Ach, Bleib Bei Uns

I’ve spoken before about my love of the Lutheran chorale. This is a genre of musical composition that sets a vernacular hymn, usually in German, in four-part harmony. They’re usually quite short, and they all contain a pithy theological statement or reflection in German – a language which, like my beloved Greek, has the power to be pregnant with meaning and beauty at the same time. As with many other things, this form was taken to its zenith by Johan Sebastian Bach. The one I’m presenting to you here is among my favourites:

Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ,
weil es nun Abend worden ist;
dein göttlich Wort, das helle Licht,
laß ja bei uns auslöschen nicht!

The opening two lines are breath-taking in both the profundity of the words and the sublimity of the harmony. It is rare that words and music meet in such a state of perfection. The congregation implores: “Stay with us, Lord Jesus Christ, for the evening has come”, recalling the disciples’ plea to the risen Christ in the Gospel of Luke. Philip Melanchthon had set these words to music in the Latin:

Espera jam venit, nobiscum Christe maneto

Following Melanchthon, his pupil Nikolaus Selnecker developed the rest of the text of the hymn. Bach added the harmonisation that has immortalised the hymn. Clearly, “evening” here means more than a time of day. For me, the evening motif recalls the atmosphere in that most mysterious passage in Philippians, where Paul records a song that he and the congregation knew so well. This same song they would have sung together in fellowship, huddled in the dark as their persecutors, officers of the Roman state, lurked outside, seeking them out. Paul writes to us from the deep night of the first century and his words are full of hope and joy. Bach’s harmonisation, similarly, concludes in a consoling major cadence, even while contemplating the coming of night. We hear Bach greeting the onrush of death with joy.

Joy

Biblically, joy is a state, rather than happiness, which is a feeling. Happiness is fleeting and it tends to disappear under stress. Joy, on the other hand, is a mood, in Heidegger’s sense: “a disclosive submission to the world, out of which we can encounter something that matters to us”. Its character involves stability, contentment and resilience. It survives the departure of happiness. This is because it lives on a foundation of, chiefly, thankfulness. This, too, is an ongoing state, a posture that one assumes towards the Triune God. I really believe that Bach lived this joy throughout his life, a life that took its course in the bright sun of faith. I find great joy in this harmonisation and every time I hear it I find it anew.

I hope that you find consolation and encouragement in this music.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

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