taking it forward

It is a long time since I blogged here and I was inspired to have another go after seeing my former minister Michael Quicke a week so ago. Michael was the person who started me on my Christian music and worship journey.  He gave me the opportunity to play the organ at my home church in Blackburn when I was only a teenager. He gave me a job as music director at St Andrew’s Street Baptist in Cambridge when I was only 18. He set me on a course to understand that excellence in music in worship was a great thing, that music and indeed worship as a whole should reflect above all the glory and majesty and beauty of God.  He was and is an amazing preacher and communicator, and lover of all that is best in music.

Those were the days when I practised hymns on the organ over and over to get the speed just right, tried to illustrate the words with differing registrations for each verse, collected last verse harmonisations to provide a thrilling conclusion to the great hymns of praise, wrote trumpet descants for my friend Jackie to play.   I used also to choose organ voluntaries for after the service that were (for the most part) loud and triumphant – to send people out confidently to “live and work for His praise and glory.”

Those services of worship were ones where preaching and worship went hand in hand.

As an aside, even now as well as still loving great hymns and organ pieces, I get most excited at church in worship when we sing joyful gospel music, or loud songs of praise, or beautiful quiet songs, and struggle most to engage during times of “intimate” worship or response times when the focus seems to be all about me and how I feel about God, how I am going to respond, how He might want to fix things that are wrong with me, and less about who God is.   Rather than build confidence and faith in God, for me these times seem to undermine that.  I am not saying they are wrong, but I certainly struggle hugely with them.  Am I the only one?

The last time I blogged, it was about my Bach studies and how Bach’s music, particularly, is a medium for letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us.

 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

The other passage that has been of great significance to me over the past 20 years is Psalm 40.

He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3 ESV)

Here the Psalmist talks about music as a medium for proclaiming the works of the Lord, above all proclaiming the salvation of God and the truth of the gospel.

So I am taking up the computerised pen again, and will use this blog to keep exploring how music can best proclaim the truth of God and help his Word well in us as richly as possible.

I want to try and look at this from an historical and contemporary perspective.  No doubt Bach will feature, but I want to see how other composers over the centuries approached this task, or failed in it.  I hope that regular blogging will gradually cause some key ideas to surface which may point to how, in our day, our worship can enable the Word of Christ to dwell in us as richly as possible.

I hope that if these ideas interest you, you will respond, comment, point me to different avenues of exploration. I am excited about how music, actually ALL music, can point to God and how all theology can and should elicit deeper worship.

 

 

Applying the Precious Promises of Scripture

I offer the following somewhat speculatively, as a work in progress and would welcome engagement with it. I long to understand more about how God speaks through his Word to us, and to build my faith in his promises and my life on his Word. But something recently has caused me to wonder if I am approaching this the wrong way.

For probably 20 years now I have been reading through the Bible each year, and gaining great benefit from it. I don’t know about you, but as I go through my Quiet Time, the way it often goes for me is that I try and find verse that really speaks personally, and, if I honest, emotionally to my situation.

That might be a promise from scripture (I love Isaiah for that!), or perhaps something which reveals a truth from God’s Word in a new way.  But I try to find something to apply personally using an excellent model that our church is very committed to:

Scripture
Observation
Application
Prayer

I was reading Isaiah 61 this morning and trying to see what God was saying and something new struck me. Was I moving to Application too quickly? I was looking for something that would speak to my heart that morning. Something that would get me through the day. What I wasn’t doing was seeking to understand what the passage was really saying, what it was saying about who God is, what he does, and (particularly in the context of Isaiah 61), who Jesus is and his work on earth for me. I was trying to get the passage to engage directly with my emotions and feelings, and bypass my mind.

This verse perhaps illustrates the issue:

to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:3 ESV)

That day (and most days if I am honest) I wanted to hear God to say me, “I’m going to do that for you, Andrew. I’m going to give you the oil of gladness today. I’m going to give you a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit today.”

So my Bible study becomes an exercise in hoping, believing and trusting perhaps that God has given me a specific promise from His Word for that day an holding onto that.

Nothing wrong with that, you might say.

But Jonathan Edwards in his work “The Religious Affections” has some very illuminating thoughts about how we should approach Bible Study, which I discovered the other day. He is talking about how our emotions and feelings (what he calls “affections”) are moved to understand the things of God:

The child of God is graciously affected because he sees and understands something more of divine things that he did before, more of God or Christ, and of the glorious things exhibited in the gospel…Knowledge is the key that first opens and hard heart, and enlarges the affections…[1]

It seems from what Edwards is saying that we must spend time in observation, in understanding, and that in turn will move our hearts. But what really struck me was this next passage which is worth quoting more fully

It appears also that the affection which is occasioned by the coming of a text of Scripture must be in vain, when the affection is founded on something that is supposed to be taught by it, which is really not contained in it, nor in any other Scripture; because such supposed instruction is not real instruction, but a mistake and misapprehension of mind. As for instance, when persons suppose that they are expressly taught by some Scripture coming to their minds, that they in particular are beloved of God, or that their sins are forgiven, that God is their Father and the like. This is a mistake or misapprehension; for the Scripture no where reveals the individual persons who are beloved, expressly; but only by consequence, by revealing the qualifications of persons that are beloved of God: and therefore this matter is not to be learned from Scripture any other way than by consequence, and from these qualifications; for things are not to be learned from the Scripture any other way than they are taught in the Scripture.

