Of Good and Evil – J.S. Bach, Cantata 50, at Michaelmas

Raphael: St. Michael Vanquishing Satan (1518). Louvre.

Raphael: St. Michael Vanquishing Satan (1518). Louvre.

Cantata 50 is an expostulatory force. Its text is Revelation 12:10. The English Biblical version does not suffice. Language is individualistic and characteristic, and translation is an approximation of meaning and fails to duplicate the impact of sounds and stresses. These latter two are essential to the weight, strength, and power of this music.

The German text:

Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft und das Reich und die Macht unsers Gottes seines Christus worden, weil der verworfen ist, der sie verklagete Tag und Nacht vor Gott

can be rendered as:

Now is the Salvation and the Strength and the Kingdom and the Power of our God in His Christ have become, since He crushed the one who accused them, Day and Night, before God.

The stress is on Now, by the bar pulse of the 3/4 metre; immediately followed rising notes on four attributes of God, namely, Salvation and Strength and Kingdom and Power, all culminating at the highest note of the rising phrase on God Himself, whereupon the musical line quickens, as if hurling, when the second half of the text is reached and sung.

It is not possible to duplicate this in the English Biblical version of the verse, which, one will note, is slightly different in sense in the German. How and what one speaks indicates what one thinks, what one does not think, and what one is incapable of thinking. Each and every language is a different and intricate approach to perception; and each language that is lost, whether human or animal, whether plant or stone or soil or air, is an erosion of understanding and a depletion of ability and possibility, and becomes a loss of life, and of being, and of existence, themselves.

A splendid performance can he heard here.

With this I conclude my work on the Michaelmas cantatas, and chapter three of the third book on the Trinity cantatas.

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