A few months ago, when I was preparing for my exam, I sent the Bach alto aria I was learning to my German theologian friend, Anna, to check that my translation wasn’t too wildly wrong. She sent back the translation with her comments, and also mentioned that in Bach, the alto soloist is usually the voice of the believing soul. I thought that sounded gorgeous, and set out today to find some advent-suitable soulfulness to share with you.
And I found some. But this isn’t it, because what I also found in my travels was that Bach, being the excellent church musician that he was, had actually written a cantata for the second Sunday in Advent – which is today. I am not an excellent church musician, but I am a conscientious one, and having found beautiful music that was actually written for this precise day in the church year, I am incapable of choosing something else.
I thought about pulling out just the alto solo for you, because it is really gorgeous, but since the lyrics are all about the end of time, combined with a longing to leave this Sodom-like world before we are consumed by fire, I thought that was a bit much for this particular believing soul to handle, and decided to give you the whole cantata for context.
Of course, the whole cantata is *also* about the day of judgment and the end of the world, because this week of Advent tends to be a bit ‘memento mori’-ish (get ready for lots of lovely penitential Advent carols this week), but Bach embraces this, and as the cantata continues, the end of this world, and even of this life, is seen as the dawn of a new and brighter one. (You can read a translation of the whole thing here)
Yeah, I know, it’s still kind of depressing for Advent. But, you know, I think that’s actually a good thing. My grandfather died last year, a few days before Christmas. I read in the news on Friday that the sister of a girl I went to school with was probably murdered. And the minister at the church I sing at is in hospital, critically ill. Just as life doesn’t stop for Christmas, death doesn’t cease either, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is still sadness in the world, even as we prepare for a season of joy.
I’m not sure that this is what theologians had in mind when they planned themes and readings for Advent, but it works for me.