What do you say during Lent? “Happy Lent?” Probably not. But at any rate, there has been lots to be happy about in Church Music Colloquium this Lent season, because Dr. Anderson has been preparing us to sing J. S. Bach’s motet Jesu, Meine Freude. Dr. Anderson is an organist and a Lutheran, and knows a thing or two (understatement) about Bach. He also takes no small pleasure in discussing the theology and works of Bach (see above re: organist and Lutheran) so we have really benefitted from his knowledge.
We like singing Bach!
I had already known that the contrapuntal style in which Bach excelled (understatement #2) was obsolete in Bach’s own day; people were “over” it in favour of a more melodic voice-and-accompaniment style. Bel canto, the Florentine Camerata, messa di voce… all that. However, I hadn’t known that on top of that, motet style was considered not only antiquated but provincial, a kind of “yokel” style from Thuringia. “Oh those Thuringians with their motets” people were thinking. “What hicks.” However, as Dr. Anderson explained to us, sacred musicians in the eighteenth century did not “set” texts – they interpreted them through music. Bach’s settings are musical and theological arguments inspired by the texts. Jesu, Meine Freude juxtaposes the Romans 8 text (There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus) with a setting by a gentleman named Johann Franck. Once you get to dig in and start singing it, you can easily see why Bach so valued the motet style – it beautifully serves the text and its theological argument.
For example, there is a fugal trio to set the text “You however are not of the flesh, but of the spirit.” The first part of this phrase with an obstinate musical figure of several repeated notes in a row, symbolizing slavery to the flesh. The second half of the phrase dances away in a flurry of sixteenth notes, symbolizing the spirit (on the word “geistlich,” “of the spirit”) Dr. Anderson also taught us that it is a feature of rhetoric from this time to prove one’s point by saying not simply what something is, but what it is not (which is served by the Romans 8 text). At one point, the two phrases are stated on top of one another in various voices, underlining this rhetorical device.
It was also a favourite rhetorical device to compare or contrast concepts based on the sound of the words. If you were saying that two things were opposite, or similar, and the words sound complementary, this was excellent. For example, the speaker in the opening chorale calls Christ “Gottes Lamm, mein Bräutigam” (lamb of God, my Bridegroom). The rhyme between “Lamm” and “Bräutigam” would have underscored this point to contemporary hearers.
Suzi, our resident German, was a huge help in getting us proficient in the language. Dr. Anderson felt strongly about keeping the work in its original language, not least because of rhetorical considerations like the one I mentioned above. We all needed repeated coaching in the “ch” sounds as in “ich,” “nicht,” and “euch,” and “nacht,” “pracht” etc. We kept doing it too much. Suzi would stop and remind us that it’s just a little puff of air… “just like this: ich…….. nicht…. not ichchchchch! This isn’t a work by Bachchchchch!” We also had coaching in not mushily blending all our phrases together (the way we’ve all been trained to sing!) The piece is a sturdy, robust example of eighteenth-century Pietism and, since the conveyance of the text is paramount, it was important for us to sing in a very articulated style, not running the end of one word into the beginning of another but separating out each word. Even to the point, in fact, of splitting words for emphasis – Erd! und! ab! grund! muss. ver. stum. men. (Not easy!) In the end though, I think we nailed it.
Suzi loves Bach!
We all had a great time learning this challenging music, and getting a second chance to work with Susan Ferré, who came to work with us on Messiah last term and conducted our performance of the piece today. She is also hugely knowledgeable about this time period and passionate about the music. It’s been underscored to us many times that Bach wrote his music to serve a function in worship, period. He would probably be surprised to know anyone is still singing his music today, and even more surprised that we do works such as his Matthäus-Passion or Magnificat with hired soloists wearing glittery evening wear. So, the neatest thing about learning Jesu, Meine Freude was getting to sing it as part of a Lenten worship service in Perkins Chapel. The service was put together by Dr. Anderson and was obviously very carefully planned. He got to give the meditation, and put the work into some context for the congregants. (He started out by saying, “I make it a point to talk to Bach at least once a day, and he tells me…” Cute.) We also sang the English text “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” to the JMF tune before the motet, which was great, and the Romans 8 scripture was read excellently by a prof.
From Leipzig in 1723 to Dallas in 2009 – not bad for a little yokel motet from Thuringia.
Us ready to go - Dr. Anderson at the organ looking pensive.