Christ Lag in Todesbanden

Mar 29, 2013

Good Friday.  Good day.  For some of us the end of the work week is here, for others it is a most solemn day during Lent.  At least for part of the day.  My faith is strong, even when I have reservations about what is going in the church.  We humans have a funny ability to get in the way of ourselves.

So this day is a day for remembrance for me.  It is remembering about Christ crucified.

Being a musician, a lot of my spiritual expression of faith has taken place as a member of a choir.

When I was a young person I studied violin.  I spent more time felling guilty about not practicing than practicing.  But my teacher, Mrs. Stalling, was kind and let me come to lesson after lesson, never as prepared as I could have been.  In a funny way, we spent a goodly portion of the lesson talking about “things”.  She taught me about patience and the I Ching.

As a result I didn’t really learn to read music.  I connected position of fingers on violin string with the position of the note on the musical staff.  I had no idea about the relationship of pitch to pitch, of the meaning of the distance of the pitches one to the other.  I only knew how to read music printed on the treble clef, so the note named “b” was the first finger on the “A” string and “c” was the second finger on the “A” string.  I loved music but had no real technical knowledge.

Thanks to my high school mentors, Glenn and Linda Hubbard, I learned how translate my love of music from violin to vocal music.  I had a good ear (thank you Martinez and Villa genes) so I was able to retain melodies.  No technique, no real reading skills, but oh, I loved to sing.

After graduating from Garfield High School,  I transferred to East Los Angeles College and eventually ended up in the Chamber Singing group led by Dr. Richard Kline.  It was then the sheisse hit the fan.

When you sing Bach you had better begin to understand the relation of one pitch to the other, and because his works have lots of melodies in lots of places, you had better begin to understand something of the relationships of the different “voices” one to the other.  The sum really is greater than each of the elegant parts.

Translation of title – Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds
For those of you who are musicians you will recognize that this is written in “C” clef.  I share this because the first time I sang I pretty much memorized my part and the score could have been written in any clef. 
For those of you who don’t read music, this is a bit like being able to read German and then being asked to translate that doc to Dutch while running down the street.  Seems easier than it really is, unless you’re truly bilingual and in shape.
I suspect I wasn’t the only person that was experiencing this challenge, but to Dr. Kline’s credit we learned it.  We practiced it until it became a part of us.  Once we knew our lines, we began to hear how one line played off of,  or worked with,  another line.  The german words began to haver greater meaning in part because the music gifted us with context.
Every Lent I listen to this piece.  It touches my heart and soul.  There is the simplicity of the Christian belief of Easter and the complexity of the work of a brilliant musician who surrounds the text with musical motion, complex harmonies, and the treatment of the voice as an integral part of the orchestra.  It is humbling and freeing, a good place to be when trying to be contemplative.

Both images are from my copy of the Dover Edition –
Johann Sebastian Bach, Eleven Great Cantatas, From the Gesellschaft Edition
Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1976

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