Celebrating Bach! Motets & Cantatas — Mar 2009

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Program Notes

Celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach

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 at the court of Cöthen, he was required to provide new music for every important day of the ecclesiastical year (59 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.” And in fact, Bach’s obituary lists among his compositions “five full years of church pieces [cantatas], for all the Sundays and holidays.” Unfortunately fewer than half of these survive. They 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 through 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 are based on a chorale, a Lutheran tune with strophic text, often by Luther himself, appropriate for the specific day. Luther 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. The incorporation of the chorale for the specific liturgical moment invited the listeners into the performance, for everyone would have recognized the chorale, even if quoted only in the instrumental part, and sung along. 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. The cantatas virtually always conclude with the chorale in a simple harmonization.

The cantata Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131) is one of Bach’s earliest, possibly the earliest. It was composed in Mühlhausen sometime between 1707 and 1708. The autograph ends with Bach’s words “At the request of Dr. Georg Christian Eilmar [pastor of the Marienkirche] set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Organist at Mühlhausen.” The cantata was probably composed for the memorial service for victims of a fire that in 1707 raged through a quarter of the city and killed several people. It is a penitential cantata: the text is Psalm 130, plus the second and fifth verses of the chorale “Herr Jesu Christ,” written by Bartholomäus Ringwaldt in 1588 and itself based on Psalm 51. In Aus der Tiefe Bach explores the dramatic juxtaposition, so beloved of Baroque artists, between human misery (Psalm 130) and redemption through Christ (the chorale).

This early piece is unusual in its structure: composed of linked choral or soloistic sections and lacking recitatives, it resembles more a motet than a true cantata. In the first movement, after an orchestral prelude, the choir engages in a fugal treatment of the text, first in a very low range (“out of the depths I cry”) and then in a higher range and much faster tempo (“Lord, hear my calling”). The second movement is an aria for bass and the plaintive oboe. During the aria the soprano declaims the chorale stanza in long even notes. The third movement is a choral setting of verse 5 of the psalm. A slow introduction is followed by a melancholic fugue full of suspensions, against lively figurations in the strings. The fourth movement is, like the second, an aria, this time for tenor, in the midst of which an alto voice interjects a further stanza of the chorale. The sole accompaniment is the basso continuo, which repeats an ostinato figure, underscoring the reiterated waiting of the distressed soul. The closing chorus is a string of short sections in varying tempos and styles—again as in a motet—the last being a fugue.

The cantata Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 196) is also a very early work. Like Cantata 131, its text is based on a single psalm (Psalm 115: 12–15) with a final Amen. The text suggests that it may have been composed for a wedding, though not all agree with this idea. This work seems to come between the Mühlhausen group, to which Cantata 131 belongs, and the Weimar group. This chronological placement follows from both structure and style. Like Aus der Tiefe it consists of short movements in close succession—opening chorus with a sinfonia, aria, duet, and concluding chorus—and no recitatives. The instrumentation consists only of strings, and the entire piece is in C major or the relative minor.

The first choral movement, which thematically imitates the introductory sinfonia, includes a permutation fugue (see the inset on fugue) after some imitative choral passages. The third movement is an aria for soprano and violins, in A minor. This is the most modern of the movements, set in the operatic form of a da capo aria (in the form ABA) with obbligato unison violins, which quote the introductory ritornello while the soprano sings. The fourth movement is a duet for tenor and bass, with string accompaniment. In contrast to the previous movement, it is in a conservative, backward looking style. The concluding choral movement is in two parts. The first part includes some interesting chordal passages, especially its choral depiction of “Himmel und Erde” (heaven and earth) in consecutive high and low chords. The second part is a loose double fugue on the word “amen,” short and rousing. As often with the young Bach, it builds in intensity but ends on tiptoe.

The cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe (BWV 156) is for the third Sunday after Epiphany. It is an altogether different work, for soloists only except for the concluding chorale. It is a Leipzig work, and it probably premiered on January 23, 1729, on a text by Bach’s favorite librettist, Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici, 1700–1764), plus two hymn verses. One verse is from the chorale “Herr, wie du willst, so schicks mit mir” by Kaspar Bienemann of 1582 (last movement) and one from “Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt” by Johann Hermann Schein of 1628 (second movement). After a sinfonia concertante for oboe, strings, and continuo (which Bach will later reuse as the slow movement of the harpsichord concerto BWV 1056) comes an aria for tenor, with the soprano declaiming the chorale in long notes. The music depicts the text, which is from the story of Jesus’s healing the leper. For example, the first words are “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe” (I stand with one foot in the grave) and the word steh (stand) is set with a note longer than two full bars. The lowest notes of the musical line are for im Grabe (in the grave). After a bass recitative, the alto sings an aria with oboe and unison violins. The four parts (oboe, violins, continuo, and voice) share a motive they toss back and forth throughout the joyful piece. A further bass recitative ushers in the final chorale.

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 are in German and are thought to have been composed for burial services (possibly excepting “Singet dem Herrn”), though the exact occasion is known only for Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. The texts of Bach’s motets are all biblical quotations or chorale passages, except for one case of free poetry in Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229). 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, some pieces call for more instruments. For example, the surviving parts show that the first chorus in Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf was accompanied colla parte (i.e. with instruments doubling the vocal parts) and by strings, and the second chorus by reed instruments (two oboes, taille [a tenor oboe], and bassoon).

Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227) is the longest of the motets. It is scored for 5 parts (SSATB) and consists of 11 movements. The even-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 odd-numbered movements are settings of Romans 8:1, 2, 9, 10, and 11. This motet was composed no later than the first extant manuscript copy, dated 1735. It may have been composed for a memorial sermon for Johann Maria Kees delivered on July 18, 1723 in Leipzig’s St. Nicolas church.

This most monumental of Bach’s motets shows the composer’s propensity 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 musically—a straight four-part harmonization of the chorale tune, typically in “bar form” (i.e. AA B). The second and penultimate movements are on texts from Romans and are five-voice sections alternating dramatic block chords with contrapuntal movement. The penultimate movement is a condensed version of the second. The third and third-from-last movement (movements 3 and 9) are again settings of the chorale. The third movement is a five-part harmonization of the chorale tune, with active internal parts, conveying warmth and constancy. Movement 9 is a lullaby, without the basses. In this, the sweetest of the movements, two sopranos and the tenor sing their tender lullaby and the altos interject the fifth verse of the chorale, this time in the key of A minor instead of the E minor of the first movement. Movements 4 and 8 are trios, the former for SSA and the latter for AT B. Movement 4 is a short lyrical section. In contrast, movement 8 is in a lilting 12/8 and in two parts. The first part is calm and soothing, but when the text says that the spirit is living the voices engage in a romp of fast runs of sixteenth notes that drive the point home. Movements 5 and 7 are based on the chorale; but while the latter is a four-part lively harmonization, the former is a strong, almost aggressive five-part movement reminiscent of movements 2 and 10, with explosive chords and dramatic unisons. The central movement 6 is a wonderfully complex fugue for all five voices.

The text of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 22 6) 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, in a lilting 3/8 meter and in B-flat, explores the possibilities afforded by the double chorus, pitting the two ensembles antiphonally against each other or, at times, uniting them as a single eight-part instrument. The second section, in 4/4, has a fugal theme that accentuates the off beats, with accents 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 first subject is presented and explored, then the second, and then they are combined. The concluding movement is a simple four-part harmonization of the chorale by Luther.

The authenticity of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230) 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 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. It is a happy and rousing single-movement piece, followed by a triple meter alleluja.

On today’s program you can thus enjoy the most varied menu of Bach styles and forms, from the most intimate aria to a joyful double-chorus antiphonal movement, with chorale or without, with instruments obbligato and without, from stile antico movements to more modern concertato movements. All the pieces in the program include fugues or fugal movements. This being the most complex contrapuntal form, it was well suited for Bach’s main compositional goals, the worship of God and the education of his fellow human beings. Unlike his exact contemporary G.F. Handel, Bach never catered to a paying public, thus the difference in the output of the two masters. Though Bach never composed an opera, which was the leading secular genre of his time and of which Handel was perhaps the most consummate master, he did not shun operatic style, as in, for example, his da capo arias. Bach’s music, equally demanding for both singers and instrumentalists, makes no compromises for the limitations of performers, or of human listeners, his intended audience being supernatural. Bach’s music challenges all, and bestows incomparable rewards on performers and listeners alike.

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, 2009

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