I may have got into a muddle with the lectionary. Bach used a different pattern from me (in fact I’ve used two different ones in my time), and I’ve been unsure which Sunday we are on and which cantatas I should be listening to. Tomorrow is Epiphany 5 according to the Revised Common Lectionary, but the Wikipedia page for Bach’s cantatas only offers me 4 Epiphany Sundays. Next week is Septuagessima Sunday for Bach (three before Ash Wednesday, so there is no cantata this week. Perhaps the choir got a week off. I wanted some music, though, so I consulted the list at the bottom of the page. BWV 117 was composed for no known occasion. ‘It may have been a general purpose cantata.’
I suppose a lot of Bach’s music was written for specific occasions, or to commission. But not all. The Partitas were probably written just because he wanted to write them. Perhaps he wrote this cantata for enjoyment.
It is, once again, a wonder and a marvel. A kind and happy piece of music. The opening chorale, which also ends the piece, is a delight, gently joyful and full of grace. As sometimes happens to me, the music moved me so strongly that I felt it physically. Walking towards some great trees, the sun shining (we’ve had a lot of sunny Saturdays despite the very sloppy weather this winter – 40 houses flooded in Somerset – did you hear?), it was when the chorus came in that my legs felt weak.
Now, I’ve been thinking about singing, recently. There is a choir festival at St Andrew’s Hospital, and singing and performing seem to be therapeutically significant. There’s an idea around that singing may have preceded speech in human evolution, that we, like gibbons, are singing primates.
Singing certainly seems to be associated with courtship. Many songs are love songs, perhaps the majority, and it is in the years when many of us are finding and bonding with a partner, late teens and twenties, that people tend to discover popular music. ‘That’s our tune’ a couple may say, and it will be linked forever with their falling in love.
I’ve been wondering about singing to each other. We have distanced ourselves from singing. Perhaps half the population regard themselves as unable to sing, and even more would say they are not worth listening to. Singing has been something professionals do for us. We listen mainly to recordings.
On the occasions I’ve heard singing live, it is very impressive. There is a power beyond the effect of the music, especially, I think, when an amateur sings. It’s a risky activity. Voices can crack and go off key, people can be overcome by stage fright. To risk all this, and perhaps to triumph, and to sing words declaring love, is extraordinarily powerful. At the choir festival a psychiatrist leading a choir made up of her patients, sang a verse – I could make you happy, make your dreams come true / Nothin’ that I wouldn’t do / Go to the ends of the earth for you / To make you feel my love’ – and it looked as if her patients all believed her.
I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone sing a song just for me, nor have I ever sung for just one person. I wonder what it would be like. It could be very embarrassing. So much emotion, such intensity, so powerfully expressed. Will one or both of you laugh inappropriately? Will it ‘go wrong’ in some way? It’s fraught, just like sex is.
But singing in groups and singing to an audience comes close to this intensity. Singing together to God is strong stuff, too.
Beautifully recorded, rehearsed and trained singers, music written by a paid composer three centuries ago for the worship of a religion that only has a loose connection with my own, the technology of Spotify and smartphones .. all of this does not obscure the immediacy, intensity and connection that music is about. This morning, in the sun, once again, it was beautiful – whatever that word means. I responded to it, and it felt as if it was written for me.