Sunday, October 29, 2017

Celebrating Autumn

Ten years ago, in November, I went walking the trails in Miantonomi Park on the north end of Newport, RI and took a bunch of the best Fall foliage shots I've ever taken. I created a a photo essay on with them, but never ported it over here on the blog. Since then Gather dried up and blew away, taking my photo essays there with it into oblivion, and I forgot all about it. But the photos themselves are still on my hard drive, and I ran across them again this morning while looking for a photo to decorate today's Sunday Bach post. I love these shots and figured I'd share them here on the blog. Enjoy!

Photos © 2007 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - A Double Feature

Autumn Cathedral - Miantonomi Park, Newport RI, 11/21/2007
Today's Sunday Bach is a double feature, because this Sunday encompasses two separate events in the Lutheran calendar. On the liturgical calendar this is the 20th Sunday after Trinity, but on the Lutheran historical calendar this is Reformation Sunday - the anniversary of Luther's nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg schlosskirche is October 31, and many Protestant churches celebrate the Sunday before this date as Reformation Sunday. Bach wrote cantatas for both occasions.

We'll tackle the 20th Sunday after Trinity first, and the cantata I've chosen for today is a real treat - BWV 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Adorn yourself, o dear soul), Leipzig, 1724. It's lively, it's danceable, and it's full of wry little musical puns and allusions. It's pure delight from start to finish! Here's Simon Crouch on the subject:
If anyone doubts the influence of the dance on Bach's sacred music, let them listen to this cantata. It is hard not to picture the congregation of St. Thomas' skipping down the aisle during the opening chorus! This cantata mixes the stories of the Epistle (avoid bad company, bad habits, etc etc) and the Gospel (the parable of the marriage of the King's son, in which invitations are sent out but largely ignored). The opening chorus illustrates the Epistle, the first aria the Gospel and from then on, things are mixed about.

A summary listen to the following tenor aria strongly supports Robert Marshall's thesis that Bach must have had a formidably good transverse flute player available whilst this cantata was written. It mixes stunning virtuosity with great beauty. It's also interesting to note an unusual feature in this cantata: Both transverse flutes and recorders are used. The cantata continues with a recitative that develops into a beautiful arioso, then a recitative followed by an air. This latter always makes me giggle a bit, since it bustles along in a very no nonsense way. I always imagine it being sung by a very prim soprano wearing a hat. After the final recitative, there is a very delicate, very beautiful chorale (Jesu, wahres Brot des Lebes).

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch. 
The performance I've chosen is a 1997 recording by the Gabrieli Consort and Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh.


The official date of Reformation Day, more formally the Feast of the Reformation, is October 31, on which date in 1517 Martin Luther presented his Ninety-five Theses. In Bach's time this was celebrated on the date, but these days the celebration is usually moved to the preceding Sunday, known as Reformation Sunday. In Bach's time weekday services and masses were part of the culture, but in modern times, especially in the US, church services for any occasion (except for Christmas and Thanksgiving) are relegated to Sunday, hence Reformation Sunday. 

I usually toss a coin on this Sunday every year to decide which group of cantatas I'll pick from, Reformation Day or Trinity 20, but this year is special - it's the 500th anniversary of Luther's break from the Catholic church and deserves special attention. So I decided to post for both. And of course you can't celebrate Reformation Sunday without Bach's grand chorale cantata for the occasion - BWV 80, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, A mighty fortress is our God, based on Martin Luther's most famous hymn of the same name. This cantata has an interesting history; in effect, it evolved through the years of Bach's professional life. It was first composed as a cantata for a Lenten Sunday in Weimar in 1713, but when Bach moved Leipzig in 1724 to become the music director there, he had to find another use for the cantata because the court at Leipzig forbade musical services during Lent. Bach eventually made it a cantata for Reformation Day and revised it several times through the 1720s and 1730s. Here's Simon Crouch on the subject:
Straight down to business with an enormous chorale fantasia on Luther's hymn Ein' feste Burg. This is one of Bach's pieces that I initially found very daunting: Great, yes; To admire, of course; But to love? Well, these days I not infrequently find myself humming one of the fugal voices, whistling another and trying to hold the rest going in my head. Anyone observing this act must think that I'm bonkers. But what the heck, it is a very beautiful edifice.