Perhaps at first this seems harsh, or even wrong. Surely God can speak to me directly from Scripture and tell me that I am loved, that God is my Father?  For all my life, I have leaned on promises that I believed God had given me directly, from even a small child.

But think again. Jonathan Edwards is giving us perhaps instead a much firmer place to stand that trusting that a special impression that Scripture has made on us means that God has promised this directly to me. He is saying, don’t rely on feeling that God has spoken to you directly. Look instead on what the whole of Scripture says and you will see if you can apply those promises to your life and situation or not.

Let’s look at that practically by applying this to a few of my favourite promises from Scripture. Does this validate them, strengthen them, or undermine them?

An easy one to start with

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

(Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV)

The writer of the Proverbs is stating a general truth here. If we truly put our trust in God and not in our own understanding, working things out by ourselves. If we seek to glorify Him in all we do, then this general principle applies: He will direct our paths. We don’t need to wonder if God has spoken this directly to us. It’s clear that the “qualifications of persons” whose paths will be directed by God are those who trust and acknowledge Him in all they do.

What about another favourite of mine:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

(Isaiah 43:1-3 ESV)

This is trickier and demands a little more thinking I think. First of all, who do these wonderful promises apply to? They apply in this context to Israel in exile who God has called by name and created and formed and chosen. Do they then apply to me? Paul in Romans 9 says that indeed the “the adoption…the promises” belong to Israel. But he adds that

not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Romans 9:6-8 ESV)

So the general promises like this one, that were to Israel in the Old Testament can be mine if I am a child of promise. And of course we know that we are children of promise if we have trust Jesus to save us, if we have called on the name of the Lord.

So I don’t need to worry that this promise might not be for me. It IS for me, if I am trusting only in Christ.

There’s not room to expound this any more here, but I wonder if this gives me a stronger basis for my Bible Study going forward. I’ll try it and let you know.

The Sweet Psalmist of Leipzig

Embarking on my “Bach Sabbatical” I looked first at the some of the claims recent recording artists made about him. That Bach’s sacred works are on a level with Scripture – the written Word. Or that Bach’s music is the voice of God in human form, the voice of Jesus Christ – the incarnate Word.

That led me to ask a number of questions of which I think these are some that stay with me 3 months or so later

  • What is it uniquely about the music of Bach that causes such claims to be made for it?
  • Is there something about the character, form, structure of the music of Bach that is uniquely suited to carry the inspired word and to be “the voice of God”?
  • Does the structure, order, harmonic and rhythmic richness and complexity (what Sir Thomas Beecham meant perhaps by “Protestant counterpoint”!) of Bach reflects God’s written Word in a particularly helpful way?
  • Does Bach’s music have anything to say about worship today. About contemporary Christian Music, or the so-called “Spiritual music” of composers from Olivier Messiaen to Arvo Part and John Tavener
  • Is our worship music today impoverished and does it need to re-discover something from what Bach can teach us

Although I’ve not followed my original scheme of spending every Friday there, I did spend my first Sabbatical Friday in January at Tyndale House. They only had one tiny pamphlet [1] which seemed at all relevant, which was by Robin Leaver who has made a special study over his lifetime of Bach as theologian, preacher and lover of Scripture. [2]

Leaver reminded me of Colossians 3:16

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16-17 ESV)

Bach’s music is perhaps the greatest exemplar and exposition of that exhortation. The word dwells so richly, as I hope to show, that no other composer or songwriter before or since has achieved anything close.

And it’s no accident.

Jaroslav Pelikan puts it like this:

[Bach’s] whole life and work were a living testimony to his conviction that man could not live bread or by beauty, but only by the Word that proceeded from the mouth of God. [3]

At the start of many of his manuscripts Bach wrote the letters JJ, standing for Jesu Juva or Jesus Help Me. As Leaver points out in a talk some years ago entitled “Bach. A Preacher?” [4] was that help me compose? or help me perform, or both? And at the end he usually wrote S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria – for the glory of God alone).

In the same talk Leaver responds to a question about why Bach speaks to us today, even if have no Lutheran or theological background, by explaining how Bach often develops his music from one simple idea, something which Jeremy Begbie [5] and Lawrence Dreyfus [6] have both written further about, yet same time uses all the deep, layered complexity of scriptural, chorale, tonal, numerical and even visual references. Somehow in all of this he still creates such beautiful music that still speaks to us, without knowing anything of the deeper layers of meaning.

Perhaps the reason Bach’s music retains its impact today is hiding in plain sight. The Holy Spirit is saying to us today: this man so embodied what it means to have the Word of Christ dwelling so richly in his music, that I cannot help but bless it. Even if people today don’t understand the significance of the music or why the Word of Christ infuses almost every bar.

