Friday, 12 April 2013

Peace in our time? Am Abend der desselbigen Sabbats- Cantata for the First Sunday after Easter

Love drives out fear. We start this week with an image of frightened people who have voluntarily locked themselves away. The libretto for this week's cantata begins “On the evening of the same Sabbath as the disciples were gathered together and the doors were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst of them”. Yes, the disciples can always be trusted to do the right thing once they've exhausted all the other options, and so their response to the life-changing events of Easter week is to hide and slam the doors shut.

But Bach shows that outside this little fearful group something bigger has happened. He doesn't plunge into the text straight away; rather we have an opening instrumental movement that is full of suppressed excitement. Tension builds up with repeated chugging woodwinds, and the orchestration gets richer and richer as hints of burnished brass gradually penetrate the texture. Then, in the second section, the instrumentation thins out again, to oboe, bassoon and strings alone. There's a wonderfully hummable oboe melody, the sort that a dozen film and television costume drama composers dream of writing. Then, after a harmonic jolt and a few moments in the minor, we return da capo- to the beginning- and we're in the exciting, thrumming world of a mini-Brandenburg concerto again. Masaaki Suzuki in his recording with the Bach Collegium Japan makes the repeat particularly interesting, bringing out greater dynamic contrasts and turning up the intensity a little. So outside the world of the text and the disciples' closed doors, we have a sense of excitement and serene beauty; all they have to do is notice.

Only after Bach has established this mood does the tenor start narrating the story. We're back to minor chords, and a repeated semiquaver movement in the bass that sounds more neurotic than excited. But the mood doesn't last; suddenly, Christ appears and it's as if a penny drops; all fear is replaced by serenity when we move into one of the longest and most gorgeous moments in any cantata. Indeed the alto aria that follows is not only longer than the rest of the cantata put together; it's longer than some of the short winter cantatas entirely. It is a wonderful moment of time stopping; admittedly, it requires superhuman breath control. Just occasionally Robin Blaze in the luxuriant Suzuki recording has to break up a line. By contrast, Daniel Taylor, singing for John Eliot Gardiner, carries straight through without a breath. Gardiner's tempo at twelve and a half minutes is nearly a minute faster than Suzuki's, but still relaxed. At the other extreme is Nicolaus Harnoncourt, who only takes 10 minutes and 43 seconds. He keeps a genuine sense of flow in the orchestra where sometimes Suzuki comes to a near-halt; but I found Paul Esswood's singing style a little choppy at times, and there's little sense of meditation. You pays your money (or your Spotify subscription) and you takes your choice. To my mind, Suzuki's extreme dreaminess fits with the slight unreality of the text. How is it it that Christ is supposed to be present “wo zwei und drei versammlet sind”- where two or three are gathered together? We don't know- he just is. In Bach's reverie a seemly veil is drawn over centuries of slightly fruitless theologizing.

I'm intrigued that Bach gives the longest arias in the cantatas to an alto so often. The alto line probably would have been sung by older teenagers with un-broken voices; indeed, this is still the practice in the choir at Bach's church today. Perhaps these were the stars of the choir school. They would have been the most reliable senior choristers with years of continuous training under their belt, and weren't yet focussing on degrees at the university in Leipzig as the tenors and basses would have been. More realistically, the boy altos wouldn't have been distracted by beer and sex either, as tenors and basses usually are.

After this monumental evocation of a Presence, we're brought down to earth with what I felt was a touch of humour; an almost grotesque continuo line hops around underneath a soprano and tenor duet which reassures the congregation that although persecution may try to destroy them, “es wird nicht lange währen”, “it won't last long”- and on those very words the duet does exactly what it says on the tin, and stops abruptly!

We're left with a little recitative sermon from the bass, and the accompaniment breaks into pugnacious excitement on the words “Drum lasst die Feinde wüten!”- so let the Enemy rage! And the aria that follows is filled with lightning flashes from the virtuosic antiphonal violins, and an amazing run on the word Verfolgung- persecution. The cantata closes with one of Luther's own chorales, a plea for “frieden... zu unsern Zeiten” - “peace in our time”.

Looking back, there are some difficult moments in the text of this cantata. The gospel text unashamedly blames “the Jews” for the disciples' fear. And the second part of the closing chorale (albeit not by Luther himself) asks for blessings on unsern Fürsten und all'r Obrigkeit- our princes and all authority- so that we can live in “godliness and respectability”. Authoritarianism and anti-semitism don't sound good, even when dressed in Bach's sublime music; they are creeds of fear, not love.

But while context can never excuse fully, it can help us understand. So for the blunt references to “the Jews” in John's gospel, it might be noted that that text may well have been written after AD 80, a time when the Christian community were themselves the persecuted minority within Judaism, expelled from the synagogues (and possibly cursed in the Jewish liturgies). The more nuanced view of Judaism we see in the other gospels is gone; Pharisees and Sadducees are replaced in the mind of the traumatised, expelled Christians by one monolithic “the Jews”.

Similarly, the first part of the final chorale for peace stems from the aftermath of the Peasants' War of 1524. Luther was horrified by the forces he had unleashed when he sparked off the Reformation. He subsequently denounced the very peasantry he had inspired to rebellion in his wonderfully named 1525 pamphlet Wider die Mordischen und Reuberischen Rotten der Bawren - Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. In this context, the second part of the chorale, calling for good government and quiet respectability seems perfectly in line with Luther's own terrified thoughts.

Yet it all falls short of the inspired excitement of the introduction and seraphic serenity of the alto aria. Perfect love can indeed drive out fear; but fear can make a good attempt at coming back, and the struggle is at the heart of this cantata

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