Two wonderful arias follow, separated by a recitative. The first motors along to a machine-gun accompaniment on the strings, the seconds swings beautifully in triple time. The chorale that follows does both. Next is a tenor/alto duet with accompanying oboe da caccia and finally an excellent four part harmonisation of the chorale melody. Do try to hear this cantata in both "modern" and "original" performances: The former to get more of the grandeur of the piece, the latter to hear it in the original instrumentation (especially the oboe da caccia. Why did this wonderful beast die out? Well, OK, it was probably a pig to play and keep in tune but it does make a lovely noise!)

There is a very interesting essay about the genesis and publication history of BWV 80 in Christolph Wolff's excellent collection Bach - Essays on His Life and Music. If you're used to hearing this cantata with trumpets and drums, then you may be surprised to learn that their inclusion (in the Bach-Gesellschaft edition) is probably derived from a parody of this cantata that Wilhelm Friedemann Bach devised for his own purposes. J.S.B probably had nothing to do with them at all!

Copyright © 1995 & 1997, Simon Crouch.
Today's performance is from a performance at the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg on October 31, 2000 by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of the great John Eliot Gardiner; this was part of Gardiner's groundbreaking Bach Pilgrimage series of performances of key cantatas in historic German churches. Enjoy!


Photo © 2007 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Saturday, October 28, 2017

My Pagan Heart Sings

Finally, the temperatures have fallen and the leaves have begun to change color; the real Autumn has appeared on the scene. For me, Autumn is the most Pagan of the seasons, the time of year that most colorfully celebrates Mama Gaia's beauty. As a dyed-in-the-wood, tree-hugging, unapologetic Pagan Humanist, my soul expands and my heart sings at this time every year. Here are some scenes from the Dykeman Spring Nature Park from this morning's walk.

Color in the woods and wetland
More color
An Autumnal scene by the north duck pond
Autumnal color up on the meadow
The Canada Geese are on the move
Color on the east end of the meadow
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Fall Color Emerges... Slowly

During my Sunday walk through the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning I noticed that seasonal color is starting to be more noticeable. It's about time! We have much cooler weather arriving by mid week, so maybe the process will speed up a little at last.

The Staghorn Sumacs and some Maples by the creek have brightened up some
Up on the meadow the color change is a little more evident
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - 19th Sunday After Trinity

Clifton Burying Ground, 11/01/2005
Today's cantata for the 19th Sunday after Trinity is one of Bach's best - BWV 56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (I will gladly bear the cross, Leipzig, 1726), a solo cantata for bass. This is another of Bach's cantatas describing death as a release and relief, and one of his more beautiful ones in this vein. Here's Simon Crouch:
The opening aria of this great solo cantata is one of those wonderful examples of Bach's music being perfectly at one with the text. For example, in the opening phrase, the resolution of a dissonant C sharp to D (in g minor) immediately gives the impression of the enormous burden of the Cross being lifted with God's help. The cantata goes on, with the familiar metaphor of life as a journey through troubled lands until salvation is reached in the promised land. Meanwhile a recitative, complete with "waves" (an allusion to Jesus' boat journey at the start of the gospel reading) leads on to an aria complete with one of those wonderful oboe accompaniments that so frequenty decorate the cantatas. I often wonder whether Bach's oboe player(s) appreciated what he was doing for them! To me these beautiful weaving, sometimes coy, oboe accompaniments are among the greatest jewels that Bach has left to us. As a flute player myself, I regret that the transverse flute wasn't as widely used then as it soon became. If it had, we could have had a few more of these wonderful tunes to ourselves! Another recitative leads to the final chorale (Komm, oh tod, du schlafes bruder) beautifully harmonised by Bach.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.
Today's performance is a 1991 recording by La Chapelle Royale under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. Enjoy!


