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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.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.

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Thank you for this. I, too, love the oratorio and its evocative use of the "O Kopf voll Blut" melody. As you know, the same tune occurs in the first day, where the text ponders how to receive and welcome the world's desire and the soul's adorning beauty. Then it asks Jesus to personally place a torch alongside us: "O Jesu, Jesu setze/ mir selbst die Fackel bei," so we, thus enlightenend, may know what truly delights him. The conjunction of tender text and haunting melody breaks my heart every time I hear it. 


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