I think it’s safe to claim that Bach’s church music is unique (at least in the church music we know today) in being so completely grounded in Scripture rather than liturgical or non-scriptural religious texts. Melvin Unger has compiled a volume [7] entitled: Handbook to Bach’s sacred cantata texts: An interlinear translation with reference guide to Biblical quotations and allusions. Of its 750 pages, around 700 of show the text of each extant Bach Church cantata and direct quotations and scriptural allusions in them.

For example, the first cantata in the book BWV1 (Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern – How beautifully the morning star shines) is a typical chorale cantata written in 1725 in Leipzig and based on the hymn “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (1599) by Philipp Nicolai. It is from Bach’s second annual cycle many of which were based on Chorales. Unger finds (at my rough count) 86 direct or indirect scripture references in this 6 movement cantata which lasts around 20 mins – completely typical of the majority of Bach’s cantatas.

If that’s not letting the Word of Christ dwell richly, it’s hard to know what is!!

Leaver in the same talk points out that the cantata cannot be divorced from the service and liturgy which it was designed to enhance. All of which was leading up to the sermon based on the same lectionary texts of the day that the cantata also illustrated.

And everything about the cantatas was surely designed to emphasise the Word. So many references to the chorales of the day, so would immediately ring bells. So many references to Scripture, which again would bring instant recognition.

Wolff points out:

Before composing the cantata, [Bach] had to select its text and prepare it for publication in the form of booklets that the congregation could read before during the performance. These booklets, in conveniently small octavo format, contained the cantata texts for several Sundays in a row, usually six. Beside the libretto of the Christmas Oratorio, five such booklets have survived… That twelve such booklets were needed per year gives us a inkling of the advance planning needed for carrying out Bach’s music program. [8]

These booklets were funded by Bach himself and sales were a source of extra income. Wolff also notes in his footnote that “details of the print run and sales for regular cantata booklets are not available, but information about a passion booklet for a Good Friday performance in 1738 suggests that Bach counted on 300 saleable copies…” Telemann did a similar thing in Hamburg. Not only was this a source of income, but it surely also emphasises the high importance Bach gave to the sung word.

Not everyone has agreed in the 20th century that Bach was indeed ““the classic Lutheran layman”, “a sign of God,” “the Preacher,” “the Teacher,” “the Theologian,” “the first great German voice since Luther,” and, more extravagantly still, “Bach, the fifth evangelist.”” [9]

Friedrich Blume cast doubt on whether Bach was more than a musician who worked for the church simply out of expedience largely because of work from Alfred Dürr which showed that “after his appointment as cantor in Leipzig in 1723, Bach spent the next give years or so in feverish activity, almost exclusively devoted to church music. The period from 1728 to about 1733 shows a distinct decrease in output, and after 1733 Bach apparently composed only a few occasional pieces.” [10]

Leaver believes it was not because he lost his faith or his vocation as a church musicians, but because of “lack of understanding and sympathy on the part of the officialdom in Leipzig” [10] something which certainly appears to be born out by his memorandum of August 23rd, 1730: A Short but Most Necessary Draft of a Well-Appointed Church Music with Certain Modest Reflections on the Decline of the Same [11]

One day perhaps I will to expand on some of these early thoughts to answer some of the questions posed at the start. But for now my overarching conclusion is that our worship music today could only benefit from following more of Bach’s lead and Paul’s exhortation to “let the Word of Christ dwell…richly”. After all, as Nick Page has said in his wonderfully titled book on worship song writing “And now let’s move into a time of nonsense” [12] – it’s a great source of lyrics.

More seriously, I am reminded of how the last words of David in 2 Samuel are described.

Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle of David, the son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man who was raised on high,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the sweet psalmist of Israel:
(2 Samuel 23:1 ESV)

perhaps the sweet Psalmist of Leipzig deserves equal praise?

[1] Leaver, R. (1982) Music as Preaching : Bach, Passions and Music in Worship. Oxford: Latimer House. (Latimer Studies, 13

[2] See for example, Leaver, R. A. (1985). J.S. Bach and scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House.

[3] J. Pelican, Fools for Christ. Essays on the True, the Good and the Beautiful, Philadelphia, 1955 p. 153

[4] Bach, a Preacher? University of California, Santa Barbara Robin Leaver January 17, 2001. http://www.veritas.org/talks/bach-preacher/ retrieved 20/2/2015

[5] Begbie, J. (2011). Resonant witness: Conversations between music and theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.

[6] Dreyfus, L., & American Council of Learned Societies. (1996). Bach and the patterns of invention. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[7] Bach, J. S., & Unger, M. P. (1996). Handbook to Bach’s sacred cantata texts: An interlinear translation with reference guide to Biblical quotations and allusions. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.

[8] Wolff, C. (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The learned musician. Oxford: Oxford University. p.259

[9] Leaver, R. A. (1985). J.S. Bach and scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House. p.13

[10] Ibid. p.14

[11] David, H., Mendel, A., & Wolff, C. (Eds.). (1998). The new Bach reader: A life of Johann Sebastian Bach in letters and documents. New York: W.W. Norton., no. 151. See also nos. 152 and 162.

[12] Page, N. (2004). And now let’s move into a time of nonsense: Why worship songs are failing the church. Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Media.