Musical program notes by Cheryl Ryder from the Vespers services October 24th are below.
Recordings are available at the First Lutheran Church of Boston Music website.
“God has a heart that overflows with mercy; and if within his hearing our mouth laments and speaks to him about the pain of the cross in faith and trust, then his heart breaks, so that he has to feel pity for us. He keeps his word; he says: Knock, it will be opened to you! Therefore let us from now on, when we hover amidst the greatest troubles, raise our heart to God alone! – recitative, Cantata 98
Today’s celebratory Bach Vespers at First Lutheran features the performance of two of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas devoted to the theme of trust and confidence in God. They were written in different years but for the same occasion, the 21st Sunday after Trinity (or the 22nd after Pentecost), which usually falls in October. Both cantatas feature opening dancelike movements by the instruments, representing the joy of secure trust in God.
Only a fragment survives of the first portion of cantata #188, but enough is there to identify it as the last movement of one of Bach’s D-minor harpsichord concertos. Cantata 188 was part of Bach’s third Leipzig cycle, in which the recycling of previous movements of instrumental music is common. Why such a sinfonia appears at the outset of the cantatas in this third cycle may have something to do with the length of the services in Leipzig. If communion was so long that the cantata had to be repeated in full, using a sinfonia as the beginning lengthened the total performing time and perhaps allowed the singers to go downstairs to receive communion before they sang.
The sinfonia occupies much of the total time devoted to the cantata. It is followed by the aria from which the cantata derives its name, “I put my Confidence in God,” for tenor soloist. Serene and assuring, and especially so in the phrase “my hope rests firmly” where the words “rests” and “firmly” are set to long notes, the mostly scalar melody jumps into fragments in the short central section where the fallen world intrudes, only to be regarded as fleeting by the singer whose confidence is firm in God. All seems rosy. But as the alto soloist tells us in the second extended aria, God’s ways are unknown and impossible to learn, inscrutable; the trials we go through may be what he has ordained for us, so that we will sing praise to his name. Our cross and pain remind us of what He suffered. Bach’s setting is labyrinthine, like our doomed efforts to understand, or to even supersede, God. These efforts and the collective might of the world will end, as the soprano sings afterwards, against a backdrop of strings that pulse with furious energy and then subside to the serene chords that represent the steadfastness of Christ. Here the chords underlie the text “But God remains forever; happy are those who place their trust in him!”
Cantata 98, “Whatever God Ordains is Right,” is far sunnier by contrast. It opens with the choir singing the chorale to a graceful dancelike accompaniment with an ostinato rhythmic figure that leaps at the end of each measure. That is the only version of the chorale we hear in this piece. Careful listeners will hear the bass line jump down at the end of the first phrase and jump up at the end the second (the second “answering” line is an exact inversion of the first “questioning” one). Because God’s benevolence toward His people is as steady as a rock, we can rejoice in our confidence and dance in our hearts along with the instruments. Only the tenor solo in cantata #98 represents the tortured soul whose belief is shaken, but his brooding vanishes quickly as he resolves to try to trust in God, the soprano says not to weep, and the following alto solo reassures of God’s mercy and the fleeting nature of human difficulty. We never experience the pain of the cross, we only hover amidst trouble, like clouds over the landscape. Although the bass soloist claims he will not leave his Jesus until the end, it is Jesus who never leaves us.
The Magnificat today is by Samuel Scheidt, active in the city of Halle in eastern Germany and publisher of an influential three-volume series of organ variations styled after his Dutch teacher Sweelinck. Scheidt, Schütz, and Michael Praetorius all knew each other and worked to elevate the standards and vastly expand the repertory of Lutheran choral music. One of four settings of the Magnificat set by Scheidt and the simplest, today’s version is also the only German-texted one, alternating polyphonic and chanted verses, though not strictly. Verses 6-8 offer Scheidt his chance for vocal commentary on words like “exalt,” “needy,” “good things,” and “mercy,” while the chant appears in long notes beneath. The chant heard throughout is the old Tonus Peregrinus, the migrating tone, so named because each half-verse is set to a different reciting tone and the final notes of the chant trail off to a completely different and much lower pitch, very low but not forbiddenly low for our capable basses!
There is good reason for the early Lutherans to have settled on the use of the Tonus Peregrinus with the German Magnificat. Commentators have noted that the unequal half-verses of the Magnificat lend themselves well to a psalm tone with different reciting tones (for instance, “he has cast down the mighty” is sung to a higher reciting tone than “and exalted the humble and meek”). But the Tonus Peregrinus also relates the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, to the much older Psalm 113 which is sung traditionally on the Tonus Peregrinus, and it is Psalm 113 which in turn is based on the Song of Hannah found in the first Book of Samuel. Like Mary, Hannah conceives a son (Samuel the prophet) by divine intervention, and Hannah rejoices in these words: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord.” A few lines later she sings, “The bows of the mighty men are broken, and those who stumbled are girded with strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry have ceased to hunger,” and “The Lord kills and brings to life, he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” She who had been barren, but who had put her confidence in God, can now look forward to great things to come. Hence the Song of Hannah, called the Canticle of Anna in the Roman Catholic rite, is the Magnificat of the Old Testament.