So today I turned to BWV 178, Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (If the Lord God does not stay with us) and was not only refreshed (as I am each Sunday), not only amazed at Bach’s inventive treatment of texts (a source of constant delight), not only keeping up with a discipline/commitment (as only an obsessive can and must). No, today I was floored by the timeliness of this cantata text in light of world events.
For the past couple of weeks we have been hearing about the brutal beheading of Christian children in ISIS controlled Iraq. We are mourning the persecution of Iraqi Christians (Chaldean Catholics). And this on top of ongoing terror in Nigeria, Somalia, and elsewhere.
In 1524, Justus Jonas wrote a chorale based on Psalm 124. Two hundred years later Bach set the words of that hymn in Cantata 178, for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity. The Scripture readings for the day were
Romans 8:12–17 (“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”) and Matthew 7: 15–23 (not all who say “Lord, Lord” belongs to God, and that “by their fruit you shall know them.”). Combined with Psalm 124 (“If the Lord had not been at our side . . . Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”) and Jonas’ chorale, this Cantata is an extended meditation on the focus, hope, and consolation of persecuted Christians.
Mind you, in Jonas’ day the persecution was from one group of Christians against another. And God knows over the centuries (before and since) that has been a sad reality. I recall the old Mennonite Central Committee poster from my college days.
Fair enough; and sad enough.
So, this is not a rant against Islam. It is simply pointing out that one of the virtues of the arts—and of the musico-prophetic art in particular—is that words written 490 years ago, paired with music written 290 years ago, provided perspective to me today, as I consider world events. They teach me how to pray today. They remind me where my Christian hope lies. And they unite me in some strange, unexpected way, with Iraqi Christians.
If you want to enter into this musical devotion . . .
The Bach Cantata website, with German text and English translation, in parallel.
The Bach Cantata website, with German text, and the English translation interleaved. Scroll to the bottom of this page for some notes on the Jonas chorale, and Bach’s setting.
From both these pages you can delve more deeply into the cantata.
Recordings: Ton Koopman on YouTube
I’ve been listening to as many of the cantatas as I can by John Eliot Gardiner, on Spotify.
And if you can lay your hands on the recordings by Masaaki Suzuki, Bach Collegium Japan, enjoy!
Listen to a recording while following along the text. I like to read through the full text in English first (since my German is very weak), then track the movements with the recording.