Bach BWV 82 (for Sunday)
I’m always amazed to read essays on classical music from the 18th and 19th centuries. The writers, often with no more musical training than I have (i.e. none), also would have necessarily had to listen to the pieces performed live, maybe only once. And yet, their attention was such that they picked up on nuances that elude me after hearing these works dozens of times. There are many works I have never heard unmediated by some form of recording and playback technology. And I wonder if music, possibly the most abstract of the arts, doesn’t demand direct attention bordering on meditation. When I read Proust’s description of Swann’s total rapture at the “little phrase” of Vinteuil’s sonata (fiction, but seemingly rooted in a common experience of the late 1800s), it’s hard not to wonder if the technology that we now live our lives steeped in doesn’t somehow objectify music, turning it into a thing that can be easily chopped up, replicated, and manipulated, or silenced and neglected; if it doesn’t also handicap our aesthetic and emotional response by reducing the spiritual in music to its empty digital husk.
I thought about this while sitting in an uncongenially wooden pew in Toronto’s lovely Trinity St. Paul’s Centre waiting to hear the baroque orchestra Tafelmusik (with bass-baritone Tyler Duncan) perform Bach’s cantata 82. Perhaps this minor cynicism was triggered by a page in the program begging people under-30 to come for “pay-what-you-can” discounts; the absence of more than four other people in this packed audience who were below the retirement age; and that one of them, roughly my age, sat in front of me and jittered throughout the performance, unable to get through an aria without pecking and fondling his Blackberry. I finally had to close my eyes to focus. Can you even catch wind of Bach while trying to IM jokes to your girlfriend?
The music, of course, rewards close attention. Jacques Barzun emphasizes: “Bach’s genius for adapting music to meaning”, particularly in the cantatas and the three Passions, pointing out that the St. Matthew Passion: “is not a virtuoso exercise in patterning but the fusion of patterns with dramatic purpose: there is a text, the words describe a scene, the music fits the words and the action.” The scene here is especially profound: a pious old man witnesses the incarnation before his death. The music is deeply and emotionally expressive. I think it also captures something we’ve discussed here in the comments: how religious believers live in the tension between time and timelessness, Becoming and Being, Immanence and Transcendence.
The lyrics (by an anonymous author) borrow from a canticle based on a story in the Book of Luke. The Christ child has just been born in Bethlehem and the Holy Ghost comes to Simeon, a pious man in Jerusalem, who has been awaiting the incarnation for his entire life: “And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s child.” When Joseph and Mary bring the child to the temple for the ceremony of the consecration of the firstborn son, the Spirit has led Simeon there as well, and he takes the baby Jesus in his arms and blesses him, saying, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen the salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-32) The text of canticle 82 actually takes the voice of a companion of Simeon.
Bach wrote the piece for the 1727 Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which takes place 40 days after Christmas, on or around 2 February; the last feast of the Christmas season, it is also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, Candlemas, and in the Catholic Church the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. The event takes place in the very depths of winter. Scholar Pamela King writes: “Candlemas is the feast of deepest winter, and folk rhymes still survive attesting to its seasonal significance, for example: ‘If Candlemas day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight…” Coming in the bleak months, King notes that it “presented hope, both through the repeated symbolism of light into darkness and through the apotropaic power attributed to the blessed wax.” Bach’s music evokes anticipation of the next life, as well as looking forward hopefully in the midst of cold and darkness. Those of us with seasonal affective disorder can easily relate!
Hans Hotter singing the First Aria from Cantata 82 (click to listen)
The opening melody is soft and a bit woeful. The oboe picks up gradually while the lilting violins anchor the piece. It seems to be moving forward tentatively, the music circling around as if the believer is nervously circumnavigating the temple. There’s apprehensiveness to the music and even weariness; it sounds like an old man. The tension- the music is straining to give birth to an idea. And finally, his conviction: “Ich habe genung.” I have enough. He’s saying this to himself. He pauses for the next words as if it is just sinking in for him, which translate: “I have taken… the Saviour… the Hope… of the Righteous… Into my eager arms…”
We must note the breathtaking loveliness of that oboe melody. The lyrics in the latter passage translate as: “I have beheld Him. My faith has pressed Jesus to my heart; now I wish, even today with joy to depart from here”. That introduces the theme of the whole piece: the longing to escape from the mundane world and be transfigured through death. The word Freuden/ joy, stresses the ecstatic nature of this hope to die, and the entire last line is sustained. If he holds this note any longer, he’ll quite likely get his wish!
With very minimal instrumentation, the man stands alone before God and man. He hopes, “that Jesus might be mine and I His own.” The mood is adoring; the lyrics recall the Christian desire to be wedded to Christ by the Holy Spirit.
Again, the desire to leave this world. He is in the temple, with Simeon and Jesus and realizes already “the joy of the other life”. He has made up his mind: “Laßt uns mit diesem Manne ziehn!” Let us go with this man! And he’s starting to become impatient. He wishes desperately to be freed “from the chains of my body“. There is the repeated word Ach! with the remorseful musical note. As much as he would like to, he cannot choose the moment of his death. He is condemned to live, at least a bit longer.
This is my favourite aria of the work. It begins, I think, in the evening after the visit to the temple, with swelling joy at the realization. He repeats, in German, Fall asleep you weary eyes/ Close gently and blessedly. He is telling himself to fall asleep for the last time. Repeatedly. But you can’t will yourself to sleep. It becomes a bit comical after a few minutes. The music almost seems to end and then… Fallet sanft … He can’t get to sleep.
And then the lament comes. Again he addresses the mundane: World, I will no longer remain here. I hold no part of you that is suited to my soul. After the incarnation, he is alienated from the world.
Again and again, the music seems to end and then… the melody returns like waves of consciousness or a steady heartbeat; signs of life for someone who would rather not be receiving them. Here, I must build up misery. But there, there I will see sweet peace, rest quietly. The false stops become almost comical. Bach captures the feeling of insomnia, and contrasts it beautifully with the inability to die. His music is like a lullaby that goes on longer than expected, and the violin is heart-rending.
He is now impatient and grumbles before God. “Mein Gott! wenn Kömmt das schöne: Nun!” My god! When will come the beautiful Now! The beautifully melancholy music sighs in resignation at the last line: World, good night!
And the last Aria is almost victorious, the defiantly sing-song , “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod.” I am delighted in my death. He’s still in jail but already been paroled. Each time the line returns it is more exuberant, the oboe is more triumphant. I imagine Woody Allen dancing with the reaper at the end of Love and Death. Yet, the simple Ach! perfectly captures the tension of living between the Mundane and Divine; death has not come yet. But he’s lost in the joy. We can imagine someone running through the streets singing “I look forward to my death!” The song begins with birth and looks forward to death and rebirth.
Some listeners find the cantata morbid; it expresses, after all, yearning for death. For believers, however, I think this misses the point; the singer is no more fixated on the act of dying than a mother awaiting the birth of her child is fixated on the pain of childbirth. Death is understood here as the soul’s liberation from the pains of mundane life to a painless life in union with the Divine. This is not just a Judeo-Christian idea, of course; Hindus might recognize the soul’s liberation as the goal of the pursuit of moksha.
Life on earth is seen as a sort of exile. The cantata recalls what in Latin is called horror loci: a “dread of place” that cannot be escaped by moving anywhere. The early Church fathers called it “the demon of noontide” or the Greek acedia, which is a sort of spiritual enervation, a disinterest in anything on earth. They saw it as a potential vice because acedia can lead away from prayer or other acts of devotion. In the modern era, the French Romantics called it the maladie de siècle, the inescapable ennui that Chateaubriand and Flaubert would write so elegantly about. They made the medieval legend of the “wandering Jew” (Juif errant) a symbol of modernity: man condemned to live. The fear behind this symbol: that modernity might mean simply that transcendence is no longer possible.
Then we reach Proust’s generation, which sought transcendence through art. This search is driven by the same slight pain of existence that all men had known before. So, maybe the precondition for this transcendent experience of art is the sort of ennui that my generation blocks out with gadgetry and gewgaws. Maybe it’s only when we’ve stopped trying to escape the possibility that life might be persistently painful that we can allow ourselves to be fully enraptured and transported by this sort of art. After all, the Blackberry gentleman, the older and enraptured listeners around him, and the voice in Cantata 82 are all yearning for the same sort of release from mundane, conscious existence: they’re just looking for it in different places, each perhaps characteristic of its own era.
1. This post is a bit long, eh? (I’m avoiding the Super Bowl!) I’ll keep them shorter in the future.
2. Also, since I’m not a music expert, German student, or especially devout, I welcome and comments or corrections from experts and believers.
3. The trick with the links (I hope) is to open them in a new window. Admittedly, I haven’t quite figured out the techne.