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Internet Monk has often noted the absence of lament in much of American church culture. Today, we present an example of a Bach chorus of lament from his cantata “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (O God, Look Down from Heaven).
It seems, when lamenting, we humans are wont to return to basics, to strip away frills and embellishments, to simply fall on our knees and cry out to God. The opening chorus from this cantata exemplifies that impulse. In the words of Simon Crouch:
When Bach had to set a severe subject, as he has to here in this chorale cantata based on Luther’s paraphrase of psalm xii., he often reached for musical procedures that were considered archaic even in his own time. In the opening chorus here, he uses a style of choral motet that is associated with Pachelbel, where the accompaniment simply takes the form of a continuo. The result is austere beauty, the altos hold the cantus firmus in long notes while the other parts sing a fugue about them.
In like manner, Julius Mincham comments that, in this work, Bach “reasserts traditional values,” presenting a piece which is raw, bare, and fundamental.
The chromatic harmony induces a harsh and arid quality to this movement which, to the modern ear, may well invoke the cold, lifeless scene of a waterless and barren planet surface. It is reminiscent of the language of some of the later works such as the Musical Offering or the Art of Fugue. …Nevertheless, Bach’s immediate message is that when we live in an environment where God’s word is absent, life may be bare and sterile.
While this may not be the uplifting, delightful Bach, BWV 2 represents the essential, realistic Bach. God’s Word has come to the desert, to make it bloom again. But much remains barren, awaiting resurrection life.
Ah God, look down from heaven
and have mercy yet upon us!
How few are Your saints,
we poor ones are abandoned;
Your Word is not upheld as true,
and faith is also quite extinguished
among all mankind.