The Bach Cantata series on the Soli Deo Gloria label is a high point of recording history. The performances by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner are thrilling, and the sound quality is superb, especially given that the cantatas were recorded in different venues over the course of a liturgical year.
Their cover photos are remarkable: portraits of people from traditional cultures, most or all apparently non-Christian. Gramophone cited them when honoring the series with a special achievement award:
"Each volume is illustrated by a striking Steve McCurry photograph, the message being that Bach’s music transcends race and creed. And listening to any one of these astounding works is to be brought face to face again with Bach’s towering yet deeply human (and humane) genius."
With all due respect, “transcends race and creed” misses the point. Bach’s cantatas transcend nothing, and that is their glory. Bach was a pious Lutheran, and to deny him his particularity is to wrong him and those who share his beliefs—and to wrong others, as well.
In words and music, many of Bach’s cantatas reflect the theological doctrine of “total depravity”: the idea that original sin, according to the Formula of Concord, is “so profound a corruption of human nature as to leave… nothing uncorrupt in the body or soul of man.” The cantata BWV 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,” opens with a blissful evocation of heavenly rest, but its music takes a sinister turn when the soloist sings of earthly life as a “house of sin” teeming with creatures who relish “vengeance and hate.” The triumphant chorus of “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben,” BWV 77, gives way in the cantata’s fifth section to an aria that bemoans humanity’s defective love and inability to fulfill the Bible’s commandments. The aria is a tortured sarabande, a dance whose dragging steps suggest lameness and sloth.
The notion of “total depravity” is specific to Lutheranism and certain other Protestant denominations. Among the Abrahamic faiths, Orthodox Christians and Catholics have substantially different teachings on original sin, and Muslims and mainstream Jews have no such concept at all. Bach’s cantatas, then, do not “transcend” creed; they purposefully affirm it, in music of unsurpassed eloquence and might.
In celebrating Bach, we can consider other ways he differed from us. He would have been bewildered by the idea of people listening to his sacred compositions for aesthetic pleasure alone. He crafted them as functional music, in the same way that paintings, to quote one art historian, were “functional objects… produced for defined sacred or secular purposes” until (roughly) Michelangelo’s time. As for Bach’s “genius,” the Soli Deo Gloria label takes its name from the initials SDG that he inscribed on his manuscripts: “glory to God alone,” at once a profession of humility, a paraphrase of 1 Timothy, and one of the Protestant Reformation’s Five solae.
Regarding Bach as “universal” brings other dangers. Richard Taruskin has noted that Germanic music, including Bach’s, came to be constructed as “unmarked” in the nineteenth century. “That is how one naturally tends to hear the music that surrounds one,” he writes, “until one is made aware of the existence of other musics. Thereafter one’s own music can be heard as unmarked not by default but only by ideology.” The result can be a “patronizing” view of musics construed as other than universal.
All of this said, what to make of the beautiful faces that grace the Soli Deo Gloria recordings? I think that they do not belong there. Bach’s church taught that human beings were “poor sinners” who were “saved alone by faith in Christ.” Why associate that dogma with Rajputs and Afghans? And what might Bach have thought of them, or indeed of us in the WQXR community? The answer might displease us, but we best honor Bach by seeking to understand him on his own terms and not by making him over in our own partial (and nebulous) image.
Weigh in: What do you think of the message in Bach's cantatas? Does it transcend time and religion? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died in 2006, was one of the celebrated mezzo-sopranos of the modern era. In 2003, she recorded Bach cantata “Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut” (My Heart Swims in Blood) with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and conductor Jeffrey Kahane. (Around the same time she starred in a critically praised staging of the cantata by the director Peter Sellars.) Download the final aria from the cantata, as featured on a new recording called “Lorraine” (Yarlung Records).
Listening Highlights for Sunday, March 24 (all times are approximate)
7 am Cantata BWV 202, "Weichet nur, betruebte Schatten" (The "Wedding" Cantata)
8 am Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042
10 am Cantata BWV 147( features "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" chorale)
11 am Cantata BWV 156, "Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe" ("I stand with one foot in the grave" - features the same music as the slow movement of the F Minor Keyboard Concerto BWV 1056)
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
12 pm Cantata BWV 140, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (features "Sleepers awake" chorale)
1 pm Cantata BWV 211, "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be quiet, stop chattering" - known as the "Coffee" Cantata)
2 pm Cantata BWV 80, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress is our God")
3 pm Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV 1050
5 pm Cantata BWV 174, "Ich liebe den Hochsten" ("I love the Almighty")
English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808
6 pm Cantata BWV 106, "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit" ("Of all times God's is the best")
7 pm Cantata BWV 51, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" ("Praise God in every land")
8 pm Cantata BWV 82, "Ich habe genug" ("I have enough")
9 pm Lute Partita in C Minor, BWV 997
*Not into Facebook? The download will be included in this week's WQXR E-Newsletter, which goes out on Friday.