Sunday, January 28, 2018

An Austere Beauty

Winter without snow makes for a bleak season indeed. Yet there's an austere beauty to the dormant earth that can catch you by surprise and feed your soul. I was caught by that beauty on my regular Sunday walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning; it was enhanced by rain overnight, and the damp seems to have enhanced the normally muted colors of the Winter landscape. My soul was most definitely fed.

Raindrops on Viburnum berries
The creek in the park from the red bridge
A shelf fungus along the Dykeman Walking Trail
A view of the north duck pond
The rolling hills of Central PA seen from the top of the upland meadow in the park
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Septuagesima

Song Sparrow
Septuagesima Sunday marks the beginning of the Lenten/Easter season; septuagesima means seventy, and the name of this Sunday means there are seventy days until Easter. Septuagesima Sunday is also the start of the 17-day Mardi Gras/Carneval season, when everybody gets their jollies in before the dour, penitential 40 days of Lent. Bach composed three cantatas for this Sunday, and for me this solo cantata for soprano best exemplifies the spirit of the season - BWV 84, Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (I am content with my good fortune, Leipzig, 1727). There's a lighthearted, playful feel to this cantata, especially the interaction between the soprano and the accompanying instruments. Here's what Simon Crouch has to say about this cantata:
One of Bach's supreme gifts was to make so much out of what seems so little. Here is a good example. The cantata for solo soprano, BWV 84 has the very straightforward structure of aria, recitative, aria, recitative, chorale. None of the movements has a complicated orchestration or musical structure and the total duration is typically under fifteen minutes. The effect, however, is delightful. The first aria starts with an introductory ritornello on the oboe which skips along with delicate trills and the soprano is soon mirroring the oboe trill for trill. The second aria is even more playful. In the meantime the text, apparently by Picander, quietly but firmly reinforces part of the message of the Gospel of the day, that we should be happy with what we have.

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


Photo © 2013 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 3

Winter Reflections (2015)
Bach composed four cantatas for the third Sunday after Epiphany; all are beautiful, all have unique distinctions that draw attention and praise. But this one of the four stands out for me - BWV 111, Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit (What my God wills, that will always be, Leipzig, 1725). This cantata is the epitome of the German Baroque contrapuntal style, and Papa Johann was the undisputed master of that style. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music wrote a brilliant essay on this cantata:
BWV 111 The story of the Centurion who has faith that Jesus will cure his servant brings forth from Bach in Cantata BWV 111 first a meditation on steadfast faith and finally martyrdom. The Cantata begins with a bracing and energetic chorale fantasia on the melody "Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh' allzeit."

This chorale has an interesting and important history. Beginning as an elegant chanson by de Sermissy, it is prominent in both the Lutheran and the Catholic liturgies. There is a Lassus mass bassed upon the tune, and many 17th Century German settings including a marvelous extremely contrapuntal one in the appendix of the Geistliche Chormusik of Heinrich Schütz. The melody is in Bar form but interestingly repeats the whole Stollen (first half repeated section) as the last two phrases of the Abgesang (second half). This complete recapitulation is of course useful in large settings of the chorale. Bach uses it to great advantage in both of his chorale fantasia versions. Strangely there is no extent Bach organ chorale prelude based on this melody.

The melody has another distinctive feature. Although it is solidly in the minor mode, the first phrase is in the relative major. Bach turns this into a wonderful moment in the chorus of BWV 111. The chorus entrance is in A minor and he modulates to a brilliant and assertive C Major at the cadence. Even by Bach's standards the energy of the piece is remarkable. The opening motive, first in the oboes then the strings, virtually explodes over a striding and purposeful bass. The choral parts remain in quarters and eighths, never going into the sixteenths that dominate the orchestral texture. This is straight-ahead battle music absolutely riveting in its strength and purpose.

