Reformation Service, October 27 4 p.m.

October 27 is the world premier of my new cantata “Words of Beginning” based on an original text by Kai Hofmann-Krull. I am particularly excited about this work as it has been my first fruitful collaboration with a poet on a sacred text that is reflecting on Bach’s  Reformation Cantata BWV 79 . Kai’s text reflects the light and dark imagery found in the Bach cantata text and is expanded to a narrative on Genesis. It is a text of particular beauty and I am very excited to set it to beautiful music.

Full Cantata TextWords of Beginning-text

Bach composed Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild in Leipzig for a performance on Reformation Day in 1725. This cantata has a striking timpani part that suggests its common interpretation as the hammering of Luther’s ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. The text, written by an unknown poet, uses a powerful light-dark imagery that is perhaps a poetic allusion to the Lutheran distinction between Law (the commandments) and Gospel (God’s forgiveness through Jesus’s blood). This duality is echoed in clever compositional devices and in Bach’s colorful orchestration throughout the cantata. This includes the opposition of high, but dark-colored natural horn parts (replaced by trumpets in today’s performance) and the low, bright timpani rolls.

The text of the opening chorus (dictum) is a theological statement later referred to in the subsequent recitatives and arias. The words describing God’s protecting power, “God the Lord is our sun and Shield,” accompanied by brass and timpani, are followed by “The Lord gives mercy and honor” with a softer, more lyrical section accompanied by the strings. The opening chorus, with its light-dark imagery, its colorful instrumentation and opposing sections forecasts contrast as the main rhetorical device of the cantata.

The subsequent alto aria restates the words of the opening chorus and expands them emphasizing a militaristic overtone, evocative of Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is our God. In the third movement, the powerful music of the opening chorus accompanies the Chorale Now Thank We All our God in a rhetorical contrast between thanksgiving peace (chorale) and of God’s supreme, military power (orchestral accompaniment). The subsequent recitative prays for redeeming faith for the enemy, with a desire to share the message with all people, so that they also confess Jesus Christ as their savior. In the 5th movement, the soprano and bass, in their duet, confess our weakness without God’s help, using an unusually large gap between the two vocal ranges as if to emphasizes the opposition of light and darkness, or weakness and power. It is interesting that Jesus’s name is mentioned only at the very end of the final chorale. It is perhaps the climax of opposing forces that only intersect and reconcile in the name of Jesus Christ, the last word of the cantata.

Copyright by Bálint Karosi


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