Photo © 2005 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Burnt Mill Road

I went wandering on the country roads to the northwest of Shippensburg, ostensibly to see a stretch of Conodoguinet Creek I hadn't visited yet and hopefully to find an interesting bridge over said creek. It was a long hike - 14 miles - and I saw lots of great scenes and heard lots of Red-bellied Woodpeckers and heard and saw two Ravens in the course of my wanderings. And came home with rubbery legs and aching hips (but surprisingly, my feet are fine, great boots!) and just out and out bushed. But it was all worth it; it was a beautiful day for hiking, and I discovered a gem - Burnt Mill Road.  Great views of the north mountains, lots of great farm views, the very interesting Burnt Mill Veterinary Center, and a fantastic bridge - a steel framed trestle with a wooden plank deck over the Conodoguinet. For me, that's the next best thing to a covered bridge! Here are some scenes from that wonderful hike.

Looking north from West Creek Rd. approaching the north end of Burnt Mill Rd. 
Walking south down Burnt Mill Rd. with South Mountain in the background
Part of the campus of the Burnt Mill Veterinary Center
The bridge over Conodoguinet Creek
The wooden-planked deck of the bridge
Conodoguinet Creek at Burnt Mill Rd.
An old spring house on Burnt Mill Rd., with the spring still running from it
Landscape at the south end of Burnt Mill Rd.
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Shadows and Lines - A Walk on the Rail Trail

I have a three-day weekend this week, starting today, and I decided to use it to catch up on Autumn in the countryside. I went up on the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail today with that in mind, but to my disappointment things aren't looking particularly autumnal. The weather hasn't been conducive to colorful foliage, what with some unusual September and October heat waves. Colder weather is coming next weekend, but things may already have been spoiled; on the Maple across the street from me, which usually turns a red so bright that I swear you can read by it at night, the leaves have gone brown and crinkly around the edges, and I fear there won't be any color there this year. 

Still, it was a beautiful day and well worth the walk, and there were things to see and scenes to photograph. The light was just right to get some good shadows and shadow-and-light patterns, so not all was lost. Come take a look!

Rock is the defining reality of the Cumberland Valley; it pokes up through the earth everywhere!
Lines and shadows on the footbridge over Fogelsanger Road
Walking up the Rail Trail
A side trail with a touch of color
A feral cat calculating the odds of catching that squirrel in the tree
Walking through a tunnel of trees
A farm, a dirt road, and a touch of Fall color
A panoramic view of the Cumberland Valley from the Rail Trail
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Bach - 18th Sunday After Trinity

Fall Asters
This week's cantata for the 18th Sunday after Trinity is BWV 96, Herr Christ, der einige Gottessohn (Lord Christ, the only son of God), composed and performed in Leipzig in 1724. What captures the attention is that beautiful piccolo accompaniment in the opening chorus, adding a note of cheer and light, which Bach continues through the rest of the cantata. This is indeed a bright, cheerful work from a usually pretty somber Bach. Here's what Simon Crouch had to say about it:
If you enjoy BWV 1 How brightly shines the morning star then perhaps this is the next cantata that you should turn to. A different hymn (by Elisabeth Kreutziger) but the same allusion: He is the Morning Star….far brightest star of all and musically (in the first chorus) a similar treatment. The sparkling opening chorus is one of my favourites and is unusual in having a flauto piccolo (equivalent to our sopranino recorder) chattering beautifully away at the top of the orchestra. Also unusual is that the alto line holds the cantus firmus. After a recitative, the tenor da capo aria is quite long but the level of inspiration is more than enough to hold the attention; the flute has an especially enjoyable line. The bass aria is, perhaps, a lot more straightforward but conveys the text well and the cantata finishes with an especially fine chorale harmonisation.
Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch. 
This week's performance is from a 1978 recording by the Concentus Musicus Wien with the Tölzer Knabenchor under the direction of Nicholas Harnoncourt. Enjoy!


Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

In Transition

My weekly Sunday walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park revealed scenes of Nature in transition to Fall color. Mostly it's the shrubs and small trees changing now - the Virginia Creeper and Staghorn Sumac are glowing bright red, and yellows are popping up as well. We also have some wet weather moving in; it rained a little as a front moved through this morning, and now we're awaiting the arrival of the remnants of Nate, which is supposed to give us some long-awaited and much needed all-day soaking rain tonight and tomorrow. With cooler temperatures following, we should be seeing more color soon!

