I believe in . . . the life of the world to come.
Readers of “Lifted Voice” might be surprised to encounter a column on the sacred music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Although he was raised Roman Catholic, he was not much of a church goer in his adult life, and certainly not a composer primarily for the church. Nevertheless, his Solemn Mass in D Major or Missa Solemnis (Opus 123), is what conductor Robert Shaw, from whose writings and recordings I have borrowed here, described as “an Everest,” i.e., a musical mountain that begs to be climbed (Deep River: The Life and Music of Robert Shaw, p. 497). Those who have done so (the present writer included) have not emerged the same; indeed, they never fully descend from this majestic mountain, even years after the programs have been archived and the echo has faded. As the church contemplates the end times this November, concurrent with COVID-limited celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, please join me to survey Beethoven’s masterpiece, with special focus on his setting of the words “and the life of the world to come.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia
— Easter Acclamation
During my tenure at Naval Air Station Lemoore (central California), I had the privilege of participating in the annual Child Remembrance Ceremony, in recognition of October as Child Loss Month. As part the ceremony, those who had personally experienced the death of a child (in utero or otherwise) were kind enough to share their stories of grief and hope, followed by the lighting of votive candles in memory of those who have departed this world in the faith. In addition to these faith stories, I was privileged to share one piece of sacred music with the assembly, along with an appropriate hymn or prayer. Though I am no longer part of the Lemoore community, these wounded healers are forever in my heart for sharing their stories, which stand in vivid theological contrast to the current promulgation of abortion as a “reproductive health option.” In recognition of the reality of child loss, please join me to explore the work “When David Heard” by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), an appropriate hymn by St. Ephraim Syrus (ca. AD 306–373), and a simple funeral chant on the words Jesus spoke after the death of Lazarus.
Cantatas over Coffee: "Lord God, We All to Thee Give Praise": Cantata for St. Michael and All Angels (1724) by J. S. Bach
Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.
—Martin Luther’s Daily Prayer
Among the principal feasts of Christ in the church year, few are more beloved in the Lutheran tradition than St. Michael’s and All Angels (hereafter “Michaelmas”), with the possible exceptions of Reformation and All Saints. Two competing (or are they complementary?) theories might explain the choice of September 29th for this festival: the dedication of a church by the same name in ancient Europe, and/or the passing of the fall equinox, resulting in shorter days and longer nights, an allegory of the end-times battle between good and evil. The Scripture lessons were Revelation 12:7-12 (Michael’s end-times battle with the ancient dragon) and St. Matthew 18:1-11 (angels behold the face of God as part of their care for God’s children). In Bach’s Leipzig, St. Michael’s Day was also one of the quarterly occasions on which “rents were levied and agreed in northern Europe, the start of the new agricultural year for many people and, in Leipzig, the day of one of its three annual trade fairs” (John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, p. 457). Theologically, the day called for what Jonathan Green describes as “a flashy and brilliant cantata” (A Conductor’s Guide to the Choral-Orchestral Works of J. S. Bach, p. 289), but the other commitments of the day might explain why Cantata 130, while unmistakably festive, is also one of Bach’s shortest cantatas.
Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.
— Psalm 119:54
The August 2020 issue of “Lifted Voice” is the 50th installment of this online column on sacred music. Almost every one of these issues has been edited by Dr. Jane Schatkin Hettrick, Professor Emeritus in Music at Rider University, and best known to many of us as Director of Parish Music at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY.
From thine altar, O Lord, we receive Christ,
in whom our heart and flesh rejoice.
— Antiphon for Corpus Christi
Psalm 84 is a hymn of the sons of Korah, descendants of Moses’ nephew. Korah once led a revolt against Moses and died, along with all his co-conspirators, when God caused "the earth to open her mouth and swallow him and all that appertained to them" (Num 16:31–33). His children, however, did not die (Num 26:11) and went on to serve as porters of the Temple (1 Chr 9:17–19), with special responsibility to care for God’s house, including the baking in pans for the meat-offering (Lev 2:5). These vital roles in the stewardship of God’s house, in addition to rescuing the family name, are reflected in the Psalms by the sons of Korah: 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87 and 88.
