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Volume 14, Issue 6: Musica

Lectionary, Calendar, and Chorale

Duck Schuler

Bach was a Lutheran, and a good one too. He was so much of a Lutheran that when he had a chance to send his children to a really good Calvinist school, he chose instead to send them to a pretty good Lutheran school. Obviously, theology meant more to him than scholarship, and presumably he didn't want his children's minds messed up with a lot of Reformed weirdness.

When Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723 and became the head church musician there, he composed incredibly good music for worship every Sunday. This was music so good that it is appreciated in the concert hall (if not the church) to this day—twenty-minute long pieces for soloists, choir, orchestra, and organ. How did he decide what to write about week after week? Did he close his eyes, open his Bible, and point? Are you kidding? He was Lutheran. They already had it all figured out. The church had its lectionary and its calendar that governed the rhythm and determined the seasons of all of life, including music.
From the very beginning of the Reformation, Lutheran hymnals were organized according to the church calendar, beginning with Advent hymns, followed by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity hymns. The effect of ordering the chorales in such a way gave the members of the congregations an aural guidepost. Even today, when Christians from self-proclaimed non-liturgical churches hear "The First Noel," "Silent Night," or some other Christmas carol, they often experience a flood of emotions or deep feelings related to their experiences of previous Christmas seasons. If they have been directed rightly, these feelings will be a kind of joy that comes from a knowledge of Christ's incarnation and an understanding of what it means to have God dwell with us. Chorales based on the church year work this way for Christians all through the year—not only at Christmas time. The intensity of emotion for Bach would most likely have been much greater than for other church members because of the nature of his work. He had to choose which chorale would fit the lectional reading for the week. Then he would write the cantata based on the theological ideas as correlated between lectionary and chorale. Then there were the rehearsals and finally the performance—a performance not on the concert stage, but in the Lord's Day service as an offering presented up to the living God in the presence of the local saints.
One might think that to produce what he did, Bach's life must have been very stable and peaceful, but it was actually filled with pain and turmoil. Both of his parents died when he was a child. His brother who raised him was jealous of his abilities and tried to stunt his musical growth. He lost over half of his twenty children—six died as babies, four as toddlers, another in his early twenties. His first wife died a week before his return from a trip with his employer. He did not even know about her death until arriving at his home.
How did Bach maintain his joy and creativity in the face of all this heavy sorrow? How did he work out his grief? The answer may be partly revealed by the work of the German violinist and musicologist Helga Thoene. She believes that Bach's "Partita in D minor BWV 1004"1 was written shortly after his first wife died and that the final Chaconne from the Partita is in essence a "musical epitaph" for his wife. As a way of working out his grief, Bach incorporated chorales into a piece that is often assumed to be totally secular. The chorales he chose to blend into the texture of this solo violin work speak poignantly of his struggles and his faith in the God who sustained him.
The main chorale used as the foundation of the Chaconne is "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands," (Christlagin Todesbanden), an Easter Chorale which describes how Jesus conquered death, and how, through His resurrection, we too will live in Him. Each verse closes with the exclamation of "Hallelujah!" Particularly interesting is the use of the opening notes from the second movement of his "Cantata #4," which is based on this chorale. He simply quotes the first line of this text over and over, "That death, that death no one could subdue" (Den Tod, den Tod niemand zwingen konnt). In all there are around fifteen musical quotations of chorales throughout the Chaconne. Some are very obvious while others are more difficult to perceive. Most of the chorales quoted are those used in the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion.
One of the most exhilarating parts of the "Chaconne" comes in the central section, which is in D Major rather than the d minor tonality of the first and third sections. The opening of the chorale "From Heaven Above I Come to You," (Vom Himmel Hoch Dakommich Her) permeates this section, but, just before the close of this section, the chorale changes to "Farewell I Bid Thee," (Valerwillich Dir Geben). The verse of this chorale that Helga Thoene thinks that Bach had in mind is, "Within my heart's foundation Thy Name and cross alone shine forth each day and hour for which I can rejoice." The music for the phrase "for which I can rejoice" is repeated twice in the upper register of the violin in a stunningly beautiful figuration, a glorious affirmation of Bach's trust in God. Even in the abrupt return to the key of d minor, he quotes the chorale from Psalm 103, "My Soul, Now Bless Thy Maker." This is genius saturated by the Word of God.

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