Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Today is the Vernal Equinox, but things don't look particularly Spring-like around here. Still, there is evidence - Mama Gaia left this tapestry of Ivy on a boulder along the Rail Trail to let us know that the green is coming.

And here's a song for Spring from Peter Mayer:

Photo © 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 18, 2019


The Spring equinox is coming on Wednesday, and despite the general picture in these parts, there are intimations here and there that the earth will soon open up and Spring will spring forth. There have been Snowdrops blooming in a yard on my route to work for the last week. And today walking in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park there were more signs: birdsong is getting louder and more complex - Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Phoebes, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Flickers, and Red-winged Blackbirds; the clumps of Daffodils along the Dykeman Walking Trail as it runs by the creek are finally up, and one clump by the red bridge is actually blooming; the Mallards in the duck ponds seem to be more brightly colored; and there are visitors from outside the area showing up, restless in the coming Spring and struck with wanderlust. Here are scenes from today's walk.

Daffodils in bloom along the creek
A pair of Mallard drakes on the north duck pond
A visiting Herring Gull on the main duck pond
Hills rolling into the distance, seen from the top of the meadow. They're not green yet, but it's coming
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sunday Bach - Lent 2

Again, Bach wrote no cantata for the second Sunday in Lent because of the ban on concerted music in church during Lent in his time. So we've probed the depths of the Bach catalogue for unassigned sacred cantatas and come up with this, very likely his first - BWV 131, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (From the depths I call, Lord, to thee, Mühlhausen 1707/1708). Like last week's offering, this music shows his debt to Buxtehude, plus shows the direction his own talent will go in. Here's the late Craig Smith on this historic piece of music:
In 1707 the twenty-two year old organist at Mühlhausen, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote what might be his first sacred cantata, BWV 131 “Aus der Tiefe.” It was probably written as a memorial for a fire in the town, so the text was based upon Psalm 130, with the addition of two verses from the chorale, “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut.” The composer of course had many models for his style, most notably the distinguished works in this genre by Buxtehude. But already in this very young piece we see occasional glimpses of the real Bach. Perhaps most characteristic is the sense of symmetry in the form with the 2nd and 4th movements of five being solo arias with the chorale “Herr Jesu Christ” sung in long notes by an upper voice. These chorale organized movements alternate with free and sectionalized settings of the Psalm. 
The scoring is characteristic for small-scale sacred concertos (as they were then called) of the period. Oboe, a single violin, two violas, one notated in alto clef, one in tenor, are joined by a continuo group consisting of a cello; perhaps, though not likely, a bass or violone that played an octave below; undoubtedly an organ; and here a bassoon, which sometimes plays independent lines but most often plays with the continuo group. The oboe and violin often play in dialogue or duet. They seldom double each other as is the case in so many later Bach cantatas. The violas are always accompanimental, although they sometimes double the voices. The bassoon usually doubles the cello-organ combination, although it sometimes makes an independent duet with the oboe. These scoring details are important to enumerate with Bach at the beginning of his career, because they would continue to be the norm. One by one many of these practices would drop away from Bach’s style, but many would remain throughout his career. 
The piece opens with an expressive Adagio. Oboe and violin sing a serious and flexible duet. We already see here Bach’s taste for more active and more detailed bass lines than most of his contemporaries. This reflects Bach’s skill and taste as one of the masters of playing and writing for the pedals on the organ. His tendency to here the harmony from the bottom up clearly generates from his extraordinary capability to do anything he wants with the pedals. The entrance of the voices show’s Bach’s predilection at this period for mannerist text setting. This is style that Bach would occasionally return to, but for the most part soon abandoned. 
Bach at this period is willing, even eager to indulge in a great amount of text repetition. This is something that would get him in trouble with the Leipzig performance of “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis.” This cantata has perhaps the most extreme examples of it, and one must say as he begins the text in a more and more specific manner, that mannerism soon falls away. The music tends to fall in quite small periods. Often there is a tempo change for every line of text. The ability to make very large forms is here beyond him although the two chorale fantasias are interesting precursors to his manner in Leipzig. We should remember that this music is written before Bach’s discovery of Italian concerti grossi, an important milestone in his career.

The first tempo change in the first movement at bar 57 introduces an important Bach technique of the period, the block choral statement followed by an individual voice statement that is eventually treated fugally. Bach is not at this era a great, or at least sophisticated, fugue writer. The marvelous essays by Buxtehude in that form were, at this period, beyond him. Although there is a generalized very good sense of the mood of the text, individual lines are not specifically characterized. At some points Bach will seize upon an image and project it vividly. For instance the word “flehen” (complaining) is given a wonderful whining portrait with the echo effects. One would like to love the two chorale settings in “Aus der Tiefe,” for they are such a window on the future. But the text repetition of the solo is so extreme and really unvaried that they both can become rather tedious. Bach has discovered a way to compose a large form but really does not know how to use it. 
The third number introduces another early Bach manner that serves him well through the early period. It also is perhaps the most successful section of the cantata. This technique combines long vocal lines, often chromatic in nature with small repeated motoric elements. This “prayer wheel” sound avoids the monotony of the chorale settings both by its harmonic motion but by the intricacy of its texture. This manner becomes more used and even more effective in some of Bach’s slightly later but still early pieces such as BWV 150 and especially BWV 106. 
Cantata BWV 131 has a large number of slow tempi.  It is clear that Largo in this context is not so slow as Adagio, and really should be a rather moving “walking” tempo Andante. Allegro and Vivace seem to be used interchangeably and should both be quite brisk. Both chorale settings gain if they are not taken too slowly, This cantata has been quite often performed, but really is not nearly so effective as the piece that it most resembles, the Cantata BWV 150. There we find many of the qualities of this piece in a much more favorable light.

© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a 1992 recording by the chorus and orchestra of the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. Enjoy!

Photo © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Marching Along

March is moving along toward Spring. No blooms or foliage yet, but the temps are warmer. With the snow from the three storms we had recently plus the torrential rain Saturday night/Sunday morning, the ground is definitely damp; even atop the hills the ground is squishy. And bird song is starting to fill the air - on my walk in the park today I heard a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds and Cardinals, as well as a Red-bellied Woodpecker. I also saw three Red-tailed Hawks cruising over the park, and a cheeky Mockingbird greeted me at the beginning of the nature trail; the little bugger even mooned me before he flew off! I kept an eye out for the usual Daffodils growing along the nature trail as it runs by the creek, but nothing yet.

One odd thing, though. One of the big old Norway Spruces by the south duck pond was fatally injured in that crazy wind storm we got last month; its roots were partially pulled up out of the ground but not toppled over, so they cut it down before it could fall over on somebody. Well, somebody put a shrine/installation/effigy/something on the remaining 5-foot stump - a blob of wax and pebbles splatted on the bark and embedded with feathers. It has the look of something out of Blair Witch, or from the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village. There's just something very creepy about it, probably deliberately so.

After that it was hike up to the meadow to get a view of the area from the top of the hill. Even with snow dotted here and there, there's a Spring-like feel to it all.

This Mockingbird welcomed me to the park down by the ball fields
Cheeky little bugger mooned me!
The creek in the park looking downstream from the new bridge; you can just see the red bridge through the trees
The weird whatever on the stump of the Norway Spruce
Looking north toward the mountains from the meadow
The rolling hills of Central PA
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sunday Bach - Lent 1

Bach wrote no cantatas for Lent as it was the practice in his time to have no concerted music in church during that penitential period. So as I've done in the past, I've gone searching among Bach's unattached cantatas. And I found this one - BWV 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (To thee, Lord, I lift up my soul, Arnstadt 1704 - 1707). This is a very early work of Bach's, and shows his influences, most notably Buxtehude. Here's Simon Crouch on this most interesting cantata:
Had I been asked to perform a blind identification of the composer of this cantata, I would have immediately said "Buxtehude". It's probably one of music's greatest tragedies that we have lost a vast mass of Buxtehude's choral works as well as much of his chamber work and only have the organ works to console us. Having said this, the catalogues that I have to hand show that this is not considered a spurious or even dubious attribution to Bach these days and if you listen to this cantata in the context of other early works (this is dated 1708/9) and consider that the young Bach was likely influenced by the older composer then you will probably agree that this is a very fine example of the young master at work.

This is one those cantatas in which every movement has something for somebody and the libretto is happily up the standard of the music! The work opens with a solemn string sinfonia which leads into a short opening chorus in the style of a motet. This is followed by a short and attractive soprano aria. The next chorus, also in motet style, starts with a bold ascending scale after which the line is handed between the parts most effectively. Unusually, the following aria is a trio for alto, tenor and bass. Next is a chorus with an attractive prelude which leads into a fugal section. The final movement is a choral chaconne. It is compulsory to go and listen to the final movement of Brahms' fourth symphony after hearing this movement. Brahms was one of the few original subscribers to the Bach Gesellschaft edition and was so impressed with this movement that he quoted the bass line in his symphony. All of these goodies are packed into a little over fifteen minutes. It's a lovely little cantata. Do listen to it!

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch
Today's performance is from a 2007 Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recording by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and Choir under the direction of Thomas Hengelbrock. Enjoy!

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 04, 2019

Hmmmmm... I May Have Spoken Too Soon!

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, 'Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'”
― Lewis Carroll

Yes, we're into March and it's still snowing. Thursday night and Friday night we got a gentle 3 inches each time, and then last night we got another 6 inches, snowing a little harder this time. It's quite beautiful today, colder with a bright blue sky. Today and tomorrow are my "weekend", so I was lucky enough to be able to get out and enjoy it this morning, going for a walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park, and I brought you back some of that beauty.

Branch Creek at McLean House
Feral cat tracks on the Dykeman Walking Trail
Walking along the Dykeman Walking Trail
A snowy Dykeman wetland
The north duck pond
A copse and its shadow on the snow up on the meadow
The mountains to the north from the meadow
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Sunday Bach - Quinquagesima

Quinquagesima means 50 days before Easter; it's the last Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, so people are eating and drinking to empty their larders before the penitential Lenten season forces them to partake of more plain fare. And in Leipzig in Bach's time. orchestral music like his cantatas was forbidden in the churches, so the cantata for this last Sunday before Lent would necessarily be fairly impressive to make up for the musical drought to come. Bach wrote several cantatas for this Sunday, including the two that were his audition for the post of Kantor at Leipzig in 1723, but this one feels far more celebratory to me - BWV 127, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott (Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God, Leipzig 1725). This is considered one of Bach's greatest cantatas, mainly because he musically creates the picture of Jesus as both man and God. The late Craig Smith's essay on this cantata for Emmanuel Music is well worth the read:
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany in the 20th century Episcopal Church is known as Quinquagesima, the last Sunday before Lent, and as Estomihi in the 18th century Lutheran church. It was the last time in which any concerted music was heard in Leipzig until the feast of the Annunciation about five weeks later. The appointed readings for this Sunday in Bach’s time are both important documents and central to Christianity. The epistle is the great 13th Chapter of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, the familiar chapter about love. It is perhaps the profoundest thing in the Epistles. The Gospel is from the eighteenth chapter of Luke. It begins with Jesus announcing “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.” The disciples do not understand the significance of that statement. On the way a blind man cries “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus cures him of his blindness and they all continue their journey. There are several significant events here. Today’s cantata BWV 127 is mainly concerned with the dual human and divine identity of Jesus. The significance of the journey to Jesus’ final fate is always present, albeit here somewhat in the background. 
BWV 127 has always been recognized as one of the finest of the cantatas. The scholar Arnold Schering even went so far as to call it the greatest of all of the cantatas. There is a sense that Bach knows that this will be the last music parishioners will hear for many weeks. All of the Quinquagesima pieces go to great lengths to set up the important issues that will be confronted during Lent. That sense of abundance is projected from the beginning: two and maybe three chorales are represented in the opening chorus. The chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” both appears motivically throughout the orchestration and is sung by the chorus, led by the sopranos singing the melody in long notes. The chorale tune “Christe, du lamm Gottes” is played in the orchestra in long notes, first by the strings, then at various times by the oboes and recorders. A third chorale, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” has been spotted by some scholars buried in the continuo line near the beginning. It is the kind of thing that you hear after it has been pointed out to you. The texture of the chorus is high, bright and dense. The dotted rhythms that dominate the piece are like angel wings, rather than aggressive. They are both static and they travel. The two main chorales so permeate the texture that one can hardly see any bar in the piece without them. Inherent in the combinations of both chorales and other materials is the possibility for great variety of phrase length. There are of course, many things that are sui generis about this chorus. One of the most remarkable is the associative way that an idea is begun and passed through the texture and then discarded. The ideas are always begun by the words. An example is in the fifth phrase of the chorale. The second statement of the text in the alto part introduces an expressive little half step. This is passed around all of the vocal parts and then to the instrumental parts. It disappears at the end of the choral phrase. The final phrase of the chorale is repeated at the very end with the sopranos leaving the tune and joining the commentary. It ends not with a long note but an almost unresolved quarter note. There is no orchestral postlude. 
The tenor recitative and soprano aria describe a sinner’s last moments on earth. The tenor with great horror and vividness enumerates the last terror, the chilling sweat of death, and the stiff limbs. He begs for repose. That moment of repose is the soprano aria. Two recorders play little repeated bell tones over a pizzicato bass. An oboe sings a melody of heartbreaking sadness and repose. The child soprano sings of the soul resting in Jesus’ hands, when earth covers the body. The B section begs for the death bells to call one soon. At this point all of the upper strings join in with the continuo pizzicatos. At the end of the line of text on the word “unerschrocken” the pizzicatos stop and the oboe like a tiny “last trumpet” plays a flourish up to high Bb announcing the awaking of Jesus. The gesture is so amazingly dramatic that one feels Bach has to undercut it by giving the aria a full da capo. A drama so profound needs distance from this kind of realism. 
The last large piece in the cantata is a complex and formally advanced vision of the last judgment. The distinction between recitative and aria is here blurred to the breaking point. The trumpet enters in fanfares over repeated note string passages as the bass in recitative announces the last trumpet. The motion gradually becomes calmer and the voice with continuo introduces an arioso utilizing the first notes of the main chorale tune “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott.” This arioso passage rather abruptly cadences into a vivid 6/8 picture of the last judgment with full strings and trumpet. What is surprising here is that the chorale arioso makes an entrance two more times in the last judgment music. Any semblance of recitative followed by aria is gone in this movement. Like the opening chorus, the bass aria comes to an abrupt close and the brilliant harmonization of the chorale ends the cantata. Cantatas such as this are so removed from the norm of either religious or operatic music of the period that it is hard to understand where they came from. Even such masterpieces as the St. John and St. Matthew Passion have identifiable precedents in the German Lutheran tradition. There is a way in which Bach would never reach this level again.

© Craig Smith
This week's performance is from a 1999 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2014 by A. Roy Hilbinger