Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Last Day of 2017... With Snow!

We finally got our first decent snow yesterday, just in time to see the year out today. It's very cold right now; it was in the single digits (-12º to -17º C) while I was out hiking this morning, and now at 3:45 pm it's only 16º F (-9º C), so the snow isn't melting. In fact it's all quite scenic, and I went for a walk through town to Dykeman Park this morning to welcome the first snow of the season and say farewell to 2017.

The gazebo across the street, still decorated for Christmas
Branch Creek at King St.
The creek in Dykeman Park, looking south from the red bridge
The red bridge
The creek in Dykeman Park, looking north from the new bridge
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - The Sunday After Christmas

The first Sunday after Christmas falls in the midst of the 12-day Christmastide celebration, and even though Bach had his massive oratorio to cover the official liturgical feast days scattered throughout the period, this Sunday isn't one of them. So for today we step out of the glorious oratorio; but don't worry, tomorrow is New Year's Day and the fourth cantata of the oratorio is on tap!

Meanwhile, here is a beautiful, intimate little solo cantata for soprano and bass written specifically for the Sunday after Christmas - BWV 152, Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (Walk in the way of faith, Weimar, 1714). Compared to the magnificent glories of the Christmas Oratorio, this is a quiet, understated little gem for two voices and small chamber ensemble that shines out like a single star in the midst of the Milky Way. Here's Simon Crouch on this beauty:
Written early in Bach's career at Weimar, the solo cantata BWV 152 starts with a most attractive concerto. There's four bars of rather stately introduction in common time followed by a permutation fugue that skips along in 3/8. The subject (which you may wish to compare with that from BWV 536) is introduced by the recorder and developed by the oboe, viola d'amore (an instrument that has sympathetically resonating strings beneath the fingerboard) and the viola da gamba. The bass aria that follows has one of those wonderfully plaintive oboe lines, at which Bach so excelled, weaving in and out of the vocalist's line. The recitative has a nice leap down and up for the soloist at the words zum fall und Auferstehen! The soprano aria has a beautiful and elegant accompaniment from the recorder and viola d'amore and requires a singer of pure voice and even tone to do justice to the long held notes. After a recitative, the cantata is rounded off by a fine bass/soprano dialogue where the soul enquires of Jesus how to obtain salvation. The recorder and oboe play most effectively in unison in this movement.
Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.
Today's performance is a 1993 recording by the American Bach Soloists under the direction of Jeffery Thomas. Enjoy!


Photo © 2015 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Bach's Christmas Oratorio - Cantata 3

The third cantata of Bach's Christmas Oratorio - Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen (Lord of the heavens, hear our murmuring) - continues the story of the shepherds as they travel to and arrive in Bethlehem. This again has a gentle, pastoral feel. Here's Simon Crouch again:
The third part of the Christmas Oratorio sees the shepherds eventually arriving in Bethlehem but first, to introduce them, another fine chorus; this time borrowed from BWV 214/9. Absolutely glorious stuff! The first recitative sets the scene and the lively turba style chorus (not a parody) following sees them take the decision to go to Bethlehem. A further recitative is followed by a chorale and then a gentle duet (taken from BWV 213/11, where it is somewhat more erotic!) accompanied beautifully by a pair of oboe's d'amore. The evangelist tells us that they have seen the child and that they spread the news of His arrival. Mary's aria, which follows, is thought to be the only original aria in the Christmas Oratorio; it is a gentle and beautiful reflection on the miracle that has just taken place accompanied by solo violin. The cantata draws nearly to a close in relatively low key fashion with the pattern recitative-chorale-recitative-chorale, both chorale settings being straightforward. The opening chorus is then repeated as if a grand da capo.

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.
We continue with the performance by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Norwegian Soloists' Choir under the direction of Peter Dijkstra. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger       

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Bach's Christmas Oratorio - Cantata 2

The second cantata of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, is meant to be performed on the second day of the 12-day Christmas period, also known as St. Stephen's Day. This one in entitled Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend (And there were shepherds in the same region), and it tells the story of those shepherds who were the first to see the newborn Messiah. The whole cantata is a gentle pastorale, starting with that beautiful sinfonia. Here's Simon Crouch:

