Music for Baptism of the Lord — Sunday, January 10, 2021

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (BWV 7) – J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

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Bach composed the church cantata Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (Christ our Lord came to the Jordan) in Leipzig for the feast of St John the Baptist; its first performance was on June 24, 1724. The theme of the cantata is baptism, rather than the birth and ministry of John, and in the much more recent observance of the Baptism of the Lord as separate from the feast of the Epiphany, this music is often heard on this Sunday.

This work could be said to be Bach’s La Mer: both verbally and musically, water imagery permeates each movement. What is remarkable is that rather than becoming merely an attractive tone poem, the music goes deeper and deeper into this complex story. The cantata is based on Martin Luther’s tune of the same name. Bach sets the first verse, heard in this wonderful recording by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, as an intense and imaginative seascape.

In this work the tenors sing the chorale tune and are submerged beneath the sopranos and altos and most of the string texture. The principal theme is in two parts: a stern, dotted note figure depicting the wild man in lion skins and stormy water music. Two other subjects appear in tandem with the second subject. The combination of all of this material gives an unusual richness to the texture. The natural climax of the third phrase is set up with an unusually long orchestral interlude using only the second subject and its related themes. The fourth phrase is allowed to wind down and what sounds like a recapitulation of the opening material is played. In the midst, the last phrase is declaimed, the first time that the chorus is accompanied by the full orchestra.

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam
Nach seines Vaters Willen,
Von Sankt Johanns die Taufe nahm,
Sein Werk und Amt zu erfüllen;
Da wollt er stiften uns ein Bad,
Zu waschen uns von Sünden,
Ersäufen auch den bittern Tod
Durch sein selbst Blut und Wunden;
Es galt ein neues Leben.

Christ our Lord came to the Jordan
according to His Father’s will,
He received baptism from Saint John,
to fulfill his work and destiny;
thus He wishes to draw us a bath,
to cleanse us from sin,
to drown bitter death as well
through His own blood and wounds;
it permitted a new life.

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (BWV 684) – J. S. Bach

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Martin Luther wrote his hymn about baptism in 1541; it was published in 1543. It has been set in many musical compositions, including cantatas (see above) and chorale preludes by J. S. Bach, Hans Leo Hassler, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, and others.

The chorale prelude performed here by the Dutch organist Reitze Smits on an organ dating from just a few years after Bach’s death, is the master’s delightful arrangement of Luther’s tune, in a completely different voice which nonetheless continues to evoke the imagery of water. From the Netherlands Bach Society’s program notes:

While the chorale melody sounds in long notes in the pedal, the river water ripples gaily in fast notes over two keyboards, without being turned anywhere along the banks. In the four-voiced arrangement, there are many question and answer games between the three highest parts, which emphasise once again the carefree unity of those being purified.

Gerald Harder