Update 17 April 2010: Seeing as they asked me so nicely, I thought I’d give you a link to the Soli Deo Gloria Facebook page, where you can hear more about what’s going on with these CDs.
The composer Johann Sebastian Bach composed over 200 works known as cantatas. Quite simply, these are works for choir, orchestra and soloists that were designed to be performed in church. They run for about 25-30 minutes each, so presumably they would have been a part of the Lutheran church service at Bach’s church. Nowadays, the only type of music we tend to get in our churches is purely congregational music – it’s rare to hear (at least in Presbyterian churches) music designed to be presented to the congregation, rather than performed by the congregation. But Bach argues a very good case…
His cantatas are extraordinary. First of all, the speed at which he put them together. Every cantata is designed for a specific Sunday in the Lutheran calendar (e.g. 2nd Sunday after Trinity, Feast Day of John the Baptist, etc.) so Bach presumably would have been working on them up until that particular Sunday. Second, the fact that he did this for serveral years, so for any given Sunday, there are usually three or four cantatas to draw on for that day.
But what is most extraordinary of all is the quality of this music. Walk into many churches today, and the music is lacklustre, boring. Even when it’s upbeat and exciting, very few music fans would prefer listening to church music to secular music today. It’s not just because church music is about a more limited range of subjects – it’s simply that church music is often musically inferior to much of the music that exists out there.
Not so in Bach’s day. His cantatas, even though they were composed to be used in a church service, were (and still are) some of the most complex, beautiful and magnificent music ever composed. Even today, among classical music fans, there are many, many people – most of whom have very little interest in Bach’s theology or the subjects for his music – who nonetheless are moved and inspired by the music that he wrote.
For Christians out there – I think we need to rediscover this music. Not that we have to write Baroque music – and not many churches are going to have the resources to provide top-notch singers, a choir and an orchestra each week – but the challenge is there: Christian music should be some of the best-quality music in the world, not the lowest.
The story behind these particular CDs is just as extraordinary as the music. In 2000, English conductor John Eliot Gardiner set out to perform every 0ne of Bach’s cantatas on the church day they were written for at a variety of churches across Europe, England and America. Calling it the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, every concert was faithfully recorded and they started to be released on the Archiv label, but something went wrong and they stopped releasing the CDs after about half a dozen CDs were released.
But the recordings still existed and so Gardiner and his wife formed their own record label, Soli Deo Gloria, and have started releasing all the concerts in beautifully-presented two-disc sets. I don’t normally get too excited about packaging, but these CDs are a great example of when CDs beat MP3s hands-down. Each one is like a little mini-sized hardbound book, with the CDs in cardboard sleeves at each end, and a booklet in the middle with notes from Gardiner on the cantatas and the complete German and English texts of the cantatas. On the front cover, they’ve gathered stunningly atmospheric images of people from different cultures and backgrounds – making a marked contrast to the quite Germanic sounding music. The only thing I’d fault is that in Gardiner’s notes, he likes to obscure Italian terms referring to the styles of music Bach employs. They’re not even regularly used in classical music circles, so I was irritated with that, but it is sadly a part of the classical music world that we always talk above the average person’s head…
But what really matters is the quality of the music on offer. I’m not a huge Bach expert, and I haven’t listened to a lot of these things, but every one of the cantatas is beautiful and musically interesting to listen to, especially when combined with the notes, which explain Gardiner’s enthusiasm for each and every one of them. The way I judge church music is simply is the music enhancing the text? Bad church music is often just whatever music the composer felt like with words crammed in to fit it. But the truly great music for the church that lasts through the years is music that brings the listener into the mood and emotion of the subject being sung about.
Bach does it amazingly well. I won’t go into each cantata, but some of the highlights from these two volumes (two discs each) for me were:
- The final chorus from Cantata BWV 167. It only goes for a couple of minutes, and it consists of a rather slow hymn tune which, in other hands, could be rather a plodding number. To give you an idea of this, this YouTube video plays the final chorus (not the Gardiner version, however). If you listen, they’re singing beautiful, but slow, hymn tune. But the accompaniment is so joyful, that it lifts the hymn (that begins with the words “Laud and praise with honour God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost!”) and it takes off and soars.
- The amazing aria for alto from Cantata BWV 30. The words are encouraging the waking sheep to rise for their hour of redemption, for sinners to run after their Saviour, Jesus Christ. Maybe the image of sheep skipping, combined with running is what inspired it – but Bach gives this music a skipping, dancing accompaniment. This video is from the Gardiner CD.
- Those last two were from Disc 1 of vol 1. There’s great stuff on Disc 2 as well, and also Disc 1 of vol 8. But the highlight CD for me was the second disc of vol 8. The canatas on this CD were written for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, a day where Lutherans dwell on death. This is not as morbid as it sounds. In fact, it’s downright astonishing. Much music to come out of the 19th century dealt with death – it was a bit of a Romantic preoccupation. But death is very often portrayed as being incredibly tragic or terrifying. By contrast, the texts to these cantatas talk about not being afraid of death, because there is life after death for those who follow Jesus. I could be laid in my grave today, they say, and it will be fine. I’ll be in a better place. Considering how much death was prevalent in the 1700s, this is an incredibly brave view to take – it’s open-eyed, looking death in the face and not being afraid. There are many tracks I could play, but the one I like best is the opening chorus from Cantata BWV 8.The words (paraphrased by me are: “Dear God, when shall I die? I know that I’m descended from Adam and all his descendants have this in common – we’ll all return to the ground one day.” However, this morbid sentiment (even for many Evangelicals today) is expressed in music of the most sublime calmness. Also, I can’t help but thinking that Bach has actually crafted this to have the sound of a ticking clock. The music seems to move in big arcs, with a constantly moving accompainment for two oboe d’amores (early versions of the oboe) and the ticking being provided by the high flutes repeating the same notes over and over. Whatever it is, it’s beautiful, and everyone deserves to hear it at least once in their lifetime. Here’s the YouTube. It’s not the Gardiner version which is the best I’ve ever heard of this chorus, and has a less reedy sound from the oboes. But it will give you the idea.