Last Sunday I went to a Bach Cantata Fest performed by the Dryden Ensemble at the Miller Chapel in Princeton Theological Seminary, a stark Protestant chapel in the mold of First Reformed. A fitting setting for the stark beauty of Bach’s music.
Most of the time I let myself get swept up in the sound of the melodies. From time to time, however, the translation of the German text would cause me to pause. This was especially true concerning the Chorale in BWV 87:
all pain to me is sweeter than honey;
a thousand kisses of sugar
He gives to my heart.
When pain is present,
His love turns to joy
even bitter suffering.
This reminded me too much of the same spirituality that is so upsetting in the funeral of Ofelia’s mother Carmen in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, with the priest’s somber message: “Because it is in pain that we find the meaning of life.” Yes, most of the lyrics express a search for comfort and relief from the sufferings of this world, but I’ve always found it hard to celebrate pain and suffering for providing the occasion of such comfort and relief.
Ironically, the sentiment in BWV 95 appealed more to me. In his recitative, the tenor wishes “that I could see death/the end of all suffering.” Or, more bluntly, dying is a bitch, but death brings relief. The recitative is followed by a beautiful aria Ach, schlage doch bald, selbe Stunde, which sets this plea for death to come in light repeats that sound like an operatic love song.
5. Arie T
Ach, schlage doch bald, selge Stunde,
Den allerletzten Glockenschlag!
Komm, komm, ich reiche dir die Hände,
Komm, mache meiner Not ein Ende,
Du längst erseufzter Sterbenstag!
5. Aria T
Ah, strike quickly, blessed hour,
the very last bell-stroke!
Come, come, I reach my hand to you,
come, bring my suffering to an end,
you long sighed-for day of my death!
Over and over Bach’s music opens our hearts in the same way I’ve learned that death opens. It doesn’t close us up the way that the pain and suffering of living can.
As I delighted in this music I thought of a friend who is close to death, yet who refuses to enter hospice and asks the doctor to continue treatments even though the doctor says they won’t do any good. I wished that my friend could sing this aria in their heart. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that each of us dies our own death. All that our loved ones can do is to sit with us and hold our hands, even as we fight what they think might be best for us.