Faculty book | Markus Rathey: Bach’s “Love Songs”

March 24, 2016

Ed. Note: catch the BBC3 interview with Markus Rathey on the publication of his new book here (airing March 25).

Johann Sebastian Bach was in his early 20s when he composed one of his earliest masterworks, the famous Actus Tragicus. The centerpiece of this piece is a juxtaposition of three distinct layers: the three lower voices sing a setting of the words from Sirach 14:18, “Es ist der alte Bund, Mensch, du mußt sterben” (It is the old covenant: man, you must die), while the instruments interject lines from the 16th century chorale “Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt” (I have trusted all my things in God). The third layer in this complex fabric is woven by the soprano. The high voice repeats the words of Revelation 22:20, “Ja, komm, Herr Jesu, komm!” (Yes, come, Lord Jesus, come!) in a mantra-like fashion. The cry for Jesus’ coming culminates in an emotional outburst towards the end of the movement. The lower voices fall silent, then the instruments drop out, and finally even the supporting basso continuo stops playing while the soprano sings her last plea with an extensive melisma. Bach’s Actus Tragicus is a lesson in the Lutheran art of dying and it demonstrates how the dying believer can proceed from acknowledging that she has to die, to a state of consolation in which she gives herself and her fears over to Christ. The soprano outburst is the turning point in this transition. It is the moment when the singer awaits the coming of Jesus in a heightened emotional state.

Even though the Actus Tragicus was composed about a quarter of a century before most of the major vocal works by Bach that we find on concert programs today, the theological framework is the same. The relationship between divinity and humanity, Jesus and the believer, bridegroom and bride, is characterized by affection and love on both sides. Jesus’ sacrificial death is a sign of his love, and the human responses are love and affection for God and his son. The ultimate testament to this divine-human love relationship is the death of Christ at the cross on Golgotha. The St Matthew Passion highlights this in the aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love my Savior is willing to die).

In the Actus Tragicus, the soprano cries out for the presence of Jesus in the hour of her dying, but the presence of Christ is a recurring theme in all of Bach’s major vocal works. Theologians in the 17th and 18th centuries described the presence of Christ as the dwelling of Christ in the human heart. If you listen carefully to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, you will notice that it has two narratives: one is the biblical story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but the second one is the coming of Christ into the believer’s heart. We can almost hear the response of the alto in the terzetto from the Christmas Oratorio as a response to the plea by the soprano in the Actus Tragicus: Come, Lord Jesus –– He is already here!

The idea of Christ’s presence in the heart manifests itself in different ways in Bach’s major vocal works that I discuss in my new book “Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy” (Yale University Press, 2016): the heart is the manger in which the baby Jesus can rest (Christmas Oratorio) or the heart is the grave in which the body of Jesus is buried (St Matthew Passion).

Bach’s compositions frequently employ a musical language that underscores the affectionate relationship that is expressed by this image: emotional and elegiac arias, seductive lullabies, and almost erotic love duets. Bach had a clear sense for both the dramatic and musical possibilities this theology of love had to offer.

My book is an introduction to Bach’s major vocal works: his Magnificat, the Christmas Oratorio, his passions, the B Minor Mass, and the smaller oratorios for Easter and Ascension. But it is also a book about Bach’s settings of the love story between Christ and humanity. If there is one theme that returns in every single work discussed in the book, then it is the human-divine love story: the longing and waiting for the beloved, his arrival, the loving gaze, the kiss, the embrace, the physical consummation of the love, the fear of loss, the complete devastation about the death of the beloved, and the consolation in the moment of his return. It would be easy to construct a gripping love story based on this list and to turn it into a moving opera.

The chapters of this book are written with a general audience in mind. Musical training is not required and I have tried to avoid musicological jargon. This book is an invitation to listen, to read the texts carefully, and to consider the place the oratorios, passions and masses had in the course of the church year and the liturgy, but foremost, to enjoy and to marvel about Bach’s masterworks.

~Markus Rathey

Markus Rathey, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 248 pages.
See the YUP book page here.

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