Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Frosty Sunday Morning Walk

We had a fairly heavy frost last night, which added some extra character to the Sunday morning walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning. This is my kind of weather! Now it we could only get some snow...

Entering the park on the Dykeman Walking Trail
Some very frosty Viburnum berries
There was even frost on the bridge railings
The red bridge
Misty hills
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Advent 3

The light shines in the darkness
Bach's cantata for the third Sunday in Advent is another case of a missing original score. Like last week's cantata, Bach wrote a cantata for this Sunday during his tenure in Weimar, but when he got the job in Leipzig it wasn't needed; the Thomaskirche didn't perform cantatas during Advent. So Bach expanded his original Advent cantata to a much larger work for the 7th Sunday after Trinity and promptly lost the original Advent score. Thankfully, later scholars have managed to piece together the original from a deconstructing of the later version and notes from the librettist Salomo Franck and various performers of the day. So we have something of a version of Bach's cantata for Advent 3, BWV 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht (Fret not, o soul, Weimar, 1717). Here's what Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music has to say about this cantata:
In Leipzig, cantata performances were suspended during the last three Sundays of Advent, so the Advent cantatas that we have all predate his tenure there. BWV 186a is a reconstruction of a later piece written for the 7th Sunday of Trinity, but an existing wordbook of Bach’s wonderful librettist Salomo Franck confirms the original date of its first performance (1717) in Weimar. In the Gospel for that day [Matthew 11 :2-10] John the Baptist sends his disciples to see if Jesus is indeed the prophesied Messiah. BWV 186a radiates great intensity though a curiously muted and melancholy tone. Bach was clearly responding to the many thematic dualities throughout this great text, perhaps the most important: the idea of God’s brilliance and image humbly reflected in the form of a servant.  
In the opening chorus the bass line marches patiently, supporting winding counterpoint from the upper strings. The viola (the most melancholy of instruments) is often the principal voice, asserting itself even when orchestra and chorus are fully engaged. The sustained notes of the chorus (on staggered entrances) produce a truly ‘confounding’ harmony, but they immediately relent and become part of the string counterpoint. The remaining lines of text are set motet style with only the support of the inexorable bass line. The bass (accompanied by continuo alone) speaks the words of John in a deceptively simple, almost jolly, tune. The wiry, angular melismas on the words ‘zweifelsvoll’ [doubtful] and particularly ‘verstricken’ [entangle] are surprising and among the most tortured in all of Bach. In the chorales and choruses the viola usually doubles the tenor line, so it is interesting that Bach chose these two ‘partners’ as vocal and instrumental soloist for the next aria. Craig Smith felt that Bach’s re-scoring in the later version of this piece for violins and oboe up the octave was ‘one of his few mistakes’ The viola’s sparkling figuration shines brilliantly through its inherently covered sound, matching the text perfectly. The gorgeous aria for soprano with its soulful, chromatic violin accompaniment is both embracingly comforting and heartbreaking. The duet for soprano and alto once again responds amazingly to the duality of the text: faith does not erase sorrow, it simply makes it more bearable. Bach choses a crazed, joyous dance in a minor key; the effect is ultimately more disturbing than comforting. The chorale is a bright, bracing and determined setting of Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, verse 8.
Today's performance is reconstructed from a full performance of the later BWV 186 for Trinity 7 by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunday Bach - Advent 2

The only cantata Bach ever wrote for the second Sunday in Advent no longer exists in its original form.  BWV 70a, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!) was written in Weimar in 1713 with a text by Salomo Franck, but the score has since disappeared. However, Bach used that material and greatly expanded it in Leipzig in 1723 for the 26th Sunday after Trinity. Since there was no Trinity 26 for this year's calendar, we can use it today with a clear conscience! And it's certainly glorious enough for an Advent cantata, as well as the subject matter of the text fitting well with the Advent spirit of preparing for the birth of Christ. Here's what musicologist Simon Crouch had to say about it:

At the time of the composition of cantata BWV 70, Bach's creative energies may very well have been concentrated on the Magnificat, which was to be performed on Christmas day 1723. Indeed, Bach apparently had most of Advent free (no cantatas were performed after the first Sunday during Advent in Leipzig) and made more time available before Advent by adapting previous works for the pre-Advent Cantatas. BWV 70 is adapted from a work intended for use at Weimar (BWV 70a, music now lost).

The theme is of Christ's second coming and of the Last Judgement and don't we know it immediately with the glorious trumpet introduction to the opening movement! After the orchestral ritornello is stated, the choir enters unaccompanied to give a tremendous forewarning of the last Judgement. Robertson describes this as "one of Bach's greatest choruses": Who am I to disagree? The pace immediately drops, for after the first recitative, the alto aria is far more laid back, the languid cello triplets accompanying. The following soprano aria is more upbeat, with an insistent and very catchy violin accompaniment. Apparently this aria was borrowed by Bach from a bass aria in Handel's opera Almira, an early example of Bach absorbing Italianate influences into his music. A recitative and straightforward chorale setting end the first half of the cantata. The second half opens with a fine tenor aria which itself sounds slightly Handelian. The next recitative is all action, thudding bass in the continuo, unsettled higher strings and the last trumpet intoning a chorale melody. But as the text becomes more consoling, so the music settles. The following bass aria starts and ends with a simple and gentle melody, as the soul contemplates heavenly bliss, but is interrupted with a final outburst reflecting judgement day. A simple chorale setting rounds off the cantata.

Copyright © 1995 & 1998, Simon Crouch.
Today's performance is from a 1977 Archiv recording by the Munich Bach Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Karl Richter. Enjoy!


Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Holly and the Ivy... And Some Cedar, Too

Walking through town and through the Dykeman Spring Nature Park on the way to and back from the grocery store, I was keeping an eye out for traditional Winter holiday greenery; it's getting time to make my annual wreath. Along with greenery, colorful berries are a plus. As you'll see from the following photos, there's plenty around for wreath material!

English Ivy
Eastern Red Cedar, whose blue berries make a nice complement to the red Holly berries
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Weekend Wanderings

I had the whole weekend off, so I combined running errands with wanders in the countryside. On Saturday I needed to hit the store for new socks, so I went via the Rail Trail and a back country road (Smithdale Rd., for anybody from the area reading this). And today I did my usual Sunday walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park on the way to the grocery store. The weather has been gorgeous and perfect for hiking both days. I'm definitely feeling refreshed!

Walking on the Rail Trail
A farm along Smithdale Rd.
I stopped on the way home on the King St. bridge to take this photo of Branch Creek
The creek in Dykeman Park from the new bridge, taken this morning
A view of the north duck pond
Looking up through the interlaced branches of the Kentucky Coffee Tree by the pond
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Advent 1

A light shines in the darkness
Advent begins, and so does the the new year of the liturgical calendar. Bach composed three cantatas for the first Sunday in Advent, all of them based on Martin Luther's hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, savior of the Gentiles), which is in turn Luther's German adaptation of the Latin hymn Veni redemptor gentium. Both BWV 61 and 62 are based completely on that hymn and tend to be a tad solemn for a celebration of any kind. I much prefer the third choice, BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor (Swing yourself up joyfully, Leipzig, 1731). This is far more lively and joyful, and uses Luther's hymn in the internal arias and the closing chorus. In fact, this cantata is something of a patchwork quilt, with pieces from here and there sewn together to create something altogether different. I'll let the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music explain:
Cantata BWV 36 has a complicated history. It began life in 1727 as a secular cantata. By 1731 there had been as many as four versions of the work, all of them for specific celebratory secular occasions In 1731 Bach added all of the chorale-based movements and adapted the text to fit the first Sunday in Advent. It is a tribute to the consistency and purity of his style that the work achieved a unity one would never expect from such a history. The joyous opening chorus has a wonderful leaping quality to its vocal lines that set the piece out on a wonderful journey. The first sacred insert is a detailed and sober duet based upon the great Advent Chorale, "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland." After a melancholy tenor aria a simple four-voice version of "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" ends the first half of the cantata. The warm and lovely bass aria that begins the second half of the cantata recaptures the glow of the opening chorus. Another chorale insertion, this time an energetic trio sonata with the two Oboes d'amore and tenors leads us into the climax of both the secular and sacred versions of the work, the enchanting aria for muted violin and soprano. No work of Bach ever illustrated more hauntingly a state of grace. The fact that it began life as a secular aria in no way distracts from its holy fire. Another four-voice setting of "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" ends the cantata.
©Craig Smith
Today's video is another wonderful performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation orchestra and choir under the direction of Rudolph Lutz. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

November's End

The leaves have fallen and turned to a brown carpet on the ground, and the trees are bare. The predominant colors are brown and gray, with some stray red leaves and berries here and there. But it's not quite Winter yet, and while there's frost in the mornings, the afternoon air is still mild. This is the waiting time, waiting for Winter to arrive and maybe, just maybe, some snow. 

The old railroad trestle on the Dykeman Walking Trail
A section of the Dykeman Walking Trail
Asian Bittersweet berries in the Dykeman Spring wetland
The Dykeman Park creek flows under the railroad tracks
Autumn reflections in the north duck pond
A pond-side bench under a spreading Maple
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sunday Bach - Trinity 24

Laurel Lake, Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Gardners, PA
This is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Lutheran liturgical calendar, and Bach composed two equally magnificent cantatas for this Sunday. I've had to make the difficult choice of choosing one to post, but I also urge you to go visit the other on YouTube - BWV 26, Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Oh how fleeting, oh how fading, Leipzig 1724).

The cantata I've chosen to post today is both magnificent and unique in Bach's work - BWV 60, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort [Dialogus] II (O Eternity, thou word of thunder, Leipzig 1723). The cantata is a dialogue between Fear (alto) and Hope (tenor), in the end resolved by the Holy Spirit (bass). And the closing chorale, with it's chromatic harmonic structure, is 200 years ahead of its time! Here's what the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music had to say about this cantata:
Composed in November of 1723, Bach O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60 became an enormous favorite among the fin de siècle intelligentsia in Vienna. The final chorale, perhaps the most extreme of any chorale setting, was the backbone of the Berg Violin Concerto. The Austrian expressionistic poet, painter and playwright Oskar Kokoshka, sketched an astonishing series of drawings based upon the cantata and its dialogue between Fear and Hope. The content of this dialogue is one of the most intense, neurotic and immeshed thirteen minutes of music ever written. This exploration into the human psyche seemed to fascinate Bach as is evident in a few other cantatas (BWV26, 70, 90) that precede Advent.

In the first movement the icy-cold chorale "O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort" appears in the alto voice (fear), doubled by a horn, above trembling strings and a hysterical tenor. An even more unstable recitative follows in which Fear sings a tragic, agonizing and forever searching melisma on the word “torture”.  This leads directly to the bony and unpleasant duet with violin and oboe d'amore. Jagged dotted rhythms and slippery scale passages live together in an uneasy truce. Hope, significantly, has the final word; his melodic line continuing after Fear has spoken. In the recitative/arioso that follows, the voice of the Holy Ghost appears more as an arbiter than a comforter. The opening whole tone scale and disjunct phrase lengths of the final chorale are hair-raising in their instability. The text, however, does offer some kind of comfort in its acceptance of death.
The performance I've chosen for today is a 1998 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2015 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, November 19, 2017

In the Midst of November

The weather has turned colder and wetter, and we've had some high winds lately, especially last night and earlier this morning. So the trees are getting pretty bare, except for the Oaks, who always hang on to their leaves until the new ones bud in the Spring. I tried to catch both the nakedness of the trees as well as the spots of color here and there on this morning's walk. I also came across a Mockingbird feasting on Bittersweet berries in the Dykeman Spring wetland, so intent on its meal that it totally ignored my presence. November is being November.

I stopped by Branch Creek at King St. on the way to the park to admire the scene
There are more leaves on the ground than on the trees on this stretch of the Dykeman Walking Trail
It's a Bittersweet berry feast for this Mockingbird
Part of the Dykeman wetland complete with Purple Martin hotel
The creek in the park with the new bridge in the background
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Trinity 23

Autumn Leaves
This week's Bach cantata belies its title - Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht! (False world, I trust you not, Leipzig, 1726). Despite the gloomy title, this solo cantata for soprano consists of some amazingly  joyous music, starting with the opening sinfonia, which is a restating of the first movement of his Brandenburg Concerto #1. This uprush of orchestral joy is followed by the recitative that gives this cantata its title, but then is followed by a more positive message and more joyful music. And although this is a solo cantata for soprano, the music is incredibly lush and complex for the genre. This is a treat from any perspective! Here's what Simon Crouch has to say on the subject:
One may ask What's a bit of Brandenburg Concerto doing here?. Indeed, given the somewhat pessimistic outlook of the rest of the cantata, an adaptation of the first movement of BWV 1046 does seem a little out of place. It does establish the key of F major nicely I suppose, but perhaps it's simply that a bunch of Sebastian's friends were in town that week and he wanted to give them something to play! The recitative that follows the opening sinfonia establishes the mood of gloom and the soprano aria counters that with trust in God. This latter is a pleasant piece, with attractive string accompaniment. The next recitative is followed by another attractive soprano aria that reiterates the message of faith in the Lord being the one true salvation. Robertson points out that the opening orchestral gesture (played by the oboes) in this movement bears a resemblance to the aria V'adoro pupile from Handel's Giulio Cesare. You might like to judge for yourself whether this is one master quoting another or simply a coincidental use of common musical language. The cantata is completed by a straightforward chorale setting. 
Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.
Today's performance is from a 2003 recording in the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!


Photo © 2014 by A. Roy Hilbinger