This second cantata of the Christmas Oratorio cycle opens with a wonderful sinfonia: How is it possible to resist a pair of oboes d'amore and a pair of oboes da caccia in the same pastoral gentleness? In fact, the whole atmosphere of this part of the holy drama is suffused with calm contemplation and the opening sinfonia plays a major part in establishing that feeling. The evangelist relates the story of the shepherds and a lovely chorale (by Johann Rist) follows. The angel tells the shepherds to "fear not" in the following recitative and the bass relates that what is coming to pass is in fulfilment of old testament scripture. The tenor aria, parodied from BWV 214/5 urges the shepherds to seek the child. Another gentle piece beautifully accompanied by the flute. The evangelist tells the shepherds to seek a child laying in a manger and another lovely chorale (by Paul Gerhardt) follows. In the next recitative the bass urges the shepherds to sing the child lullabies when they get there. In the background, the continuo supplies a suitably cradle-rocking bass line. The following alto aria is one of the glories of the Christmas Oratorio. Parodied from BWV 213/3, where it appears as a somewhat erotic temptation to Hercules, it is transformed here into a beautiful and gentle lullaby to the Christ-child. The next recitative gives the biblical text leading into the chorus Ehre sei Gott, an original composition for this work that has the character of a turba chorus. A final recitative leads into the final chorale, a straighforward setting with interlinear contributions in the style of the opening sinfonia.

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.
We continue with the performance by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and Norwegian Soloists' Choir under the direction of Peter Dijkstra. Enjoy!


Photo © 2007 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas 2017

Merry Christmas to all my family and friends!

Let there be peace on Earth!

© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Cantata 1

Until only very recently Christmas Day was just day one of a twelve-day celebration which lasted until Epiphany on January 6 (also known as Twelfth Night). Within that period were six feast days especially for celebration and worship, and Bach wrote cantatas for all six of those days. The most famous of those is his monumental Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio, Leipzig, 1734). It has become my holiday custom to post those six cantatas on the days they were intended for. For me, it isn't Christmas without Bach's greatest work!

The first cantata of the set, for Christmas Day, is Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage (Rejoice, be glad, come, praise the days). This is Bach at his most triumphant and joyful, full of flourishing trumpets and tympani! Here's Simon Crouch talking about this cantata:
Bach clearly designed the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio to be a unified cycle but it seems fair to include them in this survey on two grounds: As far as original performance is concerned it was presented as six separate cantatas, one each on the festival days at Christmas and the New Year; Also, the vast majority of the musical material was parodied from cantatas. One may present a further argument, of course: These are very fine works and it gives me the excuse to write about them!

This first cantata of the cycle opens with suitable magnificence. A glorious piece with trumpets and drums adapted from BWV 214/1, it has a surprisingly subdued drum and flute opening which soon gives way to the rejoicing of Jauchet, frohlocket. The first recitative, sung by the tenor, introduces the well known narrative from the Gospel: Mary and Joseph brought to Jerusalem for the census. The alto interrupts with a recitative introducing the Christ-as-Bridegroom idea and this leads into the gentle alto aria, parodied from BWV 213/9, that calls on Zion to prepare itself for that Bridegroom. A chorale follows, to the tune of the passion chorale and the evangelist follows relating the story of Christ's birth. The following movement intertwines lines of a chorale with recitative contemplating the meaning of Christ's appearence on earth. This leads into the glorious bass aria Großer Herr, parodied from BWV 214/7. The trumpet features prominently and in the middle introduces a fanfare theme frequently heard in Bach's works. The cantata concludes with a straightforward chorale setting with the wonderful interlinear trumpet tune.

The Christmas Days of 1734, 1739, 1744 and 1745 were something really rather special.

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.
This year I've found a collection of the oratorio in six videos from the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Norwegian Soloists Choir under the direction of Peter Dijkstra. Enjoy!


Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sunday Bach - Advent 4

Today is the fourth and last Sunday in Advent, and this year it's also Christmas Eve; Bach wrote the perfect segue into the glories of a Bach Christmas in this beautiful little solo cantata from 1715 - BWV 132, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (Prepare the way, prepare the road!, Weimar, 1715). The prophecy of Isaiah is obviously the inspiration, and the Gospel reading for the day was John the Baptist's testimony, so this cantata is full of baptismal imagery. Here's Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music with commentary on this cantata:
The brilliant and extroverted aria that opens Bereite die Wege, Bereite die Bahn [Prepare the paths, prepare the road], belies the profound inward journey of this cantata. In Bach’s time - after the first Sunday’s festivities – Advent was considered a season of reflection and penitence even in the face of the joyous coming of Christ. This cantata dates from 1715 in Weimar where (unlike in Leipzig) concerted music was permitted during Advent. The Gospel for today’s cantata is the moving testimony of John the Baptist in which he quotes the prophet Isaias: ‘make straight the way of the Lord’. Baptismal images abound both in the text and the music.

The cantata opens with a virtuoso aria of joyous anticipation for soprano, oboe d’amore, and strings. The endless melismas on the word ‘Bahn’ represent the ‘long path’ and perhaps the splashing of baptismal water. The text (of the B section) exhorts us to make the path ‘completely level for the Highest’, amusingly mirrored in the vocal line, where several words are repeated on one pitch. The complex tenor recitative ruminates on the idea of preparation. Listen for the rolling passage work in the cello and voice on the word ‘Wälz’ [roll]. In the bass aria, the question asked of John the Baptist by the Priests and Levites, ‘Wer bist du?’ [Who are you?], becomes a personal question with a rigid and unpleasant answer. The rolling bass accompaniment has an almost industrial feel as a road is effortfully cleared of sin for the Savior. The didactic vocal writing is fragmented and almost clumsy. The long bizarre melisma on the word ‘heuchlerischer’ [hypocritical] is particularly striking. The alto recitative softens the tone as the sinner struggles to reaffirm the covenant of baptism. The aria that follows is the centerpiece of the cantata. The vocal line, while tinged with sadness, is bathed in cascades of 32nd notes from the solo violin (baptismal water imagery, surely). Like the greatest Bach arias, it is utterly personal and emotionally layered. In this case, a feeling of personal joy somehow radiates from an overall sense of profound melancholy. 
Today's performance is a 1995 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Solstice 2017

It's that time of year again, when the sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn and the Winter Solstice arrives in the northern hemisphere of the Earth. It's the bleakest time of the year, when the nights are longest and the air is cold and there's often snow on the ground. To all appearances the Earth is dead. The Winter Solstice begins the process of bringing light and warmth and life back to the Earth, and is celebrated with evergreen decorations, fires and candles, warming drinks, and well-lighted feasts. No matter what religion or spiritual path one follows, this is a time of rejoicing. Here's some music to celebrate with: Jethro Tull's "Ring Out, Solstice Bells"; Jennifer Cutting's OCEAN Orchestra, a Celtic/Pagan ensemble, with one of their recent offerings, "Song of Solstice"; and a lovely piece called "A Fire for You" by John Boswell, found while looking for Solstice music on YouTube. Enjoy!

© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


 Now is the season of waiting. For Christians it's Advent, the time of waiting for the birth of Christ. For Jews Chanukah is a period of waiting to see if the Temple has survived. For others the time of the Winter Solstice is a time of waiting for the sun to return, a time for the Earth to rest and repair in preparation for Spring and the growing season. But human beings are not a particularly patient race; we hate to wait for anything. This train of thought was inspired by an essay by writer, editor, and publisher Jeff Dunn called "A Lifetime of Advent", published today on the Internet Monk blog. This is how he starts off the essay:
I have a confession to make. I hate to wait. Really. Red lights on the road are a curse of the devil. A line at checkout when I’m buying groceries? I have to ask myself how much I really need the things in my cart. I’m all for patience, as long as I can have it NOW. 
So we enter into Advent, the season of waiting and I hate waiting. We wait for God to appear in a manger in Bethlehem at just the right time. But I want to rush through these days and get to Christmas already. Did I say that I hate to wait?
Jeff isn't alone; this seems to be a common trait of humanity. The traffic light goes from red to green and we lean on the horn if the first car in line doesn't immediately leap forward. We fidget while waiting in line. We pace the floor while waiting for the repairman. We snap and growl at the slow pace of time. Waiting brings out the worst in us.

And yet we consider patience a virtue and view our native impatience as a character flaw. And in this time of year when patience is the theme of life, we create holidays to celebrate waiting. We acknowledge the time needed to rest, we sing hymns and carols and paeans to The Coming Days. We humans are, if anything, a study in contradiction.

I'm not a particularly patient person myself, but I love this time of waiting. I love this time of the sleeping Earth and the contrast between the bare, resting deciduous trees and the still green evergreens. I love walking through the woods and hearing the crunch of the dead leaves underfoot. And I love the snow. My favorite quote about snow comes from Lewis Carroll and applies exactly to this season of rest we call Winter: “I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, 'Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'”

And there's the source of my own impatience - I impatiently await the first good snow of the season, when Mama Gaia will tuck the sleeping Earth snugly in her special white quilt. We haven't had a good snow yet, and I pace and fret at the lack. I wait for the special quality that the blanket of snow adds to the landscape, and the comfort it gives me to see it laying there.

Still, there's a particular austere beauty to the Winter landscape without snow that can make the waiting easier. I went seeking it on a walk this morning, the day before the Winter Solstice, and I found it and brought it back to share with you. Enjoy!

© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

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