Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Samhain 2018

It's Samhain time, when Autumn begins to fade toward Winter, and the spirits come to visit the physical world. This was the old Celtic New Year, a celebration of those who have passed on, a celebration of the last of the harvest; in general, a celebration of the glories of Autumn. It was eventually appropriated by the Church and "christianized" to become All Hallows Eve (Halloween). All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. And it's still a celebration of the best that is Autumn. I've posted about this in more detail; to read more just type Samhain in the search box at the top left of this page. For this year, I thought I'd just post some of my favorites among the seasonal photos I've taken through the years. And after you've looked at them I'll hook you up with some of my favorite seasonal music.

Clifton Burying Ground, Newport, RI
A trail in Miantonomi Park in Newport, RI
A pair of Mallards on Gooseneck Cove in Newport, RI
Extravagance - Ginkgo leaves on King St. in Shippensburg, PA
Autumnal reflections on the north duck pond in Dykeman Spring Nature Park, Shippensburg, PA
South Mountain from Black Gap Rd., Chambersburg, PA
Spring Hill Cemetery in Shippensburg, PA, with South Mountain in the background
I've created a YouTube playlist of videos of some of my favorite music for the Samhain/Halloween season; click here to check it out. But before you click, here's a list of what you'll find:

1. Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre in an animation from PBS back in the 1980s. This has become one of my seasonal favorites.

2. All Souls Night, Loreena McKennitt's musical bridge between Samhain and All Souls, another of the songs I listen to this time of year.

3. A-Souling by the now-defunct New Zealand group Lothlorien. Soul cakes and souling (begging for said cakes from house to house) were originally a Samhain and early Halloween tradition before drifting over to Christmas. This tradition transformed into trick-or-treating.

4. Into the West by Howard Shore and Fran Walsh for the soundtrack of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King movie, and performed by Annie Lennox. This is a beautiful setting of  Gandalf's description of death as sailing into the afterlife in Tolkien's mythology, and a perfect fit for the theme of Samhain.

5. Tam Lin by Fairport Convention. Tam Lin is one of a collection of old ballads from the British Isles about less-than-savory characters luring innocents into the scarier corners of the afterlife.

6. Thomas the Rhymer, another of those old ballads, this one performed by Steeleye Span .

7. Now we hop over to Halloween, with I Put a Spell On You, a hit for Screamin' Jay Hawkins back in the '50s. But I have a particular fondness for this cover version by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

8. The Monster Mash by Bobby Pickett, a comic Halloween favorite.

9. The original video for Michael Jackson's Thriller, which was actually a short film by John Landis as a tribute to those old, cheesy horror films of the '50s and early '60s. I've never been a big fan of MJ, but this video produced by him and John Landis and Quincy Jones is a classic.

10. Beetlejuice is one of the best of the Halloween comedies, and this scene set to Harry Belafonte's Banana Boat Song has got to be one of the funniest and most fun scene of all time.

11. And last but not least, Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. What a hoot!


© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Color My World

Finally, after several frosts our leaves are changing. There's still a lot of green, but the reds and yellows are starting to pop. This morning's walk through the Dykeman Spring Nature Park shows the improving situation.

Thye creek running between the ball fields is showing some color
Along the Dykeman Walking Trail
Fall color in the Dykeman wetland
Looking across the north duck pond to the west
A view of the pond
Changing Maples along Dykeman Rd. and South Fayette St.
Looking to the north from up on the meadow
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Trinity 22

Of the three cantatas Bach composed for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, this one is my favorite - BWV 55, Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht (I, wretched man, a slave to sin), Leipzig, 1726. This solo cantata for tenor is a beautiful interaction between the singer and the small ensemble, intimate and simple, and yet the interactions create a subtle complexity. This 1930 essay by German musicologist Arnold Schering of Berlin points this out far better than I can:
One of the emotions which artists of the Baroque period were wont to portray with intense realism is religious confession of sin. In realizing the enormous guilt of sinful man in the expiatory death of Christ, Schütz and Bach join issue in warmth of expression with the greatest accuser of the human heart – St. Augustine. One of the most powerful compositions of this character was the Alto Rhapsody by Heinrich Schütz entitled “Was hast du verwirket, o du alter holdseligster Knab’ Jesu Christi” from the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte of 1639. Others, including North German masters, followed suit, but nothing of equal value was produced until the advent of Bach. His tenor cantata “Ich armer Mensch,” written about 1731/32 for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, intensifies the pathos of Schütz to a confession of sin amounting almost to spiritual self-torture. Hardly ever – not even in Wagner’s Parsifal – has the nullity of human nature and its need for redemption been expressed so passionately and so acutely as here, with no glimmer of hope or comfort till the end. 
The poem of the unknown author formed a strong frame upon which Bach could work. The two arias and recitatives evoke powerful pictures which are enhanced and strengthened by the music. The instrumentation in itself is singular: flute and oboe in close combination, contrasting with the string orchestra in three parts. The absence of the viola enables the unusually high tenor part in the cantata to explore at will the whole range of tone between the bass and second violin, the full gamut in the complete work extending from E flat to B flat. The first twelve bars of the prelude typify melodic development, together with sobbing phrases in the violins constitute the immediate atmosphere of grief which pervades the whole; the consecutive sixths in the two wind instruments denote tribulation rather than despair. With the entry of the voice unbounded hopelessness reigns supreme. This entry comes as a surprise, as something new and unpremeditated, a wailing heartfelt cry of the soul, echoed in the high register by the oboe. Bach now gives expression to the further self-accusations of the tenor in a wonderfully constructed six-part movement, in parallel and contrary motion, which later, together with the employment of single parts, in cantabile or detached phrases, lead to an unequalled intensity of passion. 
For Bach, self-persecution was ever synonymous with self-questioning; hence arises the main, vocal, thematic material of the movement. The appearance before God is announced in a diatonic measured theme, which is immediately resolved into lamenting, and a few bars later into whining, chromatic, figures, which in their scantiness of accompaniment, exhibit a tragic picture of utter helplessness. In the middle of the movement the righteous and unrighteous are deftly symbolized by those invisible yet clearly defined means which Bach employed during the course of his creative activity with utmost scientific clarity of spirit. But this middle section is by no means independent, for it is constantly interrupted by the cry "I pitiful man, I slave of sin". The last two, also unaccompanied, condense and unite all previous expression, and conclude a composition which makes the highest intellectual and technical demands upon the singer. 
There was, at that time, no poet who, on seeing a Bach aria complete before him, was capable of following it up with anything on an equally poetic level. It would have required the trenchant speech of the psalmist to give adequate answer, instead of which, however, there follows in the recitative only a weak imitation of Psalm 139. But Bach’s imagination, still aglow with the design of the aria, was able to invest this with extraordinary energy and bold gradations of light and shade. 
The cry for mercy follows the confession of sin. The spiritual condition undergoes but little change; the feeling of unworthiness and the consciousness of slavery in sin remain unaltered. Though the music (now only in three part harmony) is more even, and flowing in motion, it is no less strong in expression. In it there is something of the repentant spirit which permeates the "Erbarme dich" of the Matthew Passion, and which is recalled by the wailing and imploring figures of the solo instrument. But in contrast to the pure B minor key of the latter, Bach begins here in the key of D minor veiled by E flat. The fact that the section as a whole is of shorter duration, and grants longer pauses to the singer, was determined by the foregoing music. In the accompanied final recitative the poet and composer elucidate the meaning of the soul’s state once more, but unfortunately without achieving complete unity pf purpose at the end. The concluding chorale is founded on the 4th verse of Joh. Rist’s "Werde munter, mein Gemüte."
The performance I've chosen for today makes this intimate cantata even more so - a 2012 recording by the early music ensemble Il Gardellino in Brussels, featuring tenor Jan Kobow and under the direction of oboist Marcel Ponseele. Enjoy!

Photo © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Wind and Clouds

We're finally settled into actual autumnal weather, and some hints of color are beginning to appear. On my weekly Sunday walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park I saw some of those hints. But there was something even more interesting going on up above; we had a cold front move through overnight which brought some pretty stiff wind with it, making my usual photographic subjects too difficult to get. But it added some serious drama to the sky. Come take a look.

Part of the wetland in the park

The red bridge over the creek

The trailing edge of the cold front created some serious drama over the meadow

Looking north from the meadow

Clouds and shadows on the mountains to the north

Walking east toward the exit and the grocery store. It's chicken soup season!

© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Trinity 21

Autumn Reflections
Bach composed four cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, but I had no problem choosing which one to post for today - BWV 109, Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben! (I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief), Leipzig, 1723. This is one of Bach's most amazingly beautiful cantatas; it's also one of his most powerful. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music wrote an essay on this piece that deserves repeating here in its entirety:
Even in the context of the incredible riches of the 1st Jahrgang, the Cantata BWV 109 is one of the gigantic peaks of inspiration. Much of extraordinary quality is the psychological insight of his reading of the Gospel from John for the 21st Sunday after Trinity. The story is simple. A nobleman approaches Jesus and begs him to come to his house to cure his son who is dying. Jesus tells him to go home; that his son will live. The man says that he believes and goes home. He returns home to find his son well. He asks his servants when the son recovered his health and they tell him the time, the same as when he spoke to Jesus. From then on the man and his whole household believed. Bach’s path is to imagine what the man was thinking on his way home, before he found out that his son was cured. The whole cantata is about doubt. It uses as the New Testament reading for its opening chorus not the Gospel for the day but rather a passage from Mark concerning another miracle of Jesus, in which a man cries “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” 
This reading sets off a pattern of wavering faith that weaves itself throughout the cantata. Bach uses an elaborate almost Wagnerian system of motives, which advise us of the believer’s progress throughout the cantata. 
The opening chorus begins with a melody of staggering dimensions. It is 16 bars of continuous unfolding melody that travels through intricacies of texture and harmony but never stops, never cadences, and finally winds down into the entrance of the chorus. The melody is pitched quite high and often has a corno da caccia doubling the tune, which is usually carried by the violins and oboes. This melody certainly stands for the voice of God, for the steadfastness of faith. Bach did something like this earlier in the 1st Jahrgang with the high horn part in the Cantata BWV 136. Here, however, its length and the enormous permutations that it undergoes throughout the course of the sixteen bars make for a unique gesture. The melody has in its inception large leaps that give it a broad arc and grandeur, but its continual spinning keeps re-energizing the material. Those leaping fifths and sixths have become, by the 12th bar a leap of a ninth. There is a wonderful moment later where we think we have come to the end and we have cadenced in the tonic. But the tune keeps spinning out for another three bars. It is as if Bach wants it never to stop. 
The actual choral entrance uses the opening material, first in one voice, then the whole chorus. By this time we think that we know what this chorus is about. But suddenly at bar 22 the line is fragmented, chopped up and destroyed. Under this chorus fragmentation is a little appogiatura figure in the orchestra, first subtly introduced in a subsidiary instrument in the opening ritornello. This figure by now prominent and aggressive, functions almost as a signpost to the pilgrim’s progress. It will remain with us throughout the cantata. Almost is if to show us that we are dealing with an individual’s doubt in the context of a believing community, the texture of both the orchestra and especially the chorus is very erratic. Few choruses in all of Bach have so many moments where only one or two voices are singing. This creates a transparency of texture that gives Bach enormous opportunities for subtlety of harmony and counterpoint. The melismas of two voices create some of the most ravishing and revealing sounds in the whole piece. Listen to the passage on the text ‘help my unbelief” for the altos and the tenors accompanied by transparent playing of the opening motive. The “help my unbelief’ side of the father comes to the fore at the end of the piece with the melismas piling up over not the “belief “ motive but the appogiatura motive by this time aggressive and pounding. Although it closes with a complete statement of the opening sixteen bars, the movement thus ends in a state of great ambiguity. 
The secco tenor recitative continues the wavering of belief. Forte phrases of assurance alternate with doubting piano phrases. The recitative begins in Bb and wanders through several keys until the remarkable cadence in E minor. Notice how the questioning voice ends on the dominant seventh chord which is then resolved only by the precipitous bass plunge down to low E. 
The tenor aria #3 brings back the appogiatura motive, this time more prominent and menacing. It is combined with a manic dotted figure that becomes more and more extravagant throughout the melody. The voice line sings this same awkward and extreme theme, combined with hysterical triplets on the word “wanket”[wavering] The B section is even more remarkable. The text, ”Des Glaubens Docht glimmt kaum hervor,”(The wick of faith glows dimly) is imaginatively drawn by continual and progressively downward spiraling harmony. The last line “Die Furcht macht stetig neuen Schmerz” brings one of the most shocking chord progressions in all of Bach. The new grief is not only portrayed by the shocking cadence but the recapitulation of the A section after that cadence comes as an equal surprise. 
The secco alto recitative #4 not only brings a voice of calm but modulates back to the relative major of the tonic key, d minor. The aria for alto with two oboes obbligato replaces the tempestuousness of the tenor aria with refulgence. The appogiatura, which has been always used in an ambiguous harmonic context, has here become normal. It is either portrayed as the Schleiffer or an appogiatura in a much more stable harmony. The wild dotted notes of the tenor aria and the jagged staccato lines of the opening chorus have become here rich and reassuring rapid scale passages. The whole aria projects a kind of abundance. Words of continuing doubt like “Wenn ihre Hoffnung hilflos liegt” are set with mellifluous and reassuring passagework played by the oboes underneath the held notes of the voice. 
Instead of a simple four-voice final chorale, we are given a full- fledged choral fantasia on the tune “Durch Adams Fall.” We have seen, in the Orgelbüchlein setting of this chorale BWV 637, some of the most extreme and hair-raising chromaticism in all of Bach. Clearly that is not called for here. It is interesting that Bach goes to great lengths in this muscular and stringent setting to make the harmonic richness and detail sit in the background to the amazing rhythmic thrust and inexorable forward motion of the piece. The harsh marching theme of the two oboes is propelled into the next bar by the rushing sixteenths of the continuo at the end of the bar. In an amazing tour de force, the scale of the piece and the rhythmic solidity make us not notice that the modal chorale ends not in the tonic but the dominant. No modal piece in all of Bach ends with such finality. 
©Craig Smith
The performance I've chosen for this cantata is a special one - it comes from the J. S. Bach Foundation based in Trogen, Switzerland. Founded by music director and conductor Rudolf Lutz, it concentrates on presenting all of Bach's liturgical cantatas in the manner in which Bach intended them to be presented, and with the instruments used in Bach's time, accompanied by lectures on the context of the time and the theological implications inherent in the text. This particular performance is from October 22, 2010, at the Evangelische Kirche in Trogen, performed by the Schola Seconda Pratica under the direction of Rudolf Lutz. I find it interesting that one of the commenters on YouTube seemed to think that this cantata deserved a larger and more prestigious orchestra, which only shows his ignorance of Bach's music; the Bach Foundation uses ensembles the exact size and composition as those used by Bach himself. This is Bach as performed at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1723, under the direction of Papa Johann himself. What more could you ask for?

Photo © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Waiting for the Change

Autumnal weather has finally come to settle in, but the landscape hasn't caught up to the seasonal change yet. It's still predominantly green, although the green is starting to look a little faded at this point. The temperature was in the mid 40s (6º - 8º C) during my walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning, so there were no butterflies or bees on the remaining flowers for the first time this season, and thankfully no mosquitos, either. Here are some highlights of the walk.

Coming into the park on the Dykeman Walking Trail
The decorator's delight - Bittersweet berries in the wetland
A view of the north duck pond
Another view of the pond, with Birches and Dykeman House in the background
Multiflora Rose hips up on the edge of the meadow
One of the two (or maybe three) resident Turkey flocks up on the meadow
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Trinity 20

We're going to a wedding today! Wheeeee! The Gospel text for the 20th Sunday after Trinity is the parable of the wedding of the king's son in Matthew 22, and Bach used that parable as the basis for all three of the cantatas he wrote for this Sunday, using it as a metaphor for Christ's love for the human soul, casting Christ as the groom and the soul of the believer as the bride. For today I've chosen the final of the three cantatas, BWV 49, Ich geh’ und suche mit Verlangen (I go forth and seek with longing, Leipzig 1726). This is a solo cantata featuring bass and soprano (no chorus this time), some beautiful duets that almost sound Mozartian, and some virtuoso organ playing. The opening sinfonia alone is a joyous uprush of organ and orchestra that'll set your feet to dancing. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this joyful cantata.
Bach Cantata BWV 49 dates from Bach’s fourth season in Leipzig. By this time Bach was rather disheartened by the level of playing in the orchestra and began to feature the organ as the principal instrument. Also by this time his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel was old enough to be playing keyboard continuo. The work begins with an arrangement for organ of the third movement of the E Major harpsichord concerto. Bach has added oboe d’amore to the strings of the concerto. 
Bach has taken the parable of the wedding feast and made it the basis for a complex and textured dialogue between Jesus and the Soul. Both the father’s search for wedding guests and the husband’s search for a wife become metaphors for the searching of the soul for Christ. The opening aria takes the beautiful passage from the Song of Songs and turns it into an aria of longing for bass with elaborate organ obbligato. The dialogue that follows for bass (Jesus) and soprano (Soul) gets at the core of the message: the state of grace achieved with the communion of the Soul and Christ. A beautiful aria for soprano, oboe d’amore, viola and continuo follows. This is one of the very great Bach arias. There is further dialogue between the Soul and Christ that leads into the marvelous duet that closes the cantata. Here the voice of Jesus speaks of the consummation of the marriage. The soprano sings a verse of the chorale, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.” 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a recording by the ensemble Il Gardellino under the direction of Marcel Ponseele. Enjoy!

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Scenes from the Sunday Constitutional

On this week's Sunday walk in the park the Fall color change is becoming noticeable, mostly yellows. All the Fall Asters are up and blooming - White Wood Asters, New York Asters, Calico Asters, Spotted Knapweed - all over both the wetland area and the upland meadow, and they're being visited by all manner of small winged critters. The north duck pond was especially photogenic today, as was one particular Calico Aster bush up on the meadow. Come and see!

Calico Asters along the Dykeman Walking Trail in the wetland
Touches of autumnal color around the north duck pond
A Dwarf Bumblebee on Spotted Knapweed by the pond
This Painted Turtle was giving me the stink eye from a safe spot in the middle of the pond
A pair of Mallards on the north duck pond
A Pearl Crescent butterfly on Calico Aster up on the meadow
I spotted this Firefly on a blade of grass as I left the park on the east end of the meadow
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Trinity 19

Bach wrote three cantatas for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, and for today I've chosen the second of the three, BWV 5 Wo soll ich fliehen hin? (Where shall I flee?, Leipzig 1724). This is a chorale cantata based on the chorale hymn of the same name by Johann Heerman. Despite the somewhat agitated start to this work, it's still a very pleasant listen. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this cantata:
The tune for the cantata for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, “Wo soll ich fliehen hin,” was equally well known with a different set of words, “Auf meinem lieben Gott.” At times in his settings both for voices and for organ he had both texts in mind, particularly the fourth section of today’s cantata. 
Both the opening chorus and the two extent chorale preludes for organ clearly illustrate the paranoid and agitated first stanza of “Wo soll ich fliehen hin.” The chorale prelude in the Kirnberger collection [BWV 694, bar 1-2] and the Schübler chorale [BWV 646, bars 1-2] both have the same whirling, getting-no- where motion as the opening motive of the cantata [BWV 5 #1 bar 1-2 oboe I]. 
The Gospel reading from the 9th Chapter of Matthew finds Christ in an angry mood. He cures the man with palsy almost begrudgingly to prove his qualification for forgiveness of sins. This anger is picked up on by Bach. He often chooses the key of G minor for a key of agitation and the G minor choruses in the cantatas are, almost without exception, among his most aggressive. The harmony has an unusual static quality, which then veers off into precipitous and jagged diminished chords that lead us into unexpected territories. Seldom is Bach’s harmony so erratic, clearly calculatedly so.

While all of the texts for the 2nd Jahrgang are anonymous and presumably arranged by Bach, much of this one resembles the work of an earlier librettist, Georg Christian Lehms. Most of Lehms’ texts were set by Bach in his early Weimar years. Particularly the cantatas BWV 13 and 199 have a predilection for blood and gore characteristic of this text. We find much of that same quality in the Brockes St. John Passion text, although Bach for the most part eliminated those sections in his St. John Passion. The metaphor of being washed in Christ’s blood, mentioned in the bass recitative #2, unleashes torrents of blood in the extravagant tenor aria with viola obbligato. Because the viola part never goes below the violin open g there is conjecture that it is actually a violin obbligato. The range is low, however and the viola has more red corpuscles in this register than the violin. It is surely a remarkable aria, with the brilliant string figuration piling upon the tenor melismas in a dazzling way. There is a particular richness that results when Bach chooses an obbligato instrument in exactly the same range as the solo voice. 
In the Recitative #4 the oboe plays the chorale theme on top of the desperate alto lines. Clearly here Bach wants the listener to remember the other set of words “In my beloved God, I trust in fear and need” rather than “Where shall I flee.” In this cantata the devil plays the trumpet, something that doesn’t happen very often, although we heard it several weeks ago in Cantata BWV 130. Bach usually employs either the C or D trumpet in brazen works like this. Here the slide trumpet plays elaborate figurations in Bb above the emphatic bass voice line. Both arias in this cantata are quite extended da capos. Clearly the ideas of Christ’s redeeming blood and the vanquishing of the devil were one that Bach wanted to dominate this work. As is so often the case, Bach brings in the child’s voice to end the cantata, here offering a sense of innocence and hope. The eleventh verse of “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” ends 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 © 2015 by A. Roy Hilbinger