J.S. Bach, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied & other works — Oct 2006

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Program Notes

J.S. BACH: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied and other works

Today's concert features two grand settings of "Singet dem Herrn," both written for two full choirs: the first of Bach's motets and one of Schütz's psalm settings from Psalmen Davids. The other works heard today, two short pieces by Bach, complement these well.

Our central work is Bach's monumental "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied," BWV 225. 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 are in German and are thought to have been composed mainly for burial services, with the possible exception of "Singet." This motet was composed in Leipzig sometime between June 1726 and April 1727. The texts of Bach's motets are usually biblical quotations or chorale passages. The text of "Singet" includes quotations from Psalms 149 and 150, a stanza from a hymn by Johann Gramann ("Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren," c. 1530--its customary tune is used), and, in the motet's aria, a new text.

Like all Bach's motets, "Singet" unfolds in several movements that contrast in technique and texture, 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 occasion the motet was intended for, has led the eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff to suggest that Bach might have composed it as a choral etude for double choir, to show his pupils how the composition and study of such pieces fit into the lives and duties of choral scholars.

In the opening movement, the two choirs first alternate singing chords against a set of flourishes for the word "singet" ("sing") and then trade phrases back and forth. An elaborate fugue at "die Kinder Zion" constitutes the second part of the movement. After this contrapuntal flurry comes the comparatively peaceful second movement, in which the foursquare chorale in one choir matches and alternates with the lyrical aria in the second choir. Bach left a slightly enigmatic note in one of the sources instructing the performers to sing this movement twice, with the two choirs swapping roles the second time through. This is how you will hear it today. The third movement is again a lively, imitative, contrapuntal, and antiphonal one, concluding with a renowned and marvelous fugue for two choirs in unison ("Alles was Odem hat lobe den Herrn," "let everything that breathes praise the Lord").

The program includes two more vocal pieces by Bach. The first is a one-movement work that Bach labeled a motet, though it has often, and incorrectly, been called a cantata: "O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht," BWV 118b. This motet was composed around 1736. It is scored for portable instruments so that it could be played during a funeral procession. Thus in a first version it included two litui (an archaic trumpet), a cornetto, and three trombones. A later version--the one heard today--dates from about 1746 or 1747 and uses instruments for stationary performance: two litui, three oboes (these parts are played by strings today), bassoon, strings, and continuo. This motet is retrospective in its use of litui and homophonic writing, and it includes a chorale tune by Martin Behm going back to 1610.

The final Bach vocal work on our program is also somewhat difficult to categorize, though it has often been called a motet. Like the previous work, "Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren," BWV 231 is scored for SATB choir. Composed after January 1725, it is set with two different texts, either "Sei Lob und Preis" or "Nun lob, mein Seel." With the latter text it serves as the second movement of Cantata 28, for the Sunday after Christmas, first performed in 1725. This movement may have been taken from an even earlier composition by Bach, as suggested by Robert Marshall. The motet includes lines from a chorale by the same Johann Gramann (1487-1541), which was sung to the popular melody of "Weiss mir ein Blümlein blaue." For each phrase of the chorale, first the mood is set by the three lowest voices (which often quote the tune as well), and then the melody follows in long notes in the soprano line.

Our Period Consort expands our program with four excerpts from Bach's masterpiece Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080. This puzzling opus, left incomplete at Bach's death, sprang from the composer's apparent late-life desire to create encyclopedic works that systematically explored the possibilities of a genre or medium. The Art of the Fugue explores the manifold uses of a single theme. It is puzzling because of significant unknowns: whether the last, incomplete fugue is part of the work, whether the customary order of the movements was inherent, and indeed what instrument or instruments it was intended for. Since it is for four parts, it has often been claimed by suitable ensembles, like string quartets, even though the most common performance is on a keyboard, since the piece fits all keyboard instruments available at the time. As it stands, it includes fourteen fugues, seemingly in order of complexity, and four canons on the same theme, also ordered by increasing complexity. Today's performance includes three of the fugues and the canon at the octave.

Heinrich Schütz (Henricus Sagittarius, 1585-1672) epitomizes the early German Baroque. After a long and legendary life, he was laid to rest in the old Frauenkirche in Dresden and memorialized with the epitaph saeculi sui musicus excellentissimus, "the most excellent musician of his time." Schütz's early musical accomplishments impressed the local landgrave Moritz, who took the thirteen-year-old boy with him to Kassel as choirboy and to study music. Later the landgrave talked Schütz into studying music instead of law and paid for his studies in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli. When he returned to Kassel in 1613, Schütz was brought by the elector Johann Georg I to Dresden for two months. In 1615 the elector asked Schütz to serve for another two years and finally as a permanent member of the court. The landgrave, reluctant to lose him, was obligated to comply.

Schütz's "Singet dem Herr ein neues Leid, SWV 35" draws its text from Psalm 98. It appeared in Psalms of David, a substantial collection of psalm settings composed in Venice and after 1613 in Germany. The opulent, majestic, and sometimes extravagant Venetian style of Giovanni Gabrieli and his uncle Andrea is apparent in them. The Psalms were published in 1619, after a lengthy gestation, during which Schütz explored ways of adapting the polychoral and concertato techniques he had learned in Venice to his native tongue and Lutheran ritual. "Singet dem Herrn" is scored for two SATB choirs. To reflect the vibrant text, Schütz employs sweeping melismatic patterns for the phrases "trumpets and sackbuts," "let the sea roar," "floods," and "let the mountains be joyful." The lesser doxology ("Glory be to the Lord...") concludes the piece; unusual for Schütz, the beginning of the doxology recalls the opening lines of the entire work.

This concert is thus a "new song" as we have entitled our season. In contrast to our previous October concerts, this one presents a more varied panorama of our repertoire, ranging from the fierily complex and kaleidoscopic "Singet dem Herrn" by Bach to his almost hymn-like "Christ meins Lebens," while also presenting polychoral music by one of our favorite composers, Schütz.

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2006

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