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