Sunday, February 2, 2014

Bach's beautiful lullaby

Because the, ahem, Music Critic Web log ignores popular culture completely, we will skip over Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the Super Bowl (the fact that it stars Renee Fleming notwithstanding), and proceed directly to the Feast of the Purification, which is another name for Candlemas, which is today.

At Candlemas they remind you of the story of Simeon in the temple. Simeon was an old man who adored the infant Jesus and said that now that he had seen the Messiah that had been promised to him all these years, he could die happy. That is a painting of the incident above by Rembrandt. I never saw it before. There is something about it that gets you, you know?.

All I could think hearing the story of Simeon this morning at Mass was of this beautiful aria by Bach, "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen." It means "Fall asleep, you weary eyes." It is  from the cantata  "Ich Habe Genug" (which I like to translate loosely as "I've Had Enough"), that tells the story of Simeon.

This aria is incredible. I first heard it when I was a teenager and found a record of "Ich Habe Genug" on Seraphim. I knew nothing about Bach cantatas but I bought it because it starred Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whom I loved. Then I took it home and played it and was just kind of standing there with my mouth open. That was the strategy behind Seraphim. EMI would put irresistible music on these cut-rate records, performed by their best artists, to get you hopelessly hooked so you would go on and buy their more expensive records. They put Leonard Pennario's Rachmaninoff Third on Seraphim for instance. They knew what they were doing.

Here is the song I heard. It sounds every bit as ravishing today to me as it did then. The ecstatic melody. The way the music falls at the word "fall." "Fallet sanft und selig zu." "Fall softly and peacefully shut."

The beautiful moment when the song ends and you hear those three notes on the organ.

Oh what the heck, words are superfluous. Here it is.

Simeon in the synagogue.

Johann Sebastian Bach.