Originally posted Dec. 27, 2010, at On the Fritz. Republished with permission of the author.
On the third day of Christmas, I came home from work and decided to spend a few hours practicing for our New Year’s Eve service.
One ongoing project has been to learn J.S. Bach’s “short” prelude (from his “Little” Organbook) on “Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich.”
As Bach infuses it with a joyous beat, the simple tune skips around like a happy child.
In the process of “understanding” the piece — as in standing under it, submitting to it — I began paying attention to how Bach “paints” the text lines of this hymn.
Here is my translation (in blank verse) of the first stanza:
This day, it is so full of joy
every creature knows it,
for God’s own Son from heaven high,
in transcending nature
was by a virgin born to us.
You, Mary, are the chosen one
as the baby’s mother.
Wondrous is what happened here:
God’s own Son from heaven high
has been born a human.
When Bach gets to the line, “Wondrous is what happened here” (German: “Was geschah so wunderlich”), the joyous beat continues but the harmonies take on what I call “micro-dissonances,” sounds that would startle us if it weren’t for the speed in which they go by.
I slowed down to truly hear how Bach “paints” the text, and realized that indeed he uses “unheard of” sounds and harmonies to express the moment in time when God “invaded from below.”
At one point during the highlighted phrase three notes that are immediate neighbors on the keyboard, C, D and E, are sounding together: An unheard of “neighborliness” of musical notes stands for the unheard of intimacy between God and humanity that we call incarnation.
Find a link to Fritz Wendt’s entry on the blog On the Fritz at Lutheran Blogs.