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 

1 comment:

  1. Great angle on that photo! I never would have thought of that approach.