The bass aria continues the aggressive, straight-ahead kind of writing. The declamation is unusual though. The phrase "Entsetze dich mein Herze nicht" is always broken with a pause after "entsetze" and a leap up to the word "nicht." This could be construed as a peculiarity of the moment but the words are declaimed in this fashion without exception. The effect is not halting or stumbling as Bach would sometimes set his text, but stubborn and considered. It is as if the soul is considering every possibility. The line of chorale is so subtly included into the texture that it can be easily missed.The aria is in an extremely sophisticated, written-out da capo form.

The secco alto recitative introduces the first signs that the theme of martyrdom will dominate the last half of the cantata. Is there any piece in all of Bach like the duet #4? The great striding melody with its volcanic eruptions of arpeggios and the thunderous dotted bass line all give the piece an heroic cast that is astonishing. Even the harmonic turns that propel us through the middle section of the opening section have a breadth that is overwhelming The choice of alto and tenor as the solo voices once again brings out the Janus-figure quality to the piece.The cadential heroic cries over the wild arpeggios in the violins have to be heard to be believed. 
Bach seems to know that he must calm down before the end of this cantata so he gives the soprano recitative added weight of two obbligato oboes. The arioso of the last line with the calm oboe figuration is marvelous in its soothing effect. As if to emphasize structural intricacy of the chorale, Bach harmonizes the end of the Abgesang identically with the Stollen. 
© Craig Smith
This weeks performance is once again from the great Sir John Eliot Gardiner directing the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. For me Gardiner is the greatest of the early music conductors and interpreters, especially where it concerns J.S. Bach, and his performances are always a treat. Enjoy!

Photo © 2015 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The High Priestess

Back in the '80s I hadn't yet discovered photography, and of course there was no Internet and I didn't own a personal computer. In those days I was practicing calligraphy, even doing an informal business in it designing flyers, posters, wedding invitations, and show pieces. I also wrote poetry from time to time. AND... as many of you who have been following this blog for some time know, I also do things with the Tarot. My best piece of art combines all three of those, and I discovered (while going through my photo collection on my hard drive) that I hadn't made a digital copy of it. So here it is, "The High Priestess", a poem I wrote even further back in time than this calligraphic piece, based on my own meditations on and interpretation of the Tarot card. The calligraphy is on hand-laid paper in gouache, and the "illustration" is imitation gold leaf over an impasto base with some of the leaf rubbed to small pieces and sprinkled  on the paper to suggest stars. I love this piece but I've never had the money to have it properly framed. It's kinda big - 22" x 30" (56 x 76 cm) - so framing is something of an expensive proposition. In any case, here's my artistic pride and joy!

© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 2

Winter Fog, January 2015
Bach composed three cantatas for the second Sunday after Epiphany, but this one is a true gem and one of my favorites - BWV 3, Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (Oh God, how many a heartache), Leipzig, 1725. The Epiphany cantatas tend to be a tad gloomy, focusing on human imperfection and the need for redemption, and pointing to Christ's approaching ministry as the vehicle for that redemption. This cantata tackles the subject with great beauty. I'll let the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music explain:
The wedding at Cana was Christ's first miracle and is the Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in the Epiphany. All three of the cantatas for that day are concerned less with the miracle than the mysterious line of Jesus answering his mother's plea for help: in the KJV "Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come." All three cantatas associate this day with the beginning of Christ's difficult journey, and by association our souls' difficult journey.

The chorale "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" was a favorite of Bach but not particularly popular in the canon of Lutheran chorales. We see very few settings of it by other composers. Bach's versions of the melody cover an enormous range, from the brilliant and vivacious allegro that ends Cantata BWV 58, through the crabbèd and knotty continuo-with-soprano setting in Cantata BWV 44. Our setting that begins Cantata BWV 3 is the most exotic sounding of all and one of the most ravishing bits of chromaticism in all of Bach.

