Since we’re in the Easter season until Pentecost, I want to write about two of Bach’s Easter works. They stand apart from classical Easter music in the way that all of Bach’s music stands at the summit of classical music, period.
If you weren’t exposed to such music at home, in school or at church you may already be saying, “This column’s not for me.” But wait! Classical music is classic because classics (in any field) have withstood years, often centuries, of scrutiny. Music classics are exquisitely constructed according to agreed-upon elements and characteristics. (Reformed philosophers-theologians have called these “laws” that God embedded in creation for us to discover.) Such music has intense emotional power. And when it has a biblical or other God-glorifying text, that power is also affectingly spiritual.
Bach was a devout Christian (a Lutheran) who consciously devoted all his work to God’s glory. He signed his manuscripts, for the church and the court, with S.D.G.: Soli deo gloria (“to the glory of God alone”). Periodically he added this cryptic prayer in a margin as he composed: Jesu, juve! (“Jesus, help [me]”).
I’m thankful I grew up with Bach’s music. I gradually gained a sense that its spirit is deeply Christian. After I began to study it, I found out how true that turned out to be.
In thinking of Bach and Easter, two works especially come to mind: Cantata No. 4, based on Luther’s famous Easter hymn “Christ Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (known by its German tune name, Christ lag in Todesbanden); and the Easter Oratorio.
Luther’s hymn (Psalter Hymnal # 398) has a tune simultaneously joyful and melancholy – not uncommon in early chorales as well as Genevan Psalm tunes. The melancholy comes, I think, from a yearning for our own final resurrection and Christ’s consummation of all things. Bach starts slowly, softly, sorrowing: Christ is still in the grave. But not for long. The hymn tune begins to emerge, with its text, and Bach will use it in numerous ways throughout the 20-minute cantata. It’s fun to see if you can follow the chorale as Bach weaves other musical lines around it in a variety of ways.
Royal trumpets and drums
In contrast, the Easter Oratorio, from its very first measure, captures the deep joy believers feel because Christ has been raised and we know our faith is not in vain. The opening section is an exuberant, swirling dance in 3/4 time, in which three high, bright trumpets and stirring kettledrums join the normal strings and woodwinds. They fairly leap out at you, setting your feet to tapping and compelling you to otherwise move your body with the dance. In Baroque music (Bach’s period), trumpets and drums signify royalty, festivity or both (here, Christ as risen King).
A much slower, meditative section lets you catch your breath. Then the first section returns, but surprisingly transformed. The dance begins again as expected, with those joyous trumpets and drums, but suddenly a choir takes over the tune from the orchestra, singing, “Kommt, eilet und laufet, ihr flüchtigen Füsse!”: “Come, hurry and run, you speedy feet!” And then (translated): “Reach the cavern which conceals Jesus! Laughter and merriment accompanies our hearts since our Savior is risen again!” From the time I first heard this, long before I knew what the German text was saying, I pictured Peter and John excitedly running to empty tomb. That wasn’t so much my prescience as one of many hints here of Bach’s genius. The music (even without the text) perfectly alludes to that first Easter morning scene.
The oratorio continues with musical dialogue between Peter, John, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.” In Baroque choral music, the choir/chorus often comments on action taking place. In Bach, the chorus often personifies Christian believers, singing in praise and thanks to God for his mighty works. Bach ends the oratorio in the best way possible (trumpets and drums again significant) when the chorus sings (translated), “Praise and thanks remain, Lord, your hymn of praise. Hell and devil are conquered, its gates are destroyed. Rejoice, you rescued tongues, so that you are heard in heaven. Open, O heavens, your magnificent drawbridges. The Lion of Judah approaches in triumph!”
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