On this night in Shakespeare’s day, there would have been wild revelry to celebrate the twelfth night of Christmas. He even named one of his plays this, a sign perhaps that it was to be performed on the twelfth night, but also a possible nod to the ways that Christmas switches around our ideas of wisdom and foolishness, poverty and wealth. This same inversion is captured for me in the wondrously celebratory first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, a piece which surprises listeners by placing the recorder, not usually a solo instrument, alongside the violin. It isn’t a Christmas carol in any sense, but I think it’s still a fitting conclusion to our early music Christmas season. It also works well as a soundtrack to one of our texts for today, Proverbs 22:2, which says, “The rich and poor meet together: the LORD is the maker of them.”
“The rich and poor meet together”
Hear this: it’s singing,
Nothing is as you have thought it to be.
Listen: the king is
enthroned, he is ruling.
Yet see how he rules, how he lays down his crown.
Watch this: the minstrels
sit at the king’s table.
See how the courtiers have no place to lounge.
are trilling in triumph.
Come to the feast! (Leave your privilege behind.)
Bach’s ‘Cello Suites are for me the supreme example of contemplation in music. They don’t deal with the emotions very much, there is nothing spectacular but just a single line unfolding itself. And I always see it as a kind of silver line in the middle of darkness…
As a child, I adored Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, especially No.4. Today’s poem, prompted by Rowan Williams’ poetic tribute to Bach’s Cello suites, takes that magnificent and rich piece as its inspiration – as well as its composer, for whom music existed “for giving honour to God and for the permissible delight of the soul”.
Concerto No.4 (After “Bach for the Cello”)
Polyphony dances the three-in-one’s consummate joy.
Staves undulate, conflicting as the cantor
gathers multiples together.
Where strings’ thrum and wood’s wind intersect,
there the rejoicing ordinary is captured,
beneath manifold sound:
Mourning and marriage run deep together;
necessity, glory, a prince’s pleasure,
all find common, circling breath,
interweaving soft as light,
The soul’s delight.
Bach for the Cello – Rowan Williams
By mathematics we shall come to heaven.
This page the door of God’s academy
for the geometer.
Where the pale lines involve a continent,
transcribe the countryside of formal light,
kindle with friction.
Passion will scorch deep in these sharp canals:
under the level moon, desire runs fast,
the flesh aches on its string,
(From The Poems of Rowan Williams, Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans, 2002)