Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday Bach - Sexagesima

Bach wrote three cantatas for Sexagesima (60 days before Easter) Sunday, and I chose this interesting solo cantata for this year - BWV 181, Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (Light-minded frivolous spirits, Leipzig 1724). Based on the Gospel lesson for the day, the parable of the sower sowing seed on different qualities of soil in Luke, the cantata starts off in a humorous mood in the opening aria and then proceeds to get more serious. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this cantata:
Bach’s take on the parable from Luke is speculative and rather abstract. He immediately jumps into the question of why, when given the choice between the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad, man will make the wrong choice. The German word “Flattergeister” is sometimes translated as “flibbertigibbet.” The aria that opens with that phrase is one of the few overtly humorous things in the Bach sacred cantatas. The wonderfully patchy orchestration and the bouncy, un-centered vocal line is the perfect portrayal of vacuous self-satisfaction. The sinister entrance of “Belial,” always with the most unexpected harmonic turns, makes the flibbertigibbet an easy and fair target. The serious and detailed alto recitative makes clear that the results of this behavior are disastrous.

This cantata comes down to us in a broken and incomplete form. The violin obbligato for the literally thorny tenor aria is missing. John Harbison has provided the suitably spiky and virtuosic violin part. The soprano recitative provides a change of tone, introducing the positive affect of the following chorus. Embedded in the chorus is an elaborate and richly detailed duet for soprano and alto. In keeping with the cantata's fragmentary nature, there is no concluding chorale.

 © Craig Smith, additions by Pamela Dellal 

Today's performance is from a 1997 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Maestro Koopman chose to orchestrate for oboe one of Robert Levin's reconstructions of the missing violin obbligato in the tenor aria. Enjoy!

Photo © 2011 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Last Snow of the Season?

Another storm came through here today, giving us around 7 inches of snow this morning. Unfortunately it turned to sleet in the afternoon and freezing rain in the evening. My boss texted me around 10 am and said the store would be closing early and I should stay home, so of course I headed for Dykeman Park so I could walk in the snow before it turned to sleet. Heh, heh! I was the first one in, and I walked the trails in virgin snow. The snow was coming down hard but with no wind, so it came straight down silently, and I walked the trails in that silence that only comes within the depths of the woods in the falling snow. Nirvana!

By the time I reached the north duck pond the snow had backed off, and by the time I headed back home it had turned to sleet. But before it did I got these pictures of Nature in the snow. Enjoy!

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Today's Walk

My work schedule has changed, and I no longer have Sundays free. Now my "weekend" is Monday and Tuesday, and this morning I did my weekly walk in the Dykeman Spring park. It's late Winter, and while there's still some snow, it's messy. In the wetland it's mostly gone, as the two shots I took there show. But there's still a good two inches in the woods on the way to the meadow, and it lends some character to the usual scenery there. 

It also reveals things that would have been a bit more hidden if there had been no snow; along the Upland Trail I noticed a trail of mud and critter tracks, which ended in a hole in the ground surrounded by clumps of fresh-dug mud. It seems there's at least one Groundhog up and taking care of business!

Meanwhile, up on the meadow the snow has pretty much melted, just leaving enough to create patterns on the ground accenting the rolling quality of the hills. It was a great walk. Take a look!

The Purple Martin house and Paper Birches in the wetland
The creek from the red bridge
The log stairs on the Upland Trail have a totally different look in the snow
Br'er Groundhog's new digs
Rolling hills
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sunday Bach - Septuagesima

Today we enter the pre-Easter season with Septuagesima Sunday (70 days before Easter). Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday; last year I played his final cantata for the occasion, and this year I've chosen the middle one - BWV 92, Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn mein Herz und Sinn ergeben (I have given my heart and mind to God's heart and mind, Leipzig 1725). This is a fairly lengthy chorale cantata, and a complex one, with many fugal elements and recitatives with choral tropes (insertions). Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this magnificent cantata:
The chorale ”Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” is also known with another set of words “Ich hab’ in Gottes Herz und Sinn.” It is something of a tour de force that Bach uses the same tune with different words on adjacent Sundays. His setting of “Was mein Gott will,” was, particularly in its chorale portions, militant, brimming with energy and straightforward. For Septuagesima, the use of the tune is ambiguous, even mysterious. Much of these qualities have to do with the new words. But there is also a feeling that Bach can do anything he wants with these melodies. The first verse of the chorale speaks of the soul surrendering only to find the sure way to heaven. The opening orchestral statement has a submissive motive in the oboes d’amore. Its tonal answer by the violins is not only submissive but positively awkward in its melodic shape. All other musical material throughout the movement illustrates the climb back to heaven. With this simple group of opposing materials Bach builds a large and very impressive chorus. The mood is of quiet pleading and supplication. It couldn’t be more different than the military briskness of the Cantata BWV 111. The one interesting similarity of the two movements is that the repetition of the Stollen at the end of the Abgesang is again identical. It is a clever device for keeping the listener grounded as to where he is in this long and diffuse bar-form piece. 
The second movement is one of Bach’s most difficult chorale-with-tropes movements. Here the distinction between chorale and recitative is blurred. For instance that bass coloration of the line of chorale “Wenn er mich auch gleich wirt ins Meer” melds into the tune underneath the following recitative. We have occasionally seen this in chorale tropes before, but not to this extent. The effect is of confusion and storminess. The one reference to the sea in this verse becomes important. Although both “stormy” arias that follow do not specifically indicate it, Bach clearly hears them as seascapes. 
The tenor aria #3 is the first sea piece. Against regular but agitated string figuration, a wild and irregular line in the first violin gives a vivid picture of a storm at sea. The tenor sings sometimes isolated yelps, sometimes jagged lines related to the string parts. The brilliant part of this piece is the regular rhythmic underpinning of the lower strings. It would sound like pandemonium without these lines. 
In this cantata the chorale always returns as the voice of reason. In #4 two oboes d’amore play an expressive little motive in canon accompanying the simple alto statement of the chorale theme. The harmony is very much the world of the opening chorus. It is a kind of subtle chromaticism that is remarkably versatile. Look how Bach can color an opposing idea like “he knows when joy, he knows when sorrow.” In these brief bars, both joy and sorrow are fleeting. Neither is completely formed by the harmony. Each has an element of the other. 
After a secco tenor recitative our second seascape, this time for bass with continuo occurs. It is a more orderly affair, more positive in outlook but nevertheless stormy. It is the kind of aria that could seem ordinary in its bluster if the phrasing and the juxtaposition of the bass to the voice weren’t so subtle and sophisticated. Again the chorale enters in to bring a sense of calm. Again the chorale-with-trope form is used but this time with the full chorus and solo voices providing the tropes. Just as in the 2nd number in Cantata BWV 3 performed by us Jan 19th, each voice is represented, this time starting with the lowest voice. The soprano then ends the number segueing into the Aria #8. 
It is important to hear the previous sections as sea music because the pastoral elements of the soprano aria are key to its impact. The oboe d’amore plays a naïve and heartbreaking shepherd’s tune over the pizzicato strings. The boy soprano announces: “I will always be true to my shepherd.” After so much music that is in every way “at sea” this simple pastoral piece is remarkably touching. Bach knows that after so much ambiguity and complexity, and make no mistake: this is one of the most psychologically complicated of all of the cantatas, this child-like faith is the only answer. As wonderful as this aria is as a separate piece, in its context it is overwhelming. Although the final chorale takes us back to the harmonic world of the opening, the sense of benediction in the harmonization is unmistakable. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is another gem from the J.S. Bach Foundation of Trogen, Switzerland by the orchestra and choir of the Foundation under the direction of Rudolf Lutz. Enjoy!

Photo © 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Getting Sentimental

I took part in an interesting conversation on Facebook the other day. A friend was complaining that her significant other was objecting to doing something special for Valentine's Day, saying that the holiday was invented by commercial concerns looking to make money, and my friend was asking everyone else's opinions on the holiday. My own contribution was that considering that the celebration of the saint's day as a holiday dedicated to love was a fairly recent development, one has to wonder, and repeated the widespread opinion that it's a "Hallmark holiday". After considering that for a while and reading others' responses to her query, I decided to take a closer look at all this.

It appears that I was partially right. One of the two Valentines celebrated on February 14 was an early bishop who performed Christian weddings at a time when the powers that be in the Roman Empire objected to such a thing, and he was executed for it, thus making him a "hero for love". But the holiday was never really celebrated as such until medieval times, and then really only among the aristocracy as part of the cult of chivalry. Among the peasantry and the developing middle class it was pretty much ignored. Until the Victorian era in the 19th century. And therein lies a tale.

In 1861 Victoria's consort Prince Albert died, leaving the queen heartbroken. And in 1860 in the US the Civil War broke out, ending up decimating a large part of a whole generation of young men in the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil. The reaction to these events was the rise of a cult of sentimentality on both sides of the Atlantic.

I've written about this before on this blog, in reference to the change in cemeteries that took place at this time. In the US especially, graveyards were crowded, unpleasant places where the dead were basically dumped; they weren't called boneyards for nothing! But after the Civil War cemeteries became park-like, with shade trees and monumental sculpture, and benches for the mourners to rest on. They became restful places for the living to come and spend time with the beloved departed, and families even began having picnics there.

But this sentimentality wasn't restricted to cemeteries. Christmas benefitted from this; Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and Clement C. Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" were reflections of this mood as well, creating a sentimental, nostalgic, family-oriented holiday. Christmas wasn't the only holiday; holidays like Valentine's Day and Mothers' Day, holidays built on sentiment, also popped up. And the rise of spiritualism, the belief in communicating with the dead, also started during this time. If the Victorian era had a watchword, it was "sentiment".

I have a theory about why this happened, one that is based on an already widespread theory about the modern celebration of Christmas in cultural history studies. In Great Britain and consequently its colonies in North America, radical Calvinist Protestantism came to dominance, toppling the Catholic royalty and enforcing their own rather dour version of Christianity on the land, even going so far as banning Christmas and Halloween, calling it "papist heresy" and "pagan frivolity". Catholicism and the Church of England, which retained much of the Catholic liturgy and church calendar, were seen as the realm of the royalty and aristocracy, while the dour Calvinism of the Puritans and their heirs was considered the realm of the working classes.

Then in the mid 19th century the middle class became tired of the joyless attitudes of the Calvinist dominance, and the Oxford Movement arose, a "nostalgic" movement to reintroduce more liturgy and celebration to the Church of England. This movement inspired many, including those involved in the Arts and Crafts movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, and poets like Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins. And while the working class remained in their chapels and didn't accept the theology of the Oxford Movement, they did pick up the sentiment of the movement, and thus Christmas and Valentine's Day came back into fashion. And of course Americans, especially those on the East Coat, Anglophiles that we are, picked up on this and exported it to the US in the wake of the Civil War. People were done with trudging through a joyless life; it was time to love and celebrate!

Of course, it's not all as simple as that. There are a lot of other factors involved. But the main thing was that by the 19th century life had become a dull drudgery to a majority of the population, and the natural movement of the pendulum started to swing back to a more joyful, lighter approach to life. Nowadays those celebrations have been taken over by mercantile interests and have made the holidays more commercialized than a lot of people are comfortable with, but the original sentiment still hangs in there. We still need love, and family, and cozy fires, and roses, and chocolate, and we still look for ways to celebrate them. Maybe we'll get so tired of the commercialism that the people will once again take control and celebrate in the "good old-fashioned way"!

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger  

Sunday, February 10, 2019


While on my weekly Sunday walk-in-the-park in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park, my attention was drawn to the texture created by the frost on the grass on the trail. So I decided that today's focus would be the textures in nature seen up close (except for that last shot).

Rock, moss, and lichen
Hommage à Rothko - Winter Reflection
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 5

Bach wrote no cantatas for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, because that particular Sunday almost never happens. This year Easter is just about the latest it can occur, and apparently no such thing happened during Bach's career. Yes, it's that rare! So what to do? Well, the easy answer is to use the other cantata Bach wrote for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Problem solved! BWV 14, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (Were God not with us at this time, Leipzig 1735) is the latest known Bach liturgical cantata. It's a chorale cantata based on the hymn of the same name by Martin Luther, and it's quite a magnificent piece. Here's Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music on this late Bach work:
Today’s cantata, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14 is Bach’s latest extant work in the cantata genre, dating from January, 1735. The outer movements employ Martin Luther’s texts based on Psalm 124 (a hymn of deliverance and communal thanksgiving) while the inner movements are concerned mainly with heavy-handed metaphors for sin: war and natural disaster from which God’s protection is required. Bach responded to this somewhat exasperating text with a work both learned and quirky. 
The apparent academic severity of the opening chorus belies a dense and fascinating compositional interior. The entrance of each theme (an embellished choral phrase) is followed almost immediately by its inversion - with the eventual appearance of the augmented chorale tune in the oboes and trumpet. This is merely the starting point for an almost exhaustive exploration of contrapuntal possibilities. Extraordinary concentration is required of both listener and performer - as well as an acceptance that much will be missed on first hearing.

