Three hundred seventy-one chorales: Book I

Detail of “Ich dank dir, lieber Herre” in Emanuel Bach’s edition of 371 chorale harmonizations by his father, Johann Sebastian—an edition left unfinished by Emanuel’s contemporary Johann Philipp Kirnberger.

This collection is a work-in progress, and a daily practice, accumulating on youtube at <http://bit.ly/371chorales2019>

Book I: Chorales 1–40 | Book II: Chorales 41–

[ANA] When old acquaintances gather as friends,
To drink and pass the time,
With no assumptions our fortunes are told
In prophesy or sign,
No promises, no certainty of grace:
The year ahead is empty.
But once in a while we can all intervene
To sing ‘for auld lang syne.’

2. Ich dank dir, lieber Herre

[TOM] As winter blows through Amsterdam
And summer brightens Namibia,
The warblers flee that bitter cold
On flights that pass over Libya.

I saw one flying just before dawn
With moonlight upon its tail
But Christmastime had come and gone—
What strangeness in their migratory path prevails.

3. Ach Gott, von Himmel sieh’ darein

[MARY] From eighteen liters, thirty-nine pints
One thousand gallons equals five cubed yards
Sixty-seven ounces, nineteen hundred grams
One thousand teaspoons of polite regards.

Is thirty-nine inches a meter long?
Times three and four hundred, a quarter mile.
A thousand more to walk a while.

4. Es ist das Heil uns kommen her

[ANA] On days of cloudless sun-lit skies
My eyes turn away the empty blue.
The endless brightness clouds my eyes
And calls back to mind my time with you.

Despite the warmth, it’s never too late
To empty back all our memories
And wonder if your love was true.

5. An Wasserflüssen Babylon

[MARY] The speed of light is much faster than sound
And sound moves faster than a cannon ball.
The English Navy is faster than Spain’s,
And Ford beats Chevy if I recall.
As slow as molasses on Christmas Day
Or delivery across the Milky Way.
That’s the quarterback pick in the draft this fall:
He’s slower than Pluto in retrograde.
But my birthday’s much slower than them all.
My birthday’s always in less than a year —
but it’s slowest of all.

6. Christus, der ist mein Leben

[MARY] You won’t believe what happened.
You’ll laugh, you’ll scream, you’ll shout.
I know this might sound crazy,
But please just hear me out.

7. Nun lob’, mein’ Seel’, den Herren

[MINA] A stone unturned for a thousand years
Conceals New York’s hopes and Birmingham’s fears.
A morgue of barnacles, dogfish, and eels
Beneath which no mortal reasons or feels.

A jaded young chorus boy tosses and turns
and shivers and winces and burns,
A sentry assembles decisively there
the passers-by can’t help but stare.
An accidental war looms
with no disentangled tales,
No wealth unhinged, no language torn,
No noble purpose to which its heart avails.

8. Freuet euch, ihr Christen

[MARY] Noiselessly they gather near it
Search for footing by its base
Set each stance with stealth and grace
Then in concert raise their pincers
Tilt their object from its place
Tilt their object from its place

Crabs don’t often work together
This stone, though, caught their attention.
Underneath it
Lies a secret
That requires their intervention.

9. Ermuntre dich, mein schwacher Geist

[ANA] I often try to tell myself that shopping’s like a plan
To help me organize my healthy eating if I can.
I try buy a pound or two of veggies nuts and fruits
And boycott all the companies we know are in cahoots.

But look — to whom have I been telling all these high ideals?
(The self to whom the ruse, yes quite transparently appeals — )
I breeze right past the cookies in the bag marked “Pepperidge”
While kale and leeks I bought last week still wilt there in my fridge.

10. Aus tiefer Not schrei’ ich zu dir

[JIE YU] After the clients had had their say
One younger father approached the stand.
Red checkered tie with a hint of grey —
Addressed the plaintiffs and clasped his hands.

Though he conveyed his solemn regret
His words avoided certainties,
Seemed neither improvised nor planned.

11. Jesu, nun sei gepreiset

[ISSA] The air was cold and quiet
No starlings in the trees
Our teacher now beside us
Was fumbling for his keys.
My classmates’ clothing glistens
The hue of horses’ milk,
Embroidered, cuff to collar
With taffeta and silk.
And then just one low harp string
A pluck, before inquiring.

I cannot recall a gate latch
Released with such a sound.
The morning has lit the garden —
Our purpose has been found!
Our teacher writes the lesson
And we must take it down.

12. Puer natus in Bethlehem

[TOM] On northern shores of Kasos and Crete
Purple herons descend.
The wood lark sings lightly and low
At marshes where the Platys river bends.

13. Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ

[ANA] The left has a fetish for blogs about books;
Usually conservatives don’t want to read past the second page.
Liberals don’t know how to tell good dirty jokes;
The right wing always demands equal time for their fake outrage.

Conservatives happily toe the line
When anyone questions what’s yours or mine.
But liberals don’t make very much sense—they stay on the fence
When asked if Wall Street conspires with governments.

14. O Herre Gott, dein göttlich Wort

[MARY] The crickets chant till half past nine
The rock doves awaken me at just about five.
My sister sleeps till breakfast time
When peahens are nervous as the kestrels arrive.
The fog retreats
As sunlight meets
A minor chorus of sparrows.
Still two more moons of winter though,
The breadth of nighttime so slowly narrows.

15. Christ lag in Todesbanden

[ISSA] My teacher completes the morning prayer,
And then he dictates a verse in Farsi.
Once duhr has been said, we sing and play
A tune by Bey — or Dede- Efendi
Asr resounds. Then we learn to swim.
Till the evening, we practice javelin.
Whether cabbage or okra wins
Maghrib still begins.

16. Es woll’ uns Gott genadig sein

[TOM] I dreamt that warbler drifted aloft to Spain
Alone in bleaker winds by the Pyrenees.
She’d traced the coast of Corsica in vain:
An ordinary gale caught her from the east.
The highlands warmth in quick demise,
She fled to cliffs where the currents rise
But January clouds, so dark and low
Bring cold that migrants who usually go
In early winter couldn’t recognize.

17. Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag

[ANA] What can I say that has not been said?
Which of our myths might speech displace
Assembling veracity in its stead?
How seldom words have held their ground
when reason fled.

18. Gottes Sohn ist kommen

[ANA] Now to discover that you were never mine—
Feel that sting of truth within?
And you ask if I’d ‘undo time’
Altering what determines the end?
Or just to re-compose that tale?
I would do it all again.
I would do it all again.

19. Ich hab’ mein’ Sach’ Gott heimgestellt

[MINA] The arbiter of full release
In fullness faces off its bests.
Requires that pulse, that altitude
To come to rest —
To see its grievances addressed.

20. Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott

[JIE YU] I’ve seen injustices blithely deployed
To amplify and manage my fears.
My cares were trivialized, mimicked, destroyed
Their prudent discontinuance nears.
Intensify a doubt, with an impossible sign —
A steeper incline. A fierce embattled old shrine,
Reduced to how it precisely appears.

21. Herzlich tut mich verlangen

[MINA] On Gabilan mountain slopes where you’ll find her eggs,
On arkose lodged in soil—
(She clings to it, with six hundred eighteen legs
Or furls into a coil)
A hundred sixty bodies, aligned,
And no repetition found:
Unevenly spaced projecting spines,
And from some, silk swaddles her round and round.

22. Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele

[MINA] Yet some toxin labors through its course,
Through her curt, inchoate, and varied limbs.
Fails to feel that warm uncommon force
Convoluting before the forest dims.
False-sounding swallows beckon from the ridge crest
Live oak and knobcone turning and receding.
Some smoother vessel surrounds her in the distance:
Punished her honest unbelieving.

23. Zeuch ein zu deinen Toren

[ANA] Let’s reacquaint ourselves today
With consequences, though —
Since Lee announced this court delay,
Let’s rethink what we know.

[JIE YU] The four defendants involved
Could ask about the April file
Report all the correlates unresolved
And push this case to trial.

24. Valet will ich dir geben

[ISSA] Take our cavalry astride from the cliffs to the coast!
From Bruges to the Baltic flow!
Channel rivers into lakes, burrow tunnels and moats!
Touch paths with the northern snow!
Send our ecumenicals to win the peace,
Hire a merchant fleet
To forge a competitive advantage
In Malta, Rome, and Crete!

25. Wo soll ich fliehen hin

[MINA] The arbiter of joy
With joy, will enter here
To elevate our functions of mind:
From pleasures no one dares to employ
To false or misapprehended flights of fear
And happiness redefined.

26. O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort

[ISSA] If the Okra team can retain their lead
We’ll get figs and bulgur-stuffed roast trout
As Suleiman demanded.
And if Cabbage wins we’ll have buried lamb
With an onion broth and soft white rice.
Our brother Hamid planned it.
I wish each day were tournament day,
When no one’s reprimanded!

27. Es spricht der Unweisen Mund

[RICO] What else could you want from this ordeal?
What other purpose might we define?
What new obligation should I feel?
You’ll cite no debt this court could align.
An ocean stands between us now —
A distance you won’t easily cross.

