The Heirs of a Love Song
A Bach Vespers Reflection
The following is a reflection delivered at Bach Vespers, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Terrace Park, on Sunday, October 3, 2021. The service featured a performance of J. S. Bach’s cantata In allen meinen Taten, BWV 97.
More than five centuries ago, in a little alpine town in modern-day Austria, an unknown poet wrote a love song to his city:
Innsbruck, I must leave you
For I am traveling the road
to a foreign land
In 1485, a composer named Heinrich Isaac published a musical setting of the verses. Isaac lived in Innsbruck; but then, he had lived many places. He was a remarkably well-journeyed man. Throughout his relatively long and accomplished life he lived in Flanders, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Vienna, Ausburg, Wels, and Nürnberg. His time in Innsbruck was brief, and it is hard to imagine that he had any deep affinity with the city or the original poem. But he did know change, a great deal of it, and he crafted a master song that perfectly captured the sweet, poignant sorrow. Isaac was a significant composer and wrote many works, but none that would surpass the longevity of influence of that little tune of Tyrol. His tune still has a place in hymnals today.
Some 124 years after Isaac composed Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, in 1609, Paul Fleming was born in Hartenstein, a town near the German-Polish border today. He was the son of a pastor and was well-educated in medicine and literature, including studies at a prestigious little school in Leipzig, a place called St. Thomas. As an adult, he was engaged by the local Duke as a physician, and soon after was to be sent as part of a diplomatic mission to Russia and modern-day Iran. He held a deep love of his country and had a desire for adventure, and this journey promised rewards on both counts. What he faced, though, was to be no short jaunt. As it turns out, he would never return home again.
Throughout his life, Fleming wrote poetry: love poems and religious poems, notable for their depth of feeling and fervor. He was little known, though; very few of his poems were published in his lifetime. On the precipice of this his diplomatic trip, he wrote a verse that was inspired by the original Innsbruck poem from over a century earlier, and written to be set to Isaac's music, which by now had also become a familiar German chorale:
In all that I do
I am led by God’s counsel,
who can do all and owns all;
in everything, he must give,
if it is to turn out well,
his own advice and counsel to me
Fleming's journey took him far and wide, living in various places, constantly moving. During his time in Reval (now known as Tallinn, Estonia) he got engaged. Forced to leave for his work, he returned months later to find her married to another. As he neared the age of 30, he got engaged again. He traveled to Hamburg where he had wished to settle in his soon-to-be-married life, but before he could return to his fiancé, he contracted pneumonia and passed away at the age of 31.
He, like many, looked to ancient sources for inspiration to convey thoughts and emotions that must have still resonated in 18th-century Leipzig.
Ninety-four years later (250 years from Innsbruck, if you are keeping track), in 1734, Johann Sebastian Bach used Fleming's text and Isaac's tune as the cornerstone of a new cantata that we present today. Unusually, he did not choose interpretive poetry to enhance the original text but left the chorale unchanged in the large, nine-movement work. It was most likely composed for a wedding, another journey of a sort. Bach wrote the piece late in his compositional life when his thoughts were drawn to his legacy and the conclusion of his own life's journey. He, like many, looked to ancient sources for inspiration to convey thoughts and emotions that must have still resonated in 18th-century Leipzig.
We are the heirs of a song begun five centuries ago.
And here we sit today, in a little church in Terrace Park, far from Innsbruck, or Hartenstein, or Reval, or Leipzig. We are the heirs of a song begun five centuries ago. Is there anything else from that time that we would wish to inherit? The life expectancy, the dentistry, the economic conditions? Likely not. But what about the chance to sit in communion with that unknown poet of Innsbruck? Do we not also fear change, the loss of the familiar and beloved, and the approach of an unknown future? Would we not wish to inherit the gifts of Heinrich, Paul, and Johann, and share in a journey for the ages?