The composition of these cantatas for the church year represented what Christoph Wolff has called “a musical enterprise without parallel in Leipzig’s musical history: in a relatively short time Bach composed five complete cycles of cantatas for the church year, with about 60 cantatas in each, making a repertory of roughly 300 sacred cantatas.” Of these, about one-third have been lost. Those that remain stand as evidence, above all of course for Bach’s individual genius but also for his vocation as a church musician and for the decisive function of the church year in providing the basic framework within which the vocation of this genius was to express itself.
2. Because of the central importance of the Passions in the corpus of Bach’s sacred music, the significance of the second of the “four seasons,” the season of Lent and Easter, will concern us at great length in chapters 6 to 8. [The book is Bach Among the Theologians by Jaroslav Pelikan].
3. For our purposes, we may take the Feast of the Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost together as one “season.” In fact, as recent studies have shown, the two were celebrated together on the fiftieth day after Easter, as late as the end of the fourth century. Therefore the very name “Pentecost” in Greek (and in Tertullian’s Latin) before that time refers not to the fiftieth day but to all fifty days. Thus the church historian Eusebius, describing the death of the emperor Constantine (which had been immediately preceded by his baptism), recounts:
All these events occurred during a most important festival, I mean the august and holy solemnity of Pentecost, which is distinguished by a period of seven weeks, and sealed with that one day on which the holy Scriptures attest the ascension of Our common Savior into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit among men. In the course of this feast the emperor received the privileges I have described [above all, baptism]; and on this last day of all, which one might justly call the feast of feasts, he was removed about mid-day to the presence of his God?”
Pentecost, then, was not only “the feast of feasts,” as Eusebius here calls it but an entire “season” of the church year as this was developing in the early church. The somewhat ambiguous place of the Pentecost season in the Church year and of the festival of Pentecost in the liturgy became an important factor when the doctrine of the Holy Spirit finally received the attention it deserved, in the final quarter of the fourth century. The primitive Christian practice of addressing hymns and prayers to the person of Jesus as divine, Christo quasi Deo (as the earliest pagan description of the Christian community says), had provided the defenders of the orthodox dogma of the Council of Nicea, that Christ the Son of God was “one in being with the Father,” with an all but irrefutable argument; for their opponents, too, continued to use such hymns and prayers for Christ (as would the anti-Trinitarians of the Reformation era), despite their rejection of the dogma)
But when it came to clarifying the relation between the Holy Spirit and the Father rather than the Son and the Father, the opponents were able to ask, “Who in ancient or modern times ever worshipped the Spirit? Whoever prayed to Him? Where is it written that we ought to worship Him, or to pray to Him, and whence have you derived this tenet of yours?’ The best the orthodox could do in response was, first, to cite the baptismal formula, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and, second, to lay claim to an “unwritten tradition” in support of such worship?
Whatever the validity of such claims and arguments may have been, the Western church, once the doctrine of the full deity of the Holy Spirit was promulgated, went on to repair the inadequacy by providing hymns and prayers addressed to the Third Person of the Trinity, Spiritui quasi Deo. The most important of these were the several Latin hymns that opened with the word “Veni;’ in particular the Veni, Creator Spiritus (often attributed to Rabanus Maurus) and the Veni, Sancte Spiritus (usually attributed now to Stephen Langton).
The first of these, as John Julian says, “has taken deeper hold of the Western Church than any other mediaeval hymn, the Te Deum alone excepted “25 Of the more than fifty vernacular translations that Julian lists (and there are many others, in several languages), the first is Komm, Gott Schopfer heiliger Geist … a full and faithful version by M. Luther, 1st pub. in Eyn Enchiridion, Erfurt, 1524
In addition, Luther adapted two other medieval hymns for Pentecost, producing “Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist [To God the Holy Spirit let us pray]” (LBW 317) and Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott [Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord]” (LBW 163)?6 Luther accused some of his left-wing opponents of claiming that they had “devoured the Holy Spirit feathers and all”; at the same time, he charged others with being “fine Easter preachers, but very poor Pentecost preachers;’ because they preached “solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ;’ but not about the “sanctification by the Holy Spirit”27 His three Pentecost hymns, which are among his finest, were part of his effort, long overlooked by Reformation scholars, to accord to the Holy Spirit the proper place of honor in Christian theology, preaching, and worship
These hymns were to play a prominent part in Bach’s music for the Pentecost season. Komm, Gott Schopfer, Heiliger Geist Luther’s version of Veni, Creator Spiritus, is the basis of BWV 370 and again of BWV 631 and BWV 667; Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist of BWV 385; and Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott” of what Albert Schweitzer calls “brilliant and animated;’ a “mystical chorale,” the organ fantasia BWV 651 and BWV 652. In addition, BWV 671 and BWV 674 in part 3 of the Clavier-Llbung are chorale preludes on Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist, and BWV 295 on Des heil’gen Geistes reiche Gnad’.
