Newmaker Notes

A Song Transformed

The Conclusion of J.S. Bach's
Christmas Oratorio

"Light Crossing" by Henry J. de Jong

From cross to cradle

Reflections on the journey, December, 2017

My father's collection of LPs lies at the root of my exposure to classical music. It wasn't till I left home at eighteen and bought my own turntable that I started collecting records and expanding my experience. With limited resources, that would be a slow process. I was never much into radio either until I started driving my own car ten years later, so I didn't have the wealth and variety that came with a steady diet of CBC Radio 2.

Bach was a big part of my upbringing, but my exposure was tilted heavily towards organ music and my dad's recordings of the St. Matthew Passion and a few other choral works. When, at age twenty-one (1977), I bought tickets to Bach's "Christmas Oratorio", I was keen to hear music that I had never heard before. Going to Massey Hall for the first time was intriguing in itself, but the 'new' music made it an adventure.

I went with my room mate David Einfeld and settled in for the long haul of six cantatas, one after the other, played by the Toronto Symphony and sung by the Mendelssohn Choir. Most of my experience of the music has since been supplanted by repeated hearings of my own recordings, and much later by singing the whole work with Chorus Niagara.

But one movement remains forever linked to my my first hearing. That performance of the last Chorale of the last cantata has stayed with me and, I think, profoundly affected me musically and spiritually.

When the soprano soloist for the final recitative sat down, a trumpet player stepped forward to take her place. That was the first and only time an intstrumentalist sought the spotlight, so my anticipation was heightened, even while I rued the concert's end. The trumpet jumped right in with a virtuoso performance that was rousing, uplifting and totally bold, and never let up till the end. It was an obbligato to full orchestra, and the instrumental dance was enough to set our souls to tapping, even while our bodies sat constrained by concert hall decorum.

It wasn't till the trumpet finished its first statement with a definite D Major cadence, that the full force of this work hit me. Without missing a beat, the choir jumped in with the chorale. They were backed, of course, by instruments doubling their parts, so the sound was full and vocally rich.

This moment, which I have also experienced in other Bach cantatas, is, for me, consistently hair raising. I'm always aware of course that the choir will come in (it is a chorale after all). And, at the concert, I watched the one hundred choir members ready themselves by standing when the trumpet player stood. The very first few chord are enough. They come in so firmly and so simply and harmoniously by so many people. And I understand implicitly that they're singing a song of the people, my people - a chorale coursing through hundreds of years of faith history.

So the chorale's presence carries with it this full weight of the community of believers, stretching back to the Reformation and beyond - rooted in early church and Israelite worship. With the melody comes text - German words of hope and grace - not so unfamiliar to my Dutch ears that I can't get the gist, even without a translation. This revelation, so special, is lifted up by instruments, both in unison and counterpoint. The orchestra presents a dancing creation, generally in tune with its faithful in-dwellers. And the trumpet continues its spirited utterance of their unspeakable joy.

But which chorale? I could not place it though it sounded familiar. It was sung with so much vigour, certainty and joy that it felt like "A Mighty Fortress". It only dawned on me later, but not till after the concert, and perhaps only when I got my own recording and listened again. This was not a song I knew to celebrate Christ's birth, but to commemorate his death. Of course, I had always known and loved the tune, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded", but it had been transformed so radically here that this knowledge could not immediately find its way from my heart to my head.

In my singing and hearing of "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" over the years, and in the recorder descant that I wrote for it just the previous year, I had always deeply experienced its feeling of pain and grief, balanced barely by love and hope. Five times it comes up in Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" (composed seven years earlier). Now here, Bach, the master of inversion, turns it upside-down with a new text for Christmas and a joy that knows no bounds.

Whether aware or not, there was no mistaking the feeling of this transformation in my heart. And forever subconsciously its influence continues. How can I sing the Lent song now without feeling the hope of the first coming and the finality of the second that shines through this "Christmas Oratorio" setting. This is the domain of music and Bach, to show us what is and what might be and how it all fits together. By investing in this richness we come to know, more deeply, that it is death which makes birth possible.

In our day-to-day life, transformation is a little harder to achieve. We are still living between times and our confidence in seeing it through often wavers. This was never more sadly driven home to me than during our own performance of the "Christmas Oratorio" with Chorus Niagara. I was so looking forward to singing this chorale confidently as one voice of faith, joining with the many from this time and all times. But we faltered near the end and failed to come in at all on one entrance. We are still in the 'not yet'. But, with grace and sheer discipline, the orchestra, director and trumpet carried us on to the end where we finished well.

Henry J. de Jong, December, 2017

About: Newmaker Notes - writings, photos and collections - by Henry J. de Jong. Newmaker is the spirit that drives a lifetime of creativity, and is a reflection of the Creator who continues to make all things new.