The chorus begins with a quiet string chord that becomes the accompaniment to an extraordinarily expressive and chromatic oboe d'amore line. Soon the other oboe enters and the two sing an amazing duet above a string part that includes both sustained chords and also an expressive sighing motive that goes through the movement. The entrance of the chorus is magical. The chorale is in the bass, doubled by a trombone. The sopranos, altos, and tenors enter before the bass chorale with the same theme as the oboes. The only accompaniment is a sketchy and barren string part. The most important point about the harmony throughout this movement is that for all of its chromaticism, it has a kind of warm melancholy glow about it. It is worlds away from the kind of harshness that we saw, for instance in the opening chorus of BWV 101 or, for that matter, in the version of "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" in Cantata BWV 44. Each line of text is highly characterized. Notice how "Der schmale Weg ist trübsal voll" includes in the vocal parts not only the opening theme but also a new trudging countermelody. This rising line will come back to us in the last phrase in "Den ich zum Himmel wandern soll." The whole color of this movement is bathed in a kind of Romantic glow that is unique in Bach. The chorale with tropes movement #2 is like a splash of cold water. Only continuo accompanies the chorus and soloists. The harmony is hard and brittle instead of warm and rounded. Each phrase is introduced by a tough little reduction of the chorale theme. All of the mysterious cross relations that Bach found in the first movement are gone, replaced by an almost banal diatonicism. The journey has begun.

The chorale with tropes leads directly into the bass aria with continuo. The aria treats "hell and pain" in an almost abstract manner. One could almost call smug the way that the opening line is encapsulated in the texture. The opening jagged line is omnipresent in the aria and undergoes amazing transformations as it underpins what is mostly a joyful and confident text. At first the aria, a full da capo, can seem too long, but its secure doctrine is at the spiritual center of this cantata. Its bare-bones quality makes one long for the richness of the opening chorus.

The soprano-alto duet, which follows a brief secco tenor recitative, occupies a halfway ground between the lush opening and the thorny bass aria. For all of its easy melodiousness and childlike quality, it is very complex in phrasing and textual content. The opening tune seems so easy until one tries to figure out how it really is phrased. The phrasing throughout the movement is complex and determined with Bach's most artful overlaps. Look at what happens with the connection between the 2nd line of text back to the first. The alto is still firmly in E Major while the soprano begins its line in A Major. The duet is one of those pieces that is very difficult for performers and when successfully played will seem completely artless to the listener. The final chorale harmonization is rich without ever reverting to the lushness of the opening.

© Craig Smith
Today's performance is a live recording from 2000 by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of the great John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2015 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 1

Bach wrote several cantatas for the first Sunday after Epiphany, but this one is the gem of the lot - BWV 124, Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht (My Jesus, leave me not), Leipzig, 1725. The main theme of the day is the story in the Gospel of Luke of Jesus in the temple at the age of 12 dazzling the scholars there with his knowledge, as well as panicking his parents by sneaking off to do so; this explains why most of the cantatas written for this day seem to focus on loss - the fear that the beloved has left us behind. This one definitely plays on this theme, but in a very light, almost childlike way. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music waxes positively poetic on that childlike quality in his essay on this piece:
The Gospel reading concerning the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple is one of the most vivid in all of the New Testament. It long has been a favorite subject for composers. One of the lovliest pieces in all of Schütz is his setting of the story, partly dramatic and partly a beautiful ground bass setting of verses from Psalm 84 for Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Bach’s cantata for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany is a jewel. Although not directly referring to the story, it is permeated with the childlike sense of wonder and wisdom. The opening chorus the cantata BWV 124 is one of the greatest. It is so transparent in texture, so casually economical in means that, looking at the score, one could miss how extraordinary it is. Its form is that of an oboe d’amore concerto. The strings are remarkably restrained, most of the time playing almost sketchy looking chords upon which the oboe d’amore plays its roulades. The opening theme is, in character, a minuet. Gradually the theme expands to include graceful dotted rhythms that become the main motion into the cadences. The harmony is so transparent that the chorus parts are actually the richest things in the piece. The beautiful melody, one of Bach’s favorites is gorgeously harmonized. Notice the ravishing suspensions in bars 25-27. The choral writing is full of colorful text painting, much of it plays on words about leaving, holding and the light. Echo effects at the end make the final “lass ich nicht” even more poignant. The very simplicity of the texture makes for extraordinary possibilities of sophisticated phrasing. In bar 73, for instance the word “kleben” (hold) is held through the beginning of the concerto entrance. Its final cuttoff is at exactly the moment that you don’t expect it. 
After a secco recitative, the tenor sings an aria about the cruel strokes of death. One expects something heavy and ponderous. Here again Bach keeps the texture light. The Oboe d’amore plays a winding tune over the light strokes of the strings. 
For all of its drama, the there is something childlike about the piece. It is full of the most wonderful touches, for instance the joining of the oboe and tenor in sixths on the words “Doch tröstet sich die Zuversicht” The bass recitative is warm and radiant. Exactly in keeping with the character of the piece. 
We have seen three or four wonderful “running with stumbling footstep” pieces in the 2nd Jahrgang. The most notable is the famous duet from BWV 78. Our duet here for soprano and alto runs more than ambles but has some of the same appealing qualities. It is surprising that it is not more well-known. The continuo line is particularly appealing: the leaps of the tenths are especially charming. The final chorale is equally beautiful. It somewhat resembles the marvelous harmonization, also in E major, that ended the first version of the St. Matthew Passion. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a March 2000 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Bach's Christmas Oratorio - Cantata 6 Finale

