Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday Scenes

Walking through the Dykeman Park this morning, once again I focused on getting the eye up close to the subject - macro setting, manual focus, and the aperture wide open to get that flat depth of field and great bokeh. Only three passed quality control, but I'm well pleased with those three!

A weathered rail on a swamp boardwalk
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Lent 5

First Flowers
Again, there is no cantata for the fifth Sunday in Lent due to church rules in Bach's time. However... March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary (when the angel announces to Mary that she's pregnant), but since this year the 25th is also Palm Sunday, I decided to post Bach's cantata for the Annunciation today. This is BWV 1, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star, Leipzig 1725), a chorale cantata based on the hymn of the same name. The hymn is a popular one in mainstream Protestant churches, written in 1597 by Philipp Nicolai, and Bach used it in one way or another in many of his works. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music has written a brilliant essay on this, the lead-off work in the Bach Gesellschaft official catalog of Bach's works:
The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the only festival celebrated with music during Lent during Bach's tenure at Leipzig. In the 2nd Jahrgang, March 25, the day of the feast, fell on Palm Sunday. The text to Cantata BWV 1 however is exclusively devoted to the Annunciation and makes no mention of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. 
When the founders of the Bach Gesellshaft 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 Gesellshaft 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 of its Abgesang had been consolidated into two. As has been pointed out previously 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 "morningstar" 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 this aria #3 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, perfect in the same way that we have noted that Mary is depicted in BWV 10.

After a passionate secco bass recitative, the tenor aria #5 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 1 st horn doubles the soprano with the 1 st 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, a perfect skillful orchestration so that every line can be heard. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a 1980 recording by the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart under the direction of Helmuth Rilling. Enjoy!

Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Worn and Stained - The Beauty of Old Stone

I've been photographing old gravestones ever since I discovered photography as my art. There's an austere beauty to the work of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century stone carvers which attracted me right from the start. To this point I've been photographing these stones as a means of documenting them, discovering and identifying styles and carvers, but over the weekend I had something of an epiphany - approached at the macro level, the individual elements provide a focus of their own, especially with the patina and wear of the ages. So I went up to Spring Hill Cemetery this morning with my camera set to macro function and set on black & white to capture the beauty of old carved stone - worn, weather-stained, and dotted with lichen. This is beauty carved out of the bones of the earth and painted with time by Mama Gaia, and it made my heart soar to search out and capture these gems!

© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Abstract Nature

Despite the touches of Spring seen earlier this past week, it's still Winter and the landscape is still primarily colored in bleak shades of gray and brown. So rather than go for scenic shots on today's walk in the park, I put the camera on macro mode and stuck my photographic eye so close to the subjects that they lost context and became abstract, disconnected from their original context. Mama Gaia provides endless perspectives in which beauty exists!

English Ivy
Macro Mountains
Rock, Veins, & Lichen
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Lent 4

Morning Fog, 1/13/2013
We're back to Sundays in Lent for which Bach wrote no cantatas, so we're looking at cantatas with no specific date in the liturgical calendar. Since Lent is a period of penitence, I decided on this particular penitential cantata - BWV 131, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir  (From the depth I cry, Lord, to thee; Mühlhausen 1707). This is Bach's earliest known cantata, written when he was the 22 year old organist for the church at Mühlhausen, as a penitential cantata in the wake of a fire that destroyed a large part of the town. As an early work it shows Bach's musical influences, particularly that of Buxtehüde. Here's Simon Crouch on the subject:
Cantata 131 is the earliest surviving of Bach's cantatas and may indeed (according to Alfred Durr) be the earliest cantata that he composed. It is certainly the earliest autograph of a complete major work by Bach to have survived until today. It was apparently written for a penitential service in Mühlhausen shortly after a major fire had destroyed a large part of the town in 1707.

Judging from the very opening of the sinfonia of Aus der Tiefe Bach had very early on mastered the use of the plaintive oboe figure! The sinfonia leads straight into the very beautiful first choral movement which itself goes straight into the bass aria in which the chorus sings a chorale backdrop. In fact, there's a very obvious structure in this cantata of three choral pillars separated by two chorale based solos. So after another choral section the excellent tenor aria has the same form as the earlier bass aria with the chorus providing accompaniment and the chorus has the final word.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch
Today's performance is from a recording by the Collegium Vocale under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. Enjoy!

Photo © 2013 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 05, 2018


I went for a walk in the Brookside Ave. wetland this morning and noticed the signs of emerging Spring. We've had a lot of wet weather lately as well, and the wetland is finally truly wet again. Remember how dry it was for the last couple of years? Well, now the collection pond is full again and all the network of streamlets is full and flowing. Lots of birds, especially the true harbingers of Spring, the Red-winged Blackbirds. No Tree Swallows yet this year, though. Be that as it may, the wetland is greening and full of life.

One of the streamlets in the wetland, full and flowing
The collection pond is finally full, after 2 years dry
The trees are budding!
A Red-winged Blackbird, the true harbinger of Spring
Courting Turkey Vultures
The Skunk Cabbage is starting to sprout
Crossing the bridge on the way out
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, March 04, 2018

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 - 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
The performance I've chosen for this week is a live 2013 concert by the Sweelinck Barokorkest under the direction of Teunis van der Zwart, featuring alto Sophia Patsi and countertenor Eduardo Rojas. And this touches on one of my pet peeves about "historical accuracy" in Early Music. Back in those times people were stupid, and women weren't allowed to sing in church. So the tradition of boys' choirs, boy sopranos and altos, countertenors, and castrati developed to substitute high (or artificially high) men's voices for women's. At the risk of being historically inaccurate, I consider this tradition to be sexist and ignorant in  the extreme. Why does the classical music world insist on perpetuating the misogyny of our embarrassing past? There is a world of difference between the artificiality of high male voices and women's voices, and much of the music written for women's voices were meant for women, only being substituted in public to adhere to a violently anti-feminine church. Bach's first wife was a gifted alto, and he worked with other gifted women singers throughout his career; the parts he wrote for altos and sopranos were written for those women, and to use countertenors now to sing those parts is insulting not only to women but to Bach himself. To hell with "historical accuracy"! Whatever happened to artistic integrity?

So it was basically very difficult to find a recording of this cantata using an actual female alto singer. And even in the video I found and liked they still used a countertenor for the third movement. Mr. Rojas is certainly a good singer, but why couldn't they continue to use Ms. Patsi, especially after her magnificent rendering of the first two movements? Ah well, who am I to complain. This is an excellent recording of one of Bach's more interesting cantatas. Enjoy!

Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Fading Winter

It's the back end of Winter, and Mama Gaia is looking messy, faded, and disheveled. As I walked through the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning on the way to the grocery store I got some shots, and I noticed that Mama Gaia still looks good even in her disheveled state!

Entering the park on the Dykeman Walking Trail 
Along the walking trail, at the old railroad trestle 
A view of the Dykeman Spring wetland
Another view of the wetland, including the Purple Martin house
The creek from the red bridge
A neighboring farm's Muscovy ducks seem to like to hang out at the duck ponds in the park
The rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania seen from the upland meadow
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sunday Bach - Lent 2

White-throated Sparrow 
As I explained last week, in Bach's time concerted music n church was banned in Germany, so there's only one of his cantatas specifically for a Lenten Sunday, which will be featured next week. So during the Lenten season I usually go through Bach's cantatas for unspecified occasions, and this week I've chosen BWV 97, In allen meinen Taten (In all my undertakings, Leipzig 1734). This is a later work, and at this point in his career Bach was wont to stray away from the conventional forms to explore the possibilities for musical expression in liturgical settings. This one is set up like a baroque suite, beginning with a grand French overture. I'll let the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music explain:
Bach Cantata BWV 97 is sui generis. It has as its text the first nine verses of the well-known hymn "Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen," originally a tune by the Renaissance composer Isaac but taken over by Paul Fleming in 1642 to become a mainstay of the Lutheran Chorale repertoire. Bach not only sets the nine verses unchanged but treats the whole cantata as a baroque suite; each aria, duet and the opening chorus are identifiable as movements in the suite form. The work opens with a grand French Overture, the traditional beginning of the form. The orchestra of oboes and strings plays the opening characteristic dotted figurations. At the middle section the chorus with the chorale in the sopranos enters. The bravura orchestral writing is reflected in the brilliant roulades in the lower voices of the chorus.The second verse is set for the bass voice and the continuo as a lively and virtuoso gigue. The third verse of the chorale appears as a secco recitative. The next verse is perhaps the greatest thing in the cantata. This aria for tenor, violin obbligato and continuo is a broad Allemande portraying the mercy and protection of God. This is the most ambitious and far-reaching of all of Bach's violin obbligati in the cantatas. Although the cantata has an autograph date of 1734, the violin writing is more characteristic of the virtuoso writing of the solo violin partitas and sonatas written in Cöthen in the early 1720's. Here the violin portrays a state of God's grace which the tenor punctuates and comments upon. The alto recitative is accompanied by strings and leads into the unusual and thorny aria, also with strings. Here the composer clearly wants to confuse the listener rhythmically with the large number of syncopations and ambiguous downbeats. The lovely duet for soprano, bass and continuo is like virtually every movement in this work more complicated than it seems. The soprano aria with two oboes is abstract and profound in its structure and content. The cantata ends with an elaborate harmonization for the four-voice choir with independent string parts. This great cantata (and it is one of the very best) may seem more abstract and less emotionally involving than some of the more popular earlier works. It certainly is leading to Bach's last profound period of composition of the German Organ Mass, the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue. Here, as in those great last works, Bach uses what is probably the greatest technique of any composer to sum up the wisdom of the age. Certainly, at the very least, this cantata is a remarkable compendium of all that can be said about this great chorale. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a 2002 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger