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 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Bach - Lent 1

Fibonacci Spruce
In Bach's time concert music in churches was forbidden during Lent, which was supposed to be a time of penitence and reflection. So as has been my tradition during this time, I'll be posting cantatas that were composed for no specific occasion. And the one I've chosen for this week is a gem - BWV 117, Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut (Give praise and honor to the highest good, Leipzig 1730). This wonderful piece is so majestic and festive, and above all danceable! It's been suggested that Bach wrote this cantata for a wedding, and I can well believe it. Here's Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music on the subject:
The chorale text, "Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut" began its life as a wedding hymn, a clue as to the occasion for the composition of today’s cantata - almost certainly a wedding. In the middle Leipzig period (around 1730) Bach was more likely to set multiple chorale verses intact, rather than original texts. This does not seem to have presented an obstacle to Bach compositionally. Another potential constraint (not in Bach's case) was the identical line of text that ends each verse.

The opening chorus is bright and celebratory. The ornamented chorale tune that serves as the main theme of the orchestral ritornello is further decorated by billowing sixteenth notes, most notably in the bass line. The chorus presents the chorale tune in simple block chords. The bass soloist takes the second verse in a recitative - the last phrase repeated several times in arioso style. The third verse is a gracious and melancholy dialogue between tenor and two oboes d’amore. The writing for the two instruments, as well as the harmonic ambiguity, seems to suit the textual duality. The chorus sings the fourth verse as a chorale. In the next verse -  an alto recitative accompanied by strings - the last line of text takes on an even greater importance. Set as an extended arioso, the vocal line mimics the first phrase of the cantata tune, while the bass line becomes motivic and rhythmic material for the aria that follows.The bass is accompanied by a solo violin that supports the intimate and comforting quality of this aria. Full stings and flute (at the octave) accompany a lush pastoral alto aria. After a tenor recitative, the chorus sings the final chorale in the same harmonization heard earlier.

The whole experience of this wonderful cantata - while not exactly abstract - strikes us less with text-specificity or challenging theology than some of the cantatas of the earlier years. 
© Michael Beattie
Today's performance is from a 2005 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2014 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Friday, February 16, 2018

God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise

Well, around here lately the creeks have indeed been rising. What with snow, sleet, and freezing rain being followed by warmer temperatures and then followed by pouring rain, the creeks are full and still rising. Below is a shot of Branch Creek at McLean House on King St.; it's a couple of feet above it's normal level. It's got a ways to go before it hits flood level, but still, it's running fast and deep, and you wouldn't want to fall in!

[Note on the title: For those unfamiliar with American idioms, this is an old country saying when someone promises to visit or go somewhere, as in, "We'll be by Friday, God willin' and the creek don't rise." Especially in mountainous areas, rising creeks, especially in the mid-Winter thaw and in the Spring, are a definite travel hazard.]

© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sight & Sound - A Pause for Reflection

Sitting on a bench by the north duck pond meditating on the reflection of a large Birch on the water. Add some reflective music by Shadowfax. A perfect moment.

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday Bach - Quinquagesima

Quinquagesima means 50 days before Easter; it's the last Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, so people are eating and drinking to empty their larders before the penitential Lenten season forces them to partake of more plain fare. And in Leipzig in Bach's time. orchestral music like his cantatas was forbidden in the churches, so the cantata for this last Sunday before Lent would necessarily be fairly impressive to make up for the musical drought to come. Bach wrote several cantatas for this Sunday, including the two that were his audition for the post of Kantor at Leipzig in 1723, but this one feels far more celebratory to me - BWV 127, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott (Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God, Leipzig 1725). This is considered one of Bach's greatest cantatas, mainly because he musically creates the picture of Jesus as both man and God. The late Craig Smith's essay on this cantata for Emmanuel Music is well worth the read:
Quinquagesima (or Estomihi as it was called in Bach’s day) is the last Sunday before Lent. It was the last time in which any concerted music was heard in Leipzig until the feast of the Annunciation about five weeks later. The readings for this Sunday are both important documents and central to Christianity. The epistle is the great 13th Chapter of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. After many warlike and browbeating excepts, this reading is the familiar chapter about love. It is perhaps the profoundest thing in the Epistles. The Gospel is from the eighteenth chapter of Luke. It begins with Jesus announcing “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.” The disciples do not understand the significance of that statement. On the way a blind man cries “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus cures him of his blindness and they all continue their journey. There are several significant events here. Today’s cantata BWV 127 is mainly concerned with the dual human and divine identity of Jesus. The significance of the journey to Jesus’ final fate is always present, albeit here somewhat in the background. 
Cantata BWV 127 has always been recognized as one of the finest of the cantatas. The scholar Arnold Schering even went so far as to call it the greatest of all of the cantatas. It exhibits the qualities that we have admired in all of the 2nd Jahrgang pieces in abundance. It addition, there is a sense that Bach knows that this will be the last music parishioners will hear for many weeks. All of the Quinquagesima pieces go to great lengths to set up the important issues that will be confronted during Lent. That sense of abundance is projected from the beginning: two and maybe three chorales are represented in the opening chorus. The chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’r Mensch und Gott” both appears motivically throughout the orchestration and is sung by the chorus, led by the sopranos singing the melody in long notes. The chorale tune “Christe, du lamm Gottes” is played in the orchestra in long notes, first by the strings, then at various times by the oboes and recorders. A third chorale, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” has been spotted by some scholars buried in the continuo line near the beginning. It is the kind of thing that you hear after it has been pointed out to you. The texture of the chorus is high, bright and dense. The dotted rhythms that dominate the piece are like angel wings, rather than aggressive. They are both static and they travel. The 2 main chorales so permeate the texture that one can hardly see any bar in the piece without them. Unlike the monomaniacal chorus that began BWV 123, however, there is inherent in the combinations of both chorales and other materials the possibility for great variety of phrase length. There are of course, many things that are sui generis about this chorus. One of the most remarkable is the associative way that an idea is begun and passed through the texture and then discarded. The ideas are always begun by the words. An example is in the fifth phrase of the chorale .The second statement of the text in the alto part introduces an expressive little half step. This is passed around all of the vocal parts and then to the instrumental parts. It disappears at the end of the choral phrase. The last phrase of the chorale is repeated at the very end with the sopranos leaving the tune and joining the commentary. It ends not with a long note but an almost unresolved quarter note. There is no orchestral postlude. 
The tenor recitative and soprano aria describe a sinner’s last moments on earth. The tenor with great horror and vividness enumerates the last terror, the chilling sweat of death, the stiff limbs. He begs for repose. That moment of repose is the soprano aria. Two recorders play little repeated bell tones over a pizzicato bass. An oboe sings a melody of heartbreaking sadness and repose. The child soprano sings of the soul resting in Jesus’ hands, when earth covers the body. The B section begs for the death bells to call one soon. At this point all of the upper strings join in with the continuo pizzicatos. At the end of the line of text on the word “unerschrocken” the pizzicatos stop and the oboe like a tiny “last trumpet” plays a flourish up to high Bb announcing the awaking of Jesus. The gesture is so amazingly dramatic that one feels Bach has to undercut it by giving the aria a full da capo. A drama so profound needs distance from this kind of realism. 
The last large piece in the cantata is a complex and formally advanced vision of the last judgment. The distinction between recitative and aria is here blurred to the breaking point. The trumpet enters in fanfares over repeated note string passages as the bass in recitative announces the last trumpet. The motion gradually becomes calmer and the voice with continuo introduces an arioso utilizing the first notes of the main chorale tune “Herr Jesu Christ,wahr’r Mensch und Gott.” This arioso passage rather abruptly cadences into a vivid 6/8 picture of the last judgement with full strings and trumpet. What is surprising here is that the chorale arioso makes an entrance two more times in the last judgment music. Any semblance of recitative followed by aria is gone in this movement. It is reminiscent of the experiments with the Cavatina-Cabaletta formula that Verdi initiated in his middle period. Like the opening chorus the bass aria comes to an abrupt close and the brilliant harmonization of the chorale ends the cantata. Cantatas such as BWV 127 are so removed from the norm of either religious or operatic music of the period that it is hard to understand where they came from. Even such masterpieces as the St. John and St. Matthew Passion have identifiable precedents in the German Lutheran tradition. There is simply nothing in German Lutheranism or in any other religious tradition to prepare us for ideas as complex and all-encompassing as these presented in this work. There is a way in which Bach would never reach this level again. 
© Craig Smith
This week's performance is by the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe from a 2007 recording on the Harmonia Mundi label. Enjoy!

Photo © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Sunday Bach - Sexagesima

After the Blizzard, January 2016
Bach's cantatas for Sexagesima (60 days before Easter) Sunday are a tad grim as they play on Luther's less jolly side; they are, in fact, diatribes against unbelievers, and specifically Catholics and Muslims. Given Luther's rabid anti-Semitism, it's a wonder he didn't include Jews in these particular circumstances as well. But musically, his earliest cantata for this Sunday in the liturgical calender is less virulent and shows off Bach's experimentation in new forms - BWV 18, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (Even as the rain and snow fall from heaven, Weimar 1715). Bach was impressed with the concerti of Vivaldi, and this cantata is his first experiment with the Italian concerto form. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music:
BWV 18 - Cantata BWV 18 is an important transitional work in the Bach canon. Soon after arriving in Weimar in 1713 Bach discovered the Italian concerti that he was to arrange for keyboard solo. These Italian works were to be very influential in the development of his international style. The Sinfonia that opens our cantata is Bach’s first original foray into the Italian concerto form. The movement for the unusual combination of four violas and continuo shows complete mastery of the Italianate style that he had seen in the Vivaldi models that had so impressed him. The top two violas carry the weight of the argument with the third and fourth violas as well as the continuo instruments providing the accompaniment. The dark color of the massed tenor instruments provides a perfect illustration of the stormy weather at the beginning of the text. Bach’s recitative style is not so fully formed as we will find in the later Leipzig pieces. The first recitative in particular is reminiscent of the earlier 17th-century arioso style. The central body of the work is in an unusual form with extended recitative alternating with a rather fierce soprano Litany. The soprano aria with all of the violas in unison is a very simple, Italianate aria, one of the first of its type in Bach. The violas doubling of the voices in the chorale provide a darkly appropriate color to the final chorale, a setting of "Durch Adams Fall." 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is by the Ricercar Consort under the direction of Philippe Pierlot. Enjoy!

Photo © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger