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Psalm 130 in the Hands of a Young Johann Sebastian (Part 5)

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series

"A History of Psalm 130 in Music"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

We have been exploring settings of Psalm 130 throughout history. After an brief exposition of the psalm, we began with a look at ancient Jewish and Christian settings. Then we turned to Orlande de Lassus and Martin Luther, examples of Renaissance and early Reformation expressions. Last week’s post looked at the Genevan and Scottish Psalters, as well as a brief setting by Heinrich Schutz.

This leads us to the great Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Over the course of his life, Bach would compose multiple hundreds of “cantatas” for the worship services of the churches where he was employed. At this time, cantatas were smaller compositions, usually sacred (at least for Bach) and about twenty minutes in length, often highlighting a theme from that Lord’s Day’s Scripture reading. About two hundred of these cantatas written by Bach still exist today, and they make up an impressive and considerable core of Bach’s output. It is from this corpus of Bach that we have in the vernacular such compositions as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and “Sleepers Awake! (Wauchet Auf).”

What very well may be the first cantata Bach ever wrote is BWV 131, “Aus der Tiefen.”1 The year was 1707, and it was in May that a town fire ravaged Mühlhausen, where a young twenty-two year old Johann Sebastian was employed at the St. Blasius church. City fires, as you might imagine, were devastating during this time. Fortunes and families alike were often wiped out (we don’t know to what extent Bach was personally affected). The Mühlhausen fire seems to have destroyed nearly a quarter of the town. A pastor in the town approached Bach and asked him to compose a cantata based on Psalm 130. Perhaps this pastor sensed that the fire was the result of the Lord’s judgment for the sin of the town. Bach notes on the score that the work was composed for an event of mourning–perhaps some kind of ‘memorial concert.’

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Bach used sparse instrumentation for this work: one violin, two violas, a bass instrument, oboe, bassoon, with the choir and soloists. The cantata (interlinear German/English text here) begins with the first two verses of Psalm 130. The words “Out of the depths I cry, Lord, to you (Aus der Tiefe ruf’ ich, Herr, zu dir).” The voicing is intentionally low to represent the “depths.” In the “ruf”/”cry”, one clearly hears the dissonance and the word is lengthened. The quicker rendition of the second line may intend to show a glimmer of hope: “Lord, O hear my calling, incline your ear unto my voice and hear my prayers (Herr, höre meine Stimme, lass deine Ohren merken auf die Stimme meines Flehens).” (The following youtube examples come from Ton Koopman’s DVD collection of Bach cantatas, which I highly recommend you pick up for yourself, which includes not only six full length cantatas, but Koopman’s own insightful commentary on several.)

Much could be said about the second movement, where we see the introduction of the chorale Bach uses with Psalm 130, “Lord Jesus Christ, you highest good (Herr Jesu Christ, du hochstes Gut).” The chorale itself is set against the words of the Psalm, which may be representing in the bass soloist, crying to God with the words of Psalm 130, a prayer to God juxtaposed against the Lord’s calm promises in the choir’s singing the comforting hymn. With the word “fear,” (Psalm 130:4) the bass voice actually trembles in the voice line.

But we should highlight the third movement’s chorus: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and I hope in his word (Ich harre des Herrn, meine Seele harret, und ich hoffe auf sein Wort.).” When you listen, notice that Bach has the choir hold out the word “waits” (harret), a splendid example of the long wait of the people of God for the Lord to return and make this broken world right. In the oboe, playing against the “waiting,” we may be hearing Bach’s attempt to imitate a clock. Surely, this is one of the great moments of beauty in the Western classical tradition.

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In the fourth movement, the tenor sings the words of verse 6, while the altos in the choir sing another verse of the chorale that speaks of the peace of conscience forgiveness of sins brings the guilty soul. The soloist sings a long melismatic line on the word “longs” (wartet). The final chorus, verses 7-8, begins with the hopeful encouragement to hope in the Lord, transitions to the reminder of God’s undying grace, and ends with a jubilant fugue highlighting the redemption of sins that comes through  the Lord.

So when Bach turned to this Psalm, he was informed by Martin Luther’s own understanding of its hopeful promises of the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. And at a time when a town was trying to get its footing back after the devastation of the fire, Bach’s music points to the real solace and comfort the promises of God bring to a world troubled by trouble and sin. And we are seeing, through all these settings of Psalm 130, not only a consistent understanding of the meaning of the psalm expressed concretely (though differently) through music, but a development of the ideas within that consistency. One composer’s ideas lead toward the development of the Psalm in the ideas of another. With the music we have seen there is substance: an ability to confess sin in a repentant manner and to cry out to God for the forgiveness of sins. At the same time, in the midst of this sober music there is a real and abiding hope.

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We continue the series next week with further examples as we venture into more modern settings of this psalm.

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Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He also contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017).



Endnotes:

  1. Commentary is available in many places, including here and here. []

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