Opening heaven’s door

Posted on: 4 April 2021, by :

Most Passion dramas, in their final scenes, carefully avoid hints of the events to follow on the third day: the only joy they sometimes convey comes from the dawning realization by the centurion at the crucifixion, that Jesus truly was the Son of God. The libretto published by Barthold Heinrich Brockes (see Thursday’s post) ends instead with joyful allusions to the Resurrection and all that it means: how Christ’s victory over death ends our separation from God and is the promise of eternal life after our own death.

To achieve this Brockes prescribed, as the final movement, not his own words but three stanzas of the hymn Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist (When the hour of my death is at hand) by Nikolaus Herman (c1480-1561), traditionally sung to a melody first published in 1569. The hymn, sung here in its basic form, was well known to the eighteenth-century congregations for the Brockes Passion and remained close to people’s hearts; Robert Schumann would later write out a harmonization (here), apparently in 1856 when nearing his own death.

Retaining the old tune was essential for keeping that connection of familiarity: the various composers who set the Brockes libretto had only to harmonize the melody and add instruments. In Telemann’s case, as performed in this video, the first of the stanzas is sung plainly by soloists, the second by all the singers, accompanied by the orchestra. Made even more splendid with trumpets and horns, the final stanza gloriously ‘open heaven’s door’.

Telemann’s setting was first performed in Holy Week in 1716, in the Barfüßerkirche, Frankfurt am Main, where he was the city’s director of music. It was revived frequently in the years to follow, in Augsburg, Hamburg and Leipzig, and as far afield as Riga and Stockholm.

For more music for Holy Week and Easter, see the series from 2020.

* *  This post, on Easter Day, is in a series for Lent to Easter, 2021 * *

The final chorale in Georg Philipp Telemann’s setting of the Brockes Passion, TWV 5:1 (1716), performed on 30 March 2019 by the Apollo Ensemble, in the Oudshoornse church in Alphen aan den Rijn, Holland.

I am a member of your body,
this gives me heartfelt consolation;
from you I shall remain unseparated
in the distress and pain of death.
If I should die now, I die with you;
an everlasting life for me you have
achieved through your death.

Since you have risen from death,
I shall not remain in the grave;
my greatest consolation is your ascension,
it is able to drive away the fear of death.
For where you are, there I shall come,
so that with you I shall always live and be;
therefore I go from here with joy.
I go then from here to Jesus Christ,
I stretch out my arms;
I fall asleep and rest well,
no-one can wake me,
for Jesus Christ, God’s son,
will open heaven’s door
and lead me to eternal life.

Translation by Francis Browne.

Ich bin ein Glied an deinem Leib,
des tröst ich mich von Herzen;
von dir ich ungeschieden bleib
in Todes Noth und Schmerzen:
wenn ich gleich sterb, so sterb ich dir;
ein ewigs Leben hast du mir
durch deinen Tod erworben.

Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist,
werd ich im Grab nicht bleiben;
mein höchster Trost dein Auffahrt ist,
Todsfurcht kann sie vertreiben.
Denn wo du bist, da komm ich hin,
daß ich stets bey dir leb und bin;
drum fahr ich hin mit Freuden.

So fahr’ ich hin zu Jesu Christ,
Mein’ Arm tu’ ich ausstrecken;
So schlaf’ ich ein und ruhe fein,
Kein Mensch kann mich aufwecken
Denn Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn,
Der wird die Himmelstür auftun,
Mich führ’n zum ew’gen Leben.