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.



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