(Bach Akademie Australia)

The Meaning of Alleluja

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 26.03.2021
(Writing)

After a year away from one another, from performance and art, our collective return to Bach holds weight; it acts as a refresh, and a reset, but we also lean on it deeply as an acknowledgment of all that we have been through, and our shared grief from the past twelve months. I have been thinking recently about our return to community spaces – the concert hall, the church or synagogue or mosque, the library, even the train station – and the feeling of being amongst people again, even casually, even without exchanging words. The way we navigate the world has changed, but the need to collectively grieve and celebrate and sing has never been stronger.

If it wasn’t already clear, the necessity of music in the community for general engagement and mental wellness became astoundingly loud during the pandemic. As the world began to shut down, musicians and amateurs flocked to their balconies and verandas to listen and to contribute to neighbourhood performances and jam sessions and sing-alongs. In times of crisis, the world collectively learned: music-making becomes an essential. The movement towards Bach was not a surprise. His music has long been a companion in many aspects of everyday life, for musicians and listeners alike. Many artists swear by the consistent practise of Bach’s works for solo instruments. Glenn Gould famously stated that, “Bach is the reason [he] became a musician,” and Nina Simone echoed Gould’s sentiments: “He is technically perfect. When you play Bach’s music you have to understand that he’s a mathematician and all the notes you play add up to something - they make sense. They always add up to climaxes, like ocean waves getting bigger and bigger until after a while when so many waves have gathered you have a great storm. Each note you play is connected to the next note, and every note has to be executed perfectly or the whole effect is lost… Bach made me dedicate my life to music.”

Bach understood this need for words and music and praise better than most. His work, which was prolific and seemingly inexhaustible, covered an expansive terrain of formats: cantatas, passions, oratorios, orchestral and chamber music, exploring both the religious and the secular. From his very earliest compositions, Bach seemed to be exploring his own personal relationship with his faith, using his writing to delve deeper into musical and spiritual ideas. Throughout his abundant catalogue, works including the Triple Violin Concerto BWV 1064R, the motet ‘Singet dem Herrn’ ( Sing unto the Lord a new song ) BWV 225 – which ends with the four part fugue, ‘Alles was Odem hat’ (All that have voice, praise the Lord!) – and his famous Missa Brevis in A BWV 234 were opportunities for the composer to develop his thoughts both musically and religiously. This Triple Violin Concerto has been known predominantly in recent times as a concerto for three harpsichords, which was most likely adapted from a (now lost) original violin arrangement and restored to this assumed former glory by German musicologist Wilfried Fischer in the 1900s. The interesting work was most likely re-created in the 1740’s from the original violin manuscript for Bach and his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, to perform at the Zimmermannsches Kaffehaus.

One of his earliest cantatas, Christ lag in Todes Banden , written when Bach was only around 22 years old, takes a Martin Luther text that translates to to ‘Christ lay in the Bonds of Death’. The piece, which is described for stylistic reasons as an early work, is made up of seven stanzas, based on the Luther text. Following an opening sinfonia, the seven movements, formatted as chorale variations, are arranged as chorus-duet-solo-chorus-solo-duet-chorus. Each movement is in E minor, and according to Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Christ lag in Todes Banden Cantata was Bach’s “first-known attempt at painting narrative in music.” Despite its relatively static tonal centre, Bach uses musical form and technique to achieve variety in the meaning of the text. “Christ lay in the bonds of death,” the hymn begins, “Wir essen und leben wohl” it ends; “we eat and live well”. It is an offering to the singers, to the musicians to use their music to give thanks, and to praise. We end together, singing, simply, “Hallelujah!”

The word “Alleluja”, which has held many forms and meanings for people since the 12th century, is made up of two parts, which put simply, translate as “to praise” and “God”. Of course, in a complex word like this, there is more than meets the eye lying just below the surface. The first part of the word, when considering its alternative spelling hallelujah , means more than simply “to praise” in Hebrew: hillel , the Hebrew verb means more broadly, “a joyous praise in song, to boast in God.” The song is implicit, the act of raising one’s voice in melody tied up contentiously with the offered praise. Singing, and creating song however tuneful or otherwise, has always been intrinsic to the process of giving thanks: the psalms (if you were to read them all, you would find many different derivatives of the word Hallelujah many times) get their name from the Greek ψαλμοί, or psalmoi, meaning instrumental music and, by extension, “the words accompanying the music”, according to the biblical scholar Roland E. Murphy. Music is not only an elevation to the thanks being given, but a crucial part of it.

Listening to Bach’s music, particularly live and in an audience, feels like an ultimate “alleluja” or opportunity to give thanks. It offers a moment of reflection, of deep contemplation, and of respite. You may bring to Bach what you have and take what you need. Whether your thanks are religious or secular, experiencing Bach’s Cantatas, Concertos, Motets and Masses live and up-close is an opportunity to feel like once again you are part of the community of music lovers and makers that have been waiting to be back sharing a space together again.

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