How many lovers of Bach know that his Cantatas were written for singing in conjunction with a sermon on the same Biblical text? One church decided to introduce music lovers to the original Bach tradition of word and music.
Pauline Hale had an idea. As a choir member at St. John’s (Shaughnessy) in Vancouver and an avid concert attender, Pauline had experienced sacred music in church and at concerts. She began to consider how the church might use the wealth of sacred music to extend itself to those people on the outside who already love such music. She thought that we could do more than host concerts in church buildings, and hoped to find a way to invite her concert-going friends into her church community.
While previously in a choir directed by Dr. Mel Unger, Pauline had discovered that Bach’s cantatas were particularly well suited for use within church services. In his Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts, Unger wrote:
Bach’s cantatas were written for church services; thus each related to the theme of the given day within the liturgical year. The German church cantata was placed between the Gospel reading and the Sermon of the Lutheran liturgy and culminated a long tradition of sermon music that sought to teach and persuade the listener.
Bach’s intention in writing his cantatas was to serve the message of the sermon, and his intended audience was the worshipping community. Pauline recognized that early cantatas, most of which are currently performed at concerts, offered the church a unique opportunity to return this musical form to its intended context, the church service. At the same time, they could reach an interested audience of concert-goers, while allowing the church to be authentically and boldly Christian.
In the fall of 2003, St. John’s launched its first Sunday with Bach with the performance of one of Bach’s cantatas within its Sunday morning church services. Since the content of the cantata was based on a particular Scripture reading, the liturgy, readings, and the sermon were focused on that Scripture reading. The preacher had the rare opportunity to use an explanation of Bach’s artistic expression to illustrate the truth of passage.
Parishioners invited friends, family and coworkers to these services. Many found that it was very easy to extend this invitation, particularly if the recipient liked this kind of music. It attracted a different group of people than other events, and for many was the first time they came to anything so explicitly Christian. Those who invited their friends found that the morning spent together led to dynamic conversations about faith and religion over lunch.
Outreach events rarely function within a church service. This means that we must provide transitions from the experience of the outreach event to normal ongoing parish life. With the exception of Christmas and Easter, most of us would rarely invite a friend or coworker along to a regular church service. Bringing cantatas into the church service, however, provides a unique opportunity for parishioners to extend a compelling invitation to a relatively normal church service. Should their guest come back the next week, the music would be different, but much of the experience would remain the same.
St. John’s has continued to offer Sundays with Bach twice-yearly, once in the fall and once in the spring. Over the years, it has become evident that this sort of event brings together a few different dynamics which work together in a uniquely fruitful way. First, people who don’t normally attend church enjoy this kind of music and are willing to pay money to see it performed (not that we charge, of course!). So they are already quite interested. Secondly, music is by nature generally accessible and non-threatening, while at the same time being thought-provoking. Thirdly, early cantata music is faithful to and focused on the Scriptures.
It is worth noting that these strengths are not confined to this genre of music. The current popularity of spirituals, bluegrass, and folk gospel present us with similar opportunities to extend ourselves through music within a church service. Perhaps one of those is our next challenge.