Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Damp Morning Walk

I went for my weekly morning walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park yesterday, but as I put a lot of time-consuming work into my annual Memorial Day post I didn't have the time to post the results of that walk until today. We had had rain the day before, and the conditions were still overcast and slightly misty yesterday morning, so things were a bit damp. The most noticeable change since my last walk is that the Multiflora Roses have bloomed. I know, I know, they're an invasive species and tend to squeeze out native plants, but the smell is heavenly! I always associate the smell of Multiflora Roses with late Spring/early Summer, and it brings back great memories. In any case, here is some of what I saw yesterday.

Part of a bank of Multiflora Roses
Looks like there's going to be a bumper crop of Blackberries this year
The dampness creates a perfect environment for growing mushrooms
I found this tiny snail on a Dandelion leaf in the wetland
Nightshade blossoms by the north duck pond
A female Zabulon Skipper butterfly fluttered down and came to rest in front of me just as I was leaving the park
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day 2018

Today in the US we memorialize those who have been claimed by war. It's usually celebrated as a great patriotic event, with martial songs and chest-thumping nationalism, all about the glory of dying for your country. What egregious nonsense! As any battle-scarred veteran can tell you, war isn't glorious; it's a gory, bloody, loud hell of a meat-grinder, and the meat being ground is the young of the nation, fed into it by old men who hold grudges or who see a profit to be made, win or lose. I've always said that if the fat old men who declared wars actually had to fight in them, we'd have world peace overnight.

Here are some potent quotes about the reality of war:
"And I can't help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you 'The Cause'?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again."
– Eric Bogle, "No Man's Land" 
"Either war is finished, or we are."
– Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance 
"War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children."
– Jimmy Carter, Nobel Lecture, December 10, 2002 
"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity."
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, speech, January 10, 1946 
"If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of these two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both."
– Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Probably the greatest antiwar poem ever written is "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen, an Oxford scholar and poet who enlisted at the beginning of WWI, and who was killed just one week before the armistice which ended it. During the war he wrote his poems in the letters he sent home, and as the conflict continued he used these poems to vent his anger and cynicism at the futility, the barbarity, and the stupidity of it all. "Dulce et Decorum Est" could just as well have been titled "The Lie", the lie in question being the quote from the Roman poet Horace that is fed to soldiers in time of war: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"; the English translation is "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country". Obviously Owen disagreed, and I'm with him.
Dulce et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen 
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And toward our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind. 
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obsceneas cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori.
Today we lament the deaths of young people killed by adherence to an anachronism, and pledge to end the scourge that killed them. Here are two songs that lament the deaths of soldiers - Eric Bogle's "No Man's Land" and Mark Knopfler's "Brothers In Arms".

Memorial Day 2018 - "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me!"

Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sunday Bach - Trinity Sunday

Dame's Rocket, Dykeman Spring Nature Park 
Trinity Sunday starts off the long stretch of the holiday-less Ordinary Time with a celebration of the Holy Spirit as the soul of the Church. Bach wrote several cantatas for this Sunday, and this one is his earliest - BWV 165, O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (O bath of Holy Spirit and of water, Weimar 1715). This is a fairly simple cantata, with the text by Bach's favorite poet of the time, Salomo Franck. Here's the late Craig Smith's commentary:
Most of the cantatas Bach wrote during his tenure in Weimar are to texts of Salomo Franck, the head of the mint at the Weimar court. Franck is the best of all the poets that Bach set, and our cantata today BWV 165 is one of his greatest works. The subject is the purification of the human spirit by baptism, and Franck constructs a moving and poetic set of images to discuss this difficult topic. 
The opening soprano aria uses the image of bath water as the purifier of the soul and as the inscriber in the book of life. Bach’s music is both watery and visionary. The fugue for strings and soprano voice resembles some of the ethereal slow fugues found in the Well-Tempered Clavier. The religious ecstasy achieved at the words “and grants us the new life” is breathtaking even for Bach. 
The first bass recitative vividly characterizes both the guilt of the sinner and the radiance of being clothed in the “white silk of Christ’s innocence.” The alto aria is disciplined in its utterance. The slow motor of the continuo acts like a prayer wheel, a sure and steady path to salvation. The ecstasy returns in the marvelous accompanied recitative again for bass. It should be noted that there are two separate snake references. The first is the more common image of Satan. The second, the “blood-red serpent image” refers to a common medieval portrayal of Christ in Limbo as a snake on the cross. This was already an archaic metaphor in Bach’s day but the church at Weimar had a well-known icon with this image. The reference was thus clear to parishioners there. The obbligato for all the violins in the tenor aria snakes along and clearly has the both Satanic and the Christ-like function. A harmonization of “Nun lasst uns Gott, dem Herren” completes the cantata. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Festival Bach - Pentecost III

Today is the final day of Pentecost, and the long stretch of the everyday Ordinary Time begins. Bach navigates the segue from one to the other with a lovely little solo cantata, BWV 175, Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen (He calls his sheep by name, Leipzig 1725). Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music with the commentary:
Bach Cantata BWV 175 is something of a curiosity. Most of the music probably comes from secular sources, but only the tenor aria is known in another version. The work begins with a gorgeous tenor recitative with three obbligato recorders. That same instrumental texture continues in the pastoral alto aria. Another tenor recitative follows, this time secco. The tenor aria has a delightful bouncy cello obbligato that underpins the anticipation of the coming of Jesus in the text. The following recitative is curiously the only movement that calls for violins and violas. The bass aria with brilliant obbligati for two trumpets changes the character of the cantata from pastoral to martial. The harmonization of "Komm, heiliger Geist" is one of the greatest chorale harmonizations in all of the cantatas, and the doubling of the voice parts up an octave by the recorder gives it a particularly lustrous sheen.

© Craig Smith
Today's performance id by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Festival Bach - Pentecost II

Whit Monday, the second day of the three-day Pentecost festival, traditionally begins the liturgical period known as Ordinary Time, the long stretch until Advent where there are no major church festivals. Sundays in Ordinary Time are given over to the parables and teachings of Jesus, a sort of yearly reiteration of catechism. But the glory of Pentecost isn't over quite yet, and this cantata is the best proof of that: BWV 174, Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte (I love the Almighty with all my heart, Leipzig 1729). And the most glorious part is that Bach begins the work with a sinfonia that is an expansion of the first movement of his Brandenburg Concerto #3. Here's Bach Cantatas Website commenter Peter Bloemendaal on this work:
This cantata has the most magnificent, extraordinary opening movement one could dream of. Christoph Wolff observed that, since the Leipzig audiences had been deprived of their own opera house, they had to resort to the Royal Opera at Dresden to satisfy their cultural needs. Bach also went there regularly with his eldest son and must have said more than once, “Friedemann, shan’t we go again to hear the lovely Dresden ditties?” Although spoken in jest, Bach had every right to say so. His secular show pieces in honour of the electoral-royal family, 9 drammi per musica, five secular cantatas and one serenade between 1727 and 1742, were by no means inferior to real opera. His compositions show at every step full mastery of the dramatic genre and the proper pacing of the dialogues. Each separate movement was infinitely more elaborate than those ordinarily found in opera scores, yet no less moving, meaningful or effective. Bach’s genius of musical imagery and technical sophistication, together with his being the leading performing artist as well, warranted great performances, which were more than just substitutes for the no longer extant Leipzig opera. By converting them into sacred cantatas, Bach made these works accessible to a larger audience. 
Already from the beginning of his Leipzig period, Bach, as Director of the Collegium Musicum, could draw from a large pool of musicians, which had a beneficial and stabilizing effect on the performing ensemble he needed for St. Thomas’s and St. Nicholas’s and to some extent helped offset the city council’s unwillingness to provide more and better-paid personnel. One of the first manifestations of Bach’s newly-won “command” over the city’s best musicians occurred on the second day of Pentecost in 1729, shortly after he had become Collegium Director. At this performance, he opened the cantata BWV 174 with a festive sinfonia (Mvt. 1) that was a lavishly expanded version of the first movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto, with a large ensemble of 2 horns, 3 oboes, 3 solo violins, 3 solo violas, 3 solo cellos, ripieno strings, and continuo including bassoon and violone, the likes of which had not been heard before. “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister”, but here Bach proved himself a master of masters. 
The first aria, for alto (Mvt. 2), has a lovely accompaniment by two oboes, who are at times developing their own themes, sometimes underlining or playing on top of the human voice, sometimes imitating or weaving around it, then alternating it in a lively duet. In contents, the aria is based on the gospel reading, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” 
After this long aria, there follows an interesting recitative for tenor (Mvt. 3), supported by the entire string section besides the BC, again stressing the fact that God, by sending his son as a ransom for our trespasses, has given us access to heaven, so that the destructive powers of hell are trembling for God’s love. 
In the second aria, a wonderful piece for bass solo (Mvt. 4), the violins and violas are combined to form an unisono obbligato voice. The message is that we just have to seize the salvation Jesus offers us. In return we should remain faithful and loyal to him until the end of our earthly days. 
The final chorale (Mvt. 5) is a testimony of our love for Jesus, a confession of faith and a plea for support in order to remain faithful for ever! One recognizes the melody of the concluding chorale of SJP (BWV 245) “Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein”. 
How wonderful the message, how splendid the music!
Today's performance is another from the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. I may be committing blasphemy, but I'm finding Koopman's approach to Bach more to my liking than Gardiner's, and Gardiner is considered the standard by whom every other conductor of Bach's work is judged. For me, that "standard" may need to be reexamined. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

May Flowers... and a Flicker

Spring is in full bloom. The trees are fully leafed, most of the Summer birds are back, and the traditional May flowers are brightening the scenery. My Sunday walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park was truly a morning well spent!

Dame's Rocket along the Dykeman Walking Trail
Yellow Flag in the Gum Run wetland
Daisy Fleabane, with a small visitor, in the Dykeman Spring wetland
A Northern Flicker rested briefly atop the martin house in the wetland
Swamp Buttercup in the Dykeman Spring wetland
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Festival Bach - Pentecost I

In Bach's time, and indeed through much of the history of the Church, Pentecost was the major festival of the church year, even more so than Christmas and Easter. Why? Because Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church itself, when the disciples, energized and emboldened by the descent of the Holy Spirit, emerged from hiding in the upper room and went out into the world to spread the Good News. These days, and especially here in the United States, it's less so, mostly due to the influence of evangelicalism, which has that uniquely American distrust of any and all institutions and sees Christianity not as the Church Universal but more as a way to advance the "salvation" of the individual; for them Pentecost is a nod to the emergence of the Holy Spirit as another of those personal benefits of being a Christian.

But in Bach's time Pentecost was a three-day celebration of the birth of the Church, and some of Bach's best writing was done for this celebration. Like last year I'll be posting cantatas for all three days. Today we'll be listening to BWV 74, Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten (He who loves me will keep my word, Leipzig 1725). This is a particularly magnificent cantata because it's a showcase for the varied styles of Bach's writing, especially that very Italianate aria for alto in the midst of the work. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this cantata:
The texts of Marianne von Ziegler always are supported by biblical passages. In the Pentecost cantata BWV 74, there are three movements based upon the Gospel reading in John. In addition, three of the movements are arrangements of a smaller Pentecost cantata, BWV 59. Of all the von Ziegler texts this is perhaps the most successful, mainly because such a large percentage is either from the Bible or chorale texts. The two readings for Pentecost are unique in that the actual narrative is not from the Gospel but from from Acts. The speculative commentary is in the Gospel reading from John. This very metaphysical Gospel reading is the source of all three movements based upon biblical passages. 
The first chorus is an expansion of the soprano-bass duet that begins Cantata BWV 59. Of all of Bach’s arrangements of his own music, this is one of the most remarkable successful. There is something sketchy, even patchy, about the original duet. Its two trumpet parts sound rather puny and the duet writing is unvaried and a little hollow sounding. In examining the two movements, one perceives the choral version to be longer and much more detailed. In fact, the two are exactly the same length and there is no change in any details of the phrasing. Rather, by adding two oboes and oboe da caccia, a third trumpet, and expanding the duet voices to four-voice chorus, Bach opens up the texture and makes something richly varied and exquisitely delicate out of something perfunctory. The expansion of the voice parts is even more ingenious: what were the third and fourth imitative voices in the first violin and first trumpet of BWV 59 become the tenor and alto parts in BWV 74. The orchestra is limited to accompaniment until the first violin and first oboe imitative entrances of the countersubject. What was confusing and a bit jumbled in the earlier version becomes here very clear. Perhaps because of its thinner first version, there is wonderful transparency and delicacy to the chorus. No trumpet and drum chorus in all of Bach has as much quiet music as this one. 
Bach made quite extensive adjustments to von Ziegler texts. His adaptation of her first aria text is a skillful adaptation of a text to fit already extant music. The BWV 59 version has an octave difference between the violin and bass solos. That displacement is eliminated in the more poetic combination of soprano and oboe da caccia. What is rather surprising is how the childlike openness of the soprano aria text seems more in line with the character of the music than the original bass aria text. 
After a brief secco alto recitative, the second biblical passage, a stern sentence in which Jesus quotes from himself becomes a bass aria with continuo. Throughout the cantata there is a richness and variety of orchestral scoring. This aria stands in relief, with its bleak, continuo only texture. Certainly there is Lutheran preacher quality to the setting. The text surely refers back to the wavering faith of the disciples during the passion time. Jesus admonishes the disciples, almost challenging them to take the leap of faith. The grinding and earthbound bass line certainly is in wild contrast to the extravagant and airborne string writing of the following tenor aria. Its capacious orchestra tuttis remind one of the sacred arrangements of secular Cöthen pieces that Bach had done the year before. It is possible that all of this cantata, not just the BWV 59 music, is recycled. For all of its brilliance and appropriateness stylistically, almost none of this cantata sounds like music that Bach had been writing in his second Jahrgang. The aria is certainly the most outwardly exuberant and animated things to appear in this cantata up to this point. Bach goes to great lengths to heighten the intensity and vitality of the writing throughout the movement. Notice how the empty spaces of the opening tenor entrance are filled in at the da capo. 
The influence of Mariane von Ziegler’s rhetorical, rather than poetic, bent is even felt in the third biblical passage to appear in this cantata. Here, rather than using either the gospel or the epistle for the day, a line from Romans is set as an accompanied recitative. There is, unusually in a recitative, even an emphatic text repetition. This recitative not only sets off the wild storm that is the alto aria, but reintroduces the wind choir that is to be so prominent in that aria. The Vivaldian brilliance of the solo violin part in the bravura alto aria is also uncharacteristic of Bach’s Leipzig string writing. Certainly this aria brings a kind of brilliance and energy unheard up to this point in the cantata. In the opening chorus we heard placid and lyrical exchanges between the string and wind choirs. Here they have a pounding intensity further augmented by the fiery solo violin figuration. The violin part clearly has a Tartini-like devilish quality, while it also illustrates the “rattling chains” of hell. Even the references to Jesus’ passion and death have huge hammer-stroke string chords in the Italian manner. Writers have been perplexed and seemingly a little embarrassed by the Italianate vigor and extroversion of this aria. Its fiery rhetoric does not line up with most people’s idea of Pentecost. 
The beautiful chorale melody “Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn” appears here in a grave and quiet setting. Certainly there is a conscious effort to bring the cantata to an inward and quiet close. There is no Pentecost piece quite like Cantata BWV 74. Its relative obscurity clearly generates from confusion about the extraordinary variety of its various movements. The dramatic continuity is difficult to follow, but we have here one of the great visionary metaphysical cantatas in all of Bach. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a 2001 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sunday Bach - Sunday After Ascension (Exaudi)

Bach composed two cantatas for Exaudi, the Sunday after Ascension Day. Last year we listened to BWV 44, so this year we'll give a listen to BWV 183, Sie werden euch in den Bann tun (II) (They will put you under a ban, Leipzig 1725). The mood is somber, and the disciples are depressed and afraid now that the center of their world is gone. Here's Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music on the subject:
The cantata "Sie werden euch in den Bann tun II," BWV 183, was written in May of 1725 during of flurry of creative output for Bach--in a three-week period, he wrote five cantatas. Although it is of modest length and without an opening chorus, this cantata calls for a large number of musicians, which is quite unusual in this context: four soloists, chorus, and an instrumental ensemble of strings and basso continuo enriched with two oboes d'amore, two oboes da caccia and a violoncello piccolo. Bach must have had at that time a variety of fine instrumental possibilities at his disposal in Leipzig, which enabled him to give voice to very distinct sound colors. 
In the gospel reading upon which the cantata is based, John announces the coming of the Spirit of truth, which will be sent to Christians as Comforter for the persecutions they are to endure. The author of the libretto, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, uses as an epigraph Christ's words reported by St John, "They shall put you under banishment...", and goes on to express the Christian's acceptance of sacrifice and death, through his faith and trust in the Holy Spirit.

The cantata opens with this direct gospel quote by the bass soloist, as the voice of Jesus. Severely orchestrated for four oboes and continuo, including bassoon, the resulting sonority is rather dense, severe and tense. The da capo aria marked molto adagio for anguished tenor that follows, with violoncello piccolo (here played by cello), is an emotionally expressive declaration that "I do not fear the horrors of death". The B section of the aria briefly takes on a tone of consolation ("Jesus will shield me with his protective arm”) escorted by the constant rocking of the cello solo while the continuo marks out the regular pulsation of passing time.

However, hanging over this quiet confidence is tormented chromaticism and doubt of the believer. The short alto recitative that follows is a small masterpiece. Amidst a cushion of chords played by the strings, the oboes, in pairs, volley a short, obsessive figure of four notes -- the same figure sung by the alto on the text "lch bin bereit" (I am ready).

At last prepared by this spiritual realization, the flashy soprano aria is a florid prayer of confidence accompanied by two oboes da caccia in unison and strings. The final chorale borrows the fifth strophe of a hymn by Paul Gerhardt, the chorus singing, "You are a Spirit which teaches how to pray as one should", to the melody of "Helft mir Gotts Güte preisen" ("Help me to praise God's loving-kindness"). 
© Ryan Turner
Today's performance is from a 2000 recording by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2013 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Bach for Easter - Ascension Day

Today is Ascension Day, commemorating the day when Christ ascended into heaven. Bach wrote several cantatas for this celebration, and I've chosen the earliest, BWV 37, Wer da gläubet und getauft wird (He who believes and is baptised, Leipzig 1724). For a major church festival you would expect Bach to pull out all the stops, full of brass fanfares and grand choral glorias, but this is a surprisingly gentle, almost pastoral, approach to such a major liturgical event. Here's John Harbison of Emmanuel Music on this cantata:
One sentence, from Jesus’ last injunction to the disciples, after his resurrection, before he ascends to heaven, from Mark 16:16, forms the complete text for the opening chorus of this cantata. In his other two cantatas for Ascension Sunday Bach provides Tintoretto-like representations of an impossibly radical action - horns, trumpets and athletic strings are engaged. Here drama is avoided. “Whosoever believes and is baptized shall become blessed”. The concentration is upon belief and baptism.

A single libretto decision determines the character of his piece. The text does not attach Jesus’ next phrase, “and he that believeth not…” and thus the piece is not about the endangered soul (as are many of the cantatas) but about a route to transcendence. Sonority, the glow of A Major, the even flow of unremarkable elements in equilibrium is enough to set this cantata in motion. The oboes state the very elegant and plain principal tune, the violins add a more active motive which quotes the chorale “these are the holy ten commandments”, the basses play a descending scale pattern ending in a cadence, a generic pattern which is conveniently equivalent to the final phrase of the chorale used in the third movement of this cantata. From these ordinary ideas comes a limpid and unburdened music. 
The brief tenor aria celebrates the gift, from Jesus, of faith. Most exceptionally it continues both the key and the character of the chorus, a personal version of the collective statement. It too is warm and devotional, not trying to impress. Unfortunately the violin solo part was lost (from a piece which survived only in parts). There are at least a dozen such situations in the Bach cantatas. It is possible (with varying degrees of difficulty) to replace all of them in an inevitably approximate way which nevertheless preserves continuity and proportion.

At the center of the cantata comes the ‘morning star’ chorale, presented as a vocal duet over an unexpectedly florid cello accompaniment. In the muted frame of the piece as a whole, this is the most eventful, colorful moment. The two singers trade off as leader and follower in a delightful way, and the over-exuberant cello is far more than a commentator.

“Let Jesus deal with good works,” sings the bass in his recitative, “you must make yourself right with God through faith.” At this point in the cantata we wonder whether the baptism theme has been lost, in favor of making the full Lutheran statement about faith, but it reappears most striking at the end of a series of needlessly and brilliantly inventive passages for the singer. Each Noun has a slightly different figurative shape, jagged cursives for the Seal of Grace, upward thrust toward Heaven, at last a very long unwinding stream for Baptism. These lead into a Chorale where for the first time, with suitable restraint, the text and harmony sound a darker tone.

© John Harbison
Today's performance is by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2014 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, May 06, 2018


It's finally starting to look like Spring here. The weather has been cooler than normal and all the blooming and sprouting was at least two weeks late, if not more. We finally warmed into more seasonable temperatures, and then last week we had a three-day heat wave with temps into the low 90s (around 33º C). It seems that May has brought it's traditional flowers despite the late start to the season. I went wandering this morning and I've brought you some sights of Spring.

This Dogwood tree is up the street and around the corner from my house
Lots of birds are back for the season, including this Gray Catbird in the Dykeman Spring wetland
The Lilacs are blooming and scenting the air
This magnificent ornamental Cherry is next to the old hatchery house at the Dykeman Spring
The Wild Mustard is up and blooming in the upland meadow in the Dykeman Park
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Fifth Sunday After Easter


Bach wrote two cantatas for Rogation Sunday, the fifth Sunday after Easter. We listened to the first of those, BWV 86, last year, so this year we'll listen to the other - BWV 87, Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen (So far you have not asked anything in my name, Leipzig 1725). This is also a small, intimate cantata like last year's, but a bit darker. Still, there's lots of musical beauty here. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music talks about this:
The Rogation Sunday cantata BWV 87 Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen is one of the most successful of the von Ziegler cantata texts. As is typical with this poet there are two biblical quotations, which generate all of the poetic text. The first is John 16:24. In it Jesus tells the disciples that they will soon understand the difficult metaphors that he has been using. Bach sets this rather severe text in a dense imitative aria for bass with strings doubled by two oboes and oboe da caccia. The duality of God and Son emphasized in the passage is ingeniously portrayed by the fact that the countersubject is a condensation of the last half of the main subject. This gives the movement a circular, layered effect. The continuation of the countersubject is compact and detailed. These three ideas are thrown into every possible combination and key. The aria has the effect of being a tight knot, which is gradually unraveled by the next three movements.

Von Ziegler finds the biblical passage alarming rather than reassuring. It sets off a warning to pray for forgiveness. The secco alto recitative is jagged and austere, as open and barren as the previous aria is dense. The following alto aria with two oboes da caccia obbligato is one of the longest arias in all of the cantatas. It is as if the breadth is needed to explicate the tough nut of the bass aria. The musical materials are complex. The continuo alternates between isolated eighth notes and a rising arpeggio figure. The opening line of the two oboes da caccia generates from the words. The aria is unusually chromatic, even for Bach. The sound of the two oboes da caccia with the alto is so ravishingly beautiful and the harmony so rich, that clearly Bach is portraying mankind's plight and confusion as unusually compelling. The shear repetition of the "vergib" motive is bearable because of the amazing harmonic detail of its context. This motive plays unchanged throughout both the A and B sections. Although this piece was written three years before the St. Matthew Passion, the scoring, the sound and the harmonic language are identical with the arioso, "Ach, Golgatha."

After the dank oboe da caccia texture, the strings in the following tenor recitative are a warm relief. The bass again sings the words of Jesus from John 16: 33 in a brief aria with continuo. Here the texture is much more open and overtly expressive than the beginning aria. Its placement between the string recitative and string aria of the tenor is interesting. The effect is of liberating the tenor to sing his ravishing siciliano aria. It is surprising to find perhaps Bach's most sheer and beautiful siciliano in such a dour context, but the effect is of a great weight being lifted off the soul. The potency of the aria gives it a climactic role in the cantata.

The harmonization of "Jesu meine Freude" is connected to the music of the opening aria. It is no accident that the bass line in many of its phrases encompasses the sixth leap that is the head theme of the first aria. This is in every way an unusual but absolutely top-drawer cantata. The combination of very short and very long sections is calculated and effective. The juxtaposition of the dense style of the opening with the arias is potent and brilliantly achieved.

© Craig Smith
Once again this year I've chosen a performance by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger