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.
As the church enters the Pentecost season, most of us will probably sing the hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, usually known in English as “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest” (LSB 499), along with its German version, Komm Gott Schӧpfer (LSB 498):
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come,
No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.
— Isaac Watts
Psalm 23 is perhaps the most beloved and well known of all psalms. Martin Luther summarizes the content of this Psalm:
The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men
And be crucified and on the third day rise.
-- St. Luke 24:7
As the Church transitions from the forty penitential days of Lent to the Fifty Great Days of Easter, the word of the resurrection once again rings true: "Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!" Perhaps in no other sacred choral work do they ring more clearly or gloriously than in the Et resurrexit movement of Bach's Mass in B Minor.
Pr Brian Hamer
Brian J. Hamer is Chaplain to Destroyer Squadron 23, Naval Base San Diego, via the LCMS Board for International Mission Services.