On Thursday, 19 May 1735, the Feast of the Ascension, Bach conducted the first performance of what has come to be called his Ascension Oratorio, Lobet Gott in semen Reichen” (BWV 11), by an unknown librettist, parts of which were recycled from a secular cantata, Froher Tag, verlangte Stunden (BWV Anhang 18), composed for the reopening of the renovated Thomasschule in Leipzig on 5 June 1732. The Ascension Oratorio was, in turn, to provide grist for the mill of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232). The Agnus Dei of the Mass, adapted in 1747-49, near the end of Bach’s life, comes from the alto aria of the Ascension Oratorio, Ach bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben; but, as has been noted, “only one long phrase of it is used, and the remainder is quite a new composition.”
4. The fourth, and by far the longest, of “the four seasons of J. S. Bach” was the period beginning with Trinity Sunday and running until the last Sunday before Advent, thus for approximately half of the church year. As the old doggerel couplet has it,
The sermons go on into infinity,
To the twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity.
In the medieval church calendar, the monotony of these six months had been broken up by a series of special feasts and festivals, beginning with the Feast of Corpus Christi, commemorated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, through the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 15 August, to the feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on 1-2 November.
There were also, of course, many individual saints’ days in this season, including — by statistical average, as likely as not to fall into this period — the feast day of the patron saint of the village or parish. The Lutheran Reformation did not abolish all of these everywhere and at once. As we shall be noting at greater length in the next chapter, moreover, the Lutheran Church also provided some of its own replacements for these lost festivals: 25 June, the anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession in 1530; 31 October, for the day on which, in 1517, Luther had posted the Ninety-five Theses, which set off the Reformation; 10 November, Luther’s birthday in 1483 (replacing St. Martin’s Day, 11 November, on which Luther was baptized and from which he derived his Christian name); and often the anniversary of the introduction of the Reformation into a particular territory. Nevertheless, the non-festive cycle of the church year could become quite dreary and didactic.
Whatever problems that may have posed for preacher and people, it presented a genuine challenge to the church musician, as Bach discovered when he moved to Leipzig on 22 May 1723 (although he had performed there earlier). Philipp Spitta has well summarized the situation:
Bach had entered on his post in the ferial portion of the ecclesiastical year. Remarkable as was the activity displayed by him as a church composer during this period, yet he had no opportunity of showing himself in his full greatness until the beginning of the ecclesiastical year 1723-1724.
We should perhaps add that there were also individual occasions, beginning almost immediately after his inauguration at Leipzig, for which Bach prepared special compositions. It is probably to one of these, a funeral service for Johanna Maria Kesse, widow of the postmaster of Leipzig, that we owe the motet Jesu meine Freude (BWV 227). But on the First Sunday after Trinity, 30 May 1723, Bach conducted the first of his Leipzig cantatas (BWV 75), Die Elenden sollen essen [The hungering shall be nourished) (Ambrose, Cantatas 191-94).
The composition of these cantatas for the church year represented what Christoph Wolff has called "a musical enterprise without parallel in Leipzig's musical history: in a relatively short time he composed five complete cycles of cantatas for the church year, with about 60 cantatas in each, making a repertory of roughly 300 sacred cantatas." Of these, about one-third have been lost. Those that remain stand as evidence, above all of course for Bach's individual genius but also for his vocation as a church musician and for the decisive function of the church year in providing the basic framework within which the vocation of this genius was to express itself.
The significance of that vocation deserves consideration in its own right, as we shall have frequent occasion to note throughout this book and especially once again in its conclusion. For the interpretation of the cantatas and church music of Bach, such a definition of his vocation means that the context of his compositional activity was the liturgical year, as this usually indicated and frequently prescribed both the texts he was to use and the chorales upon which he was to draw.
It suggests as well that the notion of patronage, which has proved to be so fruitful for research in art history, applies no less forcefully in the history of music. Michelangelo and Bach created what they did because they were commissioned to do so by popes and church councils, or by noblemen and town councils. As we shall see repeatedly, he likewise shared with other great figures of past and present an exasperating tendency to contradict himself and to change his mind, as experience -- or, for that matter, expediency -- suggested.
The recognition of the four seasons of the liturgical year as the context for Bach's work has at least one other methodological implication for the interpretation of his compositions: the role of historical research in the interpretation of his sacred music. One of the most distinguished leaders in such historical research and in the twentieth-century recovery of the music of the Baroque period on the basis of that research, the late Ralph Kirkpatrick, observed that "it has now become all too easy to regard certain perennial unanswered and unanswerable questions as already answered by the documents of history." "One cannot," he concluded with his characteristic dry wit, "sidestep artistic and interpretive problems by relegating them to the dictates of historical authority."
Precisely for that reason, however, so clear (and, in a majority of instances, "answerable") a question as the Sunday of the church year for which a particular piece of music was composed does constitute an important historical datum for addressing the "artistic and interpretive problems" associated with its full realization today. Thus Spitta speaks of "Bach's way of giving force and point to a tedious or digressive cantata text by seizing upon the emotional character of the Sunday or festival:'
Even when audiences cannot be expected to understand the German, therefore, there is good reason to pay attention to the season in scheduling the music -- particularly in a church but also in a concert hall or on the air. As we shall have frequent occasion to note, Bach did move melodies and texts from one season of the church year to another, but he did not do so inattentively, indiscriminately, or arbitrarily.
Rather, the four seasons were parts of a single entity, the church year, each part of which was pertinent to the other parts. Echoes and reminders of one season, therefore, were appropriate to the music of another. Above all, the centrality of the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ implied that "Lenten music" was always pertinent.
Modern audiences may find the Lenten portions of Messiah disturbing to their thoughts about the birth of the baby Jesus, and modern conductors may feel justified in pandering to that sentimentality by excising those portions and thus transforming the oratorio into a Christmas cantata -- and "Hallelujah" into a Christmas carol, when it is in fact a celebration of the victory of the resurrection of Christ But, as his texts seemed to require, Bach was not embarrassed to introduce the chorales of Lent into the music for all four seasons.
Not only were the four seasons of the church year the fundamental structure for most of Bach's work as a composer but time itself repeatedly provided the topic for it. The organ chorale Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (BWV 614) appears to come from Bach's Weimar period and has been dated by scholars at 1713/14. At Cothen, where the established church was Reformed rather than Lutheran Bach was apparently expected to compose secular cantatas for New Year's Day. From one of these, for 1720, Dich loben die lieblichen Strahlen (BWV A6), we have only the text; but for the cantata from the preceding year (BWV 134a), Die Zeit, die Tag and Jahre macht [The time that makes both days and years],” there are both words and music.
But, symbolically if not also substantively, the most appropriate cantata to summarize the meaning of the “four seasons for Bach was written early in 1708: the funeral cantata (BWV 106), Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit [God's own time is the very best of times] (Ambrose, Cantatas 266-67), whose prelude is often performed as a separate piece;A. Spitta has devoted a careful and detailed, if sometimes a bit overwrought, analysis to this cantata, which in his judgment “has a depth and intensity of expression which reach the extreme limits of possibility of representation by music” Schweitzer speaks of “the dramatic life and the intimate union of words and music” in this funeral cantata and says of it that “the text is as perfect as the music,” suggesting that “Bach probably compiled the text of this cantata himself” from various sources.
We shall be returning to Gottes Zeit later, but for our present purposes it stands, in both text and music, as a reminder not only of the preoccupation with death (to be discussed in chapter 5) that was to produce “Komm, susser Tod, komm, sel’ge Ruh” (BWV 478), for which Bach himself wrote the melody, but of the preoccupation with time and transiency, as this had been sacralized by the four seasons of the Christian year.