Saturday, December 03, 2005

Bach's Christmas Oratorios

Today was the first meeting of the Bach Listening Group (through Torrey, but extracurricular). I am so very glad that I participated. It was delightful to get together with a group of people who all love Bach as much as I do, and (being Torrey-ites) know how to discuss! We were discussing from both a textual and musical standpoint, and it was so interesting to hear all the different perspectives (music majors, music grads, non-music majors, tutors). Everyone had something to contribute, and I was really impressed by the insight that was shared this afternoon.

There is so much atonement theology in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (or Cantatas, as you choose to think of them). At face value, the way most people listen to music, it’s just nice Christmas music with perhaps one hymn that is recognizable. But there is SO MUCH IN THIS MUSIC! Bach was so steeped in music and Lutheran theology that he just sort of breathed the theology into all of his music, probably without consciously doing so. The result is music that flawlessly expresses theologically beautiful text. Did you know that the soprano and bass duets are beautifully symbolic of heaven and earth, and particularly atonement focused? You see it in quite a few different ways: a soprano/bass duet about how Christ “came to earth poor” in order to “make us rich in heaven”; a bass recitative saying “Thus rightly, you angels, rejoice and sing…we play along with you; we can celebrate just as you do”; a duet that among other things proclaims “Jesus, O my dearest life, bridegroom of my soul…when I die, I know that I will not perish.” Do you see how they are blended together, and the earth (the bass) brought up to heaven?

I can’t do justice, here, to the depth of meaning that is present in these cantatas. It is stunning.

One of my very favorite parts, (and you should all listen to it!) is the third cantata, 6th movement. The text is “Lord, your compassion, your mercy comforts us and makes us free. Your gracious favor and love, Your miraculous doings make Your fatherly loyalty new again.” The music is highly structured, but gives a sense of immense freedom…the kind that makes you think of skipping in a field of flowers or dancing under the stars. It reminds me of how I first experienced the liturgy. We can dance in this way when we live in the structure of God’s mercy and grace.

I tried to find a link online to that section, but evidently all the online bach gurus only like the chorales or don’t want to share. :) I’ll let you borrow my cd if you want to listen to it, ok?

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