Life’s Liturgy: “Wir danken dir, Gott”

Isn’t it interesting how certain pieces of music grip us and follow us throughout our lives? As a lover of liturgy, I welcome these key songs, letting them bookend chapters of my life. They are a testimony to the great Composer who is orchestrating all things for my good and his glory.

The main piece that repeatedly punctuates my life is Alexandre Guilmant’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Sinfonia from Cantata 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott.” This piece takes its inspiration from Psalm 75, which begins, “We thank you, God, we thank you and proclaim your wonders!” It is a brilliant, ecstatic dance of gratitude, conveyed upon the relentless rejoicing of Baroque motor rhythms. Just as it sounds, such rhythms begin and propel the music forward without ceasing until the final cadence.

I first began learning this piece as a senior in college and doubt that I will ever stop working on it. Although I crave mastery, I am embracing the truth that Madeleine L’Engle captures in her memoir, Walking on Water. A fellow student of Bach, L’Engle says:

“Bach is, for me, the Christian artist par excellence, and if I ask myself why, I think it has something to do with his sense of newness. I’ve been working on his C Minor Toccata and Fugue since college, and I find something new in it every day. And perhaps that is because God was new for Bach every day, and was never taken for granted.”

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle (p. 58)

This piece of music has become a source of both constancy and newness, reflecting the Spirit who—through his servant Bach—first breathed it to life. It has become a mile marker in my life. I played it for my final organ jury at Biola University, and my final Sunday at my church in Southern California. It was my audition piece for a scholarship in St. Andrew’s, as well as my postlude for my first Sunday playing there. I played it for my first Sunday as a professional organist in the midst of the pandemic.

This piece was my wedding recessional, although I was kindly advised not to play for my own wedding and hired another organist to do so. Someday, this piece will resound over my casket, provided there are still organists around. For now, I am polishing it off as I begin my first job as a director of traditional worship. I imagine it will make an appearance at Easter next year, as well as various festival days. Eventually, I will use it to bid goodbye to this chapter of my life and hello to another. “Wir danken, dir, Gott,” true to its German title, has become my recurring hymn of thanksgiving—for work, for study, for relationship and, at last, for eternity.

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