Program Notes, February 2014
German Cantatas Circa 1700
A strong resurgence of interest in Baroque music in the mid-twentieth century, plus improved technology, has made it possible to find, publish, and perform the music of many composers who had previously languished in obscurity. Many of these composers did not deserve such obscurity, although some scholars who did not know better made the error of classifying such composers as "minor" simply because their works were not yet well known. One blogger on the Bach Cantatas Website wrote, "I recall one student coming to me with a music history book ... waving it under my nose. Under Monteverdi it said ' A [seventeenth-century] composer of little significance today'! The student wanted to know, reasonably fairly, why we were bothering with him IN THE 20TH CENTURY!"
As we re-discover these composers, we recognize the amazing beauty and inspiration of their works, many of which are on the same level as Bach's best output. Bach may have been the first to become famous via diligent scholarship, yet he would probably be most pleased to see his predecessors receive this attention and appreciation — and the joy of performance.
Philipp Erlebach is represented on the program by his cantata Der Liebe Gottes ist ausgegossen. Dr. Flight became familiar with this work, much to his delight, during a recent sabbatical. Erlebach was a prolific composer, but more than ninety percent of his over one thousand compositions, which had been carefully preserved by his widow, were destroyed in a fire in 1735, and, as a consequence, he was quite forgotten.
Nicolaus Bruhns' funeral cantata Ich liege und schlafe starts with the last verse of Psalm 4, followed by additional sections, each set to a similar harmonic underlay; the variety comes from the changing settings for the chorus, and the solos and duets, which are separated by ritornellos. The solos and duets move from highest to lowest voice as the piece progresses, representing the lowering of the body into the grave. Bruhns was an immensely talented Danish-German organist and composer, but his output was quite small since, as Dr. Flight observes, his talent was "a promise cut short" by his early death at age thirty-two.
Ach Jesus stirbt is a six-part motet with continuo by Andreas Hammerschmidt, which is marked by its sincere and plaintive affect. Hammerschmidt was a contemporary of Heinrich Schütz, and Dr. Flight considers him Schütz's musical peer as well. The brevity and modest scale of required resources of the motet may well reflect the economic hardships that wreaked havoc on musical life in Germany during the Thirty Years War.
Pachelbel's chorale cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden very likely influenced J.S.Bach's first cantata, which used the same text. While the chorale tune is embedded in each movement (either in the vocal parts, or in the case of the third verse, subtly contained in the instrumental parts), each verse is unique in its treatment. The "military" tone painting of the movement "Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg" (It was a strange and frightful war) is quite striking.
Johann Kuhnau's Gott, sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte displays a rich mixture of unique recitative-like passages and brilliant musical sections (solo and chorus), with a five-part string underlay. Kuhnau was J.S. Bach's immediate predecessor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
Another Leipzig predecessor was Johann Schelle, who served at the Thomaskirche just prior to Kuhnau. His motet Komm, Jesu, komm is the first-known setting of the text; the librettist was a contemporary of Schelle. Dr. Flight admires this composition for the delightful, simple setting of its text.
The program closes with Pachelbel's Jauchzet dem Herrn, for five-part choir, soloists, and obbligato instruments. This lively cantata displays an exuberant mood. It incorporates the chorale "Nun danket alle Gott" (as a cantus firmus in one movement), along with the traditional text.
~ Patricia Jennerjohn