September 26

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 9:3850

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel:

Time and space are not quite as absolute in determination of our being as sometimes we think. It helps to have a bifocal, stere-optic vision, a two-level drama, of sorts.

That is the nature of the New Testament, shot through from Matthew to Revelation with apocalyptic language and imagery. Our Holy Scripture, both Holy and Scripture, is both heaven and earth.   It is both sacred and secular, at the same time, both divine and human. Its Word walks with human feet and sings with divine voice. Its word faces earth: 670,000 souls gone on to the church triumphant, in one country alone. Its word sings with a divine voice: each one of these is a child of the living God.

The apocalyptic warnings of Mark 9 are not to be taken literally. We know this. We know about hyperbole. Let us pause one good moment to recognize that, and why, and so, we do not understand the Bible as utterly inerrant. The Bible is inspired and so inspires us, and is our first point of reflection, prototypical but not archetypical—first but not exclusive in the church’s long history of the search for truth. These verses, harsh and judgmental, need careful interpretation. So, Matthew cuts half of them, in his use of Mark 20 years afterward. So Luke cuts all of them in his use of Mark 20 years later. Even Mark himself shifts the weight from fear to hope, even in this passage, as he wrestles to interpret what he has inherited, from whatever source: be salt, have peace among yourselves, who is not against us is for us.

So, it is particularly appropriate this special Sunday that we hear a cantata, a beautiful gem of sacred music.

In our time, to express a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith, to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, we have Bach’s  music in this beautiful 16 minute poem. For all our fears, of heaven and of earth, it does ring out a note of hope, does it not?

Dr. Jarrett, for what shall we listen today, we who remember St. Augustine’s proverb, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage’?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music:

The Feast of St Michael, celebrated each year in late September, with its fantastic images of Michael the Archangel slaying Lucifer, the Old Dragon, surely must have come as welcome reprieve from more didactic lessons on the weight of sin that marked the liturgical calendar in late summer. Bach’s musical essays written for Michaelmas prove daring innovation, bravura, and an astonishing capacity for both imagery and imagination. After a year of testing out the capabilities of the very fine Leipzig musicians, including chief of the local Stadtpfeifer Gottfried Reiche, Bach boldly deploys all his singers and players with confidence and ease.

The whole of Cantata 130 is framed around Paul Eber’s Chorale “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir”, known to the English speaking world as the Doxology: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Consistent with other cantatas from the second Leipzig cycle, the chorale tune is heard in long tones in the soprano part throughout the first movement. Despite the familiarity and prominent position of this famous tune, Bach’s newly composed music played by the instruments from the beginning both colludes and collides with the Chorale in one of the thrilling, majestic, and playful openings of all the cantatas.

The inner movements remind us that though Lucifer was defeated by Michael and cast down from Heaven, he still burns with deceit and torment for God’s little ones here on Earth. The tail of the serpent ensnares us at any time without notice or warning. Only the eternal presence of God’s angels all around us assures both protection but also victory. We are reminded that it was Michael who was with Daniel and who ushered Elijah to the throne of grace on a fiery chariot. And that, just like them, when we journey to heaven, Michael, the standard bearer, will safely guide us.

Both arias are bold departures with regard to instrumentation and style for the Leipzig Thomascantor. I challenge you to find other examples of trumpets and timpani deployed as the obbligato instrument for a bass aria. Bach and Reiche must have had a wonderful regard for one another. Professor Terry Everson plays the heroic parts today over and around Craig Juricka’s baritone. Whether the tail of the Serpent or the brandished saber of Michael, this marks one of the most difficult and exciting uses of these instruments.

The tenor aria sung today by Ethan DePuy features the Flauto traverso, also new to Bach in Leipzig. Cast in a pastoral gavotte in the new style, we are assured that Michael will be with us to the end.

The stere-optic vision heard in today’s cantata is indeed a multi-valenced thing.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel:

Those who have paused, here, or now, to worship with us at Marsh Chapel in the last decade, are aware that we lift the Gospel, come Cantata Sundays, in word and music, together, juntos, in harmony.

Bach brings us the reach of beauty around the globe, a global sphere of orientation.  Bach brings us a stretch toward the universal, the reach up and out to what fully lasts, truly matters, and really counts.  Bach brings us an artistic angle of vision, rooted in Scripture and in an earlier Lutheran garden, nonetheless known by heart and in the heart, far and near, with those, today you and me, who will pause for the offering of the gift of faith.  Bach brings us beauty, a paean for sure to the true and the good, but no avoidance of the beautiful.  In our time, this hour, especially this week, we can truly appreciate, benefit from such a global orientation, a high universal reach, a feeling in faith, and the bathing of such beauty.

Given the maelstrom of this moment in our current climate, our current politics, our current globe, our current culture, the wind blasts of charge and counter charge, the examples of courage and also the instances of failures in courage, near and far, we, come Sunday, maybe especially this Sunday, look for the God who is a rock in a weary land.  Said Dr. Emilie Townes, ‘we want to cultivate a vibrant community of hope… we hope to beget an ever more piercing faithfulness’.  An ever more piercing faithfulness.  Yes.

Today we receive the gift in memory of the faith of the church, and we give ear to the beauty of our first Bach Cantata of the year.  We are truly ‘blessed’.  All the senses—sight, sound, scent, touch, taste—are enlivened today.

This is truly good news, especially for those who may be in mortal need of a living reminder, as the Scripture says, that we are ‘children of God’.  For we can sometimes acutely need such a reminder of belonging, meaning and empowerment.  Even at eventide.  Even at night.  We are acquainted with the night.  You are acquainted with the night.  As our New England poet memorably put it:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

So, it is particularly appropriate this special Sunday that we hear a cantata, a beautiful gem of sacred music.  It is angelic music, written to harmonize with the music of the spheres, and to recall the angels of Scripture, the revelations of Scripture, the heavenly messages and messengers of Scripture, a worthy work to honor St Michael and all the angel chorus.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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