J. S. Bach, Hugo Distler: Music that is Good for the Soul

23 02 2009

Yesterday Timberley and I attended a concert by the Louisville Bach Society.  We were there courtesy of WUOL Louisville  (“your classical choice”) which graciously awarded me tickets even though I was not the fifth caller.  the program contained several cantatas by J. S. Bach, one solo cantata by Antonio Vivaldi, and two motets by the Nazi-era German composer Hugo Distler.

All of the music in the concert was written originally for the church.  Bach and Vivaldi, as chapel composers, had the job of composing a new cantata every week.  Writing the music was of course all done by hand.  The parts had to be rewritten for each member of the orchestra.  Rehearsals had to be held and all of the hand-written parts had to be corrected and so on.  When one considers that even the lines on the paper, the music staves,  had to be hand-drawn, it makes the physical task of writing music almost as daunting as the musical task of coming up with the music in the first place.

For those who complain that the lyrics in modern praise music are too repetitive, they should listen to the opening cantata from Bach, (BWV 69) “Lobe den Herrn, Meine Seele” (“Praise the Lord, O My Soul”).  The opening chorus sings a verse taken from Psalm 103, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not his benefits.”  That line is sung over, and over, and over, and over again.  But the difference between Bach and modern praise music (if it is not obvious enough) is that when Bach repeats the lyric it part of an ever-changing meolody–a tune that is constantly developing into something new.  As the congregation listens to the choir sing they have the twin experience of hearing a new song at every turn, and of hearing over and over, “Do not forget, do not forget.”

The hymn that caught my attention first yesterday came from the second Bach cantata (BWV 149) “Man singet mit Freuden” (“One sings with joy”).  Here are the words of the final chorale:

Ah. Lord, let this thine angel dear
At my last hour this soul of mine
To Abraham’s lap carry,
My body in its resting place
In quiet, free of woe and pain,
Sleep till the day of judgment!
And then from death awaken me,
That with mine eyes I may see thee
In total joy, O Son of God,
My Savior and my throne of grace!
Lord Jesus Christ, O hear me now,
O hear me now,
I will thee praise eternally!

I, of course, thought of Anna.  I considered her final thoughts.  I was glad that she had her faith in the one savior of mankind, Jesus Christ, and that she could sing these words, had she known them, with Bach and the rest of us.  I am glad that she is now resting quietly at Abraham’s side, waiting for the glorious day of Christ’s return when the dead will be raised.  With her eyes she will see with total joy her Savior on his throne of grace!

We don’t talk this way now.  I don’t know if people talked that way in the time of Bach.  But that is why we need to come to church.  That is why we need good church music.  It elevates our thoughts and gives us good words to use to praise our Lord and to talk about things are true and solid.

The second half of the program had two motets by Hugo Distler, who was new to me.  The first motet was on a text from Isaiah 53, “Surely he hath borne our sickness.”  Following the biblical text is a hymn text from Paul Gerhardt, a reformation hymn writer of the 17th century.  Read and listen to what he says about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ:

A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth,
The guilt of all men hearing,
And laden with the sins of earth,
None else the burden sharing.
Goes patient on, grow weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer.
Bears shame and stripes, and wounds and death.
Anguish and mockery, and saith:
Willingly all this I suffer.

Words like this remind me of a sign I was in the office of a pastor of a church I was visiting.  He allowed me to use his office to pray before preaching to his congregation.  As I sat down at his desk and lifted my head, my eyes fell on a sign with bold letters he had hung on the wall right in front of his desk:

Prepare to Meet Thy God

I told the congregation, this is the kind of man you want preaching God’s word to you.  This is a man who takes his labor of preaching seriously.  That seriousness of spirit and deep, deep devotion to God came through clearly in the music yesterday.  May we all live our lives in anticipation of meeting our God.  May it be a day of joy at seeing our Lord.




One response

1 03 2009

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