The virtuoso soprano aria comes as a startling contrast and clears the air with its delightful orchestration (trumpet fanfares and busy string figuration) and an almost humorous setting of the text. Bach consistently sets the word Schwach [weak] in the lowest (weakest?) part of the soprano’s range. The writing seems a nod to the pre-classical style in its harmonic simplicity and rhythmic playfulness. This seems appropriate given that the battle imagery (so prevalent in the orchestration) suggests an ‘enemy’ blustery and impressive, if somewhat shallow.

With the tenor recitative, we turn to water imagery to describe the snapping jaws of sin. The singer’s line is fantastically disjunct while the bass line roars like a Nor’easter.

The bass aria is a showpiece for the singer, two oboes and a very active bass line. The three note motive heard in the oboes mirrors the first three notes of the chorale tune and (like the opening chorus) is often inverted.  The bass enters with ferocious confidence. Careful listeners will discern the oboe’s material in the second part of the phrase: ‘...sind wir vor den Feinden frei’  [...we are safe from our enemies].  The ubiquitous water imagery is found in the second part of the text, perhaps explaining florid instrumental writing. 
The chorale is remarkable mainly for its interesting suspensions and syncopations in the inner voices.

© Michael Beattie
This week's performance is from a recording by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 4

Bach wrote two cantatas for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, and I've chosen his first one - BWV 81, Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (Jesus sleeps, what can I hope for?, Leipzig 1724). Based on the episode of Jesus stilling the storm in Matthew 8, this cantata is very thrilling, with lots of excitement and movement. When he was hired for the job in Leipzig Bach was advised by the powers that be that musical drama was frowned upon. Thank goodness he ignored that advice! Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this cantata:
The familiar story of Jesus stilling the waves is placed in between two of the most mysterious stories in Matthew. First is the peculiar exhortation by Jesus to the man who wants to bury his dead father. Jesus says to him: "Let the dead bury their dead." After our story Jesus and the disciples run into two men infested with devils. They induce a herd of pigs to jump over a cliff and destroy themselves. Some of the oddness of these two tales informs Bach's setting of the stilling of the waves. Instead of opening with the tempest, Bach's first aria for alto invokes a kind of otherworldly calm with gently swaying recorders doubling the muted strings. The cantata then moves on to one of the most ferocious of all of Bach's storm scenes. Here the rolling waves of the strings are punctuated by the hysterical coloratura of the tenor. The austere bass aria scolding the disciples for their lack of faith is followed by the controlled fury of the two oboes d'amore and strings while the bass stills the waves. Only a short perfunctory recitative follows leading into a magical harmonization of the great chorale, "Jesu meine Freude." 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is by the early music ensemble Le Petite Bande under the direction of Sigiswald Kuijken. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Surprise Snow!

We got a little snow yesterday, maybe 2 or 3 inches. But for such a little bit of snow it turned out to be surprisingly scenic. It's also very crystalline; it was in the upper teens to low twenties when it fell, so it's very light and fluffy, but it's also very tenaciously clingy. All in all, it's very scenic. I went walking in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning (while the temperature was still very cold) and got some nice shots of this thoroughly enjoyable snow. It was especially enjoyable because apparently I beat everybody else; the only tracks in the snow were my own and the resident wildlife - I saw rabbit and squirrel tracks as well as the track of at least one of the resident feral cats. I love it when I'm the first to disturb the snow! But enjoy it now, because we're supposed to get into the 40s and 50s in the next few days, and all that pretty snow will be gone.

Along the Dykeman Walking Trail
Along the trail in the wetland, following the track of a feral cat
A  view of the creek from the red bridge
A close-up of this sharply crystalline snow
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger