Holy Week and J.S. Bach

Did you know that J.S. Bach is this week’s composer of the week on Radio 3? Every year I think to myself that Holy Week is the best time to engage with the works of Bach. This is primarily because it is usually during this week, the week where Christians follow Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Palm Sunday) to the cross (Good Friday) and subsequent resurrection (Easter Sunday), that Bach’s two great ‘Passions’, those of St Matthew and St John, are performed across the country. While I have to admit (and most of you know anyway) I am a totally committed fan of pretty much anything Bach composed, the passions are singular, as far as I am concerned, in their emotional depth. For those who know nothing about passions or the Bible or Bach, these great works were intended to be performed on Good Friday in church, and take the form of a gospel text (St Matthew’s in one instance and St John’s in the other), which charts the last few days of Jesus’ life in recitative form, interpolated with arias and chorales in which deeper themes within the biblical text are explored.

Now I happen to think that the works of J.S. Bach will enrich anyone’s life, regardless of whether you are a Christian, a musician, a Germanist, or none of the above. Hence this is my attempt to gently encourage you all to engage with a little bit of Bach this week, regardless of your background. I think Bach has something to offer everyone.

For Christians who are not musical, these passions offer an alternative style of devotion (that’s what they were intended for!) They take us through the last moments of Jesus’ life and give us space to reflect on and respond to his great sacrifice for the sins of mankind. The scores are unparalleled in the musical world in their treatment of this topic. You might come away feeling like you’ve run a marathon, but sitting down with the words and a CD and listening along certainly adds a new dimension to my devotions every year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Since the passions deal with questions of cosmic significance, they are relevant and accessible to non-believers as well as Christians, especially to people who like music! As a wannabe musician, I sometimes find myself guilty of not really paying attention to what I’m singing about. However, my understanding and appreciation of Bach’s passions increased exponentially (as did an outpouring of my faith, as it happens: ask me about it sometime) as a result of engaging with the text and Christian claims of these great works. I urge you whatever your faith not just to sing or play, but to engage!

As for Germanists who might or might not be familiar with classical music and/or Christendom, Bach counts among the best of Germany’s exemplary cultural output, so he’s definitely worth getting to know!

The best way to get into a passion is to sit down with a libretto, a translation and a recording. Happily, you can do all this online! (Isn’t technology wonderful!) For example, you can watch a live recording of the whole Matthew Passion, directed by the brilliant Philipp Herreweghe, here. You can follow the German here, and read a translation here.

Since most people will find the idea of listening to 2 hours 45 minutes of Bach daunting, I thought I’d help you find a ‘way in’, one from the Matthew Passion and one from the John.

St Matthew Passion: This aria is called So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (‘My Jesus has now been captured’), and features just after Jesus has been identified by Judas in the garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. A duet allows us space to reflect on the unjust arrest of Jesus, before a fabulously exhilarating section helps us to recognise the cosmic significance of the moment (and call for judgment on Judas, which you may or may not like, but is a great vehicle for some truly terrific German: Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle – try getting your mouth round that lot in a hurry). It’s quite brilliant – do have a listen, and enjoy how Bach uses the ‘chorus’ to interject with lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht! (‘Leave him, stop, bind him not!’) The words are below with a translation (from the same source as above).

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Mond und Licht
Ist vor Schmerzen untergangen,
Weil mein Jesus ist gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Sie führen ihn, er ist gebunden.

Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?
Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle,
Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle
Mit plötzlicher Wut
Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!

Thus hath my Jesus now been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
Moon and light
Are in sorrow set and hidden,
For my Jesus hath been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
They lead him off, he is in fetters.

Hath lightning, hath thunder in clouds fully vanished?
Lay open thy fire’s raging chasm, O hell, then,
Now ruin, demolish, devour, now shatter
With suddenmost wrath
The lying betrayer, that murderous blood!

St John Passion: Here I have gone for the final chorale of the piece. Recall that Jesus’ resurrection is not depicted in the passion accounts (in the Lutheran church this would have been celebrated with much gusto on Easter Day with an Easter cantata) It is a prayer which looks forward with great faith and hope to the resurrection at the last day, and I never fail to be inspired by the boldness of the words Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich! Ich will dich preisen ewiglich! (something like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, listen to me! I’m going to praise you for ever and ever!’)

Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Am letzten End die Seele mein
In Abrahams Schoß tragen,
Den Leib in seim Schlafkämmerlein
Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein
Ruhn bis am jüngsten Tage!
Alsdenn vom Tod erwecke mich,
Dass meine Augen sehen dich
In aller Freud, o Gottes Sohn,
Mein Heiland und Genadenthron!
Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich,
Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!

Ah Lord, let thine own angels dear
At my last hour my spirit bear
To Abraham’s own bosom,
My body in its simple bed
In peace without distress and dread
Rest till the day of judgment!
And then from death awaken me,
That with mine eyes I may see thee
In fullest joy, O God’s own Son,
My Savior and my gracious throne!
Lord Jesus Christ, give ear to me,
I would thee praise eternally!

Words; Translation

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