Program Notes, February 2015
The Early Cantatas
The three cantatas in this program are the output of a talented, confident, and very young composer (Bach was in his early twenties when these cantatas were written), aware of his skills and eager to display them. Bach himself never revealed how much he felt that he had learned from his older contemporaries; thus, we can only infer the influences by studying the musical environment in which he lived. In his own writings, he seemed unwilling to attribute his accomplishments to anything other than his own industriousness and hard work. These early cantatas are quite different in structure from his later cantatas, which bear influence from the Italian style, utilizing solo recitatives and da capo arias in addition to the usual choral movements and chorale settings. What they do share with the later cantatas is the ability, first developed and expanded by Monteverdi and Schütz (and their contemporaries and successors), to express powerful emotions through musical affect, whether it was in sacred or secular compositions.
Bach's Aus der Tiefen (BWV 131) skillfully juxtaposes verses of Psalm 130 with verses of a Lutheran chorale (Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut). It was probably written for the season of Lent and was composed in Mühlhausen in either 1707 or 1708.
The opening choral movement is introduced by the orchestra, after which the voices enter one by one, calling out from the depths, and then unite in a lively fugue, expressing the hope that these voices will be heard. The third movement opens with a striking declamatory statement of expectation, followed by a contrapuntal section, in which the vocal line languishes on a series of suspensions, creating an image of the soul waiting on the Lord. The final choral movement again opens with a declamatory statement to the people ("Israel"), then alternates contrapuntal writing with simpler sections that emphasize the text, and culminates in a double fugue. The first subject is a melisma on the word "erlösen," and the second subject is a chromatic line for the words "aus allen seinen Sünden." Taken as a whole, it is a joyous statement of hope that the people (Israel) will be redeemed ("erlösen") from all their sins ("aus allen seinen Sünden").
The two movements for soloists are chorale fantasias, with the soloist singing the psalm text and an upper voice singing the chorale in long notes as a cantus firmus. Craig Smith (an American conductor and founder of Emmanuel Music, a group specializing in Bach performance) called these chorale settings "a window on the future." However, he criticized the structure of the cantata, saying that it offers evidence that at this stage in his career Bach had difficulty with large forms. On the other hand, Julian Mincham (founder of the Bach Cantatas Website, source of much of the information in these notes) sees the piece as being different from later cantatas rather than inferior to them. The structure of the cantata is in many ways unusual, compared to Bach's other cantatas, yet who can blame a young and brash composer for experimenting?
Bach's earliest surviving cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (BWV 150), was written during his tenure in Arnstadt, sometime between 1703 and 1706. Four richly contrapuntal choral fugues are found among its seven movements. It is unusual in its blend of Biblical verses and free poetry, and in the fact that it does not incorporate a chorale tune. Bach uses a great deal of word painting and changes in tempo and character of the music to bring these words to life. The opening orchestral movement features yearning phrases in the violins, and the second movement utilizes a tightly chromatic descending line (a frequently used Baroque motif to symbolize sorrow and penitence). A rising line in the second choral movement (the fourth movement of the cantata) starts out in the basses and progresses up through all of the voices, continuing right on through the upper orchestral instruments, leading us out of sorrow towards redemption. This also seems to be a play on the German word leite (lead) and its resemblance to the word Leiter (ladder). This rising mood continues to climb, so to speak, with each successive movement. The fifth movement — "Cedern müssen von den Winden" (How the cedar trees are buffeted about by the winds) — is a rare trio, with the altos, tenors and basses singing the words in a simple hymn-like setting over a flowing continuo line that seems to describe those winds. In the last movement, set in the form of a chaconne, the descending penitential motif finally inverts and becomes an underlying ground bass, completing the transformation from longing to quiet fulfillment. Johannes Brahms, who was involved in a publication of Bach's complete works in 1884, was so taken with this movement's motif that he incorporated it, in modified form, into the last movement of his Fourth Symphony, written the following year.
John Eliott Gardiner (in his recent book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven) makes a humorous suggestion that the very difficult bassoon part in this cantata was written as a sort of "banana skin" to trip up the local bassoonist, with whom Bach had a very contentious relationship. Bach had demeaned the bassoonist's lack of ability with a nasty remark, and a few weeks later the offended party confronted Bach and demanded an apology. This confrontation resulted in a street brawl in which Bach felt it necessary to draw his sword to defend himself (the Arnstadt consistory records in fact verify this event, as Bach lodged a complaint about this dustup, and a hearing was held). Yet, because he brandished a weapon, Bach could very well have lost his position or even gone to prison, although the incident was finally dismissed with a mild reprimand to the bassoonist. The bassoon passages in this cantata may have been a parting shot from the frustrated young composer — barely out of his teens — inflicting secret revenge upon his nemesis in a way that could never be gainsaid.
Bach wrote six surviving complete motets. Compared to the others, there is little written about Lobet den Herrn (BWV 230) in the Bach literature. We do not have a likely date of composition or a performance history during Bach's lifetime. The work was first published in 1821 (predating Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's works). The text consists of just the first two verses of Psalm 117, making it the shortest of the six. However, the motet transitions through a number of musical subdivisions that change the character and texture of the music, to emphasize the shifts in the text, making it seem bigger and longer than it actually is. The vocal writing is unusually virtuosic for the choral parts, even for Bach, and some writers have claimed that it does not sound very "Bach-like," although that term may be rather difficult to define. It is also unique in that it is written for only four voices; all the other motets are for five voices or double choir. Because of its unusual independent continuo part, other scholars believe that Lobet den Herrn may have originally been written as a part of a larger work, perhaps a cantata, rather than as a stand-alone motet.
The chorale cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) draws from Johann Pachelbel's work of the same name. It was probably written as an audition piece for his position in Mühlhausen in 1707. Bach uses all seven verses of this hymn: Martin Luther wrote the words and based the melody on the medieval Easter hymn Christ ist erstanden. Each verse is set as a chorale fantasia, with the chorale tune placed like a gem in varied settings. Although certainly influenced and inspired by Pachelbel's dramatic setting, the youthful Bach displays his own personal musical vision in equally dramatic fashion. This motet could be experienced as a mini-opera with the music and words inexorably drawing the listener through the emotional journey of this hymn.
John Eliot Gardiner calls Bach's setting "a bold, innovative piece of musical drama" and observes "Bach drawing on medieval musical roots. . .and his total identification with the spirit and letter of Luther's fiery, dramatic hymn." An example he cites is the second stanza, "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt" (No one could defeat death), which deals with "humanity helpless and paralyzed as it awaits God's judgment against sin." The extremely slow tempo and the intense use of suspensions and dissonances vividly portray this anguished state.
The striking fourth stanza, "Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg, da Tod und Leben rungen" (It was an awesome war when death and life struggled) is sung by the four vocal parts, accompanied only by the continuo. The altos sing the cantus firmus, surrounded by the other voices in a tightly woven fugue, painting a picture of a breathless struggle. And the sixth stanza, a soprano and tenor duet, is an expression of pure joy, in which Bach displays his mastery of musical styles by setting this verse in the style of a French overture.
Each verse is rounded off with a "Hallelujah," completely in character with its particular setting, which functions as an acknowledgment and affirmation of what the verse has expressed. And the final chorale, in its simple setting, is an expression of profound relief and redemption.
~ Patricia Jennerjohn