Today is the Feast of Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem and the wrap-up of the 12-day Christmas celebration. Bach's final cantata of the oratorio - Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben (Lord, if proud enemies rage) - is appropriately triumphant, with a hint of warning. After all, the next liturgical "season" is Lent and Easter-tide, the death and resurrection. So in the midst of the triumphant celebration of the birth of the Messiah there's an allusion to the evil deeds of Herod and the coming Passion season - Bach ends the cantata with a triumphant version of his Passion Chorale; while it's celebratory, it's also a version of Bach's most potent lament for the death of Christ. Here's Simon Crouch on this cantata:
The final part of the Christmas Oratorio opens in grand festive spirit with a glorious chorus complete with full orchestra, trumpets and drums pounding and leaping over the top! The immediate question may be asked, in the light of the parody nature of most of the rest of the Christmas Oratorio as to whether the music in this fine cantata is borrowed from elsewhere. Most seem to think that it is but, alas, the model for such a parody is lost. Nonetheless, the evidence seems so compelling that there is even a catalogue number BWV 248/VIa for this hypothetical work.

The first recitative sees Herod calling the Wise Men before him to order them to seek out the Messiah so that he may worship Him, and the immediately subsequent recitative reflects accusingly on Herod's false motives. The elegant triple time soprano aria which follows expresses well the power of God's hand. The next recitative sees the Wise Men departing, following the star and finding Jesus. They worship him and the chorale which follows offers a crib-side prayer to the new born. The next recitative tells of the dream warning the Wise Men to avoid Herod and of their flight. The long and fine recitative which follows reflects on the relationship between the soul and Jesus and leads into the final tenor aria in which the strength of faith is celebrated. Perhaps this aria is too low key at this point in the cycle, something more upbeat and splendid would be more structurally satisfying. A final recitative, involving all of the soloists in turn, leads into the outstanding final chorus. What a way to end the cycle! This is one of Bach's most splendid creations and easily his best and most exciting chorale setting. The Passion Chorale is turned into a song of triumph. When I die, should I be granted the choice, the last thing I wish to hear is Ich habe genung (BWV 82) and when I get to the Pearly Gates (even if I'm refused admission!) I want to hear this playing!

