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Cantatas for the 10th Sunday after Trinity
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Trinity 10, “An Wasserflußen Babylon,” "Great 18" Organ Chorale Prelude

William Hoffman wrote (August 3, 2016):
“It appears that Bach may have been portraying an overall aspiration to the heavenly Jerusalem in [“Great 18 Leipzig” organ chorale] BWV 653,” “An Wasserflußen Babylon,” says the late Ann Leahy in her contextual study, J. S. Bach’s “Leipzig” Chorale Preludes, ed. Robin A. Leaver (Latham MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011: 53), Contextual Bach Studies: Music, Text, Theology. Its sarabande dance style in ¾ time “is utilized when Bach is dealing with texts related to salvation.” Its “pleasing-sounding third and sixths and many ornaments may also be related to the aspiration for salvation and for union with Christ in the eternal Jerusalem.”

Wolfgang Dachstein’s 1526 Reformation psalm hymn paraphrase, “An Wasserflußen Babylon” (By the Waters of Babylon), is based on the Psalm 137 text for the 10th Sunday after Trinity in Bach’s Time. [Psalm 137 text, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/k/kjv/kjv-idx?type=DIV2&byte=2433955. An English translation of Dachstein's "An Wasserflüssen Babylon" is found in the On-Line Liberty Library of C. S. Terry's <Bach's Organ Chorales, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2057, scroll down to and click on “[16] An Wasserflüssen Babylon.” A partial translation of the Paul Gerhardt 1653 text set to the Dachsten melody is found at http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/a/lambgoes.htm, scroll down to 4. “Ein Lämmlein geht” and click on “Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth).”

This six-stanza organ chorale in ritornello style, like the text, addresses the theological concept of Eschatology, the study of the “Last Time” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eschatology). This concept is related to Martin Luther’s doctrine of the “Theology of the Cross,” emphasizing “the cross as the only source of knowledge concerning who God is and how God saves” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology_of_the_Cross). Leahy’s study is directed at the final version, a Leipzig revision (nd), BWV 653. Citing Albert Schweitzer, the chorale was “composed to be played alternatim with the stanzas of the sung hymn during the distribution of the holy sacrament” (sub communione), says Leahy (p. 43). [Schweitzer performs on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jsfMHquJLk

The “seemingly deeply melancholic atmosphere of [Psalm 137 paraphrase] An Wasserflußen Babylon has inspired most writers to concentrate on the painful aspects of the hymn text,” she says (p. 44), while she seeks “other elements that may have inspired Bach in his portrayal of the text in BWV 653.” Turning to Cantata BWV 46, "Schauet doch und sehet,/ ob irgendein Schmerz sei wie mein Schmerz” (Behold and see if any grief is like my grief, Lamentation 1:12), for the 10th Sunday after Trinity, Leahy finds that the “entire cantata is taken up with the wrath of God at the unrepentant sinner” (p. 46).

Meanwhile, Bach’s music sometimes goes beyond the text negativity, “offering comfort,” says Leahy, as Michael Marissen finds in his new book, BACH & GOD (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). An example is the contrasting, pastoral [dance style] to the text, Meinen Seufzer, meine Tränen” (My sighs, my tears, Marrisen translation) opening soprano aria, SATB solo Cantata BWV 13 for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany 1727 (Lehms text). “Bach may be employing similar methods in BWV 653,” says Leahy (Ibid.) [Digression 1: This simultaneous juxtaposition is even more stark in the “rest-in-the-grave” closing choruses of Bach’s three Passions settings with their mournful texts and dance-style music (John ¾ menuett, Matthew ¾ sarabande, Mark 12/8 gigue), observing Ecclesiastes verse 3:4a, “a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (KJV).]

The theme that “the Christian must suffer in order to achieve salvation,” says Leahy (p. 47), also is found throughout chorale Cantata 153, “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” (Behold, dear God, how my enemies), Sunday after New Years, 1725, contrasting earthly trials and heavenly jubilation. This “theme is very close to that of Psalm 137,” she says (Ibid.). It is a theme found throughout Luther’s writings, Leahy observes. [Digression 2: the theme of “heavenly joy” (Himmlische Freude) is the subject of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major, which he began composing in the 1890s after studying the Bach Gesellschaft Edition of the complete works to which Mahler subscribed.]

This joy motive “was sometimes used within the context of the cross of Christ and its paradoxical aspect,” says Leahy (p. 48f). “In Lutheran theology, eternal life comes by way of the cross of Christ: suffering on earth leads to eternal salvation.” “In Luther’s view, therefore, the suffering of the Israelites was necessary in order for them to achieve salvation. Perhaps Bach is offering the solution to the suffering of the Israelites in his musical portrayal of the text” of Psalm 137 in the organ chorale prelude setting.

Musically, Leahy cites several factors in her interpretation of Bach’s treatment of the chorale. In the affirmative, besides the pleasing use of parallel third and sixths throughout, is the persistent return to the major tonality from the minor, “almost always” “within one measure,” she says (p. 49). “The use of dissonance increases as the piece progresses. This could be Bach emphasizing the earthly trials of the Israelites in captivity.” “In his theology of the cross, Luther repeatedly emphasized that suffering and torment came before eternal salvation.”

The emphasis on reverting in BWV 653 to four-voice writing instead of five in the Weimar original, following the completion of the Clavierübung III (Mass & Catechism Chorales) in 1739, gives the music “a more clearly defined role for each voice” while placing the cantus firmus in the “evangelical” [my term] tenor part, possibly reflecting the second person of the trinity, Jesus Christ, as mediator in the process of salvation” (sorteriology).

With the prospect of the New Jerusalem, it “has proven more rewarding to explore the eschatological implications of the text of Psalm 137 and Bach’s musical setting,” Leahy concludes (p. 52f). Previously, the reason for Bach’s setting of An Wasserflußen Babylon placed in the collection of 18 chorale preludes seemed problematic, perhaps simply as a generic communion chorale prelude. Instead, Leahy views it within the broader context of salvation with its eschatological emphasis, and as a hymn of penitence during Communion.

 


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