Bach and Harmony: Hearing that is Seeing

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R: Today I invite my friend and colleague, our Director of Music at Marsh Chapel, Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, to join me in offering the morning homily. Good morning, Scott!

S: Good morning, Bob. Isn’t it a wonderful day for music, harmony, Bach, hearing, seeing and wonder?

R: Indeed it is, my gifted friend, indeed it is. Our Gospel lesson today depicts salvation, healing, in a movement from hearing to seeing, a day on which hearing became seeing, sound sight.

S: That is encouragement to our choir, and to me. Every Sunday we try to provide the setting for saving, healing worship. We sing an introit to lift the heart to God. We extend our praise, writing descants for our hymns, or guiding the congregation to sing a verse a capella. Our Kyrie brings the heart to humble contrition. The Gloria Patri brings the heart to joyful acceptance. In the anthems, we seek the true in the beautiful, beauty in truth.

R: Today, one of four such Sundays, we listen to a cantata, an arrangement meant especially for Sunday worship. But let me ask you a question, or two, Dr Jarrett. Say I am sitting in my kitchen, eating a bagel and drinking a coffee, leafing through the Globe and joining Marsh Chapel worship by radio. Let’s further say I do not really know much about Bach, although I recognize and enjoy the beauty of holiness in his music. As part of our sermon this morning, a teaching dialogue sermon (the fifth consecutive different sermonic form provided, by the way, in part as teaching examples for our seminarians, to show diversity and possibility in sermonic design), can you help me to understand, to appreciate what I am hearing?

S: I can certainly try! Recently I traveled with my family to Italy and on the way from Rome to Florence, we passed through the beautifully preserved medieval hillside town of San Gemingano. We stumbled upon the little Collegiate Church within the ancient city walls and, as you might expect, were overwhelmed with the richness of art within the church. After the initial shock of the number of paintings, we began to recognize the subjects of the paintings as Biblical stories. Instead of stained glass windows, the Collegiate Church in San Gemingano unfolds the Biblical narrative in a remarkable series of paintings. Together we traced the stories of the Hebrew scriptures on the south wall, and then the story of Jesus – from birth to the ascenion – on the north wall.

For Bach and the 18th Century Lutheran, Chorale tunes and the church cantatas served this didactic purpose. They communicated a faith and a theology, and served as aural illumination of the Word – the story of divine love, incarnate and cruciform and resurrected, by the interplay of rhythms and harmonies – and the careful weaving of Biblical and poetic texts.

R: Do you mean to say that every cantata is itself a kind of sermon?

S: In a way. But I’m not certain the relationship is reflexive. Though we have come to know that your sermons, Bob, are cantatas: your sermons have within them the soprano of Jesus’ voice, the primary alto of the primitive church’s preaching, the tenor of the gospel writer and the baritone of the church’s interpretation, beginning right in the later New Testament books.

R: I seem to remember hearing that somewhere before….

S: Yes, you see, we in the choir do occasionally listen. But there’s more. Though these cantatas of Sebastian Bach are in German, and date from the early half of the 18th Century, we can still relate and find nourishment in the story and the mystifying sounds.

Music is on of the temporal arts – it exists within a framework of time – it has a specific start and stop. But despite this defining characteristic, I’ve always been amazed about music’s ability to make time stop for the listener. It has the remarkable ability to alter our perception of time. In today’s cantata, for instance, Bach weaves his counterpoint in such a way that we are drawn to a nearly mystical state. For his text Bach incorporates verses from a chorale with the first eight verses of Psalm 130. Likely written for a funeral, the Psalmist’s text depicts the soul waiting for the Lord. Bach chooses certain words to highlight – you’ll hear them: listen for how Bach sets the word for plea – Flehen, or the word for ‘await’ – harret. But the general sense of the music is of the soul, and we ourselves, waiting for the Lord. We are caught in the wheel of life and time seems to stop as we wait upon the Lord.

R: I see. I mean I hear. I mean, well….Last week I sat with one of your best choristers, to ask her what it was like to sing the Bach harmonies.

S: Can you tell me her name?

R: No, but her initials are Ondine Brent.

S: I see….

R: Anyway, she said, and I asked permission to quote her as I always do (here too is a lesson point for the FPA, future preachers of America), that there were not really words to describe what it is like in those moment of powerful, pure harmony. When I pressed her to say more, she simply said, ‘It is a kind of elation’. Elation. Yes. That is the experience of God that comes in worship—in prayer, in hymn, in reading, in sermon, in fellowship. Elation. Is that the way you would put it?

S: Yes. I would add something else as well. The privilege to recreate this music within this service is a very special – even transporting. Bach wrote today’s cantata when we was about 22 – the age of many of our musicians here today. These cantatas are almost like an aural illuminated manuscript – their subject none other than the holy scripture, but their presentation adorned in the beauty of the harmonies and counterpoint of a great master.

As a practicing church musician, I have always been moved by Bach’s devotion to theological awareness and his regular, almost monastic sense of his own musical responsibilities. We are fortunate to have Bach’s personal Bible. One can hardly turn a page without finding some sort of commentary in Bach’s own hand in the margin. His final post in the central German town of Leipzig required him to endure three days (!) of oral theological examination before he could assume the post of music director in the Leipzig church.

Singing Bach, playing Bach, indeed, hearing Bach. Each one is illuminating, transporting, uplifting – a call to devotion, observance, kindness and greater faith.

R: I see. I mean I hear. I mean…There is kind of hearing that becomes a kind of seeing. One of my good friends, now a superannuated preacher, is named Robert Jones. A long time ago, Bob told me, he came as a guest, still a theological student, to a meeting of Methodist preachers in Buffalo. They were singing together, in good harmony, in beautiful harmony. They sang for quite a while, now one hymn, now another. Toward the end of their gathering, they sang the hymn ‘Peace, Perfect Peace’. They sang it together in such a way that he knew he had found his ‘home’, his community. No words drew him to membership in that conference, only music. It was a kind of hearing that became seeing.

S: When people hear us on the radio, or hear us on the internet, or hear us in the Chapel, we expect, we hope, that the hearing is hearing that becomes seeing.

R: Could you tell me a little more about that?

S: Yes, but not today. Tempus fugit (you see, I do know a little Latin). If you and others will come back for our second cantata, November 22, we can say a little more, then, about Bach and harmon
y.

R: Let us pray….

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

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