Monday, December 30, 2019

It's Raining Again

And once again, it's raining in Winter. ((sigh)) I miss the snow.

And my favorite music for a rainy day - "A Pause in the Rain" by Shadowfax

Photos © 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Sunday Bach - First Sunday After Christmas

Bach wrote three cantatas for the first Sunday after Christmas Day; today we'll be listening to the second one, BWV 122, Das neugeborene Kindelein (The newborn child, Leipzig 1724). This one reminds Christians that the child whose birth they're celebrating so joyfully is destined to live a troubled life. Despite the great music here, the message is intended to put something of a damper on the celebrations. Heh, heh! So typical of Lutheran theology of the 18th century! Here's Craig Smith (with later editing by Ryan Turner) of Emmanuel Music on this cantata:
Composed for the Second Sunday of Christmas, BWV 122 references a gospel passage from Luke 2: 33-40. The reading starts at the moment where St. Simeon predicts that the child is set for a fall and a rising again. The aged prophetess Anna is introduced, and she speaks of Jesus as the savior of Jerusalem. There is a sadness to the reading, not only Simeon’s prediction, but also the general sense of uneasiness of all of the participants of what kind of a future this child would have. All of the cantatas for this day celebrate the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new. They also all project a kind of melancholy that is inherent in the readings. This is Bach’s only setting of “Das neugebor’ne Kindelein” in the cantatas, although there is another harmonization in the 371 chorales that may be from a lost work. The lovely minor-mode tune is set in a swinging 3/8 time with many echo and bell effects in both the orchestra and chorus. As befitting the mood, the piece keeps trying to modulate to a happier major mode but is always defeated. It is interesting that the melody itself is not so important, either in the make up of the musical material of the orchestra, or of the shape of the cantata. It is a very wonderful chorus, however, full of marvelous musical detail and melodic distinction. 

The terrific bass aria with continuo refuses to follow its own device and be happy. Only the first line of texts refers to the “sinner” but the piece stubbornly preaches to that sinner. It is a piece, however, of great profile and marvelous energy. The soprano recitative brings in the chorale in a fully harmonized version played by three recorders; since they are not otherwise used in the cantata; the parts were no doubt performed by the oboe players.

As fine as the cantata is, it is the trio that raises it to the top rank of pieces. There are many references in this trio, many codes, as it were, that place it firmly in our perception. The Siciliano rhythm reminds us of the shepherds and the humble peasant birth. The soprano and the tenor enclose the chorale like the shield mentioned in the text. The whole child warrior image is one that is appealing: think of Joan of Arc. The medieval English poem says it best, “This little babe, so few days old, has come to rifle Satan’s fold.” Over the gentle dotted rhythm of the continuo the soprano and the tenor sing a swinging melancholy duet. The interior alto, strengthened by all of the strings, sings the chorale in long notes. There is a hypnotic effect to the piece, a miniature quality that is positively captivating. The tropes that the soprano and tenor sing are often very close in feeling to the chorale lines. Less like the little sermons that we have seen in earlier cantatas containing that form, these comments merely strengthen the sentiments of the text. The alto actually leaves the chorale at the end and joins in the trope to bring the trio to a rich and full conclusion. The accompanied recitative for bass is actually quite lengthy and tries to free itself from the melancholy of the opening aria. The chorale is in block form and brings the piece to a sturdy conclusion.

© Craig Smith, with Ryan Turner
Today's performance is from a recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Ornaments: Mama Gaia Decorates for the Holidays

"Winter is not a season, it's a celebration." — Anamika Mishra
Just as we humans decorate our homes with evergreens and ornaments to celebrate the Winter holidays, so Mama Gaia does the same with her home. Her ornaments are the berries and cones and seed pods dangling from branches throughout the woods. A walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this Christmas morning was well decorated!
Asian Bittersweet
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Bach for Christmas

Bach wrote a lot of music for Christmas. Today we'll be listening to his earliest cantata for the festival, BWV 63, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (Christians, etch this day, Weimar 1714). And festive it is, the grandest and most ambitious of his works from the Weimar period of his career. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this grand Christmas cantata:
Bach Cantata BWV 63 is the grandest and most ambitious of all of Bach's Weimar cantatas. Both Bach and the poet Salomo Franck pull out all of the stops to produce a work of monumentality and power. The work opens with a large-scale chorus with an orchestra of 4 trumpets, tympani, 3 oboes, strings and continuo. Franck, who was also head of the Weimar Mint, uses a metaphor of engraving on metal and stone to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Just as the first chorus shows the ultimate in outgoing exuberance, the alto recitative is full of the profoundest inward feeling. This is perhaps the greatest accompanied recitative in all of the Bach cantatas. The middle section of the cantata is made up of two duets. The first, for soprano and bass with oboe obbligato, is austere and otherworldly; the second, for alto, tenor and strings is earthy, bumptious and dancing. Throughout the cantata the two elements of Christmas, the mysterious and the down-to-earth, are constantly juxtaposed. A bravura bass recitative with brass and winds leads us into the glorious final chorus, a work as brilliant as the opening but with even more detail and character. 

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

Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Christmas 2019

Photos © 2009 & 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Winter Solstice 2019

The Dykeman Spring wetland at the Solstice

O Winter! ruler of the inverted year, . . .
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb'd Retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.
William Cowper

A joyous Winter Solstice greeting to all my friends and family throughout the world! May you enjoy whatever Winter holiday you celebrate surrounded by warmth and light and love.

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sunday Bach - Advent 4

Today is the fourth and last Sunday in Advent, and this year it's also three days before Christmas; Bach wrote the perfect segue into the glories of a Bach Christmas in this beautiful little solo cantata from 1715 - BWV 132, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (Prepare the way, prepare the road!, Weimar, 1715). The prophecy of Isaiah is obviously the inspiration, and the Gospel reading for the day was John the Baptist's testimony, so this cantata is full of baptismal imagery. Here's Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music with commentary on this cantata:
The brilliant and extroverted aria that opens Bereite die Wege, Bereite die Bahn [Prepare the paths, prepare the road], belies the profound inward journey of this cantata. In Bach’s time - after the first Sunday’s festivities – Advent was considered a season of reflection and penitence even in the face of the joyous coming of Christ. This cantata dates from 1715 in Weimar where (unlike in Leipzig) concerted music was permitted during Advent. The Gospel for today’s cantata is the moving testimony of John the Baptist in which he quotes the prophet Isaias: ‘make straight the way of the Lord’. Baptismal images abound both in the text and the music.

The cantata opens with a virtuoso aria of joyous anticipation for soprano, oboe d’amore, and strings. The endless melismas on the word ‘Bahn’ represent the ‘long path’ and perhaps the splashing of baptismal water. The text (of the B section) exhorts us to make the path ‘completely level for the Highest’, amusingly mirrored in the vocal line, where several words are repeated on one pitch. The complex tenor recitative ruminates on the idea of preparation. Listen for the rolling passage work in the cello and voice on the word ‘Wälz’ [roll]. In the bass aria, the question asked of John the Baptist by the Priests and Levites, ‘Wer bist du?’ [Who are you?], becomes a personal question with a rigid and unpleasant answer. The rolling bass accompaniment has an almost industrial feel as a road is effortfully cleared of sin for the Savior. The didactic vocal writing is fragmented and almost clumsy. The long bizarre melisma on the word ‘heuchlerischer’ [hypocritical] is particularly striking. The alto recitative softens the tone as the sinner struggles to reaffirm the covenant of baptism. The aria that follows is the centerpiece of the cantata. The vocal line, while tinged with sadness, is bathed in cascades of 32nd notes from the solo violin (baptismal water imagery, surely). Like the greatest Bach arias, it is utterly personal and emotionally layered. In this case, a feeling of personal joy somehow radiates from an overall sense of profound melancholy. 
Today's performance is a 1995 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Finally! The First Snow ofthe Season

Our first snow of the season finally came early this morning. It's not much, just a couple of inches, and given the rain in the forecast it won't be around long. But I made sure I got there with the camera to capture what there was before it melted. Come look!

Snowy woods along the Dykeman Walking Trail
The "back entrance" to the Dykeman Spring Nature Park
The old railroad trestle on the walking trail
Snow in the wetland
The red bridge in snow once again!
Muskrat tracks in the snow on the new bridge by the north duck pond
Winterberries in the snow by the north duck pond
Snow on the Eastern Redcedars up by the meadow
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 15, 2019

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 

Monday, December 09, 2019

December Rain

There is nothing more dreary than rain in December. And yet for all that, there is still lots of activity and opportunities for photography in nature in all that wet. There was a pair of Belted Kingfishers yelling their frantic-sounding chatter and dashing back and forth all over the place. And one of my Muskrat friends was out swimming around in the north duck pond and then ducked into a reed bed to keep an eye on me from hiding. I got a little wet, but it was worth it.

Yes, it's very wet!
Drip, drip, drip...
Walking the trail in the wetland in the rain
Muskrat in hiding
The bench at the edge of the meadow
Looking across the meadow in the rain
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sunday Bach - Advent 2

Bach wrote very few cantatas for Advent, mainly because in Leipzig, where he lived and worked from 1723 to his death, concerted music was banned during Advent and Lent. Luckily,  he wrote several in Weimar before being hired in Leipzig. This week we have one of those - BWV 70a, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!, Weimar 1716). After he went to Leipzig and found he couldn't use it for Advent, Bach expanded it and used it for the last Sunday in the Trinity period, and the original manuscript has since been lost. Nowadays when anyone uses it for Advent they merely skip the movements written to expand it. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel music on this cantata:
Today’s cantata, BWV 70a, was composed in Weimar in 1716.  For subsequent Leipzig performances in 1723 and 1731, Bach added four recitatives and a chorale, thus making it appropriate for the Sunday before Advent.  BWV 70a  concerns the Day of Last Judgement as depicted today’s gospel of Luke. The cantata opens with a rousing chorus warning of the last judgment with a prominent "last trumpet" obbilgato. After the rhythmic surge of this opening chorus that never really abates, the veiled quality of the alto aria with its mournful cello obbligato is an enormous contrast.  The overall texture, imposed upon a ritornello pattern in the cello, is ternary in which the alto asks a question, delivers stern warnings, and then combines them. The nearly Handelian soprano aria with strings has surprising vehemence and real spite.  Note the sweeping violin scales, sometimes rising sometimes falling. They may very well suggest the figure of Jesus amongst the clouds or, indeed the acts of defiance against those who deride us. The friendly tenor aria opens with a long ritornello that might mislead the listener to think is the beginning of a sinfonia. However, this joyous melody is taken over by the tenor echoing the positivity of the opening chorus, making it seem as if the tide has turned. The bass aria is an island of quiet, interrupted by last judgment music. The bass’s declamatory, crushing phrases are matched only by the sawing strings and trumpet urgings and the hair-raising melisma on Trümmern----the wreckage of the very universe.  The violence subsides on an unfinished dominant chord, leading us to a reprise of the original vocal material. The quiet close to the aria brings us to the heavenly seven-voice harmonization of the chorale, Meinem Jesum lass ich nicht.  Through the addition of independent string parts, Bach creates a halo of sound around the voices, oboe and trumpet, reinforcing the hymn tune.

© Craig Smith, adapted and edited by Ryan Turner
Today's performance is by the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart under the direction of Helmuth Rilling. Enjoy!

Photo © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Monday, December 02, 2019

A Rainy December Morning

And now it's December. Yesterday was the meteorological first day of Winter, and there have been major snow storms sweeping across the country, but here in the Cumberland Valley we've had nothing but rain. It rained yesterday and overnight, and then it was still raining when I went for my weekly walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning. Cold rain is my least favorite weather to walk in, but the wet and overcast emphasizes the colors in the bleakness that is a woodland in December. Here are some scenes from this morning's walk.

The woods along the Dykeman WalkingTrail
More woods along the trail
The back entrance to the park on the trail
A favorite wetland landscape, colored by December
A little wetland ghost, one of the resident ferals in the park
On the way home, the creek between the ball fields
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Sunday Bach - Advent 1

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the Christmas season and the beginning of a new liturgical year. Bach wrote three cantatas for this occasion, and last year we listened to the first one, his Weimar setting of Martin Luther's hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, savior of the gentiles). This year we'll be listening to his second one, BWV 62, also a chorale cantata based on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Leipzig, 1724). It's a fitting start to the Church's most festive season of the year! Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this most festive of cantatas:
The chorale most closely associated with Advent is the Luther arrangement of the Latin hymn “Veni redemptor gentium” called by Luther ”Nun komm,der Heiden Heiland.” As with most Latin arrangements, the form of the chorale is irregular, four brief phrases with the 1st identical to the 4th. The most notable feature of the melody is the rather exotic-sounding diminished 4th in the 1st and 4th phrases. It appears in all three of the great Leipzig chorale settings for organ. All of the earlier versions, including the one in our cantata here, soften the interval to a perfect fourth.

The opening chorus of BWV 62 is in an extremely lively 6/4 time. Running scales and arpeggios in the first violin are punctuated by two different figures: a fleeting motive passed around to both the oboes and strings and a more sturdy, almost militaristic, repeated note figure usually found in the strings. All three of these ideas are played on top of the first phrase of the chorale appearing in long notes, first in the bass and then at the cadence in the oboes. We will remember how abstract Bach’s setting of the chorale was in his Weimar cantata of the same name. Here, as with all of the 2nd Jahrgang, the emphasis is on clear statement of the tune over extremely lively orchestral figuration.

As wonderful as this chorus is, we cannot help but feel that Bach was later to find the true grandeur of this tune in the three organ preludes. They are of such different character from each other that it is hard to remember that they are all based on the same melody. The first setting, a low three- part texture placed underneath the melody, which appears in a very richly ornamented version. One of the most surprising things about this setting is that it is one of the saddest pieces ever written by Bach. This is a side of the melody that he never found before. The other two Leipzig settings are no less fine. One is an agitated trio with very jagged lines. Here the diminished fourth in the first phrase plays an important part in the character. The bumpy broken arpeggios and abrupt melodic shifts suggest an extreme form of Orientalism, all of it clearly generated from the diminished phrase on the word ”Heiden.” The third setting, the grandest of them all, is for full organ, a bravura marching texture in the manuals in which the melody thunders unadorned from the pedals.

The tenor aria #2 of the cantata is an extremely long, though very lively affair. Its effect is of abundance. It has the uncanny effect of indicating both the grandeur of Christ’s coming and the humility of his human roots. After the brief secco recitative, the bass aria has a very different character. It is militaristic. It could even be accused of being jingoistic if the vocal phrases were not constantly overlapping and occasionally even contradicting the orchestra. The whole orchestra is in unison with no harmony whatsoever. Bach never wrote another aria quite like this one, but it is a character often found in Handel. The main effect is that of a virtuosic showpiece for the bass. After such brazen and aggressive music, the little duet recitative for the soprano and alto with strings is shocking. In its brief time it brings us the only inward view of this moment in the liturgical year. The final chorale setting is sturdy and powerful.

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

Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving 2019

Happy Thanksgiving!

This year my Thanksgiving time is a particularly thankful one. As you probably know, I had a cardiac crisis in September and October, and I owe a great deal of thanks to my nearby family, my brother Don and sister-in-law Terri, for being there and getting me to the doctors and tests and all that I needed to get to. I am also grateful to all of my family and friends for the support and well wishes I received. And of course to the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who made sure I'm still around to enjoy the rest of the blessings I'm thankful for. What would those blessings be? The wonderful Earth we all live on, with all its beauty and brilliance and mystery. It's a blessing just to be alive!

This year I'm going to give you a bunch of music to celebrate the holiday. "All Good Gifts" from the movie version of Godspell; my "Simplicity" slideshow featuring the Shaker Hymn "Simple Gifts" performed by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma; Peter Mayer's Thanksgiving song "Coming Home"; and Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Thanksgiving Song". Enjoy! And enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Photos © 2008 & 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Monday, November 25, 2019

November, A Time To Be Still

“In November, the trees are standing all sticks and bones. Without their leaves, how lovely they are, spreading their arms like dancers. They know it is time to be still.” ― Cynthia Rylant, In November
Today's walk in the park was magical. The light was subdued, the special late Autumn colors glowed, and the air smelled like tannin and evergreen. It's days like these that make me love November!

November in the Dykeman wetland
Mallard couples in the Dykeman creek
An Autumn still life under the water in the north duck pond
A forest stairway on the Upland Trail
The north duck pond in it's November glow
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sunday Bach - Trinity 23

Bach wrote three cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, and today we'll be listening to the first one - BWV 163, Nur jedem das Seine! (Only his own!, Weimar 1715). This is a solo cantata, and despite the somber subject the music is quite joyful. This is considered one of Bach's greatest pre-Leipzig cantatas, and probably one of the best examples of the close collaboration with his librettist of the time, poet Salomo Franck. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this work:
Bach Cantata BWV 163 is one of his greatest works from the Weimar era. While at the sophisticated court at Weimar, Bach had access to probably the best poet of his career, the director of the mint, Salomo Franck. Franck's poetry often uses money as a metaphor. Here it is central to the bass aria. The work starts with a measured tenor aria with strings that restates Christ's rather heated reply to the questioning Pharisees. Both Bach and Franck ignore the passion of the charge by Jesus of hypocrisy. They are interested in the question of sacred versus secular issues. The cantata has an interesting scheme. The opening aria uses the whole range of the orchestra. The next aria exploits the bass and the lower instruments. The soprano-alto recitative and duet are predominantly high in range. The division of range subtly exploits the low range for things earthly and the high for thins heavenly. The opening tenor aria is almost acedemic in its metrical insistence on the declamation. The following bass aria uses two celli as the obbligati. The darkness of the two instruments combined with the bass voice produce a texture very like the descent into the earth in Wagner's Das Rhinegold. It is one of Bach's most daring sonorities. The soprano and alto recitative is not only high and light but very complicated in its myriad of detail. The duet itself is gorgeously simple and songful with the strings playing the chorale "Meinem Jesusm lass ich nicht" on top of the texture. The work ends with a four-part harmonization of the chorale "Wo soll ich fliehen hin."

© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a recording by the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart under the direction of Helmut Rilling. Enjoy!

Photo © 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Walking Through Fallen Leaves

“Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods
And day by day the dead leaves fall and melt.”
William Allingham - Autumnal Sonnet

I woke up in the semi-darkness this morning, and by the quality of what light there was coming in the window I could tell the sky was overcast. A perfect day for an Autumn hike! I needed to walk on fallen leaves today, kicking through the piles and crunching them underfoot, the ultimate joy of the season. So after breakfast and the usual morning activities at the computer, I tied on my boots and headed for the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail. It was definitely a soul-clearing walk; here are some of the sights along the way.

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger