Monday, December 31, 2018

Nature, with Appropriate Music

As anyone who has been following this blog for any length of time knows, Nature, both here on Earth and out into Universe, is my spiritual source, my "religion" if you will. But this religion has no gods or goddesses to worship and obey; I don't need a transcendent entity to feel wonder and awe at my surroundings. Nor do I need such to tell me the difference between good and evil, or to threaten me with punishment if I do evil; I believe that this is natural to human nature, that we know by instinct what is good and what is hurtful, and that we only do the hurtful out of personal, knowledgeable choice, or out of fear and pain.

The "prophets" of this "religion" are my heroes - Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, Annie Dillard, Stephen Hawking, and others like them. And the "scriptures" of my "religion" are the writings of these people and others like them. The Universe is full of wonder, and these people reflect that wonder as well, whether through poetry or through science, and describe it better than I can, providing further inspiration to the panoply of ongoing creation around us. My photography also reflects this wonder in me at what I see and experience.






Recently I discovered a musician who also reflects this wonder at the Universe around us, from both a poetic and scientific perspective. His name is Peter Mayer. He's Jimmy Buffet's guitarist, plus he has his own solo career. I ran across his song My Soul from his Midwinter album while looking for music for the Winter Solstice, and then featured more music from that album on my Facebook timeline. Plus today I featured his One More Circle on my New Year's Eve session on Facebook. I'd like to introduce you to some of his music that addresses the same things I talk about above. I do believe I've run across a kindred spirit!





Photos © 2008 - 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Scenes from Today's Walk in the Park

Today's walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park was accompanied by the sound of rushing water, the result of our very wet year. The creeks were whipped into rapids by the volume of water coming down them, and the bogs and streamlets in the wetland were actively (and noisily) flowing. I keep asking Mama Gaia to send snow, but she doesn't seem to hear me. So everything is shades of brown and gray, with touches of gayer color here and there.

Gum Run at the Doc Norcross bridge, a torrent indeed!
A little farther upstream
The old railroad trestle on the Dykeman Walking Trail
A section of the  wetland in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park
The weather-bleached skull of a Canada Goose by the north duck pond
The calm air turned the north duck pond into a mirror
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - First Sunday After Christmas


Bach wrote three cantatas for the Sunday after Christmas, and I chose this one because its structure is unusual and the title cracks me up - BWV 28, Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende (Thank God! Now the year is coming to an end, Leipzig 1725). Most people translate that first phrase as "Praise God", but the literal translation is how I put it above, and at first glance you get the idea that somebody was glad that the old year was well worth moving away from! This is a chorale cantata, but the structure diverts from the usual structure; rather than start with the usual grand choral setting of the chorale around which the cantata is built, it starts with a lively aria for soprano. Very daring of Bach, but it works! Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this unique cantata:
We are accustomed to the weight of Bach cantatas being at the beginning of the work. A large number of his cantatas, even those that do not begin with a chorale-based movement, generate from the mass of ideas in their first movements. Our cantata, BWV 28, is unusual in that it begins with a soprano aria before coming to the weighty chorale-based motet movement. Clearly the special formal outline of this work reflects the Janus-like character of the new beginning of the year. The first aria looks back on the old year, the final duet looks forward to the new year. In general, there are enough similarities between the soprano aria and the alto-tenor duet that ends the cantata that a real palindrome kind of structure is implied. 
The opening soprano aria is a wonderfully energetic, lively affair. It generates its considerable energy from the dominance of three eighth-note groups in the context of ¾ time. Both the falling bass figure and the whiplash tune in the upper instruments propel us against the meter. This, in addition to the lively interplay between the oboe choir and the strings, give the work an attractive, jumpy character. There is a palpable excitement that the year is actually over. The soprano part is virtuosic and the melismas irregular and unpredictable; one is again amazed at the demands that Bach placed upon his provincial singers. 
The chorale, “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” actually appears quite often in the cantatas, but interestingly was never set, as far as we know, as an organ chorale. In truth it is not a terribly interesting tune, but Bach has written several top-drawer versions of it. Perhaps the most well known is the wonderful two violin – solo soprano movement in the brilliant solo cantata “Jauchzet Gott.” Whereas Bach usually chooses high-profile tunes such as “Aus tiefer Not” or “Ein feste Burg” for his motet treatments in the cantatas, this brilliant granite-like setting is a triumph, clearly one of his great monumental “style antico” movements. The lack of contrast and profile in the melody becomes an actual virtue in the setting. The opening line of the melody is immediately turned upside down to become its main contrapuntal juxtaposition. The second phrase of the melody has even less profile but appears against a more jagged line. It is curious to see Bach dealing with a tune of so little profile. The counterpoint and resultant harmony are the sole propulsive elements in this movement.

The quotation from Jeremiah is on the surface set in a rather austere manner in the following bass arioso. Certainly it is meant to be heard in relief of the refulgence of the chorale movement. There is a richness and ornament and affect, in God’s declaration to plant the Israelites and make them flourish. The addition of the strings to the tenor recitative emphasizes the richness of God’s gifts. The bounding compound meter with the precipitous falling arpeggios sets up an interesting foil for the rich alto-tenor melismas in the following duet. All of Bach’s alto-tenor duets have an interesting split personality to them. The male alto and the tenor were really very similar in quality and range in Bach’s day. He always uses this combination to show two sides of the same personality. Clearly the Janus idea is a work here just as much as it is in the structure of the whole cantata. It is interesting to note that even in a movement of such unbridled optimism, Bach feels free to include the passing shadow of harrowing chromaticism The sixth verse of “Helft mir Gotts Güte preisen” ends the cantata. Although this is a chorale tune of much more profile than the motet movement tune, Bach manages to assume the same harmonic language thus unifying this most impressive cantata. 
© Craig Smith
This week's performance is by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!


Photo © 2011 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas 2018




A merry and peaceful Christmas/Yuletide to all my family and friends. Here's some music appropriate to the celebration season to enjoy.





© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

An Odd Duck

Along with the ubiquitous Mallard ducks and the Canada geese, the flock in the duck ponds in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park also have some domestic refugees from nearby farms who have decided to take up residence there. I've included shots of the two resident Muscovies here in the past; there are also a couple of plain white domestic ducks who have moved in. And then there are two totally unique examples of another domestic breed - Indian Runners. Contrary to the name, Indian Runners originated in the Indonesian archipelago. Unlike most other ducks, these guys stand upright rather than horizontal to the ground, which gets them called Penguin Ducks in some places. And also unlike most other ducks, Indian Runners actually run (or walk) rather than waddle. The two in Dykeman are black, but they come in a variety of colors and patterns. You can get the full lowdown in their Wikipedia article.

Today I caught one of them sitting, and the sitter actually stayed that way for a little while, allowing me to get a decent seated portrait. After a while it got tired of my presence, so it got up and walked away, allowing me to get a shot of its characteristic posture.



© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Advent 4


It's the final Sunday in Advent, and Christmas is just two day away! The cantata I've chosen for today has an interesting history - BWV 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life, Weimar 1716 and Leipzig 1723). It was originally composed in Weimar in 1716 for the fourth Sunday in Advent, but once he moved to Leipzig he couldn't use it for that Sunday because that town forbade concerted music in church during Advent, so he expanded it in 1723 and used it for the Visitation of Mary (July 2). Still, it retains all of its original Advent message, and the update has has a bonus - Bach's famous chorale setting of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring". Twice! It's the chorale that finishes both the first and second halves of the cantata. Despite the move to July, for me this marvelous cantata is still an Advent cantata. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this great piece of music:
Cantata 147 has an interesting history. With his great Weimar librettist Salomo Franck, Bach wrote three ambitious cantatas for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent. When Bach moved to Leipzig, these works could not be revived because these Sundays were penitential and had no music. Bach expanded each of these works with recitatives to make them suitable for other Sundays where there was music required. Our cantata shows its Advent roots but was expanded with recitatives to make it suitable for the Assumption of the Virgin (or the Visitation of Mary). Musically the work is remarkably consistent, but the difference in style between Franck’s wonderful pithy words for the arias and the rather more expansive style of the recitatives is problematic. That said, there is no doubt that Bach was working at his highest level for both parts of the piece. 
The cantata opens with a wonderful and brilliant chorus for trumpet, oboes, and strings. The dazzling high trumpet writing is equaled by the brilliant string figurations and energetic oboes. The chorus, like everything in the cantata, is pitched very high and thus matches the brilliance of the orchestra. The tenor recitative establishes the expansiveness of the recitative writing with a lush and beautiful string accompaniment. Everything in the lovely melancholy alto aria is used to illustrate the word “shame.” Both the arching, sad line of the oboe d’amore and the supplicating half steps of the alto perfectly reflect the words. The bass recitative renews the energy of the opening chorus. Almost all of Bach’s Advent pieces have at least one movement with “walking” music to illustrate the “make straight a highway” reference In Isaiah. In the soprano aria, an expressive and jaunty violin lays its line over a walking bass. The high, silvery soprano adds to the magic of the texture. The familiar chorale setting that ends both halves of the cantata was added by Bach in the Leipzig version. It is justly famous and absolutely characteristic of his best chorale fantasia manner. 
The motto “Hilf, Jesu, hilf” becomes the three-note motto for the tenor aria that opens up the second half of the cantata. Cello roulades not only add a note of desperation to the line, but also become the sense of richness and calm that appears later in the text. The mystery and magic that is summoned in the lengthy alto recitative is created by the dark, exotic sound of the two English Horns playing their sighing accompanying figures. The bass aria brings back not only the trumpet, but also the marvelous energy of the opening chorus. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a recording by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!


Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Soggy

It's very wet here in Central PA today. It started raining Friday night, rained all day yesterday. and it's still raining off and on today. The creeks are all full up, and when you step off the pavement the ground squishes and sloshes when you walk on it. Today's Sunday walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park was a wet one.

Branch Creek is full up!
So is Gum Run
Raindrops on Bittersweet berries
And raindrops in the wetland waterways
The wet brings out the usually drab Winter colors
Even up on the meadow the ground is soggy; I squished all the way across it
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Advent 3


Bach's cantata for the third Sunday in Advent is another case of a missing original score. Like last week's cantata, Bach wrote a cantata for this Sunday during his tenure in Weimar, but when he got the job in Leipzig it wasn't needed; concerted music was forbidden there during Advent. So Bach expanded his original Advent cantata to a much larger work for the 7th Sunday after Trinity and promptly lost the original Advent score. Thankfully, later scholars have managed to piece together the original from a deconstructing of the later version and notes from the librettist Salomo Franck and various performers of the day. So we have something of a version of Bach's cantata for Advent 3, BWV 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht (Fret not, o soul, Weimar, 1717). Here's what Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music has to say about this cantata:
In Leipzig, cantata performances were suspended during the last three Sundays of Advent, so the Advent cantatas that we have all predate his tenure there. BWV 186a is a reconstruction of a later piece written for the 7th Sunday of Trinity, but an existing wordbook of Bach’s wonderful librettist Salomo Franck confirms the original date of its first performance (1717) in Weimar. In the Gospel for that day [Matthew 11 :2-10] John the Baptist sends his disciples to see if Jesus is indeed the prophesied Messiah. BWV 186a radiates great intensity though a curiously muted and melancholy tone. Bach was clearly responding to the many thematic dualities throughout this great text, perhaps the most important: the idea of God’s brilliance and image humbly reflected in the form of a servant.  
In the opening chorus the bass line marches patiently, supporting winding counterpoint from the upper strings. The viola (the most melancholy of instruments) is often the principal voice, asserting itself even when orchestra and chorus are fully engaged. The sustained notes of the chorus (on staggered entrances) produce a truly ‘confounding’ harmony, but they immediately relent and become part of the string counterpoint. The remaining lines of text are set motet style with only the support of the inexorable bass line. The bass (accompanied by continuo alone) speaks the words of John in a deceptively simple, almost jolly, tune. The wiry, angular melismas on the words ‘zweifelsvoll’ [doubtful] and particularly ‘verstricken’ [entangle] are surprising and among the most tortured in all of Bach. In the chorales and choruses the viola usually doubles the tenor line, so it is interesting that Bach chose these two ‘partners’ as vocal and instrumental soloist for the next aria. Craig Smith felt that Bach’s re-scoring in the later version of this piece for violins and oboe up the octave was ‘one of his few mistakes’ The viola’s sparkling figuration shines brilliantly through its inherently covered sound, matching the text perfectly. The gorgeous aria for soprano with its soulful, chromatic violin accompaniment is both embracingly comforting and heartbreaking. The duet for soprano and alto once again responds amazingly to the duality of the text: faith does not erase sorrow, it simply makes it more bearable. Bach choses a crazed, joyous dance in a minor key; the effect is ultimately more disturbing than comforting. The chorale is a bright, bracing and determined setting of Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, verse 8.
Today's performance is reconstructed from a full performance of the later BWV 186 for Trinity 7 by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!


Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Bleak

Winter is coming along apace; the air is cold, the leaves have changed and fallen, and everything but the evergreens and the red berries is bare and gray or brown. And no snow... yet. There's an air of waiting in nature, waiting for real Winter to set in. My boots are ready for when it comes at last!

Creek, causeway, and duckweed
Bittersweet berries add a dash of color here and there
Canada Geese circling for a landing
Paper Birches and a bench add some color to the drab landscape
Shelf fungi along the Dykeman Walking Trail
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Advent 2


Bach only wrote one cantata for the second Sunday in Advent, and we just listened to its expanded version (BWV 70) two weeks ago. Bach originally wrote it in Weimar for Advent, but concerted music wasn't allowed during Advent in Leipzig, his next job, so he expanded it for the last Sunday of the Trinity period, and in the passage of years the original Weimar manuscript (referred to as BWV 70a) was lost; modern performances are just the expanded version minus the movements known to be added in Leipzig in 1723.

So rather than repeat something you just heard, I went looking amongst the cantatas Bach wrote for unspecified occasions. And found a gem! BWV 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! (Praise God in all lands, Leipzig 1730), a solo cantata for soprano, is absolutely lovely, and certainly festive enough to be performed in Advent. Here's musicologist Simon Crouch on this beautiful cantata:
Pow!! Imagine dragging yourself to church early in the morning, eyes heavy with sleep, mind full of cotton-wool and being hit with this! And pity the poor boy (?) who had to sing it! (Do refer, though, to the discussion of BWV 51 in Robert Marshall's essay Bach the Progressive in his excellent book The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He suggests that Bach may have written the soprano part for Faustina Bordoni, the "leading prima donna of her age" at the Dresden court opera (and married, incidentally, to J.A. Hasse, the exceedingly succesful Dresden composer), or possibly even for Giovanni Bindi, a castrato at Dresden). These days this work is always performed by a female soprano and it had better be a good one too!

The spectacular and florid opening movement leads, after an intervening recitative, into the gentler second aria which rather alarmingly brings to mind a more recent tune: Favourite things from The Sound of Music! The soprano then sings the wonderful chorale melody Sei Lob und Preis mit ehren with an elaborate instrumental accompaniment. This leads without a break into a final virtuoso Alleluia.

This beautiful solo cantata must be rated among the greats of the cantatas and has certainly been a favourite with audiences and record companies. There are many fine recordings available. It's a brilliant, joyous exaltation in praise of God.

Copyright © 1995 & 1997, Simon Crouch.
Today's performance is from a recording by the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and featuring soprano Emma Kirkby. Enjoy!



Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Soft Day!

We had some more rain for most of yesterday, and it was a cold rain indeed! It finally moved off in the wee dark hours of the morning, and it left behind a lot of soggy ground and patchy fog. On my walk through the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning the fog was there but thinner in the wetland and quite a bit thicker up on the meadow. It reminded me of a story an old friend of mine, the late Michael Shorrock, used to tell. Mick owned property in Doolin on the West Coast of Ireland, and he said that on a morning like this the local farmers used to show up at the local pub around 9:00, grab a pint and a seat, put up their feet, and let out with a huge sigh: "Ahhhhhhhh! Soft day!" Work was done for that day, and it was time to give weary bones a little rest. This is the first day of my weekend, and while my feet were busy getting wet on that soggy ground rather than propped up in front of a fire, I still definitely enjoyed relaxing on a soft day.








© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Advent 1


Today Advent begins, the official start of the Christmas season and also the beginning of the new liturgical year. Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, and this year we'll listen to his first one, BWV 61, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come now, savior of the gentiles, Weimar 1714). This is a chorale cantata based on the hymn of the same name, written by Martin Luther. It's small, and written for a small ensemble - Bach had limited resources in Weimar - but it packs a punch. Here's musicologist Simon Crouch on the subject:
The opening chorus of cantata BWV 61 grandly introduces the tune of Luther's hymn tune Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland with a fine dotted rhythm accompaniment. Having got the theme out of the way, it's down to business with a fugue. It's nice to know that there are things in life that you can rely upon. A recitative is followed by a lovely tenor aria in triple time. The violins get a pretty and lush tune in accompaniment. Next a recitative. Usually I pass over recitatives without comment, after all a recit. is a recit. isn't it? This next one, though, is a peach. Pizzicato chords accompanying Behold, I stand at the door and knock. OK, so maybe it's corny but I like it. The final aria is given to the soprano soloist. This is a lovely and delicate aria and the soloist must show great sensitivity to get the most from it.

When I first heard Harnoncourt's recording in the Teldec series, I thought that the poor boy treble was badly under-rehearsed but I've grown to like it, since his slightly lispy voice makes it sound rather cute! Also, the words are Open wide, my heart, Jesus is coming and entering in, so it seems rather appropriate that it's sung by someone sounding sweet and innocent rather than sophisticated.

My only regret about the closing chorus is that it doesn't go on for longer. It's one of those off-to-the-races pieces upon which amateur choral societies love to work up a head of steam. A glorious ending!

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch
Today's performance is again from the wonderful J.S. Bach Foundation of Trogen, Switzerland, led by musical director and conductor Rudolf Lutz. And if you're wondering at that awfully small orchestra, that's absolutely historically accurate; Bach scored this cantata for two violins, one viola, and continuo (continuo being the "rhythm section" of a Baroque ensemble, usually consisting of a keyboard instrument and one or more bass instruments, in this case organ, cello, double bass, and bassoon). Bach's career proved that you can create massive beauty with limited resources. Enjoy!



Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger