Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pope Benedict XVI and a Bach Cantata

Pope Joseph Ratzinger has called art and music "the greatest apologetic for our faith." On a par with the "luminous trail" of the saints and more than the arguments of reason.  This time, however, the pope added a personal recollection:  "I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach –- in Munich in Bavaria – conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the Cantate, I felt –- not through reasoning, but in the depths of my heart – that what I had just heard had spoken truth to me, truth about the supreme composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: Whoever has listened to this understands that faith is true – and the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God's truth."

What was the Cantata of Bach that so profoundly touched the heart of the future pope? It was the one that Bach composed for the Mass of the twenty-seventh Sunday after the feast of the Holy Trinity, the last Sunday before Advent in the Lutheran liturgical year.  Among the roughly two hundred Cantatas that Bach left for us, it is the one that bears the catalog number BWV 140.

The Cantatas were real and proper liturgical music. They filled the space between the readings of the Mass and the homily. With Luther, they were a simple hymn. But in the 1600's, the developed into the form that was later used by Bach: with organ and orchestra, choir and soloists, chorales, recitatives, duets.

The text of the cantata was based on the readings for the Mass of the day, especially of the Gospel. Making these the object of intimate spiritual meditation, even with poetic features. Sometimes the homily was given not at the end, but at the middle of the Cantata.  The faithful listened to it in silence. And sometimes the text of the entire composition was distributed to those present, so they could follow it better.

On the twenty-seventh Sunday after the feast of the Holy Trinity – the Sunday of the Cantata conducted by Bernstein that so deeply moved Joseph Ratzinger – the readings were eschatological in tone, related to the end of time.

The first reading was taken from the second letter to the Corinthians (5:1-10) or from the first letter to the Thessalonians (5:1-11), while the Gospel was that of Matthew 25:1-13, with the parable of the wise and foolish virgins:

"The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise ones replied, 'No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.' While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, 'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!' But he said in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.' Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

In 1599, the author of the text of the Cantata, Philipp Nicolai, took this parable as the inspiration for his meditation, with lyrical references to the Song of Songs and to its nuptial symbolism.

As in the recitative that follows the opening chorale:

"He comes, he comes,
The bridegroom comes!
You Zion's daughters, now come out,
He's leaving right now from the Heavens
For your own mother house.
The bridegroom comes, who like a roe deer
and like a young stag ev'n
Up on the hills now springs,
To you the feast of wedding brings.
Wake up, arouse your hearts
The bridegroom to encounter!
There, see it, his vis't now comes to pass."

Or in the following duet between soprano and bass:

S: When come you, my Health?
B: I come, your All.
S: I wait, with lit, burning oil.
B: Throw open the hall.
S: I open the hall.
Both: To the heavenly meal.
S: Come, Jesu!
B: Come, dear lovely soul!

In Leipzig, Bach composed a Cantata that is rightly among his most famous. Like all of them, it takes its name from the first words of the introductory chorale: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme."

The choice of this typically eschatological Cantata, which ends with the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, was not made by accident for the concert that Bernstein conducted in Munich, with Joseph Ratzinger in the audience.  It was 1981. Ratzinger had been the archbishop of Munich for four years. And on February 15 of that year, one of the greatest interpreters of Bach's music, both as an organist and as a harpsichordist, Karl Richter, had died suddenly in the capital of Bavaria.  That concert was held in Richter's memory, with the Bach-Orchestra and Bach-Choir of Munich. All with music from Bach. In order:

- the chorale "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden" of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244);
- the Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major (BWV 1048);
- the Cantata "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (BWV 140).
And after the intermission:  - the Magnificat in D major (BWV 243).

So the Cantata that so deeply moved the future pope concluded, properly speaking, not the entire concert, but its first part.  The Lutheran bishop sitting beside him, to whom Ratzinger confided his thoughts, was Johannes Hanselmann, died in 2002...

HT to Sandro Magister

1 comment:

Terry Maher said...

Ain't it great? Now, of those who bother with a calendar and lectionary at all, thanks to the RCC and EKD (of which Hanselmann's church is a landeskirche) usw, we no longer have Trinity 27 or its readings, but two of their leaders can gush about music written for it at a concert.