June 6, 2020

Praising God in “Ordinary Time”

By Chaplain Mike

During the part of the Christian Year that some call “Ordinary Time,” we sometimes miss special celebratory aspects of worship that take place during the more festive seasons. For example, the music. One way I have found to fill this gap is to listen year round to J.S. Bach’s cantatas.

Bach wrote cantatas for every Sunday of the church year (notable exceptions being the Sundays in Lent). Many of these cantatas are compatible with texts for the day in the Lutheran lectionary, so one can use them to engage in personal worship that combines contemplating the Scriptures with Bach’s devotional choral masterpieces.

A Great “Ordinary Time” Cantata of Praise
One of my favorite hymns is, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” by Joachim Neander (1650-1680). Neander was the grandson of  a musician and son of a teacher, who taught in Düsseldorf, Germany. A valley along the Düssel River where he used to walk came to bear his name. In that valley, two centuries later, fossils were discovered and called “Neanderthal Man.” Thus, Neander has the distinction of being the only hymn writer to have prehistoric hominids named after him!

J.S. Bach took Joachim Neander’s greatest hymn, “Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren” (which English hymn singers know as, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”), and used it to compose one of his most unique cantatas. Cantata BWV 137 represents a departure from Bach’s usual method. This piece arose not from meditation on a Biblical text, but from Joachim Neander’s great hymn. Bach varied the music for each of the five stanzas, repeating the melody throughout with different voices and instruments. The cantata was written for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity, August 19, 1725, and tradition has it that it was sung at a service celebrating the election of a new town council in Leipzig that week, in addition to its use in the Sunday service.

Here is an English translation of this wonderful hymn, which celebrates our Lord’s goodness and providential care.

Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honor,
my beloved soul, this is my desire.
Come join the crowd,
psaltery and harps, awake!
Let the music be heard.

Praise the Lord, who directs everything so gloriously,
who leads you surely upon eagle’s wings,
who sustains you
as it pleases you yourself;
have you not sensed this?

Praise the Lord, who prepares you wisely and well,
who bestows health, and accompanies you as a friend;
in how much suffering
has not the gracious God spread
His wings over you!

Praise the Lord, who surely blesses your condition,
who from heaven rains down streams of love;
consider this,
what the Almighty can do,
who comes to meet you with love.

Praise the Lord, what is within me, praise His name!
Everything that has breath, praise with Abraham’s heirs!
He is Your light,
soul, do not forget it;
praising, conclude with Amen!

This happens to be one of my favorite hymns, so it is a special delight to meditate on Bach’s rendition. When I hear this piece, I envision a small stream that grows in depth and fullness as it moves toward the sea. The melody becomes more and more prominent as the cantata unfolds, until the chorale of the final verse, where the hymn is heard in all its glory.

The following video contains the first two movements.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren
Cantata BWV 137
1. Coro: Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren
2. Aria (Alto): Lobe den Herren, der alles so herrlich regieret

Donna Brown, soprano
Ingeborg Danz, alto
James Taylor, tenor
Michael Volle, bass
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
Helmuth Rilling, conductor

Recorded 1998

Comments

  1. Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    When I was a young’n in SoCal, I played a bit o’ violin and was the youngest member of a local “Praise” symphony. We did a lot of Bach. I especially remember the Brandenburg pieces.

    On a similar note, whenever I just need some meditative time with God while driving, I’ll pop in Mozart’s Requiem. My Latin’s decent enough to follow along with the parts of the Mass.

  2. WGBH FM in Boston always used to do a Bach sacred cantata every Sunday morning at 8. When the late, great Robert J. Lurtsema hosted the morning classical show, he did those cantatas in numerical order by BWV number. After Robert J’s passing Brian McCreath took over the weekend morning show, and he started doing the cantatas in order according to their place in the liturgical year. Now that WGBH has moved all their classical music to a satellite all classical station – WCRB 99.5 – they’ve moved the cantatas to the Bach Hour at 8 pm, and Brian is still doing them in the order of the liturgical year. Many of the recordings come from Emmanuel Music, a music ensemble created by Craig Smith at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Newbury St. in Boston some 40 years ago. although their repertoire has expanded greatly over the years, they still perform the liturgically appropriate Bach cantata at the 10 am service every Sunday.

    I miss my 8 am cantata on Sunday morning, but it’s still nice to be able to hear the glories of J.S. Bach praising God on public radio no matter what time of day. And some day I’m gonna have to make the pilgrimage up to Emmanuel Church to hear their version.

    • I remember enjoying Robert J. Lurtsema for years when we lived in New England. He had the best sense of programming and putting together a playlist of classical music! Unfortunately, I was never able to hear the Sunday morning broadcasts because of church responsibilities. I will definitely check out the Bach Hour.

      And thank you so much for the information about Emmanuel Music and the church.

  3. What a refreshing alternative to the 7/11 drivel we get subjected to at more and more services these days….

  4. Mostly, I’m a rock n’ roll kind of guy, but I do love Bach. There’s just something spiritual about the way he weaves melodies and counter-melodies, layer upon layer, into these perfect rythmic frameworks. And some of His compositions are just so heart-breakingly beautiful — and yet somehow humble in their beauty — that I almost have to believe that they were divinely inspired.

  5. The simplicity of this essay’s message is beautiful.