Thursday, December 20, 2018

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2018

Most years around this time, I’ve shared some thoughts about the words to some of my favorite Christmas carols – which is to say, some of my favorite things in this world. (Click here to see posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.) But in my enthusiasm, I set out to write about two different carols a year, and now I’m running out of material!

This year, it’s not a carol that I’ve been concentrating on anyway, but the first chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Here are the original words (possibly by Christian Friedrich Henrici) in German:
Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,
Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!
Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören,
Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!
And here’s a translation to English:
Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
Glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
Sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
Let us honor the name of the Lord!
It is a glorious chorus indeed that Bach serves the Highest with here, one full of the delight and happiness it calls for. The trills and the fanfares and the insistent, repeated tones in the choir, like the merry chiming of a church bell, banish all laments and give us the courage to celebrate and rejoice. The chorus accomplishes what it can of its own injunction and leads us to complete the rest of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

As one whose black humour outflows the red, yellow, and white, I tend toward the melancholy in most things. I feel justified by sober Bible passages like Solomon’s “With much wisdom comes much sorrow,” and I find great comfort in somber lines from carols such as “Rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!” But what the angels sing to me is this: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!” Yes, there is a season for everything, and Christmas – I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know – is a season for joy. If it doesn’t come naturally to me, then I need to listen to those angels, and to Bach’s chorus, and rejoice.

But look how beautifully this chorus, with at first glance no tinge of dust from the weary road, speaks to those like me. Its own celebration doesn’t come naturally, either. It tells me to get up (Auf!) and to abandon despair. Why tell me this if I have no despair to banish? (And why, the Scrooge in me asks, tell me this if I am past all hope!)

So this December I will honor Christ in two ways. Yes, I will treasure the pungency of the four minor chords on “Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices!” And I will still secretly find satisfaction in the few versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that dare use the lyric “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” But I will set these blue shades aside when I hear Bach’s clarion call and with him will praise these gladsome days.

May your days be merry and bright as you honor den Namen des Herrschers.

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