Saturday, 5 January 2013

Christmas Oratorio Part 4- New Year's Day, the Naming of Jesus

Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben! Bach's first command to the congregation in the New Year seems quite unnerving on the printed page- fall down with thanks and praise! Now! It has slight reminiscences of a sergeant shouting at his squaddies to get down and give him twenty press-ups. But Bach's congregation- at least the ones who were awake and theologically switched on- would know precisely the reason for this peremptory command. When should every knee bow? At the Name of Jesus. At least St Paul says so in his letter to the Phillipians, and who am I to argue?.

So today is the feast of the Name. The call to kneel is nothing to be frightened of- just the appropriate action on this day of all days. And the music of the opening chorus is a swinging triple-time minuet, gently soothing. Rather than excited trumpets cutting through the sound as on Christmas morning, Bach gives us darker-hued horns trilling gently within the orchestral texture. And the text is more muted too; God's response to the Feinde Wut und Toben – the Devil's rage and fury- isn't fighting or struggling but “Dämpft”- he calms it down.

After a brief restrained interjection from the tenor setting the scene for today- Jesus is named and circumcised on the eighth day after his birth- we hear what is effectively a litany on the name of Jesus from the bass. Six times he repeats “mein Jesus” with different attributes- my Jesus is a refuge, is my life, has given himself to me... the sequence continues. It's reminiscent of the Eastern Orthodox practice of repeating the name of Jesus in hypnotic prayer- ultimately the aim is to transcend the words and achieve a more mystical union.

And the bass's repetition of mein Jesus is only brought to an end by the soprano line entwining itself around his melody. To me, it seems like a depiction of the interplay between masculine and feminine attributes of the soul's love for Jesus. The soprano addresses Jesus in a gentle chorale melody as meine Seelen Bräutigam- “my soul's bridegroom”, while at the same moment the bass declaims more firmly and passionately “Komm! Ich will dich mit Lust umfassen”- “Come! I will embrace you with desire!”. Bach runs the text for the upper voice and the lower voice simultaneously, making them into a unity rather than a dialogue. The love of the soul for the creator is something that transcends any one gender; once it is reached, the mystical union is beyond any analogy of male or female desire.

And so, quite correctly, we break free of that seductive analogy in the next section. Rather than having a picture of two lovers, a treble sings with another echoing him; it's a charming song of confidence, with an affectingly naïve “Nein!” or “Ja!” from the echo soprano at the end of each stanza. Some people feel it's a less successful section: Simon Heighes in the Oxford Composer Companion to Bach says that the echoes are “inappropriate” and that Bach is sticking too closely to the secular cantata Herkules which he re-worked. But I think it works- that little piping echo doesn't have to be the voice of Christ himself, but a voice from the believer's own unadorned faith, with “not the tiniest seed of fierce terror” (“den allerkleinsten Samen jenes strengen Schreckes”).

So we move from boyish, naïve treble-piping back to the confident masculine bass voice of the soul, again accompanied with the lighter chorale; the soul resolves that “your name alone shall be in my heart”, and we proceed to a lithe, skeletal, vigorous tenor aria (is it fair to say that tenors are sometimes a touch quicker and more active than basses? Maybe I'm just biased). The text is full of words like kraft, macht, eifrig- force, might, eager- and the scoring seems like a little double violin concerto, while the tenor is made to work far harder now than in his relatively relaxed solos as the Evangelist. Meanwhile, the first and second violins scrap against each other for supremacy like rival cares and duties. Appropriately enough- the theme of the aria is that a Christian's life is just sheer hard work.  

And the conclusion of the cantata is another sixfold litany on the name of Jesus:
Jesus richte mein Beginnen,
Jesus bleibe stets bei mir,
Jesus zäume mir die Sinnen,
Jesus sei nur mein Begier,
Jesus sei mir in Gedanken,
Jesu, lasse mich nicht wanken!
Interspersed with these six lines are varied instrumental interjections. Bach apparently used to slip these little interludes in on the organ between the lines of congregational hymns, and was told off for distracting people with his virtuosity. But here, they give a wonderful richness to the chorale setting; Bach gives us a tiny snapshot of different emotions before each line, but the singers always return to the same word- Jesus. Models of faithful Lutheran behaviour. But look at the subtle difference between lines 1-5 and the last one. The first five lines all talk about Jesus; only the last line directly addresses him, and that's why Jesu is in the vocative- “O Jesus, let me not stray!” I think it seems particularly appropriate to the day when resolutions are made- and broken.

PS. Sharp-eyed readers may note that I'm not keeping my resolutions very well either, and am a few days behind on this blog! Apologies- the Christmas Oratorio is quite big, as you see. There are two segments of the Oratorio left to do before we get back to the weekly cantata cycle- one for the First Sunday after New Year and for Epiphany, January 6th. This year, these both fall on the same day- so expect some double-helpings this week too.

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