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.
As a bonus, here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on the Lenten implications of this cantata:
The last part of the Christmas Oratorio was written for the Epiphany. While the narration is concerned with the arrival of the wise men, much of the music exhibits a darker cast heading toward Lent. The opening chorus has a complexion that is both passionate and vertiginous, going in one direction then veering off unexpectedly in another, as befits the text, which is concerned with the treachery of Herod. After a bit of narration, the soprano sings an acompanied recitative and aria, rather abstract in its comdemnation of Herod and its pronouncement of God's power. The aria is a wonderful piece, full of the trickiest phrasing and unexpected ideas, very much in the manner of the opening chorus. After more narration and a chorale setting, Bach abandons the three kings, and in the tenor recitative and aria again concentrates on the treachery of Herod. The little four-voice recitative is thirty seconds of magic and leads into the astonishing final chorus, a triumphant trumpet-and-drum affair in which is imbedded the Passion Chorale. The Christmas Oratorio begins and ends, significantly, with the Passion Chorale, much in the manner of many nativity paintings of the period which show in the background a little sapling growing which is meant to be the tree of which the cross will be made. 
©Craig Smith
To wind up this visit with one of Bach's greatest works, we'll return to the performance of the oratorio by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Peter Dijkstra. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger       

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Bach's Christmas Oratorio - Cantata 5

Cantata 5 of Bach's Christmas Oratorio - Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (Let your glory, God, be sung out) - is for the first Sunday after the New Year, but this year that Sunday is after the end of Christmastide at Epiphany, so I'm sneaking it into the middle of the week so we can listen to all six cantatas in the proper order. This one deals with the beginning of the story of the Magi, of their discovery of the new star in the sky and the beginning of their journey. Here's Simon Crouch again:
The fifth part of the Christmas Oratorio opens with a chorus that is not directly traceable as a parody and opinion seems split as to whether there was a lost model for this movement. Whatever, the music survives in this fine and lively piece. The first recitative introduces the Wise Men and the following recitative/chorus sees them asking where to find Jesus and receiving the answer "in my breast". This piece is thought to be a parody of a movement from the lost St. Mark Passion BWV 247 (whose text survives, but not the music) and reconstructions of the latter work call upon this movement (and sometimes elsewhere in the Christmas Oratorio) for guidance in the de-parody. A chorale is followed by a recitative which leads into a simple bass aria asking for the enlightenment of the radiance of Christ. Two recitatives follow; the first scolding the people for their fear, the second relating Herod's receiving of counsel upon Christ birth. The following trio, probably a parody but whose parody model is lost, sees the soprano and tenor asking when salvation will come; answered by the alto telling them that it is here now. Simple, not outstanding perhaps, but effective. A final recitative praising Jesus leads into the closing, starightforward chorale setting.

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.
Today's video is a live performance from 2012 by the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam under the direction of Jan Willem de Vriend. Enjoy!

Photo © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, January 01, 2018

Bach's Christmas Oratorio - Cantata 4

New Year's Day is also the Feast of the Circumcision in the liturgical calendar, the day on which Joseph and Mary named their child. Bach's fourth cantata in the oratorio for this day is Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (Fall with thanks, fall with praise); after all the excitement, what with choirs of angels singing in the heavens and such, this cantata strikes a reflective note, a pause to absorb it all and ponder. Here's Simon Crouch on the subject:
The fourth part of the Christmas Oratorio starts in the now familiar fashion with a fine opening chorus (a parody of BWV 213/1) which is, perhaps, lower key than that which one might expect from the text. It does fit well, though, with the general mood of the cantata, which is one of reflection of the preceding events. In fact, the only narrative within the cantata, the first recitative, is that telling us that Christ is brought forth for circumcision. Reflective bass recitative then introduces a section of recitative with interlinear chorale singing sopranos. The famous echo aria that follows was parodied from BWV 213/5, where Hercules was talking things over with Echo and really, however beautiful it is here, its structure really does make more sense in its original setting. More recitative intermingled with chorale is followed by a lively and upbeat aria (parodied from BWV 213/7) in which the tenor pledges himself to the glory of the Lord. The cantata finishes with a very fine chorale setting with full orchestral accompaniment.

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.
Unfortunately the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Peter Dijkstra doesn't seem to have posted videos for cantatas 4 and 5 of the oratorio. Fortunately, though, the excellent Early Music ensemble La Petite Bande under the direction of Sigiswald Kuijken does have a video for the fourth cantata, and they are one of the more important interpreters of Baroque music on the scene, which makes this performance well worth a listen. Enjoy!

Photo © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger