Friday, March 30, 2018

Bach on Good Friday - Johannes-Passion

Last year I posted one of Bach's greatest works, his St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), for Good Friday. This year I decided to post his other Passion work, the St. John Passion, BWV 245. This was his first Passion, written for his first Good Friday after becoming Cantor (music director) at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. This was his first version, in 1724, and he reworked this constantly through the rest of his career. Arguably the best revision is his second one in 1725, which is the version performed in today's recording. One of the best essays I've ever read for this piece of music is by American composer and conductor John Harbison, who has been music director and conductor for Emmanuel Music since the untimely passing of Craig Smith in 2007. I'm posting it here to give you some great background on this wonderful piece of music:
The Gospel of John, apparently the last of the four Gospels to be written (after 70 A.D.) is very different from the three synoptic gospels.  It presents a transcendent, mystical, philosophical Jesus, aware of the Old Testament prophecies and of his fate as a sojourner who came from above and will soon return there.  According to John, Jesus warns his followers that their eventual persecution will mirror his, and that it will come from their own:  “they shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.”  (John 16:2, used by Bach as a text in Cantata BWV 44).

The Gospel of John, as it enters the Passion narrative, mutes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  Absent are the “multitudes” mentioned in the other Gospels.  It then transcribes a three-chapter long instruction to the disciples, delivered after the Passion Supper that moves between the terrifying realities of a hostile world and the rapture of the world to come.  These chapters, all of which precede the beginning of the Saint John Passion text, hover over Bach’s composition.  With John:18, the tone of the narrative shifts to reportage: stark details, urgent pacing, stories intercut like film, threads dropped and quickly picked up.  And we notice the recurrent labeling of “the Jews” (rather than, as in the other gospels, “they,” “the crowd,” “the people”) as the enemies of Christ.  This is, at best, paradoxical, since Jesus and his followers conceived of themselves as thoroughly within Judaism, and since Jesus’ thought moves not only away from, but also radically back toward, the Law (“Did not Moses give you the Law, and yet none of you keepeth the Law,” John 7:19).  By attempting to transform Jesus and his followers into non-Jews, the book of John becomes a path to the racial caricatures in medieval passion plays, Hitler-era posters, and even a recent popular motion picture, The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Many mistakenly believe that the author of the last Gospel was the apostle John, referred to throughout as “the apostle whom Jesus loved.”  Others, because of the author’s demonization of the Jews, believe him instead to be a radical Gentile convert.  It is more likely that he was a Jew who initially expected, as did the early followers generally, that most adherents would come from within Judaism, and who was bitterly disappointed when that did not happen.  It is interesting to remember that one of the principals in the Passion narrative, Peter, the first pope, emerges in Acts as the staunchest advocate of keeping the movement strictly within Jewish practice, losing out in early church councils to the proselytizing instincts of Paul.

In performing this piece, and other Bach works based on John (for example, Cantata BWV 42 that begins with the fearful apostles in hiding after the crucifixion), it is valuable to try to understand something about the attitudes of both author and composer.  What is Bach’s stance?  He is certainly of his time and place.  He sets an inflammatory Reformation Sunday Luther text with vehemence in Cantata BWV 126, “Deliver us, Lord, by your Word from the Pope’s control and the Turk’s murders.”  In the texts from John, he goes where they take him, more with the instincts of a dramatist than an ideologue.  In the Passion, he invests fully in both the fierce irony of “Hail to thee, King of the Jews,” by means of a perversion of the most elegant eighteenth-century dance form, the minuet, and in the extraordinarily pliant tenderness of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus when they come to bury Jesus “according to Jewish custom,” where the Gospel writer suddenly reminds us that these events all transpired in the context of Jewish observance.

“About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,” says Auden in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.”  And in an era when we confront torture as national policy, we must engage with torture as part of this narrative.  The recent movie previously cited reminds us that much of our modern artistic sensibility is numbingly literal-minded.  Bach seeks metaphors, and never merely the mimetic, for the extremes depicted here.  With the help of the strangely lurid aria texts, he forces us to look into our own inner abyss and suggests this might be the consequence of such a close view of the unthinkable.

   About suffering they were never wrong,
   the Old Masters: how well they understood
   its human position;  how it takes place
   while someone else is eating or opening a window  […]

Auden cites the obliviousness to suffering of the ploughman in Breughel’s Icarus, going about his business unaware of the distant splash.  Auden might have just as easily mentioned the three aristocratic men conversing in the foreground of Piero Della Francesca’s Flagellation, or the uninterrupted musicians of Donatello’s Salome.  Bach’s gambling soldiers, gaily dominating the sonic foreground, are part of that tradition.  As they shake their dice (in phrases fourteen measures long!) we are struck by how tenaciously the composers locks onto the smallest details.  The wood-fire,  the high priest’s servant’s name, Malchus – they haunt because they are so actual.  The name, the very specific weather report, the anxious interjections:  “and his witness is true,” “we tell you this so you can believe” – these are peculiar to John’s narrative, and Bach refuses to present them as asides.

But two climactic elements that Bach includes in the Saint John Passion are missing from the narrative in the Book of John:  Peter’s penitent weeping, and the earthquake marking Jesus’ death.  Bach borrowed them from Matthew.  In his third version of the piece, with scriptural scruples, he takes them out.  Then in the fourth version (this performance), the dramatist prevails, and they are back in.  The multiple versions (there is also an incomplete fifth version) speak of the composer’s difficulties in venturing upon such a large-scale project.  The magnificent second version, which introduces three elaborate chorale-prelude style pieces into the structure, represents the most drastic re-conception.  After reassigning large portions of it to the Saint Matthew Passion and Cantata BWV 23, Bach moves back toward his first, tighter conception, a series of cantata-like scenes, usually concluded by “simple” chorale settings, the whole framed by madrigal choruses.

The strangely haunted character of the opening chorus suggests the anxiety of the disciples immediately after the crucifixion (Crucifixion:  an ignominious and unexpected ending not yet illumined by Resurrection).  If before hearing it, we read this text by an unknown author (perhaps the composer), would we guess the desperate quality of this setting?  The final lullaby-chorus, its cascading bass patters, so similar to the conclusion of the Saint Matthew Passion of a few years later, but less able to suggest closure, asks for punctuation in the form of a chorale end-stop – tensions and ambiguities that remain unresolved even by an epilogue upon an epilogue.

© John Harbison
Today's performance is from a 2001 recording on Harmonia Mundi France by the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. This is almost two hours long, so sit back, relax, line up a beverage or two, and enjoy some of the greatest music ever written.

Photo © 2015 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Slowly Advancing

Day by day, Spring is slowly advancing. Buds are growing and some are even getting ready to pop, and more birds are are coming into the area, so much so that the birdsong in Dykeman Park this morning was quite loud, Cardinals and Red-winged Blackbirds predominant, but with some Carolina Wrens and Song Sparrows joining in here and there. Here are some shots from the walk through the park this morning.

Buds are starting to pop
This Carolina Wren sang from a nice cozy spot
Catkins are starting to get fuzzy
This Mallard hen seemed to think she was a Gull, perching on signs and roofs
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sunday Bach - Palm Sunday

Spring Buds
Bach composed one cantata for Palm Sunday - BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (King of heaven, be thou welcome, Weimar, 1714). This is one of Bach's earliest cantatas, and as such it's written for a very small chamber ensemble; the effect is very simple and very intimate, a surprising thing for the celebration of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. One wonders how Bach would have written this during the peak of his career in Leipzig. In any case, here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on the subject:
Bach Cantata BWV 182 was one of the earliest works written in Weimar and is thus one of Bach's earliest cantatas. It has a charming chamber-sized orchestration of recorder, one violin, two violas, cello and organ. The opening sinfonia has the sound of early morning about it. The recorder and solo violin trade off piquant dotted lines against the pizzicato of the other strings. The opening chorus is delightfully child-like in its portrayal of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. The solo bass intones a line from Psalm 40 as an introduction to the stirring aria with the strings. The solo recorder returns as the obbligato to the poignant alto aria. This is the beginning of the transition of the cantata from the joyous entrance into Jerusalem to a meditation on the Passion. The continuo aria with tenor is a further passion-like piece. It would not be out of place in one of the Passion settings. After the penultimate chorale prelude on the tune "Jesu Kreuz, Leiden und Pein," the light chorus "So lasset uns gehen in Salem der Freuden" ends the cantata.

© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a 1996 recording for Dorian by The Bach Ensemble under the direction of Joshua Rifkin. Enjoy!

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Spring Snow

Finally, after waiting all Winter for a decent snow, we finally get the one decent snow on the Vernal Equinox. Mama Gaia's ironic sense of humor sometimes gets a bit wearing! After my boss texted me this morning saying she was going to close the store before my shift started, I headed straight for the Dykeman Spring Nature Park. It was snowing hard when I went (and it's still snowing now, 4 hours later, although much less intensely), and once in the park the walking became difficult. This is the heavy, wet stuff, and there was 8 inches (20 cm) on the ground, and deeper in some places on slopes and dips. But the good thing about the wet snow is that it sticks to everything and turns branches and twigs into white lace and transforms the landscape. I love Winter, and I love snow; these photos from today's hike are my love song to the season.

Branch Creek at King St.
The outdoor chess tournament will have to wait a bit!
The entrance to the nature park along the Dykeman Walking Trail
The old railroad trestle on the trail
Emerging from the tunnel under the current railroad tracks
Waiting for Spring
The red bridge
The north duck pond panorama
This Robin was not pleased with the weather!
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

It's Too Early for April Fool's

Heh, heh! Welcome to the Vernal Equinox in Shippensburg, PA. Mama Gaia apparently has an ironic sense of humor, sending us snow on the first day of Spring. [Note: It's been snowing even harder since I took the shots below, and now the scene is even whiter.]

© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday Scenes

Walking through the Dykeman Park this morning, once again I focused on getting the eye up close to the subject - macro setting, manual focus, and the aperture wide open to get that flat depth of field and great bokeh. Only three passed quality control, but I'm well pleased with those three!

A weathered rail on a swamp boardwalk
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Lent 5

First Flowers
Again, there is no cantata for the fifth Sunday in Lent due to church rules in Bach's time. However... March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary (when the angel announces to Mary that she's pregnant), but since this year the 25th is also Palm Sunday, I decided to post Bach's cantata for the Annunciation today. This is BWV 1, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star, Leipzig 1725), a chorale cantata based on the hymn of the same name. The hymn is a popular one in mainstream Protestant churches, written in 1597 by Philipp Nicolai, and Bach used it in one way or another in many of his works. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music has written a brilliant essay on this, the lead-off work in the Bach Gesellschaft official catalog of Bach's works:
The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the only festival celebrated with music during Lent during Bach's tenure at Leipzig. In the 2nd Jahrgang, March 25, the day of the feast, fell on Palm Sunday. The text to Cantata BWV 1 however is exclusively devoted to the Annunciation and makes no mention of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. 
When the founders of the Bach Gesellshaft were unable to procure the manuscript for the Mass in B Minor, their original choice as the inaugural volume in the publication, they chose ten of the most brilliant and varied cantatas to introduce to the world. Eight of the ten cantatas were from the 2nd Jahrgang. Our cantata here was the first. It was a brilliant choice, for the founders were dealing with Bach's reputation as a dry fugue writer. Here they have a piece with an extraordinarily colorful orchestration, based upon a still familiar tune, mostly happy and verbally unthreatening. The editors of the Bach Gesellshaft thought that their constituency would be mostly church musicians. Here they failed to draw that body of musicians in. Even a cursory look at the volume reveals not only many instruments either unknown or rare in 1850, oboes d'amore, violoncello piccolo, oboes da caccia. Even the modern equivalent of this last-named instrument, the English Horn, was not as prevalent as it is today. French Horns were unused to playing in the stratospheric range of Cantata BWV 1. The imagined revival of this music in the churches of Germany never happened; it is still much more common in concert halls than in liturgies. Certainly the exotic sound of the two solo violins, the two high F horns, the two Oboes da caccia, in addition to the strings and continuo, has nothing to do with the sound of the modern orchestra as imagined then or now.

What is quite wonderful in either a period instrument or modern instrument performance of this piece is how well it sounds, how almost miraculously everything balances out, how, with a relative minimum of effort, every strain of this elaborate texture can be heard. This is not always the case with Bach's orchestration. Some instrumental and vocal combinations that were logical in the 1720's are now problematical. But here, perhaps the most bizarre and exotic combination of instruments in all the cantatas works well. Much of that brilliance is the perfect use of different registers for each pair of instruments. The highest register is occupied by the two solo violins, sometimes doubled by the rest of the strings but usually alone. The alto register is occupied by the horns. They are usually used in a motivic fashion, and while understandably less active than the violins are nevertheless quite agile. The tenor range is occupied by the oboes da caccia.

They also play with great agility but often because of their range play in unison. The cantus in long notes for the sopranos is pitched quite high so never has a problem being heard.

The chorale tune is one of two by Philipp Nicolai used by Bach in the 2nd Jahrgang. Like its companion " Wachet auf!" it is a large bar-form melody, although unlike " Wachet auf!" by Bach's time the last four phrases of its Abgesang had been consolidated into two. As has been pointed out previously there are four discernable themes. The first combines a theme derived from the chorale with figuration illustrating the "morning star." In addition an arpeggiated figure and a swinging tune and a descending figure all combine to make an unusually varied musical texture. This "patchwork" technique is useful to construct a large chorale fantasia. This is probably the thing that Stravinsky most liked about Bach. So many of his pieces are put together in the same fashion. The actual chorale tune in long notes is marvelously set up. It usually begins alone with the sopranos against the "morningstar" figuration. When the lower voices precede the soprano they often sing the chorale, also in long notes as a kind of prelude. The only time this doesn't happen is the stunning last phrase where the three lower voices propel us into the chorale.

Bach uses the oboe da caccia only three times with the solo soprano voice in the cantatas. The tenor range of the obbligato gives such color to the soprano, and the voice can easily soar above the texture. In this aria #3 the oboe da caccia starts with a wonderful bouncy theme over pizzicato bass accompaniment. The soprano takes over the theme but is soon expanding upon and coloring the texture. Notice what happens on the word " flammen" There is something wonderfully adolescent and energetic about this music, perfect in the same way that we have noted that Mary is depicted in BWV 10.

After a passionate secco bass recitative, the tenor aria #5 brings back the texture from the opening chorus. Two solo violins play with the ripieno strings. This is a lively virtuoso piece, one of the most difficult tenor arias. It has a marvelous breathless quality that is supported by the joyous words. The reference to the "mouth and strings resounding' brings forth not only wonderful echo effects between the groups of strings, but lively interplay between the athletic tenor part and the solo violins. It is interesting how Bach is willing to write "instrumental" and "unvocal" voice parts and make them sound so good.

The final choral harmonization is predictably rich. The 1 st horn doubles the soprano with the 1 st violins; the 2nd Horn plays a lively and bouncy independent line. The two oboes da caccia double the altos and tenors with the strings. Once again, a perfect skillful orchestration so that every line can be heard. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a 1980 recording by the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart under the direction of Helmuth Rilling. Enjoy!

Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Worn and Stained - The Beauty of Old Stone

I've been photographing old gravestones ever since I discovered photography as my art. There's an austere beauty to the work of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century stone carvers which attracted me right from the start. To this point I've been photographing these stones as a means of documenting them, discovering and identifying styles and carvers, but over the weekend I had something of an epiphany - approached at the macro level, the individual elements provide a focus of their own, especially with the patina and wear of the ages. So I went up to Spring Hill Cemetery this morning with my camera set to macro function and set on black & white to capture the beauty of old carved stone - worn, weather-stained, and dotted with lichen. This is beauty carved out of the bones of the earth and painted with time by Mama Gaia, and it made my heart soar to search out and capture these gems!

© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Abstract Nature

Despite the touches of Spring seen earlier this past week, it's still Winter and the landscape is still primarily colored in bleak shades of gray and brown. So rather than go for scenic shots on today's walk in the park, I put the camera on macro mode and stuck my photographic eye so close to the subjects that they lost context and became abstract, disconnected from their original context. Mama Gaia provides endless perspectives in which beauty exists!

English Ivy
Macro Mountains
Rock, Veins, & Lichen
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Lent 4

Morning Fog, 1/13/2013
We're back to Sundays in Lent for which Bach wrote no cantatas, so we're looking at cantatas with no specific date in the liturgical calendar. Since Lent is a period of penitence, I decided on this particular penitential cantata - BWV 131, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir  (From the depth I cry, Lord, to thee; Mühlhausen 1707). This is Bach's earliest known cantata, written when he was the 22 year old organist for the church at Mühlhausen, as a penitential cantata in the wake of a fire that destroyed a large part of the town. As an early work it shows Bach's musical influences, particularly that of Buxtehüde. Here's Simon Crouch on the subject:
Cantata 131 is the earliest surviving of Bach's cantatas and may indeed (according to Alfred Durr) be the earliest cantata that he composed. It is certainly the earliest autograph of a complete major work by Bach to have survived until today. It was apparently written for a penitential service in Mühlhausen shortly after a major fire had destroyed a large part of the town in 1707.

Judging from the very opening of the sinfonia of Aus der Tiefe Bach had very early on mastered the use of the plaintive oboe figure! The sinfonia leads straight into the very beautiful first choral movement which itself goes straight into the bass aria in which the chorus sings a chorale backdrop. In fact, there's a very obvious structure in this cantata of three choral pillars separated by two chorale based solos. So after another choral section the excellent tenor aria has the same form as the earlier bass aria with the chorus providing accompaniment and the chorus has the final word.

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

Photo © 2013 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 05, 2018


I went for a walk in the Brookside Ave. wetland this morning and noticed the signs of emerging Spring. We've had a lot of wet weather lately as well, and the wetland is finally truly wet again. Remember how dry it was for the last couple of years? Well, now the collection pond is full again and all the network of streamlets is full and flowing. Lots of birds, especially the true harbingers of Spring, the Red-winged Blackbirds. No Tree Swallows yet this year, though. Be that as it may, the wetland is greening and full of life.

One of the streamlets in the wetland, full and flowing
The collection pond is finally full, after 2 years dry
The trees are budding!
A Red-winged Blackbird, the true harbinger of Spring
Courting Turkey Vultures
The Skunk Cabbage is starting to sprout
Crossing the bridge on the way out
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Sunday Bach - Lent 3

Before winning the post of music director in Leipzig, Bach held the position of court composer in Weimar, and in that town the ban against concert music during Lent apparently wasn't so formidable as we actually have a cantata written for Oculi, the third Sunday in Lent - Widerstehe doch der Sünde (Stand firm against sin, Weimar 1714/15). This is a solo cantata (for alto voice) and very short time-wise, although this doesn't rule out complexity and depth. There are some highly unusual things in this cantata, including chromaticism, dissonance, and a fugue with the voice as one of the elements. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music wrote a very interesting essay on this cantata:
At the beginning of his tenure as court composer in Weimar, Bach set several of the texts of J.C. Lehms. The Lehms texts are the most luridly bloody and preachy of all the Bach texts. They also have a raw power that suits Bach’s in-your-face style of that period. The opening aria of Cantata 54 is one of the most astonishing things in all of Bach. Sin is portrayed as a gorgeous, irresistible thing. One is reminded of the Andrew Marvel poems that refer to the jewel-like blood on the back of Jesus. The aria begins with a grinding and shocking dissonance in the orchestra. Gorgeous, lapping phrases build up like layers of velvet on this dissonant bass. The expressive voice part is like a rich, deep nap on the many levels of gorgeous chromatic harmony. Bach wants us, in this lengthy and incredibly expressive aria, to feel the push and temptation of sin. The lengthy recitative that follows clarifies his point of view. The fugal last aria is spikier but no less astonishingly chromatic. While this cantata is not very well known, it is a remarkable missing link in the Bach oeuvre and essential to our complete understanding of this composer. 
© Craig Smith
The performance I've chosen for this week is a live 2013 concert by the Sweelinck Barokorkest under the direction of Teunis van der Zwart, featuring alto Sophia Patsi and countertenor Eduardo Rojas. And this touches on one of my pet peeves about "historical accuracy" in Early Music. Back in those times people were stupid, and women weren't allowed to sing in church. So the tradition of boys' choirs, boy sopranos and altos, countertenors, and castrati developed to substitute high (or artificially high) men's voices for women's. At the risk of being historically inaccurate, I consider this tradition to be sexist and ignorant in  the extreme. Why does the classical music world insist on perpetuating the misogyny of our embarrassing past? There is a world of difference between the artificiality of high male voices and women's voices, and much of the music written for women's voices were meant for women, only being substituted in public to adhere to a violently anti-feminine church. Bach's first wife was a gifted alto, and he worked with other gifted women singers throughout his career; the parts he wrote for altos and sopranos were written for those women, and to use countertenors now to sing those parts is insulting not only to women but to Bach himself. To hell with "historical accuracy"! Whatever happened to artistic integrity?

So it was basically very difficult to find a recording of this cantata using an actual female alto singer. And even in the video I found and liked they still used a countertenor for the third movement. Mr. Rojas is certainly a good singer, but why couldn't they continue to use Ms. Patsi, especially after her magnificent rendering of the first two movements? Ah well, who am I to complain. This is an excellent recording of one of Bach's more interesting cantatas. Enjoy!

Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger