J.S. Bach and the Concept of Right Action — Cantata Text Booklet for the Holy Days, from Caravaggio’s Dagger (VI:7)

I have been asked from time to time about the origin of the relationship between the painter Caravaggio and my book, Caravaggio’s Dagger.

Caravaggio - David with the Head of Goliath (1610). The face of Goliath is Caravaggio's. The face of David is Cecco, the painter's studio assistant and lover whom he abandoned for Malta.

Caravaggio – David with the Head of Goliath (1610). The face of Goliath is Caravaggio’s. The face of David is Cecco, the painter’s studio assistant and lover whom he abandoned for Malta.

The painter’s way of life and how he depicted life in his work constitute one of the exemplifications of abandonment of right action. This exemplification is stated expressly in the concluding Taxonomy in poem VII, “Cantata Text Booklet for the Holy Days.” The other three referred to are Monteverdi, Rothschild, and Michelangelo. Each of these three also are exemplifications of ways of life and consequences in their work. However, the superseding context is the Lutheran practice of the writing of cantata text booklet cycles, which many Lutheran composers set to music for inclusion in the liturgical services of worship. The pre-eminent composer of this type of music was Johann Sebastian Bach.

The commissions of Michelangelo referred to are those bestowed by Pope Julius II. The major devotional work of Monteverdi’s is the Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610. Monteverdi became maestro di cappella at Venice’s Basilica di San Marco in 1613.

All of these are clearly presaged in the opening four lines of the poem.

An introduction to Bach’s cantatas can be found in my book, J.S. Bach: Cantatas for Trinity I through VII. The most prominent writer of cantata text cycles was Erdmann Neumeister. On him and his relation to Bach’s work, one can find more information here. The biography of Caravaggio that I most value is that by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Graham-Dixon has also written on the Monteverdi vespers. The notion of blood in the streets derives from Baron Rothschild at the time of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. William Rees-Mogg, long-time editor and later columnist with The Times wrote three books dealing with the topic, and these are The Sovereign Individual, The Great Reckoning, and Blood in the Streets. A short background on Rees-Mogg is here.

Erdmann Neumeister (Courtesy: www.let.rug.nl)

Erdmann Neumeister (Courtesy: http://www.let.rug.nl)

The poem in which this material gathers is in two parts, each with a derivation (and epigraph) from Bach. Part one derives in part from Cantata 78, written for Trinity XIV, and which deals with faith, and actions consonant with such faith, in this earthly life. This cantata, one of Bach’s finest, begins with a magnificent chorus that employs a powerful passacaglia.

Part two derives partially from Cantata 172, written for Whitsunday (that is, Pentecost, the celebration of the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles), and which deals with the return, affirmation, and confirmation of faith from Seelenparadies, the paradise of the soul, to those in whom faith will never perish, never fade.

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