[JIE YU] Yet identical fears tangle everyone’s brow.

28. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland

[ANA] When your heart takes in their impatience and alarm
And what else their calculation unbinds.
I’ll find us a view of the ocean
And a morning of color to draw to our minds.

29. Freu’ dich sehr, o meine Seele

[MINA] If the Portsmouth traffic is slow
Leave by six and take M4
Once you’ve passed the junction to Bath
Call me, I’ll unlock the door.
If you’re tired from last night’s news
Get some sleep, I’ll understand.
Turn your mind to what you know, what you choose
Soon you’ll tell me all about it as we planned.

30. Jesus Christus, unser Heiland

[MINA] Solely lent to the tracing of forms
as they pass over its eyes,
Yet exceeding currents of grey behind the black,
Some unfamiliar yellows and maroons arise.
A new moving ground from which the figures now subtract.

31. Ach lieben Christen, seie getrost

[ISSA] In the land of Samarkhand lived a cook
Whose soup was treasured from Persia to Troy.
Nusradin, they called him. “Prince of the Broth!”
So Countess Nazanin came to his door.

She commissioned him with twelve fattened drakes
To make a tureen of soup for a feast!
Nazanin bequeathed it: “Soup of the Duck”
To feed her entourage for days beyond.
And still the countess asked our cook to indulge
A few more relatives — “just hangers-on” —

(Or was the poultry not sufficiently plump?”
With no complaining he humbly obliged.)

Then arrived the niece of Nazanin’s niece…
And that should warrant a ladle at least!
Yet a bit nonplussed, she asked Nusradin
“What sort of soup is this?” He answered so plain
“It’s the soup of the soup of the duck.”

32. Nun danket alle Gott

[TOM] This stance I won’t relent!
My allies gather, quiet, but free
Your persecution’s spent,
And countermands you elegantly.

But my notes drift out of tune
As passersby appear
And leave me just as soon
A pawn in a wide frontier.

33. Herr, ich habe missgehandelt

[MINA] One public office left to its own devices —
Witnesses with more to say.
Stocks and discretionary accounts in crisis,
Helpless patriarchs in grey.

Shore-side engines disassembled:
Cormorants compete to nest
Above their stone-red pools.

34. Erbarm’ dich mein, o Herre Gott

[MINA] The arbiter of clear intent
Predicts a porous vehicle,
An occupant with no pretense:
Its boundaries unseeable.

A message compromises us
And anxiously calibrates a new return.
A luminary advises us
To thoughts and impressions
Fully and intentionally learned.

35. Gott des Himmels und der Erden

[ANA] Life, for days and weeks beyond this middleground,
Feels like bending a promise to some silent, lost child.
No reminding sense of warmth felt when he’s found,
Then to hear other words at once more awful. And wild —

Open me, old friend, to your sweeter sounds
Judge this distance finally reconciled.

36. Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist

[MARY] Accounting twelve full jars of affected grain
To the reason why our best estimates were low
We return to the scales again
With fifteen liters in tow.
So please set about your work
Correcting the measures,
If you think you know.

37. Jesu, der du meine Seele

[TOM] Happiness comes to all of us at least once,
And yes, my daughter, it came to me at your birth.
Nevertheless, when joy is an ambition
Peculiar stalemates and circular logics thrive.

Those who’ve pursued it know that on this adventure
Other virtues evade our attention.
Sense of purpose. Integrity.
Practices, connections, and the care of friends.

38. Straf’ mich nicht in deinem Zorn

[JIE YU] Wisdom means distinguishing
The foolish from the brave.
Dreams from mere prospectus
But if we die and don’t discern
The damned from the saved
Wisdom won’t quite resurrect us.
Nature like no mirror reflects us
Can’t distinguish the wheat from the chaff
Nor Cape Cod from Texas.

39. Ach was soll ich Sünder machen

[TOM] Purpose, integrity, fulfillment.
Any one can experience them,
Even — or especially — when all seems lost.
Sadness helps survey the world’s
Persistent minor losses.

[JIE YU] Depression’s not a prophesy or a gift!
Don’t protect it at any cost.

40. Ach Gott und Herr

[MARY] The clothes-pins bloom
And the fav’rites presume
A faster gigue on the level.
A squeeze of lime
With cumin and thyme
Then throw the ballast to the devil.

[ Proceed to Book II: Chorales 41– ]

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Ben Leeds Carson

Data-driven piano music. Post-secondary public education. Post-primary public wellness. Mindlessness therapy. <http://benleedscarson.com/>