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Friday, May 11, 2012

Pietist Passion of J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach by Haussman
   So J. S. Bach was not Mennonite, but his music has been sung in Mennonite churches for at least three centuries and will continue to shape and influence Mennonite music and church services for several more.  While I am unable to share much of the actual performance with readers of a blog such as this, a couple of ideas from Bach’s libretto did happen to stand out during this year’s performance – a couple of very touching original passages reflecting a high degree of spiritual pietism and a rather in-depth prescient study by Bach of the Postmodern concept of intertextuality.
    Wednesday, 04 April 2012, Chicago Bach Project and Soli Deo Gloria presented Bach’s St John Passion at St Vincent de Paul Parish Church, Chicago (on the DePaul Campus).  Similar to last year’s presentation of the St Matthew Passion, Costa Rica native John Nelon, conductor, assembled an extraordinary choir, orchestra and panel of soloists to bring to life one of music’s most spiritually moving compositions.  I was especially joyed to see the return also of American tenor Nicholas Phan as the Evangelist and the return to Chicago from Frankfurt-am-Main of contralto Meredith Arwady – both equally brilliant!
    The four, or so, paragraphs of intense pietist spirituality that I would call to your attention all occur in the second part of the work.  The first selection is from Jesus’ response to Pilate indicating the general Mennonite perspective of the Two-Kingdom theology and the Pietist’s response to Christ’s example:

Jesu:  Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser
Welt; ware mein Reich von dieser Welt,
Meine Diener würden darob kämpfen, dass
Ich den Jüden nicht überantwortet würde;
Aber nun ist mein Reich nicht von dannen.

Ach groβer König, groβ zu allen Zeiten,
Wie kann ich gnugsam diese
Treu ausbreiten?
Keins Menschen Herze mag
Indes ausdenken,
Was dir zu schenken.
Ich kann’s it meinen Sinnen
Nicht erreichen,
Womit doch dein Erbarmen
Zu ergleichen.
Wie kann ich dir den
Deine LIebestaten
Im Werk erstatten?

Jesus:  My kingdom is not of this world;
If my kingdom were of this world, then
My servants would fight so that I should
Not be handed over to the Jews; but now
my kingdom is not from here.

Ah, great King, great in all ages,
How can I make my faithfulness
In any way adequate?
No human heart can conceive
What gift is fit to offer you.
My mind cannot imagine
What can be compared
To your mercy.
How then can I match
Your loving deeds
By anything I do?

     The second selection was ably and movingly sung by tenor Marc Molomot as the tenor aria takes up the narrative from the bass:

Sunset over Lustre-Volt homestead

Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken
In allen Stücken
Dem Himmel gleiche geht,
Daran, nachdem die Wasserwogen
Von unsrer Sündflut sich verzogen,
Der allerschönste Regenbogen
Als Gottes Gnadenzeichen steht!

Sunset over Marina, South Africa

Ponder well how his back
Bloodstained all over
Is like the sky,
Where, after the deluge
From our flood of sins has abated,
There appears the most beautiful rainbow
As a sign of God’s mercy!

    I find the tenor aria deeply moving both musically and as an image.  Truly, it is not the rainbow, however, that presents itself to my mind in hearing these words but rather the brilliant sunsets and sunrises of the Montana, Manitoba and South African skies, especially.  Not only does the red hued light overarch the entire world but in their promise of cyclical time, they demonstrate the principle of regeneration and new beginnings, despite the past, despite the content of the past. 
    Next comes the passage marking the height of The Passion – the fulfillment of Christ’s ministry, ”Es ist vollbracht!”  “It is accomplished.”  I find Bach’s use of the term “accomplished” so much more accurate, spiritual and hopeful than the common King James Bible use of the term “finished”.  I would call the third selection  “Es ist vollbracht!”:

Man of Sorrows by Lorenzetti (1330 CE)
JesuEs ist vollbracht!

Es ist bollbracht!
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
Die Trauernacht
βt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
Und schlieβt den Kampf.
Es ist vollbracht!

EvangelistaUnd neiget das Haupt
Und verschied.

Aria Basso und Chor:
Mein teurer Heiland, laβ dich fragen,
Da du nunmehr ans Kreuz geschlagen
Und selbst gesagt:
Es ist vollbracht,
Bin ich vom Sterben frei gemacht?
Kann ich durch deine Pein und Sterben
Das Himmelreich ererben?
Is taller Welt Erlösung da?
Du kannst vor Schmerzen zwar nichts sagen;
Doch neigest du das Haupt
Und sprichst stillschweigend:  ja.

Jesu, der du warest tot,
Lebest nun ohn Ende,
In der letzten Todesnot
Nirgend mich hinwende
Als zu dir, der mich versühnt,
O du lieber Herre!
Gib mir nur, was du verdient,
Mehr ich nicht begehre!

JesusIt is accomplished!

It is accomplished!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
The night of sorrow
Now reaches its final hours.
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
And brings the strife to an end.
It is accomplished!

EvangelistAnd he bowed his head
And passed away.

Aria Bass and Chorus:
My beloved Savior, let me ask you,
Since you have now been nailed to the cross
And you yourself have said:
It is accomplished,
Have I been set free from death?  Through your pain and death can I
Inherit the kingdom of heaven?
Is this the redemption of the whole world?
You can indeed not speak for anguish;
But you bow your head
And silently say:  yes.

Jesus, you were dead,
And now live for ever,
In my final agony of death
May I turn nowhere else
But to you, who have redeemed me,
O my dear Lord!
Give me only what you have won,
For more I could not wish!

    The last selection could only be referred to as The Prayer of the Pietist:

Crucifixion by Giotto ca. 1330, Italy
O holf, Chirste, Gottes Sohn,
Durch dein bitter Leiden,
Dass wir dir stets untertan
All Untugend meiden,
Deinen Tod und sein Ursach
Fruchtbarlich bedenken,
Dafür, wiewohl arm und schwanch,
Dir Dankopfer schenken!

Oh help us, Christ, God’s Son,
Through your bitter suffering,
So that always obedient to you
We may shun all wrongdoing,
And thinking of your death and its cause,
We may profit from our reflections,
And in this way, however poor and
Inadequate it may be,
Give you an offering of thanks!

      Bach’s St John Passion is beautiful for both its music and its sentiment.  Too often, especially when dealing with works that are not in English, we have lost the intimate connection between the music and the sentiments of the words.  As Mennonites, this well illustrates the difficulty we have had in preserving our own cultural connections to our German-language heritage in an all-English environment. 

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