Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Mighty Cantata

Lutheran churches were celebrating Reformation Sunday this past weekend, and I was blessed to hear J. S. Bach’s eight-movement cantata based on Martin Luther’s hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) the way Bach intended—in the context of a worship service.

The Neffs met up with their friends Mark and Nina Moring at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, for a splendid service of evening prayer complete with choir, orchestra, organ, and professional soloists.

In our time, Bach’s cantatas are usually performed as concert pieces, as if they were mini-oratorios, small-scale versions of Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah. But that is not at all what Bach had in mind. He wrote these pieces to be paired with sermons as musical expositions of Scripture.

Robin Leaver explained it all in issue 95 of Christian History and Biography: The Gospel According to J. S. Bach. In an article entitled “Sermons that Sing,” the Westminster Choir College musicologist described how this unique musical genre functioned in 18th-century Lutheran worship.

“These services were long,” writes Leaver, “lasting up to four hours—with a complex liturgical order based on Luther's evangelical reinterpretation of the traditional Mass.” (Fortunately, the service we attended on Reformation Sunday lasted just an hour and fifteen minutes.)

Leaver explains:

[T]he cantata was closely connected with both the reading of the Gospel and the sermon. The simple sequence was this:

Gospel, Nicene Creed, Cantata, Hymn, Sermon.

The portion from one of the Gospels appointed for that day was read. The choir responded to the Gospel, affirming the faith by singing the Nicene Creed in Latin. Then the choir and instrumentalists performed the cantata. The whole congregation responded by singing in German the hymn Wir glauben all' an einen Gott ("We all believe in one true God"), Luther's rhyming, metrical version of the Creed. After this second affirmation of faith came the sermon, a detailed exposition and application of the day's Gospel reading. The cantata therefore stood in the middle of a sequence that began with the Gospel reading and ended with the sermon. Like the sermon, the cantata was also an exposition and application of the Gospel of the day.

The cantata was thus a theological commentary on Scripture and even an exhortation to faith and perseverance. In the Ein’ feste Burg cantata we heard, God’s strength and sure victory are repeatedly invoked to urge the believer to be steadfast in fighting the devil.

The bass soloist sings:

Consider well, O child of God,
This love so mighty, which Jesus hath
In his own blood for thee now written;
By which he thee
For war opposing Satan’s host,
Opposing world and error,
Enlisted thee!
Yield not within thy spirit
To Satan and his viciousness!

The soprano (representing the Christian soul) then responds to God with this invitation:

Come in my heart’s abode,
Lord Jesus, my desiring!
Drive world and Satan out,
And let thine image find in me new glory!
Hence, prideful cloud of sin!

I’m sure the poetry is better in the original German, but you get the picture. This pattern of exhortation and faithful response repeats throughout the full range of Bach’s cantatas.

Leaver’s article gives examples from various Bach compositions of the many inventive ways he used both musical and literary techniques to drive home a gospel truth and evoke both the terror of God’s judgment and the comfort of his grace.

Bach’s—and Luther’s—message is ultimately about God’s triumph. As the libretto of Ein’ feste Burg tells us:

Who hath to Christ’s own bloodstained flag
In baptism sworn allegiance
Wins in spirit ever more.
All that which God has fathered
Is for victory intended.

* * *

Professor Leaver’s full article is available online, but only to ChristianHistory.net subscribers. You can sign up for a mere $12 a year (surely you can afford a paltry dollar a month).

Or you can order a print copy of Christian History & Biography issue 95 for $5.00 plus shipping and handling.

Listen to the first movement of J. S. Bach's Ein' feste Burg.


clayton said...

Yea for Lutherans!

Clayton Faulkner

Gregg Frazer said...

Mr./Dr. Neff:
I've been trying to find a way to contact you to ask a question about your Christianity Today article on Calvin & Cheney. I can't find an email address anywhere -- so I'm trying this forum.

Here's my question: where did Calvin say that "dictatorships and unjust authorities are not governments ordained by God" -- as you quote him saying in the article? Could you direct me to the source?

Dr. Gregg Frazer

David Neff said...

That statement by Calvin is quoted by legal historian John Witte Jr. in his book The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Calvinism (Cambridge University Press, 2008), page 50. The quotation is cited from Calvin’s 1540 Commentary on Romans 13.

John said...

So many big philosopher and great gay you are may be!may be I can't understand what you think!But I understand one thing that any religion never gives any wrong way of life....in all religion there is same as law....as we know!be human....spread love..and never hurt...this is best way to live life.
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