J.S. Bach Motets — Mar 2013

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Program Notes

The word “motet” (from the French mot, “word, saying”) usually referred to a sacred composition in Latin, whether performed in a liturgical or non-liturgical setting. Bach’s six motets, however, are in German and are thought to have been composed for funeral settings (possibly excepting Singet dem Herrn), though the exact occasion is known only for Der Geist hilft. The texts of Bach’s motets are all either biblical quotations or chorale passages, except for one case of free poetry in Komm, Jesu, komm. Most of the motets are for double choir, suggesting that in each case Bach had at his disposal additional singers besides his young school cantors. As was customary in Germany, all of the motets have a basso continuo accompaniment, which supports the choral edifice by including the lowest sounding pitch at all times. However, as some theorists, such as Johann Mattheson, explained, it was customary to double the vocal parts with instruments (or even replace them if there weren’t enough singers), provided the doubling covered only existing notes, without embellishment and provided all the text was sung by someone. For example, the surviving parts show that the first chorus in Der Geist hilft was accompanied by strings colla parte (i.e. with instruments doubling the vocal parts), and the second chorus by reed instruments (two oboes, taille [a tenor oboe], and bassoon).

Jesu, meine Freude is the longest of the motets. It is scored for 5 parts (SSATB) and consists of 11 movements. The odd-numbered movements are settings of the six verses of a chorale that first appeared in 1653, with text by Johann Franck and music by Johann Crüger. The even-numbered movements are settings of Romans 8:1, 2, 9, 10, and 11. This motet was composed no later than 1735, when the first extant manuscript copy is dated. It may have been composed for a memorial sermon for Johann Maria Kees delivered on July 18, 1723 in Leipzig’s St. Nicolas Church. The eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff suggests that it might also have been composed for pedagogical purposes and regular performance, to educate his pupils in choral and compositional matters, as well as theological exegesis. This motet shows the composer’s penchant for architectural symmetry, the supreme example of which is probably the Credo of the Mass in B minor. Here the first and last movements are identical—a simple four-part harmonization of the chorale tune. The second and penultimate movements are for five voices and alternate dramatic block chords with contrapuntal movement; the penultimate movement is in fact a condensed version of the second. A further step in, the third and third-from-last movements are again settings of the chorale. Movements 4 and 8 are trios, the former for SSA and the latter for ATB. Movements 5 and 7 are based on the chorale and the central movement 6 is a wonderfully complex fugue for all five voices.

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied was composed in Leipzig sometime between June 1726 and April 1727, perhaps for a memorial service for Christiane Eberhardine, the Queen of Poland, held in September of 1727. The text includes quotations from Psalms 149 and 150, a stanza from a hymn by Johann Gramann (“Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren,” c. 1530—with its customary tune), and, in the motet’s aria, a new text. Again, Singet dem Herrn unfolds in contrasting movements, each exploring the antiphonal possibilities of the double choir. The first and third movements are like a concerto in the alternation of different forces and sonorities; the second juxtaposes an aria and a chorale and concludes with a grand fugue. This form, together with the mystery of what occasioned the work, has led Christoph Wolff to suggest that it, too, might have been composed as a choral etude, or study, for double choir, to show his pupils how the composition and scrutiny of such pieces fit into the duties of choral scholars. This piece has three movements, the central one featuring a foursquare chorale in one choir alternating with a lyrical aria in the other. Bach left a slightly enigmatic note in one of the copies instructing the performers to sing this movement twice, with the two choirs swapping roles the second time through.

The text of Der Geist hilft is from Romans 8:26–27, plus the third stanza of the chorale “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott,” composed in 1524 by Martin Luther. This motet was composed, as Bach himself wrote on the holograph, “for the burial of the late professor and rector [Johann Heinrich] Ernesti” (headmaster of the Thomasschule) in Leipzig in October 1729. The first movement, barcarolle-like in a buoyant 3/8 meter, evokes the gracious ease with which the Spirit—a freshening waft in lieu of our helpless breath—stands in, for those in grief, “with sighs too deep for words.” The second section has a fugal theme that accentuates the offbeats, with stresses placed by Bach in unusual places. The next movement, alla breve, is again a fugue, in fact a double fugue, in stile antico and with the two choirs joined into one. Here the two subjects are first explored in turn, then in combination. The concluding movement is a simple four-part harmonization of the chorale by Luther.

Komm, Jesu komm was likely composed for a funeral service or a memorial. The text is that of a hymn written in 1684 by Paul Thymich (1656–1694) for the burial of the rector of the Thomasschule, Jacob Thomasius, and was originally set to music by Johann Schelle. The motet by Bach includes the first and 11th stanzas of the original chorale. The text itself has a biblical basis: each stanza ends with a quotation or a paraphrase of John 14:6—“Ich bin der Weg und die Wahrheit und das Leben (I am the Way, Truth, and Life).” The shape of the hymn is that of a chorale in both structure and prosody. Nonetheless, Bach treats it quite differently than he would a chorale, for example setting the first stanza phrase by phrase as if it were biblical prose. The second stanza, which is the last page of the musical setting, is by contrast treated very much like a chorale, in a straightforward four-part harmonization he labels “Aria.” Like all Bach’s motets but Lobet den HerrnKomm, Jesu komm unfolds in several movements that contrast in technique, rhythm, meter, affect, and texture, each except the last capitalizing on the sounds and textures afforded by antiphonal double choirs. The first section starts with a four-fold invocation on “Komm,” steadily mounting in intensity, and setting the stage for the rest of the section. In this first part each of the verses is given new music, and most of the texture consists of blocks of sound juxtaposed in pure Venetian fashion. A number of poignant silences punctuate the short movement, in a calm triple meter. This is followed by a fugue, where the two choirs are treated as one eight-part choir. The dissonant and unsettling fugue theme (including first an upward movement of a semitone, and then a falling diminished seventh—a harsh interval) aptly underscores the text, which speaks of a bitter path.

The authenticity of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden has been questioned, and there are too few arguments on either side to make a definite statement. The text is Psalm 117. The motet’s dating is also uncertain, though it probably stems from before Bach’s tenure at Leipzig. It has also been suggested that it might be a portion of a lost cantata. It is the only motet to include a separate organ part. The piece is a happy and rousing single-movement work, concluded by a triple meter alleluja.

Bach’s motets exemplify the master’s capacity to depict words and convey emotion while exploring a gamut of genres, styles and techniques. There are intimate arias and chorales, majestic antiphonal “Venetian” moments, intricate choral fugues, text imagery, fugal movements with the chorale tune floating on top, and free poetry. And there is a lot more, of course. The temper of these pieces—at times meditative, always joyous—might seem at odds with their use for memorials or funerals. On the contrary, they affirm Pietism’s approach toward death so vividly expressed by Bach: death as welcome release and new beginning. We hope you will share with us the joy of these magnificent works.

—© 2013 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

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