A few weeks ago, I was reading for my Music Semiotics course and was blown away by the following combination of thoughts:
An invitation for the listener to identify with the action is a strategy of liturgical Passion settings. The violin foreshadows an aria [“Erbarme Dich” in the St. Matthew Passion by Bach] in which an alto voice speaks repentantly in the first person, without further specification of his or her identity. This persona is that of the listener, the believer who responds to the drama by identifying with it. A Lutheran chorale, inserted after the aria, is placed to reinforce the movement from narrative to response, confirming Bach’s confessional intent. …Working within the framework of Lutheran theology, Bach makes Peter’s denial a universal symbol for acts of self-dislocation from God, representing his interpretative tradition by giving the alto a penitential prayer. …For a listener who is sympathetic with Bach’s theological framework, the aria can constitute an act of real or symbolic repentance.
(Naomi Cumming, “The Subjectivities of ‘Erbarme Dich,'” Music Analysis 16/i, 1997: 21, 36, 37)
As an evangelical Protestant, I have not grown up in a strongly liturgical tradition, although as a Presbyterian, I have perhaps encountered more liturgy than some. However, during my time at Houghton and in London, I developed a deeper love for liturgy in worship. Speaking common words together in praise or prayer to God, especially words that connect you not only with those people in your time and place but with believers across space and through the history of the church – there is so much beauty and symbolism in this regarding a sense of the unity with the whole body of Christ.
What I was particularly struck by in this article (beyond the fact that it was a reading for class!) was the connection between the way the music was composed and its functional invitation to the worshipers who would watch and potentially participate in the drama. Cumming points out that Bach’s use of “voice” in this work provides a connection between Peter’s expressive tears, the Evangelist who is narrating about them – and therefore participating in them via the expressivity of the music, and Jesus, whose words are merely quoted, yet come forward through time to speak to each participant in the drama. When the vocal part stops and the violin introduction to the aria begins, the lack of a particular character, emphasized by an instrumental voice, and the long, expressive solo invites the listener to participate with the beautiful penitential prayer that the alto (who is not a character) sings. And intriguingly, the chorale which follows is designed as a congregational song, and it is all about God’s grace!
Cumming argues that the construction of the piece itself invites the listener to participate with the singer in actively repenting… if that’s not an integration of faith with music, I’m not sure what is!
Erbarme dich, mein Gott, Have mercy, my God,
um meiner Zähren willen! for the sake of my tears!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge See here, before you heart and eyes
weint vor dir bitterlich. weep bitterly.
Erbarme dich, mein Gott. Have mercy, my God.