The Cross in the Close – RPC Music Notes, 22 Sep 2019

Choir of St John’s College Cambridge (NB: score is in F major, but motet is sung in A-flat).

I had some of my most formative experiences in the early 2000’s playing organ continuo for the legendary Hellmuth Rilling during the years of the Toronto International Bach Festival at U of T.

Rilling brought an incomparable international reputation, an immense discography, a devotion and gravitas concerning the music of Bach and a formal yet productive rapport with an orchestra and choir of the city’s top musicians. But the now-86 year old retired icon brought something else very particular to me, a feat he seems invariably to accomplish with young musicians. In my case it was a greatly enriched appreciation for symbolism in music: Bach was a master not only of the art and craft of musical composition, but also of the meaningful incorporation of rhetortically significant musical devices in the service of text.

Just one among dozens of allusions Bach ‘baked’ into his vocal and choral music is variously known by “chiasmus”, “circulolo”, “grupolo”, the “X-motif”, or even just “the sign of the Cross” (German: ‘Kreuze’). It is a short four-note melodic shape: a note, a higher note, a LOWER note than the first, and finally a HIGHER note than the first. This notation shows three examples of the use of this distinctive four musical notes which, when connected by line 1 to 3 and 2 to 4, form the sign of the cross.

No.I is from Bach’s Cantata BWV 4 (Versus V) – the “chiasmus” depicts the word ‘Kreuzes’. No.II is a version Bach enjoyed: by inverting (turning it upside-down) and using the German name ‘H’ for the note B-natural he, and many many composers paying homage since, could sign his name.

No.III is by turn-of-the 17th century English composer Orlando Gibbons, who historian Frederick Ouseley crowned “The English Palestrina,” and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould named as his favourite composer. (Gould wrote of Gibbons’ hymns and anthems: “ever since my teen-age years this music … has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.”)

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities,
And in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth Thy right hand
to help and defend us.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Collect for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, The Book of Common Prayer (1549)

Bach did not invent the trick of writing a cross-shape into a Christ reference – indeed Gibbons “Almighty and Everlasting God” was written a half-century before Bach’s birth (and by an Englishman not thought to have left his home country), but it is interesting to see the device unmistakably in use at the close of this beautiful short anthem, on “Through Christ our Lord”, the first and only reference to Jesus in the text.

My musical ears and brain were attuned to this and many other hidden building blocks of music with Maestro Rilling: as Wes takes us through the incomprehensible parable of the Dishonest Steward, let us always look for the ‘hidden gem’ that touches and heals, even while it seems to confound.