Bach's Musical "Lectio"

I have remarked in years past of my Christmastide ritual of listening to Bach's Christmas Oratorio.The Oratorio comprises six cantatas for the various days of the season, culminating in tomorrow's Feast of the Epiphany.

More and more I find listening attentively, with text in hand, a form of lectio. And it makes me appreciate more Bach's own careful lectio of the text.

Thus, in the Cantata for the Epiphany, in the simple recitative of the Evangelist, intoning Herod's words to the Magi, "bring me word that I may come and worship him also," Bach adds a slight trill to the final syllable of "worship," hinting at Herod's hypocrisy. And in the answering recitative by the soprano, Bach provides a striking dissonance on "falsches Herz," – "deceitful heart."

But, most impressive for me, is the concluding Chorale of the cantata. Here, joyful trumpets herald the salvation Christ has gained us: "humankind has been raised to the side of God." Our celebration of our salvation, however, is tempered by the recognition of its cost. The melody of the joyous outburst is that of the Passion hymn, "O Sacred Head, pierced by crown of thorns." Bach is both musical genius and profound theologian.

John Eliot Gardiner's new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven," makes for excellent lectio during long Winter nights.


Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.

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