O wondrous interchange! The Creator of mankind,
taking upon Him a living body, vouchsafed to be born of a pure virgin.
— Antiphon for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the history of sacred music, it is difficult to pinpoint which text outside of the Psalms has been more frequently set to music: the Mass or the Magnificat. The appeal of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) lies in the catholicity and continuity of the text, since it is being sung somewhere around the world at every second of every day. The Magnificat, however, is not far behind the Mass in Christian devotion. The miraculous story of the infancy narrative in Luke 1 and 2, the uniqueness of Mary’s place in the story of salvation, and the rich vocabulary in the Magnificat have given it a rightful and prominent place in the story of sacred music.
From the womb of one aged and barren was brought forth John, the Forerunner of the Lord.
— Antiphon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
In an article entitled, “Praying the Psalms with Jesus and His Body,” Thomas W. Winger makes the intriguing observation that the Codex Alexandrinus, the most important Greek manuscript of the fifth century, follows a common pattern of appending canticles to the 150th Psalm. These additions include the canticles of Luke 1 and 2: Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis (CTQ 84:1-2, p. 123). The inclusion of Lukan canticles at the end of the Psalter suggests (or does it prove?) that the canticles of Luke 1 and 2 are part and parcel of the referent of St. Paul’s admonition to sing “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19). In simple terms, the canticles of Luke 1 and 2 are part of our “A List” hymns, not to be neglected. In our ongoing exploration of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24th, six months before Christmas) gives us a chance to focus on the Benedictus (St. Luke 1:68-79).
To Thee all angels cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therein;
To Thee cherubim and seraphim continually do cry:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth!
— The Te Deum
The Nicene Creed ends with the words, “I expect the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. Amen.” In a musical setting of the Mass, the Nicene Creed is followed immediately by the Sanctus, “Holy, holy, holy.” One would normally expect the Creed to end with a whole note, a fermata, and a short break before the Sanctus. In his Mass in B Minor, however, J. S. Bach (1685-1750), ends the Creed with a quarter note with no fermata on the “-men” of “amen,” followed by three beats of rests and a relatively quick transition to the Sanctus. In the Creed, then, the church has confessed her longing expectation for the life of the world to come. And when the new creation arrives in all its fullness, she will be ready to sing the song which will serve as the focus of this issue of “Lifted Voice,” “Holy, holy, holy.” We will also examine its liturgical companions from Psalm 118, the Hosanna and the Benedictus.
And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity. . . .
— The Athanasian Creed
Helmuth Rilling, one of the most respected conductors, scholars, and teachers of the music of J. S. Bach (1685-1750), describes the importance of Bach’s cantatas: “J. S. Bach’s church cantatas are the center of his lifework . . . to know Bach, one must study his cantatas” (quoted in the Foreword to Melvin P. Unger, Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts). This is most certainly true. The passions and oratorios were performed for festive occasions, but Bach was obligated to provide (not necessarily compose) a cantata for every Sunday and feast day of the church year during his Leipzig tenure, except for a few Sundays in Lent and Advent. In the interest of exploring the vast treasure of Bach’s 200 extant cantatas (another 100 were lost), I am pleased to introduce my occasional column, “Cantatas Over Coffee,” beginning with Cantata 129, “The Lord, My God, be Praised,” originally written for Trinity Sunday.
By Thy glorious resurrection and ascension;
And by the coming of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter:
Help us, good Lord.
— from The Litany
As the church concludes the Fifty Great Days from Easter Sunday to the Feast of Pentecost, the focus of the Gospel lessons gradually shift from the resurrection appearances of our Lord to His discourses on the Holy Spirit. This seems to be a fitting time to focus on the portions of J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass that address the Holy Spirit, the church, and the sacramental and eschatological gifts given therein.
Pr Brian Hamer
Brian J. Hamer is Chaplain to the 11th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, CA, via the LCMS Board for
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