Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.

As Sandro Magister reported on Monday, the Pope's remarks at his Wednesday audience last week in Castel Gandolfo included a clear though indirect reference to J. S. Bach's sacred cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140), heard above in a recording by the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzer Knabenchor, with solos by Allan Bergius (treble), Kurt Equiluz (tenor) and Thomas Hampson (bass), all under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Here are the words of the cantata's opening chorale, first in German and then in an English translation provided by the Bach Cantatas Website:

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!

Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde;
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?

Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!

Macht euch bereit
Zu der Hochzeit,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!


"Wake, arise," loud call the voices
of Watchmen so high in the tower,
"Wake up, you town Jerusalem!"

Midnight’s hour is now approaching
They call to us with lucid voices:
Where are the clever virgins now?

Behold, the bridegroom comes
Rise up, your lanterns take!

Prepare yourself
For the wedding,
You must arise and go to him!

For the text of the remaining movements, in the original German and translated into assorted other languages, together with an exhaustive discography and a lot of other information, consult the BWV 140 page on the aforementioned (and authoritative) Bach Cantatas Website. To better appreciate the context in which Pope Benedict XVI made mention of this cantata, here are the relevant paragraphs of last week's address:
On several occasions in recent months, I have recalled the need for every Christian to find time for God, for prayer, amidst our many daily activities. The Lord himself offers us many opportunities to remember Him. Today, I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with Him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that "via pulchritudinis" - "way of beauty" - which I have spoken about on many occasions, and which modern man should recover in its most profound meaning.

Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another - before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music - to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter - a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds - but something far greater, something that "speaks," something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human person who stands in wonder before the visible reality, who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colors and sounds. Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man's need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, [opened] to a beauty and a truth beyond the every day. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, urging us upward.

But there are artistic expressions that are true roads to God, the supreme Beauty - indeed, they are a help [to us] in growing in our relationship with Him in prayer. We are referring to works of art that are born of faith, and that express the faith. We see an example of this whenever we visit a Gothic cathedral: we are ravished by the vertical lines that reach heavenward and draw our gaze and our spirit upward, while at the same time, we feel small and yet yearn to be filled. . . . Or when we enter a Romanesque church: we are invited quite naturally to recollection and prayer. We perceive that hidden within these splendid edifices is the faith of generations.

Or again, when we listen to a piece of sacred music that makes the chords of our heart resound, our soul expands and is helped in turning to God. I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach - in Munich in Bavaria - conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the Cantate, I felt - not through reasoning, but in the depths of my heart - that what I had just heard had spoken truth to me, truth about the supreme composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: "Whoever has listened to this understands that faith is true" - and the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God's truth.
Sandro Magister identifies the unnamed cantata referenced by the Pope as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, going on to provide further information about the sources of the textual material, the Sunday of the liturgical year for which the cantata was written, and the concert at which the future pontiff heard the cantata performed. Magister (or perhaps only his editor) goes a bit far in describing BWV 140 as "Ratzinger's favorite Bach cantata" - Benedict did not say that this cantata was his favorite, just that it had deeply moved him - but I still think that the Pope's reference to Bach remains worthy of note.

"Whoever has listened to this knows that faith is true." It may be worth listening to this cantata and considering whether or not you agree. I will readily admit that I do agree with Pope Benedict on this, or, to put it better, that my intuitive response to Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme seems to be similar to Ratzinger's.

Having made the above admission, I must also admit that the via pulchritudinis has been, for me, an exceptionally reliable way to God. I have had numerous experiences to confirm this, involving music, paintings, architecture, moments during the liturgy, and so on. At times in my youth when I was not a regular churchgoer, these brief and flickering encounters with the beauty of the sacred offered a critically important reminder that God not only existed but had a real claim on me. Even today, I find that the via pulchritudinis often still suffices to get me through those moments of struggle that are unavoidably present in any life lived with God.

This perspective may not sit well with those who - undoubtedly with the best of intentions - regard beauty as a strictly secondary element of Christianity or perhaps even as a unwelcome distraction along the way of faith. If I've bothered you, please bear in mind that I also regard a single Bach aria as a better introduction to Christianity than Of Gods and Men - and that I once approvingly cited Father Alexander Schmemann's suggestion that "if people would really hear [the services of] Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology." So, provocative or not, there you have it. AMDG.


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