Sunday, October 29, 2017

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

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