Before Bach, A Family Portrait — Oct 2008

For this concert program: Details | Translations | Notes

Program Notes

BEFORE BACH: A Family Portrait

Every genius stands on someone else’s shoulders, and often on those of unsung heroes. The composers who provided the musical foundation for Johann Sebas­tian Bach were numerous enough to fill small village. Music ran in the Bach family, and it was the Bach family’s business at least from the mid-sixteenth century on. The family tree includes no less than seventy-seven names of relatives who made music their livelihood, from Veit Bach (d. before 1578) to the generation of J.S. Bach’s grand­children (such as his grandson Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst, who died in 1845), from fiddlers to Chapel masters, from town and court musicians to organists. Two of the Bach men on today’s program, Johann Michael and his older brother Johann Christoph, were J.S. Bach’s father’s cous­ins. Johann Michael’s youngest daughter Maria Barbara became J.S. Bach’s first wife in 1707. Johann Ludwig was his second cousin once removed. Other people on the program, Buxtehude, Tunder and Gallus, also lent their shoulders for J.S. Bach to stand on, directly or indirectly. This program is dedicated to Johann Sebastian Bach’s predecessors.

The Bach family in its many generations lived and worked in a relatively limited area of central Germany. The great number of talented musicians in the family has always been a subject of intense study and speculation, not only by musicologists and historians, but also by people interested in whether this talent can be hereditary. J.S. Bach himself was interested in his genealogy and, around 1735, drew up a family tree back to Veit; this is still the most reliable document there is on the family’s musicians. He also collected and performed pieces com­posed by his family members, thus preserving many of those that would otherwise have been lost. The fact is that music was a trade to be learned, and men were destined to this career often from childhood, whether they were talented or not. Regardless, they always received super­lative training. Typically, uncles, fathers, brothers and grandfathers all taught the family youngsters. However, there is no denying that a certain widespread musical attitude and occasional talent were present. That this region of Germany was also sophisticated and densely populated, with many local churches, courts, and towns with musical ambitions also helped.

Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703) may have been the most important Bach before Johann Sebastian. In 1663, at the age of twenty-one, he was appointed organist of the Arnstadt castle chapel. Two years later, he was appointed organist at St. Georg in Eisenach, as well as harpsichordist in the court Kapelle of the Duke of Eisenach. He retained both positions until his death. J.S. Bach, in his genealogy of the family, called his cousin a “profound” composer. His music, within the style of the time, was thoughtful, singable, full-textured, complex, polyphonic. Surprisingly, for a keyboard player, he composed only a few pieces for keyboard. His vocal compositions, however, are many and varied. The concerti were particularly interesting, with elaborate and technically demanding instrumental parts. His twenty-two-part concerto for Michaelmas, Es erhub sich ein Streit, for example, is one of the greatest vocal works of the time. Both his pieces and those by his brother J. Michael show a predominance of the then older style of vocal writing, where sections of homophony (chordal movement of the parts) and sections of imitation alternate. The motet for five parts and organ “Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt” is a perfect example both of the older style as well as of Johann Christoph Bach’s splendidly expressive harmony. It also shows the typical alternation of short sections with differing tempo and meter to create variety: a second section faster than the first, though also in duple meter, is followed by an Adagio of majestic chords that introduces a lilting triple meter section, repeated twice. The Sterb-Aria (death aria) “Es ist nun aus” for four parts is a hymn-like composition with many verses (of which two will be performed) with a moving refrain on “good night World.” The text expresses a common Lutheran feeling that death is a welcome event.

Johann Michael Bach (1648–1694) was Johann Christoph’s younger brother, and like him was mostly trained by his father Heinrich and by the Kantor of Arnstadt. When his brother accepted the job at St. Georg, Johann Michael succeeded him as organist of the Arnstadt castle chapel. In 1673 he became town organist in nearby Gehren, where he also worked as an instrument maker as well as town clerk. According to J.S. Bach’s genealogy of his family, Johann Michael was a skilful composer. Others report that he was quiet and reserved. As a composer he was particularly interested in the genre of chorale motets (sacred polyphonic vocal pieces based on a chorale). He also composed works with instruments. His music has a most varied, natural, and convincing treatment of vocal declamation. Like Johann Christoph’s motets, his also abound with homophonic passages. The motet “Sei lieber Tag willkommen,” for six voices, is ostensibly for a six-part choir, but it treats the two upper parts as solos with or against the bottom four. This work is unusual also in the amount of florid passages of the more modern style of the time.

Johann Ludwig Bach (1677–1731) is from a younger generation than the other two Bach on the program. In 1699 he entered the court at Meiningen as a musician, becoming Kantor in 1703 and Kapellmeister in 1711. His output is largely vocal, though the instrumental composi­tions, of which he must have produced a great deal, are largely lost. J.S. Bach performed eighteen of his cantatas, thus preserving them, as well as his two masses. These cantatas, of an older style than those of J.S. Bach, influenced the great master’s work, at least initially, as did his passions. Today’s program consists of four of Johann Ludwig’s multiple choir motets. All of them feature al­ternating homophonic and imitative sections, as well as sections with differing tempos and meters. The alternation and coordination of the choirs lends interest and variety to the texture. The composer indulges also in occasional word painting (as opposed to the suggestion and pre­sentation of various moods and feelings). For example in “Sei nun wieder zufrieden,” when tears (Tränen) are men­tioned one or more of the parts moves chromatically to suggest the suffering and realistically paint the slow and painful shedding of tears. “Das ist meine Freude” (SATB SATB and basso continuo) plays with the triple utterance of “Das” (that) repeated multiple times both in the initial duple meter section and in the swinging second section in compound meter (6/8), where it is also associated with an undulating motive in the upper parts. The concluding section is a joyous romp for all parts. “Die richtig vor sich gewandelt” is written for three choirs but they never sing together—there are at most two choirs at any given time. The verses of this piece are set with one choir declaiming the text and another echoing it. “Ich will auf den Herren schauen” (SATB SATB and basso continuo), like the other pieces, has a new section of music for each new concept. Notice the undulating movement for “listen” (hören), first six notes per bar, and then nine, sung against the other parts’ percussive “to me” (mich). “Sei nun wieder zufrie­den” (SATB SATB and basso continuo) alternates textures and motives till the culminating point where the faithful reciting Psalm 116 states he/she will walk (wandeln) and all the parts illustrate it with undulating figures, mimicking the wandering steps.

Dieterich Buxtehude (c. 1637–1707) was the most prominent representative of the north German organ school. J.S. Bach so revered Buxtehude that he made his famous journey on foot from Arnstadt to hear him play. In 1668 Buxtehude became the organist of the Church of St. Mary’s (Marienkirche) in Lübeck and married his predecessor Franz Tunder’s younger daughter Anna Mar­garethe—a condition of his employment that he later extended to his successor. He remained in service at the church for nearly forty years. Buxtehude composed a considerable body of music, both vocal and instrumental, though many of his compositions have been lost. Of the 128 complete surviving vocal works, all but eight have sacred texts. His concertato pieces are in a form ultimately derived from the Venetian polychoral style, with a succession of short sections of text-related musical material. The cantata “Jesu meine Freude” is in several sections, one for each verse, with an opening three-part orchestral introduction. The piece is based on the chorale tune for this text as well, and paraphrases of the well-known melody can be detected throughout the work. The orchestral ensemble has an unusual color, calling for two violins, bassoon, and basso continuo. The first verse is for the entire ensemble, as are verses 4 and 6. Verses 2 and 5 are arias for soprano and continuo, while verse 3 (omitted from today’s performance) is a concertato (a piece for both instruments and voices, in the Venetian style) aria for solo bass and the entire instrumental group. Listeners with keen musical memory will want to keep this piece in mind when attending our March concert, which will feature J.S. Bach’s take on the same chorale. The concertato piece in Swedish, “Herren vår Gud” calls again for two violins and continuo, but it features a full four-part choir. The text is declaimed by the choir in homophonic fashion, with instrumental interludes, but the work con­cludes with a rousing fugal amen. His “Jubilate Domino” for alto, viola da gamba and continuo, is a multi-move­ment virtuoso cantata. The peculiarly warm sound of this piece is given by the choice of timbres: a low voice with a warm low string instrument (the viola da gamba, an ancestor of the cello, the bass of viol family) and the ever-present basso continuo. Its different sections come to a screeching halt for the word “psallite” (sing psalms), where the voice repeats the call twice and is joined by thick chords of the viola da gamba, before both run away again with their musical dialogue/fight/contest.

Jacobus Gallus (Jacob Handl 1550–1591), was a Catholic Slovenian composer and Cistercian monk who lived most of his life in Austria and Bohemia. His birth name was probably Petelin (“rooster”), which in German translates to Handl (“little rooster”) and which he eventu­ally Latinized to Gallus. It is under the latter name that he was most commonly known. We understand from various sources that Gallus was in Austria from the mid-1560s until 1575, and then spent a few years traveling around Bohemia and surrounding regions. The dedications on his works tell us that he spent much of this time living and working in monasteries. At the age of thirty, he landed his first important position as choirmaster to the Bishop of Olomouc, Stanislaus Pavlovsky, whose election to bishop Gallus celebrated with a famous seven-part hymn. Gal­lus didn’t stay long in Olomouc, and by 1686 he was in Prague, serving as Kantor in St. Jan Church. He died in Prague at the early age of forty-one, leaving an astonishing series of over five hundred works. Most of Gallus’s works are settings of sacred Latin texts: four volumes of masses from four to eight parts published in Prague in 1580, plus four parody masses (for a total of twenty masses); hundreds of motets, some of which are in the four-volume series Opus musicum, published in Prague in 1586–90; and a few secular works. The secular output includes a set of three volumes called Harmoniae morales (Prague, 1589–90), a monumental opus. His motet “Ecce quomodo” was a Good Friday staple. It is an extremely moving, intimate piece, which the SFBC last performed at the memorial service for past Artistic Director David Babbitt. The mostly chordal setting conveys the peace of death but with emotional intensity.

Franz Tunder (1614–1667) was Buxtehude’s predecessor as organist at Lübeck’s Marienkirche, and would have been Buxtehude’s father-in-law had he not died the year before his daughter’s marriage to the composer. We know little of his early training. He became organist at the court of Duke Friedrich IIIof Holstein-Gottorf in 1632. He married in 1640 and the next year he and his wife moved to Lübeck for his job as the organist at the Marienkirche. He is credited with starting the famous series of concerts called Abendmusik, which continued into Buxtehude’s tenure. Initially these performances may have been just organ performances, but gradually they expanded into a dramatic form with vocal music as well. Relatively few works of Tunder have survived—about half vocal and half organ. All of his vocal works are in a collection in Düben, which was copied relatively late. “Dominus illuminatio mea” is a concertato work for five voices, two violins, and basso continuo. It comprises several contrasting sec­tions, most choral and some instrumental or solo. In the choral portions there is great variety of style, where he alternates between different textures (groupings of parts, oppositions of textures etc.) as well as fugal and homo­phonic treatment. There is also a considerable amount of word painting, such as all the parts coming in closer and closer proximity for “dum appropiant” (as they approach, come close).

A word on the predominant texture in this concert: two violins with basso continuo. This particular combination of instruments was a favorite one in the baroque period, for which hundreds of trio sonatas were written. It was also often the solo group in a larger concerto grosso, contrasting the small group against the entire orchestra. Composers of the period liked this texture because it combined the possibilities of the newly virtuoso violin with the chance offered by a melodic duet. The two violins can play in unison or parallel motion, they can play against each other, they can dialogue, they can alternate or follow each other, or, and this was a favorite device of the time, they can engage in a string of suspensions, where they start on a consonant interval, one of the parts moves, creating a dissonance with the second, which in turn moves, resolving the discord, only to have the first part move again, and so on. The basso continuo, on the other hand, was entrusted with keeping the composition’s feet on firm ground, so to speak, as it provided the harmonic scaffolding for the two melodic instruments, most often two violins. At times it also participated in the imitative texture. At the turn of the seventeenth century, the violin started undergoing an enormous transformation into a virtuoso instrument capable of great emotional and expressive range, and the one most similar to the human voice. The famous violin makers of Cremona (the Amati, Guarneri, and finally Stradivari) were of course important in this transformation, creating instruments that are still the best ones around, highly prized and sounding like no other. No surprise then, that the composers of the time basked in the composition of works for this king of all instruments. Vivaldi composed over 230 concerti and dozens of sonatas for the violin, and of his trio sonatas fewer than ten are for a group other than two violins and basso continuo.

This concert is thus at once a showcase of the favorite baroque sound of two treble instrumental (or vocal) lines, and an excursus of the music that was heard before J.S. Bach’s, including samples from his close family members. Bach heard Buxtehude’s and Tunder’s music when he made his legendary trip to Lübeck, famously overstaying his leave by months. Another thread run­ning through this program is the choral style consisting of compositions in relatively short sections alternating different styles, tempos, meters, affect, and groupings, both in the single-choir and in the double-choir models. This music has been too often overshadowed by its later counterparts, though it is of great worth and remarkable emotional content.

—© 2008 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

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