Bach and Lang: Christmas and Passion

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our countertenor, Tim Keeler.



The Skaneateles Festival website lists our concert with The Knights on September 1st with the title “Passion, Past and Present.” This is a little confusing: both Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion and Bach’s cantata “Dazu ist erschienen” are ostensibly Christmas pieces. Bach composed BWV 40 for the day after Christmas in 1723. The text, while not always explicitly about the birth of Christ, includes lines like “the Lord appears as a servant and … is born as Comforter and Savior.” Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the little match girl is traditionally told around Christmas (it takes place on New Year’s Eve and the little match girl has visions of a “large, glorious Christmas-tree”). Labeling both works as “passion” compositions doesn’t really make sense.

“But Tim,” you protest, “David Lang included the word ‘passion’ in the title of his piece! So it must be connected to the passion of Christ!” Ah, yes, you’re right. Lang makes the connection explicit in the title of his work and in the program notes he includes with the score when he observes that “Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus.” Lang subverts the typical Dickensian Christmas story of missed magnanimity by focusing on the suffering brought about by the avarice of others, thus foreshadowing the passion of Christ even as we celebrate his birth.

It is a little harder to reconcile BWV 40 with the passion label, but it is possible… and revealing. Most of the text for BWV 40 celebrates the coming of Christ and how his birth will forever rid humanity of suffering and sin. The text of the opening chorus can be translated as “For this the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the Devil.” In general, the cantata is very happy and expectant. There is only one time in the course of the work where any mention is made of exactly how the son of God might “destroy the works of the Devil.” This occurs during the sixth movement. The chorale text here reads “through the suffering of my Savior, [I] am borne away from you into the hall of rejoicing.” Bach sets the word “suffering” (“Leiden,” in German) with a perfectly timed deceptive cadence, thus highlighting the word, drawing attention to its significance, and giving the congregation (or audience!) time to reflect. It is the only moment of respite amid the otherwise jubilant work. December 26th isn’t necessarily the best day to think about the passion of Christ, but Bach here briefly acknowledges the rest of the story. The Christian belief in the forgiveness of sin and in eternal life hinges on the suffering of Jesus. Bach gently reminds us that it is not enough for Him to simply be born.

The text in Lang’s setting can be depressing and hopeless: “Rest soft, daughter. Where is your grave, daughter? Where is your tomb?” Unlike Jesus’ suffering, the suffering of the little match girl goes unnoticed. She dies for no one’s sins. What is more tragic: to suffer for a great purpose? or to suffer in anonymity? In Bach’s cantata, we celebrate the birth of Christ because we know his suffering will save mankind. In Lang’s composition, we acknowledge and lament the constant, everyday suffering of those around us, those we often forget, and those who are simply too much trouble. Combining these two “Christmas” works into one “Passion” concert highlights the incongruities inherent in our conceptions of human significance. David Lang states as much at the end of his notes, when he writes that “the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’, (I hope) elevating her sorrow to a higher plane.”

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