Program Notes for 21 June 2009

The Albuquerque Baroque Players
with
Stephen Redfield, violin
Carol Redman, flute
Chase Morrison, cello
and
Jay Hill, tenor
David Farwig, bass

present a concert of music by Johann Sebastian Bach

partially supported by a grant from the Albuquerque Urban Enhancement Trust Fund
at the Central United Methodist Church

“Jesu, beuge doch mein Herze,” from BWV 47, .....................................................................Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden

bass, oboe, violin, and basso continuo

“Ein unbegreiflich Licht,” from BWV 125, ..................................................................................................................Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin

tenor, bass, 2 violins, and basso continuo

“Ich will an den Himmel denken,” from BWV 166, ...............................................................................................................................Wo gehest du hin?

tenor, oboe, violin, and basso continuo

Trio sonata in G major, BWV 1038
Largo
Vivace
Adagio
Presto

oboe, violin, and basso continuo

*****intermission*****

Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn , BWV 157
duet: “Ich lasse dich nicht”
aria: “Ich halte meinem Jesum feste”
recitative: “Mein lieber Jesu du”
aria, recitative, and arioso: “Ja, ja, ich halte Jesum feste”
chorale: “Meinem Jesum laβ ich nicht”

tenor, bass, flute, oboe d’amore, 2 violins, and basso continuo

Program Notes

 

We come to our second presentation of selections from Bach cantatas. Our concert last May, also sponsored in part by a grant from the Albuquerque Urban Enhancement Trust Fund, included two full cantatas, one for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other for a secular wedding ceremony. This year, because we seem drawn to the Purification, we offer a second full cantata for that day, plus a duet from another for that same day, as well as two arias from cantatas from the Easter season and from Trinity. As we did last year, we’ll perform an instrumental trio, too.

We possess copies of about 200 of Bach’s sacred cantatas. After he took up his final position in 1723, as music director in Leipzig, Bach was required to prepare music for religious services throughout the liturgical year for the town’s major Lutheran churches, so he certainly composed more than 200 cantatas. The Lutheran liturgical year included the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Trinity, as well as many specific feast days within them. Each year, then, elicited more than the 52 or 53 Sundays imply. To be sure, Bach frequently revised and reused his own music, and he rehearsed and performed pieces by other composers. Even so, we speculate that a great deal has been lost.

Some of the Leipzig cantatas are quite luxurious in terms of vocal and instrumental forces, and quite imposing in terms of length and complexity, and others are virtually chamber works. By the 1720s, Bach was following the Italian model, incorporating da capo arias (in ABA form) and recitatives into his sacred music, in addition to choruses and chorales and, occasionally, instrumental sinfonias. Interestingly, as Bach aged, he seems to have demanded more of all his musicians, especially the instrumentalists, and he increasingly emphasized colorful scoring.

Texts for Bach’s cantatas might be paraphrased from the Bible or newly written, normally inspired by the Gospel text of the day for which the cantata was intended. They also could include older chorale texts, with or without their tunes.

The only complete cantata we’ll perform today, BWV 157, was originally designated for a memorial service. Bach probably didn’t even know the deceased, Johann Christoph von Ponickau, an official at the Saxon court. Apparently he was commissioned in 1727 to write a piece in remembrance of Ponickau by the well-known poet Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), who contributed the text. Notably single-minded but without specific references to Ponickau, the text was easily transferred sometime after that to the Feast of the Purification. A word about the Purification, sometimes called Candlemas: it’s been long since removed, with other Marian rites, from the Lutheran calendar. It marks the return of the Virgin Mary to the temple after the birth of Jesus, and the presentation of Jesus to the elders. Ironically, though, the focus isn’t on Mary, or even on Jesus, but on Simeon, an elder who recognized the divinity of Jesus immediately upon seeing him. In others of his Purification cantatas, Bach uses the beautiful Canticle of Simeon (“Lord, let your servant now depart in peace...”); here, he reiterates the speaker’s reliance on Jesus in each of the five movements.

As is usual in Bach’s vocal music, the text of 157 is set expressively and sometimes “painted.” For example, in the second movement, a demanding aria for tenor with oboe d’amore, the word “halte” (hold) nearly always lies under long notes, “Gewalt” (might, power) merits significant vocal flourishes, and “Aufenthalt” (abode, resting place) sits on one note for four measures. In the fourth movement, a bass aria with flute, the singer doesn’t dwell so much on individual words and, perhaps for that reason, seems more forthright and secure in his faith. But the aria is twice interrupted by secco (continuo-accompanied) recitatives, in which the singer exclaims how joyful he’ll be in death. We may interpret this as a paraphrased citation of Simeon’s canticle, yet it had served just as easily for Ponickau’s memorial.

BWV 125, from 1725, is another of the seven extant Purification cantatas by Bach, and its title comes directly from Martin Luther’s poetic translation of Simeon’s famous canticle. Our selection, though, carries a freely-imagined text. Again, certain words are highlighted, such as “Kreis” (circle), given a “circular” motive repeated sequentially in both voices. In contrast, for the B section of this da capo duet, the disjunct lines and quick, imitative interplay of the voices and instruments capture the words “sounding powerfully” of the text. At the same time, the whole piece is tightly organized as two duets, for two violins and two singers, plus the bass line, and musical figures are tossed from part to part to function as unifying elements.

The struggle between the desire for humility and the repudiation of pride is the theme of BWV 47, composed in 1726 for the 17 th Sunday after Trinity. In our excerpt, these are manifested in the alternation between flowing melodies and rhythms, and angular lines and shorter phrases, respectively. The words “verscherze” (trifle away), “Hochmut” (arrogance), and “verfluchen” (to curse) are set to rather jagged melismas, while “gefällig” (pleasing) earns a more gracious and stepwise treatment.

The same attention to the text informs our selection from BWV 166, for the 4 th Sunday after Easter in 1724. Here, the choice is between going to heaven and staying in the world. Bach doesn’t disdain pictorial gestures, for “Himmel” (heaven) lies high in the vocal register, while “Welt” is sung lower; and “ich gehe” (I go) is sung to a rising scalewise line, while “stehe” (stay) holds securely to one long note. More subtly, the end of the B section—this is a da capo aria—moves harmonically as if the one being addressed (mankind) really doesn’t know where he’s going until the last measure. Since the A section is repeated, the last part of the piece doesn’t sound so indecisive. Indeed, the rest of the cantata text goes on to urge that the choice between heaven and earth be made quickly, for death can come at any time.

If many of Bach’s cantatas seem to be missing, the situation is considerably worse for his chamber music. Because of the composer’s musical activities and duties, we know that he must have had an extensive collection of his own sonatas and trio sonatas. Yet little remains. As was his wont, he probably rearranged his music to fit the occasion, and this type of music wouldn’t have been published or even saved.

Some of what we do have is controversial, perhaps misattributed to Bach. Thus it is with our selection, BWV 1038, despite clear kinship with others of Bach’s works. To be sure, the trio is no masterpiece, though it’s not without its charms. Some believe the piece emerged out of an exercise Bach invented for his students, possibly for his son Carl Philipp Emanual. Others have pointed out, a bit cynically, that critics seem to discover weaknesses in a piece only after it has been declared to be spurious. That is, if it were definitely by Bach, we’d find a way to rationalize the weaknesses into strengths!

The trio was written by Bach or someone else for flute, scordatura (retuned) violin, and continuo. The violin’s top two strings are lowered, rendering it less penetrating. We’ll perform the flute part on oboe. The first movement’s form is odd, like divisions over a slightly varied bass line, twice in the tonic and twice in the dominant. Likewise, the third movement contains much repetition of large parts of the bass line. The final movement is a fugue. Since variations and fugues were favorite devices for teaching music, these characteristics might lend credence to the idea that the piece grew out of a student assignment. The second movement is brief, a flash of whimsy.

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