Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sunday Bach - Trinity Sunday

Fibonacci Thistle
Trinity Sunday marks the start of the second half of the liturgical year. The first half celebrates the life of Christ, from Advent to Pentecost, a time of the major festivals of the Church. Trinity Sunday starts what is known as Ordinary Time and is dedicated to explicating the teachings of Christ and the Church, and starts it all off today with a celebration of the Trinity, which became complete with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Bach wrote four cantatas for Trinity Sunday, and this year I've chosen the last one he wrote for the holiday - BWV 129, Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott (Praised be the lord, my God, Leipzig 1726). This is a chorale cantata, based on the hymn O Gott du Frommer Gott by Johann Olearius, and features three arias, each focusing on an individual person of the Trinity. Here's the late Craig Smith (with editing by Ryan Turner) of Emmanuel Music:
Written for Trinity Sunday of 1725, today’s cantata, BWV 129, is also thought to have been brought back into service for the October Reformation Festival in 1726. The Epistle reading for Trinity Sunday of 1725 from the first book of Thessalonians coincides with our Epistle lesson today. The chorale text was written in 1665 and performed to the tune “O Gott du Frommer Gott.” This is one of only nine cantatas in which Bach sets the chorale text with no interpolations of text or readings. Every verse, except the last, begins with the words “Gelobet sei der Herr” (the Lord be praised). 
The opening chorus with trumpets and timpani is a vivid and energetic piece that features a wonderful motoric theme in the strings and winds with marvelous brass punctuation. After all of the wonderful stepwise energy there is a passage of real extravagance and imagination that keeps reappearing throughout the movement. Although the text uses personal pronouns (my God), the choral declamation and large forces suggest a universal, rather than personal, expression of faith. 
The bass aria with continuo, which begins with an ornamented version of the chorale tune, shifts our focus away from God to that of his son. This is evident in the dotted rhythms of the opening motive that pervade the entire movement. The image brought to mind is of Christ carrying the cross, walking unsteadily, stumbling from time to time. Still it is a lively affair. Notice how Bach transforms the dotted rhythms to whiplash 32nds at the top of the big leaps. For all of its speed, there is an elegant and ornamental quality to the opening ritornello.

The soprano aria is dominated by two fundamental images, the Spirit of the Lord and the individual who receives and is uplifted by it. The first is spiritual and ephemeral, the second physical and concrete. Bach combines and integrates them. The ritornello begins with a solid, balanced theme that occurs seven times. Simultaneously, a glassy scale figure in the continuo, later to be taken up by the flute and violin, represents the spiritual world. 
The ritornelli in the alto aria with Oboe d’amore obbligato are very long; the first one lasts full 24 bars. Although by this time our chorale has virtually disappeared as a melodic element, there is a sense that its six phrases are represented in each of these ritornelli. The only melodic relationship is that the melody lands on the sixth degree of the scale, just like the first phrase of the chorale. The aria is so blandly pretty in such a generalized way that the striking gesture of all voices going to a unison at the mention of the Trinity comes as something of a shock. We are used to this kind of extreme text painting in much more specific music. 
The final chorus is more pompous and ceremonial than the first but much the same in scoring and effect. This is one of the rare times that Bach departs from his usual practice of presenting it in four-part vocal harmony doubled by all available instruments. 
© Craig Smith and Ryan Turner
Today's performance is from a recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

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