Tuesday, March 31, 2020

More Spring Scenes in the Park

I went for my weekly walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning. Despite the fact that it was chilly and overcast, Spring is definitely marching along in the park. Lots of blooming trees and other flowers, lots of birds, and even some deer up on the meadow. Here are the photos that survived quality control.

Heal-all growing along the Dykeman Walking Trail
Crab Apple blossoms along the trail
A Red-winged Blackbird looking out over the wetland
A Belted Kingfisher by the main duck pond
Whitetail Deer bounding across the meadow
The Wild Mustard is blooming up on the meadow
© 2020 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sunday Bach - Lent 5

Because of the ban on concerted music during Lent Bach wrote no cantatas for the fifth Sunday in Lent, so I went trawling in his "unattached" cantatas and came across this, which may very well be his first sacred cantata - BWV 131, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the depths I cry to Thee, Lord; Mühlhausen 1707). This work shows his influence by Buxtehude, but there are some hints of independence here, a glimpse of the Bach yet to come. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this early Bach cantata:
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 by the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of Jos van Veldhoven. Enjoy!

Photo © 2020 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Monday, March 23, 2020

A Rainy Day in the Park

It's cold (around 40ºF/4ºC) and raining today, and the walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning was damp, to say the least. Despite the cold, the place is greening up fast. Here are some scenes from the walk this morning followed by some appropriate music.

Photos © 2020 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sunday Bach - Lent 4

There was one exception to the ban on concerted music in the churches during Lent in Leipzig in Bach's time - the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary on March 25, always falling during Lent (and this year being several days after the fourth Sunday in Lent). This was the celebration of the visit to the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel, announcing that she would be the mother of the Messiah, a major feast in the Church and thus to be celebrated with great joy and festivity. So Bach wrote several cantatas for that celebration, and I've chosen the first, BWV 1, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautiful shines the morning star, Leipzig 1725). When the members of the Bach Gesellschaft were compiling their definitive catalog of Bach's works they chose this glorious chorale cantata to be the first in the collection. They chose wisely! And there's another reason to pick this most magnificent of Bach's cantatas - yesterday was his birthday! So this cantata is most fitting for the occasion. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this magnificent work:
The Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated each year on 25th March and for this day – on which, as an exception during Lent, music was performed in Leipzig – Bach wrote this cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. The lesson and gospel passage for this day are closely related. The lesson – Isaiah 7: 10-14 – contains the traditional prophecy related to the birth of Christ: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. The gospel passage, Luke 1: 26-38, tells how the Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah. The familiar chorale text by Nicolai is filled with the expression of abundant love for Jesus, and Bach’s librettist reworks the middle strophes in Advent-like anticipation of joy by focusing our attention on Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

When the founders of the Bach Gesellschaft were unable to procure the manuscript for the Mass in B Minor, their original choice as the inaugural volume in the publication, they chose ten of the most brilliant and varied cantatas to introduce to the world. Eight of the ten cantatas were from the 2nd Jahrgang. Our cantata here was the first. It was a brilliant choice, for the founders were dealing with Bach's reputation as a dry fugue writer. Here they have a piece with an extraordinarily colorful orchestration, based upon a still familiar tune, mostly happy and verbally unthreatening. The editors of the Bach Gesellschaft thought that their constituency would be mostly church musicians. Here they failed to draw that body of musicians in. Even a cursory look at the volume reveals not only many instruments either unknown or rare in 1850, oboes d'amore, violoncello piccolo, oboes da caccia. Even the modern equivalent of this last-named instrument, the English Horn, was not as prevalent as it is today. French horns were unused to playing in the stratospheric range of Cantata BWV 1. The imagined revival of this music in the churches of Germany never happened; it is still much more common in concert halls than in liturgies. Certainly the exotic sound of the two solo violins, the two high F horns, the two oboes da caccia, in addition to the strings and continuo, has nothing to do with the sound of the modern orchestra as imagined then or now. 
What is quite wonderful in either a period instrument or modern instrument performance of this piece is how well it sounds, how almost miraculously everything balances out, how, with a relative minimum of effort, every strain of this elaborate texture can be heard. This is not always the case with Bach's orchestration. Some instrumental and vocal combinations that were logical in the 1720's are now problematical. But here, perhaps the most bizarre and exotic combination of instruments in all the cantatas works well. Much of that brilliance is the perfect use of different registers for each pair of instruments. The highest register is occupied by the two solo violins, sometimes doubled by the rest of the strings but usually alone. The alto register is occupied by the horns. They are usually used in a motivic fashion, and while understandably less active than the violins are nevertheless quite agile. The tenor range is occupied by the oboes da caccia. They also play with great agility but often because of their range play in unison. The cantus in long notes for the sopranos is pitched quite high so never has a problem being heard. 
The chorale tune is one of two by Philipp Nicolai used by Bach in the 2nd Jahrgang. Like its companion "Wachet auf!" it is a large bar-form melody, although unlike "Wachet auf!" by Bach's time the last four phrases had been consolidated into two. There are four discernable themes. The first combines a theme derived from the chorale with figuration illustrating the "morning star." In addition an arpeggiated figure and a swinging tune and a descending figure all combine to make an unusually varied musical texture. This "patchwork" technique is useful to construct a large chorale fantasia. This is probably the thing that Stravinsky most liked about Bach. So many of his pieces are put together in the same fashion. The actual chorale tune in long notes is marvelously set up. It usually begins alone with the sopranos against the "morning star" figuration. When the lower voices precede the soprano they often sing the chorale, also in long notes as a kind of prelude. The only time this doesn't happen is the stunning last phrase where the three lower voices propel us into the chorale. 
Bach uses the oboe da caccia only three times with the solo soprano voice in the cantatas. The tenor range of the obbligato gives such color to the soprano, and the voice can easily soar above the texture. In the soprano aria, the oboe da caccia starts with a wonderful bouncy theme over pizzicato bass accompaniment. The soprano takes over the theme but is soon expanding upon and coloring the texture. Notice what happens on the word "flammen." There is something wonderfully adolescent and energetic about this music, perfectly depicting Mary. 
After a passionate secco bass recitative, the tenor aria brings back the texture from the opening chorus. Two solo violins play with the ripieno strings. This is a lively virtuoso piece, one of the most difficult tenor arias. It has a marvelous breathless quality that is supported by the joyous words. The reference to the "mouth and strings resounding" brings forth not only wonderful echo effects between the groups of strings, but lively interplay between the athletic tenor part and the solo violins. It is interesting how Bach is willing to write "instrumental" and "unvocal" voice parts and make them sound so good. 
The final choral harmonization is predictably rich. The 1st horn doubles the soprano with the 1st violins; the 2nd horn plays a lively and bouncy independent line. The two oboes da caccia double the altos and tenors with the strings. Once again, Bach gives us a perfect, skillful orchestration so that every line can be heard. 
~Craig Smith, edited by Ryan Turner 
Today's performance is from a recording by the Baroque Orchestra and Choir of Amsterdam under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2020 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 16, 2020

More Spring in the Park

Walking through the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning revealed more evidence of Spring advancing, despite the temps being in the middle 30s F (2º C). Here's some of what I saw.

The Pussy Willows are plumping up
A pair of Mallards in the creek
More Daffodils are blooming along the nature trail
A very busy Downy Woodpecker in a Gray Birch by the north duck pond
A Robin in the underbrush up on the edge of the meadow
© 2020 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sunday Bach - Lent 3

Before winning the post of music director in Leipzig, Bach held the position of court composer in Weimar, and in that town the ban against concert music during Lent apparently wasn't so formidable as we actually have a cantata written for Oculi, the third Sunday in Lent - BWV 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde (Stand firm against sin, Weimar 1714/15). This is a solo cantata (for alto voice) and very short time-wise, although this doesn't rule out complexity and depth. There are some highly unusual things in this cantata, including chromaticism, dissonance, and a fugue with the voice as one of the elements. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music wrote a very interesting essay on this cantata:
At the beginning of his tenure as court composer in Weimar, Bach set several of the texts of J.C. Lehms. The Lehms texts are the most luridly bloody and preachy of all the Bach texts. They also have a raw power that suits Bach’s in-your-face style of that period. The opening aria of Cantata 54 is one of the most astonishing things in all of Bach. Sin is portrayed as a gorgeous, irresistible thing. One is reminded of the Andrew Marvel poems that refer to the jewel-like blood on the back of Jesus. The aria begins with a grinding and shocking dissonance in the orchestra. Gorgeous, lapping phrases build up like layers of velvet on this dissonant bass. The expressive voice part is like a rich, deep nap on the many levels of gorgeous chromatic harmony. Bach wants us, in this lengthy and incredibly expressive aria, to feel the push and temptation of sin. The lengthy recitative that follows clarifies his point of view. The fugal last aria is spikier but no less astonishingly chromatic. While this cantata is not very well known, it is a remarkable missing link in the Bach oeuvre and essential to our complete understanding of this composer. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a recording by the English Baroque Soloists and alto Nathalie Stutzmann under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2020 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 09, 2020

Spring's A-Poppin'

Spring is definitely moving along, as today's walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park proved. The temps are in the upper 60s F (around 20º C), the sun is out, and a gentle breeze is blowing. Spring is in the air.

The buds on the Viburnum are bursting into leaf
The Daffodils along the trail in the wetland woods are starting to bloom
Canada Geese on the north duck pond
Apparently the bird feeder somebody set up by the north duck pond has become a Bluejay hangout
© 2020 by A. Roy Hilbinger