After being forced to go to church every Sunday for 16 years as a child, it seems ironic that I now play two church services each Sunday at St John Lutheran in Edmonton, and quite enjoy the experience.
The first service, which is in German, is usually pretty straight-forward: there is a Prelude, a couple hymns (Lieder), parts of the mass are sung, there may be extra hymns when there is communion once and month and then a Postlude.
The English service can be tricky. There is also a Prelude, a couple hymns, several extra hymns for communion and a Postlude. (Sometimes after juggling three books I play the wrong hymn, or other accidents – like the massive hymn book falling on the pedal board, creating a massive roar of sound – were regular occurrences till I got my mojo.)
Oddly, after 5 months on the job, I have not discovered a single hymn by JS Bach. While listening to several of Bach’s Cantatas over the past couple of days preparing for the choir’s first rehearsal, I read a quote by a Swedish bishop that Bach’s Cantatas were the Fifth Gospel. High praise indeed!
I had dismissed Bach’s Cantatas as mediocre works without having explored them. I was a fan of the Passions, the fantastic keyboard suites (particularly the Partitas) and the sonorous concerti. Perhaps I was just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the Cantatas: 200 sacred-text and about 15 secular-text. From the year 1723 until the end of his life in 1750, Bach had a ‘new’ Cantata performed in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche every week and holiday. Like most composers forced to produce at an unrealistic rate, Bach recycled music, and had a near army of offspring to rewrite his masterpieces.
At St John Lutheran in Edmonton there is a hymn before and after the sermon, Bach had half of the Cantata before and half after the sermon. Certainly his pastor’s message may have been overshadowed or perhaps more greatly appreciated by Bach’s musical frame.
Bach had a pretty standard formula for his Cantatas: Chorus, Recitative, Aria, Recitative or Arioso and Chorale. I would imagine that Bach had things under control, probably, or hopefully having the week’s Cantata planned in advance for rehearsal purposes. Musicians back in the Baroque period are thought to have been naturally virtuosic. I would imagine that from time to time there may have a musical train wreck. But like the Lutheran church I play at (sometimes after juggling three books I play the wrong hymn, or other accidents, like the massive hymn book falling on the pedal board, creating a massive roar of sound) I imagine Bach’s congregation was forgiving and understanding if the music was less than excellent. However, as one of the greatest composers in European history, Bach probably could pull any derailment back into order.