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Luther learned to draw life from the struggle against the devil. According to the medieval memento mori, in the midst of life we are surrounded by death.

bach and heaven the promise of afterlife in the text of the cantatas Manual

Carter Lindberg, Martin Luther, Lecture on Psalm 90, , vol. Hilton C. Oswald St. Neil R.

STORY TIME: NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE!!

Eerdmans Publishing Company, , Hilton Oswald St. Louis: Concordia, , , cf. Weimar Edition, vol.

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LW, vol. The quotation is preceded by reference to Rev. Edited by Eugene F. To twenty-first-century sensibility this may seem unhealthy and depressing, a tiresome way of undermining the enjoyment of the present. Yet perhaps it is no more than the obverse of contemporary Western attitudes.

There is arguably as much anxiety as ever surrounding the idea of death, although it is manifested differently. The prosperous world ages in a perpetual fantasy of youth. Change can be worshipped for its own sake; the self and its surroundings must be constantly reinvented to avoid any suggestion of stillness and the premonition of decay.

The price paid for this treadmill of renewal is a restlessness that becomes an end in itself, irrespective of its social cost. Death is unwelcome in polite society, unsavoury and taboo, yet grotesquely mesmerising. In this as in other areas the cantatas do not shy away from the intractable problems of existence. Yet the solution proposed by faith is full of contradiction.

The desire for everlasting life rests on the premise — derived from observable human inclination — that existence is a self-evident good. Nevertheless, it is this very attachment to life that believers are urged to reject through a studied reversal of instinct, a contrived repudiation of the very basis of being.

The cost of such a strategy for defusing the fear of death is to discard the value of life as it is lived now. Yet if life is considered so entirely repugnant, how did the wish to prolong it arise in the first place? There is a second difficulty: only an unbearable level of pain, physical or mental, can make death truly seem a release, yet it is psychologically impossible for the sufferer to regard such a condition as a blessing, even though the promise of heaven depends on dying in a positive frame of mind.

No wonder the cantata texts agonise over how best to take leave of this world. There is always an underlying ambivalence that gives the prospect of death in the cantatas a universal, disturbing resonance. It was written in Leipzig, probably in , for the third Sunday after Epiphany.

The theological relevance of this is its depiction of a model of perfect trust. If God in his mercy chooses to prolong life and health, then so be it; but the Lutheran believer, aware of the close connection between mortality, disease and sinful human nature accepts that the body must die. Whether this happens sooner or later can only be left to God; one must be willing to go at the moment of his choosing.

The mood is deeply serious but not anguished. There is no hint of panic, but a serene hope of the ultimate prize — the granting of an eternal refuge to the soul. In an adaptation of a movement from an instrumental concerto, the lyricism of the solo oboe part evokes the blend of sadness, sweetness and longing with which the soul, encased in the body, contemplates the inevitable.

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Here, as throughout the rest of the work, Bach requires the dark timbre of a continuo violone the lowest instrument in his string ensemble ; above its steady, solemn descent the oboe melody rises and falls in a regular pattern of melodic sighs. Acquiescence in whatever God has ordained is implied in the fading resolution of the phrase on to the weak beat. The gentle languor of triplet semiquavers suggests the plasticity of the human will as it bends to the constraints of mortality, and the emotional vulnerability of the oboe part is protected by an orderliness of rhythm and phrase.

Four cantatas composed for the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity demonstrate a number of strategies for coming to terms with anxiety about death. The gospel reading for the day is the account of the miracle at the city of Nain Lk. It tells how the body of a youth, the only son of a widow, was being brought out for burial; Christ took pity on the mother and restored the man to life. Such an act of compassion may seem to endorse the value of our present existence, but the theology of the cantatas interpreted the story rather as an affirmation of the life to come, an allegory of the resurrection that Christ promises to every believer.

As the title suggests, it conquers dread by turning it inside out — refashioning it as a passionate desire for what one most fears. The highly charged language portrays death as a quasi-erotic event. In the opening alto aria their contribution is languishing and tender.


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The words allude to the Old Testament legend of the lion that Samson killed with his bare hands. The emotional temperature increases in the next two movements. To me, your sweetness is as detestable as poison!


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Your joyful light is my comet of bad omen, and where one picks roses there are countless thorns to torment the soul! For the Christian the end truly is the beginning, the return to paradise. The climactic longing for death melts into melodic ecstasy and a vision of heaven. With the promise of such bliss, how can the believer be other than impatient? In the following aria also for tenor death counts for nothing compared with the ache to be with Christ. In the central section, even as the voice accepts that the body will be turned to dust the melodic line anticipates the renewal of life, climbing upwards in denial of the grave.

Composed in , it incorporates verses from four different chorales into a narrative of utter revulsion from the world. Its nervous energy appears to be fuelled more by loathing of what is than from love of what will be; the ascetic, the disappointed idealist, embraces death as a protest against the imperfections of life. Yet through changes of pace and mood, Bach turns disgust into positive excitement. Come, make an end of my woe, the day of death that I sigh for! Its text was adapted from a hymn by Caspar Neumann This multi-faceted priest and theologian from Breslau now Wroclaw in Poland was also a poet and statistician with, appropriately enough, a particular interest in mortality rates.

The soft, relentless beat of muted strings underpins the plaintive dialogue of two oboes, while a strong bass line Bach specifies that it should be doubled tolls slowly and insistently. In the second bar, twenty-four high, repeated notes on the. He was well known for his popular four-part arrangements of traditional hymns, designed for playing on a keyboard at home.

This mechanical motif, without phrasing or dynamics — the unexpected ringing of the church bell to announce a death — recurs throughout the movement. Furthermore, just before the voices enter there is an abrupt void, a brief absence of sound. The musical message is clear: we must be prepared for life to be extinguished at any moment. The succeeding movements show the believer coming to terms with what must be. First, a tenor aria asks what is the point of being horrified when the last hour strikes, since it is an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Reason, however, cannot banish fear. Pizzicato quavers in the bass beat time for a restless oboe solo, full of sorrow and longing. The voice takes up the instrumental melody, its high pitch adding to the impression of anguish and strain. The ease with which Bach slips from verbal to musical idea is constantly in evidence.

The alto recitative is an intimate yet curiously opaque meditation. It articulates the worst fears of the soul through a series of questions. Can the sinful self really hope for anything beyond the grave, and what will happen to all those we have left behind? Yet by a mysterious process, familiar to the cantatas, extreme anxiety is the precursor the catalyst, perhaps of a renewed faith. The musical marker of this psychological shift is the dance-like character of an extrovert bass aria.

Like the Pied Piper no funereal aura surrounds the brilliant flute obbligato Jesus is calling the faithful to follow him to a glorious new life, leaving behind a world which possesses nothing of value. This music makes no distinction between the religious and the secular; as the embodiment of playful physical energy, it brings the sacred into the realm of the living, breathing everyday. The final phrase of the vocal part leaves a sense of unfinished business. Death need not be feared, because it is a call to join the Saviour in heaven — but happily the call has not yet come.

Life becomes a kind of high-wire act, the permanent sense of its imminent end giving intensity to every moment. The battle is always to balance gloom with hope.

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Although BWV 27 begins with anguish and vulnerability, by the third movement it becomes almost bizarrely cheerful. I will follow joyfully when he calls, into the tomb. The domesticated figure of death is welcomed by the Christian soul as an intimate friend. To a sparkling keyboard accompaniment, the two apparently perform a nimble pas de deux, with the voice expressing only delight at the encounter. Even so, persuading anyone to give up life with a light heart is problematic. Implicit in the doctrine of original sin is the notion of death as punishment — a deprivation of something infinitely precious.


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