Bach: The ‘Wedding Meal’ Cantata and The ‘Refugee’ Cantata

Essay and recommending listening by Andrew Lewis, Artistic Director


Feeding the hungry, detail from Caritas, The Seven Acts of Mercy, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

The two cantatas on this program address the idea of and need for radical hospitality. BWV 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Adorn yourself, O dear Soul”), encapsulates the Christian reality of the achieved state of grace through the radical hospitality of Christ, received by the believer without her agency. BWV 39, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (“Break your bread with the hungry”) exhorts the listener to then act upon this achieved state of grace in the same way as Christ would: “When you see one who is naked, clothe that person even though it may mean you yourself will go naked.” [My paraphrase.] When I programmed these two cantatas I could not have guessed the turmoil our society would face with a new presidential administration. Perhaps this is one of the fundamental lessons any of us can learn about our earthly existence: justice is always timely.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Cantata BWV 39: Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (23 June 1726) Part I. 1. Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (Chorus) 2. Der reiche Gott (Recitative: B) 07:46 3. Seinem Schöpfer noch auf Erden (Aria: A) 09:13 Part II. 4. Wohlzutun und mitzuteilen vergesset nicht (Aria: B) 13:21 5. Performed by Philippe Herreweghe and the Chorus & Orchestra of Collegium Vocale Gent (1993).

The ‘Wedding Meal’ Cantata

BWV 180 is part of Bach’s second yearly cycle of cantatas written for his new position as Thomaskantor in Leipzig and is of a genre called “chorale cantata,” for it is based on the chorale tune, in this case the eucharistic hymn, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele. The gospel reading for the day was Matthew 22:1-14, the “Parable of the Great Banquet” (or, using Martin Luther’s term, Hochzeitsmahl – ‘wedding meal’) in which, among other things, Jesus correlates the invitation to attend the wedding feast of a king’s son to that of the invitation to the heavenly glory of God’s kingdom. Those invited, presumably the elite of society, seem to cavalierly reject the invitation, which leads the king to invite strangers to the feast. (Please read the text itself. My summary does not offer a complete understanding.) The extension of hospitality to those who would otherwise be excluded, and the joy at the invitation, shapes this entire cantata.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Cantata BWV 180: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (22 October 1724) 1. Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Chorus) 2. Ermuntre dich, dein Heiland klopft (Aria: T) 05:05 3. Wie teuer sind des heilgen Mahles Gaben! -- Ach, wie hungert mein Gemüte (Recitative, Chorale: S) 09:56 4. Performed by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players.

The ‘Refugee’ Cantata

“Break your bread with the hungry, and those who are in misery into your house!”

Before the chronology of Bach’s cantatas was thoroughly known it was believed that this cantata was written in 1732 in response to the banishment of Protestants from Salzburg, hence the ‘Refugee’ title. Alas, though an “agreeable legend” (Alfred Dürr), this cantata was written for the third yearly cycle of cantatas Bach wrote for Leipzig, which was in 1726. Bach makes expressive use of the Blockflöte, also known as the alto recorder. This was the final cantata in which Bach employed the instrument. According to Charles Sanford Terry, in his seminal 1932 work, Bachs Orchestra, published by Oxford, “Of no other instrument is Bach's characterisation so clear and consistent as the Blockflöte ... No other instrument identifies itself so closely with the simple piety of Bach. It voices his tenderness for his Saviour, his serene contemplation of death as the portal to the eternal ... it is the vehicle of mysticism so deep-rooted in Bach's nature... for in its clear tones he could utter the ponderings of his devout mind.” If Terry is to be believed, one can add a layer of meaning to the text of the cantata, namely, the giving of oneself is the vehicle for a profound acceptance of and gratitude for the gifts of life and death. The sharing of the grace that the individual has received is a simple and straightforward act, uncluttered by rationalization and justification.

The Sermon on the Mount, woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1582

While we don’t wish to promote a specific Christian ideology through this concert, it is impossible to escape the central tenets of this music, especially given our present state of national anxiety: give gratitude for your privilege, share your good fortune without jealousy or envy even to the point of your own deprivation, and extend mercy and welcome to the stranger in your midst.

© Andrew Lewis, 2017