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In Johann Sebastian Bach‘s immense production, cantatas and organ chorals are of the utmost importance. “While exploring this vast repertoire, the idea of presenting a program that tightly follows the Lutheran liturgical calendar became evident,” explains Luc Beauséjour. “To be found on this recording are arias and organ chorals associated with Advent, Christmas, New Year, Septuagesima, Annunciation, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity and Reformation Sunday. Some organ chorals are also added to this core, tied to various aspects of christian life: thanksgiving, confession, dogma and religious instruction.” This unique program is performed by soprano Shannon Mercer, organist Luc Beauséjour, violonist Nicole Trottier and oboist Washington McLain.

J.S. Bach: Anchoring religion in everyday life

In Germany, the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) killed almost half the population and wiped entire villages off the map. In its aftermath, religion, formerly synonymous with the more-or-less regular practice of a rite, became instead an essential part of everyday life that came to govern the social models of the time. And while the 1648 Peace of Westphalia gave equal recognition to three Christian religions (Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism), each was limited to a specific territory. Under these terms, Saxony—where Johann Sebastian Bach lived out his entire life and where Martin Luther (1483–1546) had completed his studies (in Bach’s own natal town of Eisenach)—became a Lutheran electorate.

Luther’s theology was based around four main points: that selfishness is the major sin distancing Man from God and from his peers; that it is each person’s duty to do good works on earth and Christians do not need an intermediary to worship God; that sinners must give themselves unto to God through faith; and that the Word of God is the only infallible path toward salvation.

At the time, society revolved around two complementary poles: community life (whether this be centered around a church or a government) and family life, which was a microcosm of the former. In both cases, the connection with the divine was made above all through the chorale, a musical genre introduced by Luther (credited with writing over 1500 of them) that, by employing simple forms and texts in the vernacular, made the minds of believers more receptive to their message. Luther liked to say that “he who sings, prays doubly.” Bach read and annotated all of Luther’s writings, so it is no accident that among his huge output, his 300 cantatas (of which over 200 survive) and over 200 organ chorales hold a place of central importance. While in Leipzig, Bach wrote five cantata cycles for the entire liturgical year, which comprises 60 events.

The Lutheran calendar is divided into two parts. The first deals with the important moments of Jesus’ life on earth, and the second is dedicated to the propagation of Jesus’ message throughout the world. The calendar begins with Advent, the four-week period preceding Christmas. The Nativity celebrations end with Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas. In Bach’s day, this was followed by the “Time after Epiphany,” Septuagesima (a 17-day period that began nine Sundays before Easter and ended on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), Lent (Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday), Easter, Ascension (Jesus’ return to heaven, 40 days after Easter), and Pentecost (the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, 50 days after Easter). The Sundays between Pentecost and Advent are part of Ordinary Time, with the first of these Sundays dedicated to the Trinity. The last Sunday of October recognizes the Reformation, October 31, 1517 being the day Luther nailed his 95 theses denouncing the scandalous practices of the Roman Catholic church to the door of the church in Wittenberg (in Saxony), an act that would lead to his excommunication and to the birth of Lutheranism.

While the Lutheran service has two main parts—one that is text-based (reaching its high point with the sermon), and the other Eucharistic—both are supported by music. The cantata was generally performed between the gospel reading and the sermon, unless it was a substantial piece, in which case, its two sections would frame the sermon. The musical part of the service was always related to and commented on the day’s readings; hence a cantata always corresponded to a specific Sunday in the liturgical year and the reading of a particular biblical passage. Perhaps more than any other composer, Bach was especially dedicated to exploring the liturgical year, and so there is nothing fortuitous about such correspondences. The texts came from diverse sources, include biblical passages (occasionally paraphrased) free poetry taking up certain themes from the sermon, and hymn stanzas.

“The cantatas heard during Lutheran services were usually made up of various elements such as choruses, recitatives and arias. These were sung by young boys in Bach’s time and occasionally accompanied by a single melodic instrument, most often oboe, one of Bach’s favourite instruments,” notes Beauséjour. “The cantatas ended with chorale settings, those plain, stolid Lutheran hymns that the congregation knew so well and could easily recognize, even when heavily improvised upon by organists.” The use of a chorale theme on the organ at a specific point in the liturgy could very often be explained by the meaning of the chorale’s text. As Johann Gotthielf Ziegler reported, “When playing chorales, my teacher, Kapellmeister Bach, who was still alive, taught me to never play chorales as is, but with the sentiment conveyed by the words.” Since the congregation would have known the words of the chorale by heart (and not just the first verse), Bach was able to use this music in a highly suggestive manner. He would thus masterfully employ those hymns most likely to capture the congregation’s imagination and move them. Every word, every interval, every interpretive choice was linked to key words, to a specific relationship between biblical and musical writing. In this way, the chorales became both the instrument used to convey the message and the means by which listeners, by actively participating in it, made that message their own.

Bach’s sacred music is thus imbued with fundamentally expressive qualities. A devout Lutheran, Bach could never dissociate his creative impulse from his faith, as attested to by the three letters that can be found at the head of all Bach’s major scores: S.D.G., Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God Alone). And while much of his music was clearly written for the Lutheran church, today its universality takes it far beyond all such boundaries.

© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen

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AN 2 9927-8
Luc Beauséjour
AN 2 9927-8

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