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Marsh Chapel and Bach, Together Again

Sunday starts fourth annual series of services scored by composer

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Listen to the Marsh Chapel Choir and Collegium, conducted by Scott Jarrett, perform Bach’s cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir. Photo by Sarah Beth Yoder

Boston, famed for its classical music offerings, holds special reverence for the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The German maestro, a Lutheran who made a career as a church musician, notably in Leipzig, composed hundreds of cantatas (200-plus survive), chorales, passions, and other works that fill 60 volumes.

In recognition of this transcendent, prodigious output, Marsh Chapel has scheduled its fourth annual Bach-fest, devoting four Sunday services this year to his music.

The inaugural concert of the series is this Sunday, September 26, when the chapel choir and musicians perform Bach’s cantata O weiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe (O Eternal Fire, O Spring of Rapture). Two more cantatas, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Nations), on December 12, and Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm (God, As Your Name Is, So Also Your Praise Is to the Ends of the World), on January 30, will follow, culminating in a Lenten service on April 10, featuring music from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Marsh Chapel services are broadcast on WBUR, Boston University’s National Public Radio station.

“There are a number of people who show up just for these Sundays,” says Marsh music director Scott Jarrett (CFA’99,’08), who will give a 30-minute talk before each service on the day’s music and codeliver a Bach-themed sermon with Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Hill.

Bach wrote for the angels—and that’s not just a description of his music’s beauty. He was a professional church composer. Unlike, say, Handel, who composed his famous Messiah for a public concert, Bach wrote music for worship services, Sunday after Sunday. “For him, all music was a ‘harmonious euphony for the glory of God and the instruction of my neighbor,’” according to the late musicologist Wilfrid Mellers in his book Bach and the Dance of God. Nonbelievers, too, appreciate and revere the religious music of the 18th-century composer. Even the prominent Tufts atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett considers Bach’s church music a gift to the world.

“His job, much like a stained glass window, is to musically illuminate the scripture,” says Jarrett, who spoke with BU Today about the composer and the series.

BU Today: You call Bach not just a musician, but a theologian. Explain that.
Jarrett:
Bach’s charge at the churches in Leipzig was to provide a cantata for each Sunday, a musical exegesis of the text of the day. He skillfully maneuvered between the two prevailing theological sentiments of the day: orthodoxy and pietism. The poetic texts, which are deeply personal and generally occur in arias, answer to pietist sentiment: what does this mean to me, the person in the pew? Then he uses Martin Luther in the chorale texts and/or scripture from the Luther Bible to serve the orthodox theme. We have Bach’s personal Bible, and you can see notes in his hand that indicate constant study. In the margin, he’ll say something like, “Luther didn’t write about this, but if he had, he likely would have said …”

How did he convey theology through music?
Handel, for instance, when he sets a text, is extraordinarily onomatopoeic. When Handel writes about the nine plagues with the frogs, the violin part skips around and sounds like frogs jumping. The audience can immediately recognize the device being used musically. Bach is a lot more subtle. He tends not to use things that are overt to the listener. If the Biblical text talks about “the most high,” it could be that the first trumpet plays the highest note in that movement. We may not recognize it just by hearing it.

In the same way, if there is some Biblical reference to numbers, he could repeat musical devices. For instance, there’s a device called a ground bass, in which you have a bass line, maybe four measures long, and the cellist plays the same four measures over and over. In the Crucifixus [movement] of the B minor Mass, a ground bass is repeated 13 times, possibly representing 12 disciples plus Christ. In the final four bars, most of the instruments drop out, so it’s just the bass, indicating as Christ is crucified and buried, he goes alone to the tomb.

Many great composers wrote religious music. Why have you chosen to honor Bach?
For nearly every musician trained in the European classical tradition, we cut our teeth on Bach. There are stories of Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, others who started their day playing Bach to refine their craft. All of our music-making finds its roots in the works of Bach.

So he wasn’t just doing it for a buck?
No. He was a devout Lutheran Christian. I find personal inspiration in Bach because of his industry, his insistence at practicing his craft, and the service of his craft for something else: in the service of the service.

Why did you choose these selections for this year’s series?
These cantatas are composed for a specific Sunday in the liturgical calendar. I look for ones that last around 20 minutes, because we have a 58-minute broadcast, and of those, if the instrumentation is huge, we generally won’t do it because it’s too big—budget and logistics. So there are very practical reasons.

One of the things we’re intending with this conversation before the service is to give the listener a vocabulary about this repertoire, other than, “It’s just so beautiful.” To explain the musical components.

The first in the fourth annual Bach Cantata Series is Sunday, September 26, at Marsh Chapel, 735 Commonwealth Ave., at the 11 a.m. Interdenominational Protestant Worship Service. Scott Jarrett will speak about the day’s cantata at the chapel from 9:45 to 10:15 a.m.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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