Small-flowered White Aster
Virginia Creeper on the footbridge over Gum Run
Wetland with Purple Martin house
Looking across the pond to the wetland
On the meadow
Looking toward Timber Hill from the meadow
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - 17th Sunday After Trinity

Autumnal Simplicity
Of the three cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday in the liturgical calendar, surely this one - BWV 148, Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens (Bring to the Lord the glory of his name, Leipzig, 1725) - is one of his most magnificent. The fugal opening chorus alone is worth the listen, but the rest of the cantata keeps the glory alive. Here's what the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music had to say about this cantata:
Our cantata today was written for the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity. The beautiful exhortation of Paul to the Ephesians for generosity and selflessness is combined with the parable of the man invited to the rich man’s dinner. Both readings emphasize humility and modesty. The resultant text is unusually sunny, without any of the dark shadows that permeate most of Bach’s cantata texts. 
The opening chorus, a quote from Psalm 29, is a brilliant and densely fugal work for trumpet, oboe, and strings. It is something of a curiosity that Bach, in a very unusual move, sets the whole text at the outset and then divides it up into sections for the various fugues that make up the rest of the piece. The texture, while joyous, is unremittingly dense. Clearly Bach wants to give the effect of an enormous crowd singing these ringing words. The tenor aria is a virtuoso affair both for the solo violin as well as for the high-flying tenor part. The alto goes much deeper. The recitative starts with a famous quote from Psalm 42 and then goes into the main message of the parable, that good works can be done on the Sabbath as well as the rest of the week. The beautiful aria with three oboes has a calm and warmth that brings to a wonderful close the ringing affirmation of the opening chorus. This cantata is a wonderful example of Bach’s ability to take ideas that don’t seem to have much contrast and build a convincing and moving structure of faith. The work ends with a rich and warm harmonization of the chorale “Auf meinem lieben Gott.” 
Today's performance is a live recording from 2000 by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner, to my mind one of the best interpreters and conductors of Bach's music. Enjoy!

Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sunday Bach - 16th Sunday After Trinity

All four of the cantatas Bach composed for this particular Sunday in the liturgical calendar focus on death as a welcome release from the burdens of this life on earth, a common belief in Bach's time. Of the four cantatas written for this Sunday, BWV 8, Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? (Dearest God, when shall I die?, Leipzig, 1724) has always been a favorite of mine. Despite the subject matter of the text of the cantata, the music itself is warm, friendly, and leisurely. Musicologist Philipp Spitta described it as having the sound of a “church-yard full of flowers in the springtime.” The flute figure in the opening chorus is always described as the sound of bells, but to me it sounds like birdsong, adding to that feeling of a church-yard in Spring, hence my choice of the photo of a Song Sparrow in full voice above. Here's what musicologist Simon Crouch has to say about this cantata:
A word from Philipp Spitta about the opening movement of this chorale cantata: "..the sound of tolling bells, the fragrance of blossoms pervades it - the sentiment of a churchyard in springtime". The continuo tolls the bell low in the harmony, the upper strings repeat a pizzicato bell-like figure and the flute alternates between arpeggios and repeated staccato high notes. All the while the oboes d'amore intertwine their sinuously attractive melody with the choir's chorale. This is a very lovely movement!

The theme is a common one in the cantatas: When shall we take leave of the sufferings of mortal life and achieve eternal life in Heaven? The bells continue tolling in the tenor aria and the (solo) oboe d'amore has another beautiful line. After a recitative, Heaven is achieved in the tour-de-force that is the bass aria. It is really difficult to avoid the feeling that here we have a movement, a gigue, from a lost flute concerto. It is a wonderful, optimistic, virtuoso piece and if you have any love for the flute as a solo instrument, do try to hear this. The cantata closes, after a recitative, with a lovely chorale setting with orchestral accompaniment. Especially effective is the low bass note that precedes the voices. The chorale melody itself, by Daniel Vetter, is especially attractive.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.
The performance chosen for today is from a 1998 recording by the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. Enjoy!


Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger