J.S. Bach—Sacred Cantatas & Motet Komm Jesu, Komm — Oct 2007

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Program Notes

J.S. BACH—Sacred Cantatas and Motet Komm Jesu, komm

Today’s concert presents all sides of J.S. Bach’s production, from the intimate to the most elaborate and solemn, but without the “bombastic” reserved for the great crowd moments of the Passions and the like. The program centers around Bach’s cantatas, and includes one of the three grand eight-part motets, Komm Jesu komm (the choir presented another one, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, last year in October, with Mr. Jamason conducting).

Komm, Jesu komm, BWV 229, is set for two SATB choirs. It was meant to be performed with instrumental doubling, or at least a basso continuo accompaniment. The word “motet” usually referred to a sacred composition in Latin, to be performed either during worship or mass, or in a non-liturgical setting. Bach’s motets, instead, are in German and are thought to have been composed mainly for burial services, with the possible exception of “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied.” Komm, Jesu komm was composed sometime before 1732, the year in which the oldest surviving manuscript was copied by a student of the master. This motet 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 eleventh stanzas of the original. 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, the 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 a chorale, for example setting the first stanza, phrase by phrase as if it were biblical prose. However, he did not ignore the textual structure altogether. For example, the text of the hymn is in Barform (i.e., AAB), and Bach gives the two “A” sections similar music. The second stanza, which is the last page of the musical setting, is instead treated very much like a chorale, in a fairly straightforward four-part harmonization Bach labels “Aria.”

Like all Bach’s motets, “Komm” unfolds in several movements that contrast in technique, rhythm, meter, affect, and texture, each (except the last one) exploring the antiphonal possibilities of the double choir. The first section, setting the first five of the eight verses of the hymn stanza, 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 punctuates the short movement, in a calm triple meter. Verse 6 follows, changing the texture to a fugue. Here the two choirs are treated not as such, but as one eight-part choir taking part in a remarkable fugue. The dissonant and unsettling fugue theme (including first an upward movement of a semitone, and then a falling diminished seventh—a very harsh interval) aptly underscores the text, which speaks of a bitter path. After the fugue is the third section, setting the seventh verse—a fast romp in common time (quadruple meter), with the two choirs almost frantically chasing each other. The last verse of the stanza, verse 8, is given most of the weight of the piece, occupying roughly half the measures of the entire piece. This portion is in a different meter altogether (6/8, a compound meter that has two beats, each subdivided into three). This complex meter may relate to the text, which says that “this is the right way.” By including twos and threes in the rhythm, Bach is including both divine perfection (three) and human imperfection (two). This is the most complex and virtuosic of the movements, with chains of suspensions, runs and blocks of sound, and twelve full repetitions of the text. The piece concludes with a simple four-part chorale.

In the summer of 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach started what was to be his 27-year tenure as Kapellmeister for the main churches of Leipzig. Wherever Bach was employed, except the court of Cöthen, he was required to provide new music for every important day of the ecclesiastical year (fifty-nine days including Sundays and holidays), and this meant, for the most part, writing cantatas. In his first five years in Leipzig he composed a new work (or sometimes reworked an earlier one) for each of the required days, composing thus five complete “cantata cycles.” As a matter of fact, Bach’s obituary lists among his compositions “five full years of church pieces [cantatas], for all the Sundays and holidays.” Unfortunately, only a portion of those survive (fewer than half). These range in style from the most intimate work for a single voice with basso continuo accompaniment, to the most grand and triumphant.

The cantata was an integral part of the Lutheran service, with a text determined by the liturgical calendar. The cantata thus performed the liturgical task of interpreting the Gospel for the day in terms of music. In Leipzig, the principal Sunday service, which included the cantata, could last as long as four hours if there were many communicants.

Bach’s cantatas come in several types. Most (like BWV 33 and 178 on today’s program) are based on a chorale, a Lutheran tune with strophic text, often by Luther himself, appropriate for the specific day. Luther in fact believed that it was important for the congregation to participate in the music of the service (unlike the Catholic church of the time, where the music was reserved to the organist and the choir). By the later baroque, the incorporation of the chorale for the specific liturgical feast invited the audience into the performance, for everybody would have recognized (and sung) the chorale, even if quoted only in the instrumental part. When quoted only by the instruments, the chorale adds an implicit layer of meaning—its tacit words—to the text being sung. The cantatas often start with a complex choral and instrumental movement (sometimes preceded by an instrumental prelude, sinfonia, or overture), followed by a sequence of recitatives and arias and at times another choral movement, and virtually always conclude with the chorale in a simple harmonization.

The three cantatas performed by the Bach Choir today come from the Leipzig period and are all cantatas for the period after Trinity. All of them start with a four-part chorus with instrumental accompaniment of oboes, string, and continuo (plus a flute for BWV 102 and a horn for BWV 178), continue into a series of solo recitatives and arias (and a chorale for BWV 178), and conclude with a fourpart harmonization of a chorale. All three also share the peculiarity of not including a soprano among the soloists, and of being “summer” cantatas: BWV 178 was first performed on July 30, 1724; BWV 33 on September 3, 1724; and BWV 102 on August 25, 1726. The first two belong to the second cantata cycle of Leipzig, known as the “Chorale cycle” for it includes mostly chorale cantatas.

Cantata BWV 102 “Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben” (“Lord, your eyes look for faith”) has seven movements in the usual pattern: an initial chorus, a concluding chorale, and in the middle two recitatives, two arias, and an arioso (an arioso is something more lyrical and melodic than the straightforward narrative of a recitative, but less so than an aria). The pattern is symmetrical around the central arioso (the outer movements are for chorus, the second and second to last are recitatives, the third and third to last are arias, and the central one is the only arioso, on a biblical text, Romans 2:4–5, and marks the end of part one).

The architectural symmetry of many of Bach’s works (such as many cantatas and the very core of the B minor mass, the Credo), as well as the frequent utter complexity of his fugues, reflect the master’s preoccupation with music being fit for God with no exceptions made for human ease of performance or understanding.

The first movement, a monumental and solemn concerto, features a somewhat unusual beginning, followed by a number of fugues. An elaborately written instrumental overture opens the movement in which the oboes and violins take turns dialoguing or accompanying each other. At the start of the choral portion, the four parts invoke “Herr” (Lord) and then one continues alone (first the alto and then, after a choral episode, the soprano). During the entire movement the instruments actively participate in the texture, at times doubling the parts, at times playing independent lines. The two fugues are different in character—the first one lighter and bouncier, the second more serious and rigorous. The text is from Jeremiah 5:3. This movement reappears as the “Kyrie” of the g minor “Lutheran” mass BWV 235.

Only the continuo group accompanies the following recitative for the bass. The alto then follows with a delightfully plaintive and slow aria, accompanied by the splendid voice of one of the oboes. This movement was to be reused by Bach as the “Qui tollis” movement of the F major “Lutheran” Mass BWV 233, the initial wailing of the oboe and the voice on “Weh” (woe) expressing the sorrow of “qui tollis peccata mundi.” This aria also features tortuous and broken lines representing the pain of the soul on the verge of falling from divine grace. The central arioso for the bass (on text from the letter of Paul to the Romans 2:4–5) is a vivacious romp in 3/8 meter (a fast and bouncy 1-2-3) with the accompaniment of the entire string section, which carries more of the musical interest than the voice. The vocal part is more virtuosic in the central section than in the first and in the final short reprise of the first.

The “Parte 2da” (second part) opens with an aria for the tenor and solo transverse flute (as opposed to the recorder), though a version for violino piccolo from 1737 also survives. This aria also reappears in the third movement of the F major Lutheran Mass, this time as the “Quoniam.” The instruments open and close the movement with identical music (a ritornello or refrain). This movement expresses the anguish and fright of the text. The final chorale harmonization is preceded by a recitative for the alto and the two oboes.

Cantata BWV 33 “Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” (“In you alone, Lord Jesus Christ”) is in six movements: a choral concerto, two pairs of recitative-aria, and a concluding chorale. The chorale that forms the basic structure of the cantata was composed and written by Konrad Hubert in 1540. The chorale itself has only four stanzas (unusually few), though each counts nine verses. Bach quotes the outer two in their entirety in the outer two movements, while he freely paraphrases the central two in the two recitative-aria pairs. The opening grandiose movement alternates choral episodes with instrumental ritornelli separating each verse. The main musical interest lies in the alternation, dialogue, and swapping of parts of the oboes and violins. The chorale melody is, as always, in the soprano part and the other parts join it either homophonically or in imitation.

The two recitatives (the first for the bass and the second for the tenor) are both secco recitatives (that is with the exclusive accompaniment of the continuo). The first aria, for the alto delicately accompanied by the strings, is a dramatic and intense piece. While the first violin, muted, and the voice carry the pathos of the text in a moving melody, the other strings, in a continuous pizzicato, portray the “steps” of the faithful. The other aria is actually a duet for tenor and bass, with the two oboes. The text centers on the prayer for the day, with references to the Good Samaritan and the Great Commandment. The two voices are thus “neighboring” and homogeneous (the two male parts) and are treated in a similar fashion throughout, either in canon or together as an entity. The congregation would have joined in the singing of the four-part harmonization of the last stanza of the chorale that concludes the cantata.

Cantata BWV 178 “Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält,” (“When the Lord God does not stick with us”) is another chorale cantata, incorporating a tune and text of 1524 by Justus Jonas, the text of which is based on psalm 124, verse 1. The chorale has eight seven-line stanzas. The cantata consists of seven movements and Bach sets the last two stanzas of the chorale to the same, twice repeated, music in the last movement. The chorale tune is, like most, in Barform—the two A sections have two phrases and B has three. The initial chorale-fantasia is a grand movement, structured in the same shape as the chorale tune, but with instrumental interludes (ritornelli) between each line of the chorale, which is quoted by the sopranos (doubled by the horn) in long notes. The other parts alternate between a simple four-part harmonization of the chorale and a motet-like imitative texture. Bach’s attention for and interest in structural and architectural detail has been mentioned above. This movement is further proof of this characteristic: each of the seven lines of text is set in exactly six measures; each of the sections (A, A, and B) is bookended by a 13-measure ritornello; in between each verse of the A section is a six-measure ritornello but the B section is also symmetrical around the center:

Furthermore, the cantata itself has an initial, central, and final chorale movement (the outer two for chorus), separated by two pairs of recitative (with chorale) and aria. The central chorale movement, No. 4, is given to the tenor and two oboi d’amore in imitation.

The two “recitatives,” Nos. 2 and 5, are “tropes” in that the chorale tune and text are troped (commented upon) by the recitative that interpolates the verses. In No. 2 the chorale is entrusted to the solo alto, while in No. 5 it is sung in the standard four-part harmonization. The recitatives are settings of free poetry by unknown author. The two arias (Nos. 3 and 6) are both accompanied only by strings: violins in unison with the bass in No. 3, three-part strings with the tenor in No. 6. In the arias the chorale text is paraphrased but the tune is not quoted.

Since the point of the cantata was to comment on the reading for the day, and music was an integral part of the service, not a decoration, Bach always paid strict attention to the text he was setting. A full discussion of the various ways in which he does this would take far more space than is proper here, but some instances can be pointed out. For example, in the initial movement, the fear of the faithful of standing alone and not with God is portrayed by the first oboe starting the entire piece by itself, almost as an outcry. In No. 3 notice the raging wrath of the ocean waters in the violins’ wavy lines as well as the storm in the voice. The peaceful strings and tenor of No. 6 calm the fury of the lions in No. 5. Bach portrays the text in many more ways, both small and large, of course, and some have been mentioned before (including the architectural features).

This concert, exclusively devoted to Bach’s music of the early Leipzig period, shows a cross-section of the technique, style, and pathos of the master settling into the job of his life, having finished his apprenticeship, a fully mature artist devoted to the worshipping of God through music and to the education of his pupils, multiple children, and humanity at large. Multiple riches dot this program, which offers something for each different person.

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2007

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.