Festival Repertoire: Cantata 34, O Light Everlasting

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The first time I sang it with the Bach Choir, Cantata 34 was more like “O Höllische Feuer.” We had been invited to lead a cantata service at the national convention of the American Guild of Organists, which was held, in 2002, in Philadelphia.  During a brutal heat wave.  In an un-air conditioned church.  We ditched our tuxedo jackets, and there was a wonderful spirit in the room, but, good Lord, it was hot.  The next two times I sang the piece with The Choir were under far more propitious conditions:  at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and at the Royal Albert Hall for a performance at the BBC Proms.  I suspect all three performances will reverberate in my memory, when, at long last, The Choir revisits this piece (which it also recorded the spring before I joined, in 2001).

Cantata 34 routinely makes just about everyone’s top 10 cantata lists.  For one, there’s an inspiring text, then there’s the irresistible perpetuum mobile of the opening chorus, and, of course, a rhapsodic aria for alto, and a rousing final chorus that pleads peace for Israel.  See Carol Traupman-Carr’s detailed analysis of this cantata for more information about the music.  To her excellent rumination, I have a few thoughts to add.

The opening chorus is an utter thrill to sing – Bach is operating at his highest level of contrapuntal skill (this was written when he was at the heights of his compositional powers in Leipzig), but also, the fusion of text and music is completely seamless.  Written for Whitsunday, or Pentecost, the cantata seeks to vivify the story from the Acts of the Apostles, wherein the tongues of fire descend upon the disciples as an outward sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Beyond the attempt to portray this moment in song, Bach also seeks to tap into that animating spirit, the wellspring of love, in his depiction of the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit, so much so that the opening chorus becomes not a static reflection of a historical event, but part of an ongoing continuum – from the moment of the first Pentecost, to the present day in his lifetime, and, indeed, into the future.  I suspect that it’s this animation of past, present, and future, that resonates so powerfully, both in terms of the music’s theological underpinnings, but also as a pure and elemental depiction of eternal fire (“light everlasting”) and the “ursprung der liebe,” the source of love.  For singers, and I suspect for instrumentalists, the transcendent joy of the opening chorus is overwhelming.  I hope it is for listeners as well.

The recitative for tenor that follows is a prayer and an exhortation for the faithful to let the Holy Spirit into their hearts – to become temples of God in their very being.  Then follows one of Bach’s most sublime arias.  Written for alto, “Wohl euch,” “It is well,” causes time to slow, and fills listeners with a rhapsodic sense of calm and peace.  My introduction to this piece was on The Choir’s 2001 recording, and that recording also introduced me to the stunning artistry of the countertenor, Daniel Taylor.  We’re delighted that he’s a Festival regular, and that he’ll be joining us to sing this stunning aria.  Accompanied by flutes and muted strings, this aria, in the words of the late Craig Smith, of Emmanuel Music, “is magical in its floating harmony and its evocation of the ‘floating spirits.'”  It’s an exquisite moment, and one that bestows a rare and powerful grace upon listeners.  I can’t wait to hear Danny revisit this music.

The bass recitative that follows transitions into the final movement by setting it up with these words, “The Lord pronounces over His consecrated house this word of blessing:” to which the choir responds, in a moment of such cosmic bliss, “Peace be upon Israel.”  I can think of one moment similarly evocative of the music of the spheres in Bach’s oeuvre, and that’s during the Gloria Patri, of the Magnificat.  The Choir sings this brief passage with just about as much conviction is humanly possible.  Then follows a wonderful dance of  thanksgiving and praise, with the choir repeatedly invoking the word “dankt,” or “thanks.” It was with this movement that we concluded our concerts at the Sheldonian and the Albert Hall, and I’m curious to see if those triumphant moments will reverberate, more than ten years later.  Then again, how could they not?  Cantata 34 is somewhat compact in comparison to the other cantatas on the program, but it is full of musical, spiritual, and aesthetic beauty, and with that benediction of thanks, it’s a fitting way to end an afternoon and evening of some of Bach’s very best repertoire.  I have to tip my hat to Greg Funfgeld for programming such a rich feast of music.  We can guarantee that your spirits will be lifted, your soul nourished, and your mind inspired at the conclusion of these concerts.  Please join us for what promises to be an exceptional day of music!

 

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