“Heaven and earth are full of your glory”

Last week at my church, Burlington Baptist Church, in Ipswich, I led worship with our small worship band, and opened with the 19th century hymn “Holy, holy, holy” by Reginald Heber, leading straight into Nathan Fellingham’s setting of the same words, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty…Lift up his name with the sound of singing. We have done this often and it works really well. I talked about the worship of heaven, using words from Revelation 4 (how else was anyone supposed to understand all that stuff about the ‘glassy sea’!?).  I also talked about the communion of saints, something we sing about in the Hillsong song, This I believe (“I believe in the saints communion”) although I can’t help imagining the saints sitting in pews with halos,  while St Peter and the rest of heavenly deacons bring the trays of individual communion glasses around with little bits of bread on silver trays sat on top.

Yes, I do often talk too much in opening worship.

This week someone mentioned on twitter the wonderful recording by Paul McCreesh of Michael Praetorius’ Mass for Christmas Morning 1620, which I discovered last year – and so I listened to it again.  I know it’s too early, but it’s almost Advent and I can get away with it at home as long as the tunes are not too obviously Christmassy.

Of course to the worshippers in 1620 the tunes were very obviously Christmassy, and McCreesh has assembled a congregation to sing the Lutheran Christmas hymns (Vom Himmel Hoch, Puer natus and the like) with gusto and enthusiasm. Wonderful congregational worship – you have to admire Luther’s ability to get his congregation singing with marvellous words grounded in scripture aimed at catechising his congregation, set to really singable tunes.  Contemporary song writers could learn a thing or two here!

Trying to find out more, I discovered a set of slides explaining more about the CD [3]  In my listening I had reached the Sanctus motet in the Christmas morning mass setting, setting words of Martin Luther, Jesaja, dem Propheten das geschah, the German Sanctus, and as I read the words, and listened to the music I was overwhelmed.

First some history and context.

This paraphrase of Isaiah 6:1-4, in rhymed couplets for ease of congregational singing, was first published in Luther’s Deutsche Messe of 1526 entitled “The German Sanctus.” [1].  In Luther’s German Mass, it was set to a modified version of a Sanctus plainchant, and although intended for congregational singing, it seems that choral performance even of the German version was still favoured by many churches [2].

Here is the full text with a translation/poetic rendering by George MacDonald

Jessia, dem Propheten, das geschah,
Unto the seer, Isaiah, it was given
Daß er im Geist den Herren sitzen sah
That, in the spirit, he saw the Lord of heaven
Auf einem hohen Thron in hellem Glanz,
Up on a lofty throne, in radiance bright;
Seines Kleides Saum den Chor füllet’ ganz.
The skirt of his garment filled the temple quite;
Es stunden zween Seraph bei ihm daran,
Two seraphs at his side were standing there;
Sechs Flügel sah er einen jeden han:
Six wings, he saw, each one of them did wear:
Mit zween verbargen sie ihr Antlitz klar,
Two over their bright visages did meet,
Mit zween bedeckten sie die Füße gar,
With two of them they covered up their feet,
Und mit den andern zween sie flogen frei.
And with the other twain abroad did fly.
Genander riefen sie mit großem G’schrei:
Each to the other called with a great cry,
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth! 
Holy is God, the Lord of Zebaoth!
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth! 
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth!
Sein’ Ehr’ die ganze Welt erfüllet hat.
His glory great the whole world filled hath.
Von dem G’schrei zittert’ Schwell’ und Balken gar,
At the loud cry the beams and threshold shook,
Das Haus auch ganz voll Rauchs und Nebel war.
And the whole house was full of cloud and smoke

Praetorius’ version is based on Luther’s plainsong adaptation and starts simply enough. But soon rises to some magnificent word painting, as Dave Kriewall explains the presentation I was following as I listened [3]:

“hohen Thron” (lofty throne) – high note
“sie flogen frei” (they flew freely; aloft they soared) – soaring high notes
“gegenander ruften sie” (one to the other called) – echo effects
“mit großem Geschrei” (with a great cry)
“Heilig ist Gott der Herre Zebaoth” (Holy is God, the Lord of Hosts) – starts simply, increasing complexity of the angels’ song as more and more join; can be in 3/4 (indicating Trinity)
“Sein Ehr die ganze Welt erfüllet hat.” (His Glory has filled the whole world.) – always in 4/4 (indicating the earth); massive sound to fill the space.
“Von dem Geschrei zittert Schwell und Balken gar” (Threshold and rafters shake with the cry) – massive sound to fill and seemingly shake the church. Similar to treatment of “mit großem Geschrei”
The tongue-twister:
“Das Haus auch ganz voll Rauchs und Nebels war.” (The house also was full of smoke and fog [haze].)
First, a rapid-fire overlapping repetition of the phrase; effect: musical smoke and fog!
Then, an awesome picture of the grandeur of the vision and the glory of God in his temple

One is truly left with a sense of joining with the worship of heaven in the most immediate way.

We rarely talk about heaven and earth joining together in worship, or the communion of saints, or indeed of the music of heaven, and yet this seems to me to be a wonderful truth, worthy of greater exploration. I wondered if Lutheran theologians of Praetorius’ time had a view on this. Praetorius was known as a deeply religious man who regretted not taking holy orders. The introduction to part III of his Syntagma Musicum II: De Organographia begins as follows:

There are those who believe it proper and right that, next to theology, the highest place should be accorded to music, since it is a beautiful and splendid gift of God, and provides an image of music in heaven, where God’s holy angels together with the entire heavenly host praise their creator without ceasing in gentle harmony, and sing “Holy, holy, holy is God, the Lord of Hosts.” [4]

Having started with the music of heaven, he goes on to talk about the music of the Old Testament, especially the music of David and Solomon, and concludes:

Thus church music, as a service to God, ought properly to be held in great esteem today as well, and to be celebrated with all due reverence.  [4]

Praetorius then, in writing his music, was conscious of both the music of heaven, and following in the traditions of the great Biblical musicians, especially King David himself.

Almost a century later, the debate continued, with a famous conflict between Mattheson and Buttstett over heavenly harmony which started in 1713 [5].

But, as Ruth Tatlow says:

The conflict over Harmony went far deeper…At stake was whether the earthly efforts of the Christian composer…would survive eternally, and how they might do so. [6]

While there was debate as to what music might be played in heaven, some at least believed that there would be music in heaven, possibly even the very music being written by the composers of the day.  That being the case, Ruth Tatlow is surely right:

That perfectly constructed and harmonically proportioned vocal and instrumental compositions would survive the Rapture and be played in the new heaven and new earth would have been a powerful motivating belief for the Lutheran composer [6]

Believing this, there would be a strong desire and drive to write music fit for heaven, using all the musical language of the day to embody as fully as possible, and perhaps even participate in, the heavenly worship.  The music would need to reflect and magnify as perfectly as the composer was able the Word Incarnate, i.e. both Jesus Himself, and his Word in the language of the people, in this case German.  For the composer to truly write Soli Deo Gloria with integrity at the end of his work, every note would need to intentionally celebrate the Glory of God, and not simply the glory of music. [7]

Where a composer aspires to this, as I believe Praetorius is doing here in this motet, using all the skill at his disposal, creating something for eternity itself, it is little wonder we feel something of the worship of heaven?

I wonder if our modern songwriters feel that they are creating music with eternal significance in this way, and what difference it would make if they did?


[1] Leaver, R. A. (2017). The whole church sings: congregational singing in Luther’s Wittenberg. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p.158-9

[2] Herl, J. (2008). Worship wars in early Lutheranism: choir, congregation, and three centuries of conflicts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.61

[3] Kriewall, D (2011).  Lecture/demonstration on Michael Praetorius’ “Mass for Christmas Morning” https://prezi.com/klhj29w7dzom/praetorius-mass-for-christmas-morning-1620/ Retrieved 26 Nov 2017

[4] Praetorius, Michael and Faulkner, Quentin trans. & ed. (2014). Syntagma Musicum II: De Organographia, Parts III – V with Index. Zea E-Books. Book 24, p.82. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/zeabook/24

[5] Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge University Press. p.78

[6] Ibid. p. 82-83

[7] See for example Bokemeyer in Johann Matheson, Critica Music, ‘Canonischen Anatomie’ (Hamburg: Matheson, 1722), cited in Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge University Press. p.380, 1723-III

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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 John Eliot Gardiner, 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.

 

The Essence of Bach

Part of my Bach musings and reading are seeking to answer the question “How is it that Bach’s music speaks to us so directly in such Spiritual terms today?”  This was a question which was raised at the end of an excellent lecture by Robin Leaver which I watched yesterday entitled “Bach, a preacher?”

http://www.veritas.org/talks/bach-preacher/

The lecture started with a wonderful anecdote from when Robin Leaver was a pastor (his words) in England. He talks about a Polish Biochemist who walked into the service on Sunday as he was preaching. The biochemist was fortunate to have a scholarship to study in the west at a time when this was rare and had sought Leaver out specifically. He had Christian academic friends at Moscow University who were developing an interesting line in evangelism. It was not unusual for students to become disillusioned with communism, and when they did these Christians gave them a cassette tape with extracts of Bach’s music which had spoken to them particularly and simply asked them to listen to it. When they went back to talk to these people the conversation revolved around the basic question “What motivated this man to write this music. What is it about this man that he was moved to created such wonderful music”.

Leaver says this:

The answer was and is that Bach wrote the music self-consciously as a Christian composer and his understanding of the Christian faith is woven into the texture and fabric of his music.

He then goes onto explain how a deep appreciation of both scripture and of the role of law and gospel in the Christian faith is indeed woven deeply into piece after piece.

The understanding of law and gospel in Bach’s cantatas is something I want to come back to, as is Leaver’s description of Bach as a “preacher in sound.”  How Bach does this is indeed amazing and wonderful and worthy of exploration. It also seems to relate to a Reformed approach to preaching which is outlined in Paul Scott Wilson’s interesting book “The four pages of the sermon” [1] which my former minister Dr. Michael Quicke drew my attention to the other day. Wilson outlines an approach to all sermon construction which should cover the four “pages” of Trouble in the Biblical Text, Trouble in our World, Grace in the Bible: What God did, Grace in our World: What God does. Frequently we see a similar story outlined in the twenty minute “sermons in sound” which are Bach’s cantatas.

Plenty to explore there, but for now I want to come back to the question which interests me most.

At the end of the talk a women in the audience asked the following [1:26:53 in the video linked above]

I was fascinated by you talking about using Bach as an [evangelistic] tool now, and obviously we are far removed from the baroque Lutheran understanding of these chorale tunes and we don’t have this chorale tune vocabulary that Bach’s audience would have had. How do you think that this music speak to us now without that context?

Leaver responds by explaining talks about how Bach often develops his music from one simple idea, something which Jeremy Begbie [2] and Lawrence Dreyfus [3] have both written further about, yet same time uses all the deep, layered complexity of scriptural, chorale, tonal, numerical and even visual references while still creating such beautiful music that still speaks to us, without knowing anything of the deeper layers of meaning.

All true – but I don’t think this answers the question. For me, it’s still out there.  Expect me to come back to that, because whatever it is, we should take it and make it part of our worship!

[1] Wilson, Paul Scott (1999). The four pages of the sermon: A guide to biblical preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

[2] Begbie, Jeremy. Created Beauty: The Witness of J S Bach in Begbie, J. (2011). Resonant witness: Conversations between music and theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.

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