When I was in high school, I discovered JS Bach. When I was in college I discovered that a public radio station, out of Berkeley, CA, played one of Bach’s cantatas every Sunday morning (working sequentially through all 199 cantatas each Sunday, then starting over again). About the same time, I discovered the M*A*S*H episode, in which Radar is trying to learn how to pick up a nurse who likes classical music, and Hawkeye tells him to just say, “Ah, Bach” to sound intellectual. When we moved out the mountains, we discovered that Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg, VA hosts a week long Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival every June. Ah, Bach!
This year is the twentieth anniversary of the festival. Looking in the program, I was impressed to see how many pieces they have performed by Bach, contemporaries, and composers who followed him up to the present era. I was moreover impressed to see how many of the performers come from the Valley and have participated in five, ten to twenty years of festivals. Guest musicians come from many regions of the country.
The performances include orchestral and choir festival concerts at EMU, noon time chamber ensemble concerts at the Asbury United Methodist Church, and the finale, Leipzig Service. We attended the Leipzig Service on Sunday. This is modeled after the services in Leipzig, Germany, over which Bach resided as the music director. Bringing the traditional service to the modern times, the duration is about half as long as the 3 hours services, with more emphasis on the music than the sermon and rituals.
In an era in which orchestral and choir music seems at a distance from the average person, and composers may spend months or years devising a piece, if they can get commissions at all, the work of Bach may overwhelm. For the services at Leipzig, every week he selected hymns to go with the church calendar, rehearsed the choir and musicians, and composed a cantata to a Biblical or liturgical text, and wrote out the music by hand for all the parts. We might wait a year or two for our favorite group to put out a new CD. Bach composed 20 to 30 minutes of music every week, and that was just the routine stuff.
This year’s Leipzig Service began with a concerto for 2 trumpets by Francesco Manfredini (1684-1762). Judith Saxton’s and Susan Sievert Messersmith’s horns sparkled with the silver tones of the baroque. The pre-summer sun shining through the eastern windows of EMU’s Lehman Auditorium could not have brightened the stage more than their playing. The Kyrie and Gloria brought in the audience for two of many hymns, which we could join in. Someone had a hand in bringing these traditional chants into a more tuneful time. Yet, we stepped back a thousand years with the cantor, Leslie Helmuth’s, as he sung the Salutation and Collect in Latin.
The readings, from the second chapter of Acts (1- 13) and John (14:23, 27), and homily were about Pentecost, the communication of the gospel in all languages, and anointing of the Spirit. Between the readings and homily were more hymns and the cantata. Eugene Friesen’s cello and Marvin Mills’ organ preludes to the hymns gave us time to contemplate the creative process of music. At times clear notes directed us to the melody. At times layered harmonies immersed us in the underlying structure of the chords.
Bach wrote his cantatas to German lyrics. This service’s cantata, BWV 34, carried on the theme of Pentecost: “O Ewiges Feuer, o Upsprung der Liebe” (O eternal fire, o source of love) “entzunde die Herzen und weihe sie ein.” (ignite our hearts and consecrate them.). The orchestra and choir warm the stage with this opening chorus, preparing for the tenor (Leslie Helmuth), alto (Heidi Kurtz), and bass (James Richardson) recitative and aria. The full ensemble returned to fill the auditorium in the final chorus.
The final hymn, “Come, O Creator Spirit, come”, arranged by Maurice Durufle (1902 – 1986) brought us back to the Latin. The choir sung the verse in Latin, followed by our rendition in English, and then Mr. Mill’s organ variations summarized the theme in music. In the homily, Michael A. King, talked about the miracle of Pentecost being, not so much the speaking in tongues, but the awareness and understanding of the Gospel by Gentiles from many places and cultures from around the world. He talked about how language can distract us as well as comfort, both with what is said and the timing of the communication. As he spoke, I thought of this service, in languages I could understand (English), could not (Latin), and might have fragments of (German). But, I also thought about the limitations of words, especially when I am not ready to speak or someone is not ready to listen. Then I thought about music. Is music not truly our universal language? Strip the words from the sounds, melodies, and rhythm, and still music can express what words distract.
After the Blessing, Mr. Mills brought us a finale organ piece, Josef Jongen’s (1873 – 1953) Sonata Erocica. This was a farewell for this year’s Bach Festival as well as an enticement to return next year in June. Join us, and you too can say, “Ah, Bach!”