Bach’s Good Friday

mi0003738578I’m singing something a little unusual for Good Friday this year.  My church is more accustomed to traditional, gospel, spiritual, and contemporary sacred music.  Classical is rarely sung or played.  I sang an aria from Handel’s Messiah a few years ago and it was welcomed very warmly, so I’m going to try an arioso by J.S. Bach.  It requires a little more preparation and thought than my usual music.  I hope you will indulge me writing about it.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a church musician.  He wrote new music every week for his church.  Think about that.  I work hard just to prepare music that’s already been written!  Among his church music he also wrote several oratorios.  An oratorio is defined thusly:

a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, typically a narrative on a religious theme, performed without the use of costumes, scenery, or action.

There was a ban on creating operas about Jesus, so they got around it by creating oratorios.  My mind is on an oratorio entitled St. John’s Passion.  The Passion, in scripture, is the story of Jesus’s final days.  The work is specifically an oratorio for Good Friday.  Good Friday is the commemoration of Jesus crucifixion. It is observed the Friday before Easter.  In it is an arioso (less structured than an aria) entitled “Betrachte, meine Seel” – “Consider O my Soul”.

It is an unusual work musically and I lack the musical theory knowledge to say exactly why that is other than to say it is uncommon, harmonically, for Bach and for baroque music in general.  It is full of dissonance and harmonic complexity more characteristic of much later works of romantic composers such as Felix Mendelssohn.  The text is dissonant as well.  It is clear that Bach is trying to reflect that in the music with the reoccurring minor 7th notes (D-flat in an E-flat major key) which occur 4 times.  I interpret this as the suffering of Jesus intermingled with the goodness of the day.  The last few musical phrases resolve the dissonance and it is more recognizable as Bach.  It reflects the last few phrases of the text which show the good in Good Friday and a charge to look to Jesus on the cross.

The text, which is a little archaically written,  can be broken down to a simple idea.

Consider that although it’s a hard fact to accept, Jesus’ suffering is for your highest good;  therefore, raise your eyes to him and don’t look away.

The full literal translation is as follows:

Contemplate, my soul, with anxious pleasure,
with bitter joy and half-constricted heart,
your highest Good in Jesus’ suffering,
how for you, out of the thorns that pierce Him,
the tiny ‘keys of Heaven’ bloom!
You can pluck much sweet fruit
from his wormwood;
therefore gaze without pause upon Him!

The poetic translation that I am singing is not as easy to understand, and you will see that it does not convey the ideas very well

Consider O my soul, in agony and rapture,
Although your heart with tainted joy does languish,
The highest staff is Jesus’ anguish.
For you the thorn crown that did pierce Him,
With heaven-scented flowers will bloom;
You can the sweetest fruit among His wormwood gather
Then look to raise your eyes to Him,
Cease not to raise your eyes to Him.

I will put the words up on the screen to give the congregation a little more time to contemplate the meaning.  The difficulty is exacerbated by the musical phrasing.  It does not follow the punctuation very well.

Here’s the song, sung in the original German.

To me, this song truly exemplifies the meaning of Good Friday.  The “good” of Good Friday is a troubling word for Jesus’ suffering.  It’s also called Holy Friday.  But let’s take it at face value.   “Your highest Good in Jesus’ suffering”.  That’s Good Friday.  From Jesus’ suffering, fragrant flowers and sweet fruit will grow.  God brings goodness out of suffering, both in Jesus’s life and in our own.

It took my pianist and I a little while to grasp the beauty of this song, but now that we do, it’s come together quite well.  The question however remains:  will the congregation grasp the goodness of this Friday song?


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