Bach, Lions, and Honey, oh my! (part 1)
Soon I will be traveling back to Madison for a couple of weeks. My good friend is getting married, and it worked out that I could perform again with the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. I played with them the last couple of years, and it has always been a wonderful experience. Good music, great people, excellent experience all around. So I was very happy to find out that they were having a concert the week before my friend’s wedding, and I can participate. In this concert I will be playing three pieces, a movement from a Bach cantata, a 17th century two recorder sonata, and a 17th century bass dulcian sonata. For more info if you are in the area click here.
The movement of the Bach cantata we will be performing is Komm, du süße Todesstunde, BWV 161. We are only performing the first movement, but there is plenty to discuss in this movement alone. I prefer the translation “Come, sweet hour of death.” Some translate it as “come, o sweet hour of death,”or “come, thou, sweet hour of death” but I feel that the informal “you” in the German was intentional, and the title shouldn’t be too formal. In addition to the primary music themes, there is a secret (well not so secret, but it is played without words) embedded choral melody Herzlich tut mich verlangen, which I will talk about in part two.
So, I was working on the music line by line…
Komm, du süße Todesstunde (see above)
Da mein Geist (when my spirit, apparently an old German phrase, nowadays one wouldn’t phrase it this way)
Honig speist (honey ate/dined on honey)
Aus des Löwen Munde (out of/from the lion’s mouth)
Wait… When my spirit ate honey out of the lion’s mouth? What? Is it me, or is this a strange thing to say. So I did some research. The story of honey and lions come from the bible story about Sampson.
Here is the abridged version: Sampson saw a girl who he liked. He went to go talk to her, but right before this he was attacked by a lion. Sampson, strong guy as he was, ripped the lion in half with his bare hands. Pumped, he goes and talks to the girl he likes. After they are done talking, Sampson goes and checks out the dead lion. He finds that bees have made honey inside the lion (fast bees apparently). He says to himself, “sweet,” and takes the honey and shares it with his parents.
So, the wedding day arrives, and Sampson offers a riddle to his new wife’s clan. The stakes are if they figure it out, they receive 30 sheets and 30 sets of clothing. This must have been high quality bedding and clothing, because the other tribe is upset because they can’t figure it out. So they threaten Sampson’s new wife. She begs him for the answer, and eventually he relents and tells her. Sampson was pissed over the entire event. That was high quality bedding, he didn’t want to give it up. So he goes and kills a bunch of people, and takes their bedding.
So the question still remains for me, what exactly does honey have to do with death. OK, so honey I can see, Jesus is known to have sweeten the death deal with honey. Honey has a long history of sweetening things. However, my question is, why the lion? Why particularly the Sampson myth? Stay tuned for part 2…
The entire text of the first movement is:
Komm, du süße Todesstunde (come, you sweet hour of death)
Da mein Geist (that my spirit)
Honig speist (honey ate/dined)
Aus des Löwen Munde; (out of the lion’s mouth)
Mache meinen Abschied süße (make my departure sweet)
Säume nicht, (do not delay)
Letztes Licht (last light)
Daß ich meinen Heiland küsse (so that I may kiss my savior)