Thursday, March 31, 2016

March 31—Future Thinking

Events occurring on this date in history allow us to entwine many musical threads. We end the month of March with two births and a look to the future.

On March 31, 1685 in the Gregorian calendar, Johann Sebastian Bach was born. We celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21, because he was born on that date in the Julian calendar. Protestant Germany did not switch from Julian to Gregorian until 1700. Nevertheless, if we want to consider Sebastian’s birth in New Style (Gregorian) rather than Old Style (Julian), we can celebrate his birth today!

On March 31, 1732, Franz Joseph Haydn was born, in the Gregorian, or New Style calendar. Haydn also personifies the New Style in the music—Classicism—which succeeded the Old Style—Baroque—of J.S. Bach. The year Haydn was born, Bach was 47 years old, in Leipzig, and had just composed his Coffee Cantata, really a comic opera, for Zimmerman’s Coffee House.

Franz Joseph Haydn

Untangling our musical threads, however, we find strands that link Haydn to Bach. The most important strand is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), J.S. Bach’s fifth child and second surviving son. CPE’s compositions embody one of the important transitional styles in music—empfindssamer Stil or “Sensitive Style”—between Sebastian’s Baroque and Haydn’s Classical style. The year Haydn was born CPE Bach was 18 years old.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

When Haydn himself was about 18 years old, he went into a bookshop and asked for a good textbook on music theory. The proprietor offered the writings of CPE Bach as the best and most recent. Haydn learned quickly, and from the age of 19 is quartets reflected CPE’s principles. Upon the publication of Haydn’s first works, CPE returned the compliment by claiming Franz Joseph as a pupil.

Haydn said: “Whoever knows me thoroughly must discover that I owe a great deal to Emanuel Bach, that I understood him and studied him diligently. Emanuel Bach once complimented me on this fact himself.”

There is also a thread that attaches Haydn to Sebastian Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian Bach, known as “the London Bach.” After the death of J.C. Bach in 1782, Haydn’s works became the compositions most frequently performed in London concert halls. In 1790, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn’s patron, died and was succeeded by his son Anton. Anton, following a trend of the time, dismissed most of his court musicians, simultaneously giving Haydn permission to travel to London to conduct his symphonies with a large orchestra. Haydn’s biographer wrote that Haydn considered the days he spent in London the happiest of his life.

Johann Christian Bach

Previously, during his time at the Esterházy family estate in Eisenstadt in the 1770s and 1780s, Haydn was responsible for producing 150 performances a year, in which time he composed 15 serio-comic operas, similar to those of his future friend Wolfang Amadeus Mozart.

In a most unusual twist of the threads, one of Haydn’s comic operas was Il mondo della luna, (Life on the Moon), based on a libretto by the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni written in 1750. It is entirely possible that Goldoni based his play on an early work by the British playwright Aphra Behn, The Emperor of the Moon, produced in 1687. Goldoni certainly knew English literature, since he had adapted Samuel Richardson’s Pamela for the stage. Here’s the kicker. Yours truly, Linda de Vries, wrote, co-directed and produced a contemporary adaptation of Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon in 2004 with Ken Sawyer and David Burnham. The English Touring Opera Company keeps Haydn’s works in this genre alive today.

Emperor of the Moon, 2004

On March 31, 1784, Mozart played the last of three subscription concerts at Trattner Hall in Vienna. It was in this same year that Haydn and Mozart met in person. Haydn’s brother Michael had been Mozart’s friend and colleague in Salzburg. Mozart published his “Haydn”quartets in 1785. The two shared a strong mutual admiration. Mozart said of Haydn, “he alone has the secret of making me smile and touching me to the bottom of my soul.” Haydn of Mozart: “Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.” Mozart’s Requiem was played at Haydn’s funeral.

Which brings us to the future. On May 14, 2106, Chorale Bel Canto will sing Mozart’s Requiem at First United Methodist Church Pasadena. On that same program the Chorale will sing Five Mystical Songs of Ralph Vaughn Williams. This brings us full circle back to Bach.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

On March 31, 1941, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a letter to Myfanwy Jones thanking her for supporting his protest against the BBC. The composer Alan Bush Was a committed communist. At that time in WWII, the USSR and the Nazi Third Reich were allies. In consequence, the BBC banned Bush’s music. Vaughn Williams, although not supportive of Bush’s politics, protested the ban and withdrew a song the BBC had commissioned.

What does Ralph Vaughan Williams have to do with Johann Sebastian Bach?

Vaughan Williams, throughout all of his professional success, remained deeply committed to community music making. In 1905 he helped found the Leith Hill Music Festival and remained its principal conductor until 1953. He first conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion there in 1931 and continued to conduct it regularly. Although his interpretation was eccentric (he disliked the harpsichord and refused to use it), he is remembered for his ability to get the very best out of singers, at one moment flying into a rage and the next telling a funny story, often saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, we can do better than this.”

One choir member noted: "His endeavours to get a collection of gardeners, grooms, parlourmaids and the gentry (not forgetting the odd journeyman carpenter) to sound like a howling mob outside Pilate's Palace led him to remove his jacket, revealing large holes in the elbows of his cardigan. In spite of these small things the look on his face and the magnetism of his personality seemed to succeed in doing the impossible."

 Dorking Halls, Home of the Lieth Music Festival

In another letter, in March of 1949, four years before his death, he wrote to his choir:

            “Not only was the performance technically the best we have given, but it had a quality of flow in the phrases and an understanding of the real meaning of the music greater than we have formerly achieved.”
            I am now 76 years old and the time must come before long when I shall have to relinquish the honour of conducting you, but I feel sure that you will show, through my successor, the same loyal devotion that you have always shown to great music and its greatest composer.
            I like to think that our performance of the ‘Passion’ will never cease and that when you in your turn are unable to cope with your high Soprano A’s and low bass D’s, that the younger generation will be there, ready to step into the ranks from which you have reluctantly fallen out.”

The tradition continues; the future approaches. On April 2, 2016, Chorale Bel Canto will sing Bach. On May 14, 2016, we will sing Vaughan Williams. 
Join us!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Spurious Works of Bach

March 29

On this date in 1750 Johann Christoph Altnikol performed BWV 1088 at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Some cite this date as Good Friday, and a Passion is the appropriate music for Good Friday, but in fact, March 29 in 1750 was Easter Sunday.

This event provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Spurious Works of Bach.

BWV 1088, although attributed to Sebastian, was not actually written by him. This work offers us a beginning point for a brief discussion of other composers of the period whose work has often been attributed to Sebastian Bach.

As the Bach Archive in Leipzig continues burrowing through churches, libraries, and homes in the former East Germany, it is likely that more of these spurious works will be revealed.

BWV 1088, called the Passions-Pasticcio, or Arioso aus einem Passions-Pasticcio (Arioso from a Passion pastiche), included in the catalogue of Sebastian’s work, was actually written by several composers, the dominant hand being Carl Heinrich Graun. Other contributions were made by Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Christoph Altnikol, and Johann Kuhnau. Sebastian’s contribution was the opening chorale from his BWV 127.

It began as a Passion cantata Ein lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (A lambkin goes and bears our guilt) by Graun in Brunswick in 1730. After 1743 Sebastian arranged and performed it in Leipzig.

Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759), one of three brothers who were all musicians, gained his fame in the mid-18th century as the primary composer of Italian opera in Germany. He began his career in 1725 singing tenor in Brunswick, but in 1735 Prince Frederick engaged him in Berlin as his music teacher. When Frederick became king in 1740, he appointed Graun director of the Berlin Royal Opera, and sent him to Italy to hire singers. The new opera house opened on December 7, 1742 with Graun’s Cesare e Cleopatra.

Carl Heinrich Graun

King Frederick I insisted on inserting his own musical and poetic offerings into Graun’s operas, but Graun managed to create moments of brilliance despite this royal interference. Grant was particularly noted for key-change developments in the da capo aria (an ABA structure). His recitatives reflect the Empfindsamer Stil (Sensitive Style) also adopted by C.P.E. Bach, Sebastian’s second son.

Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) was Sebastian’s predecessor as Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (1701-1722). Born in Saxony, he was a lawyer, a poet, and a non-fiction author. He claimed musical fame as the inventor of the keyboard sonata, with his Sonata in B Flat being the first. He is also now thought to be the true composer of BWV 142.

Johann Kuhnau

For the other two composers involved in BWV 1088, see March 14 (Georg Philipp Telemann) and March 19 (Johann Christoph Altnikol). Telemann is also believed to be the composer of BWV 141, 160, 218, 219, 824, and 840.

An additional 23 composers are now credited with having written works previously attributed to Sebastian, most of them with the first name of Johann, and most of them with only one or two pieces to their names, with the exception of Sebastian’s sons Wilhelm Friedemann (11) and Carl Philipp Emanuel (4).

These newly-attributed works include: BWV 15, 53, 95, 189, 222, 224, 241, 242, 246, 508, 553-560, 591,597, 692, 693, 740,745, 746, 748, 751, 759, 760, 761, 771, 835,836, 837, 838, 844, 844a, 924, 924a, 925, 931, 932, 945, 955a, 962, 964, 970, 1020, 1024, 1036, and 1037. An additional 100 works are considered doubtful, but no alternative composers have been assigned.

The two Krebs are of note. Father Johann Tobias Krebs (1690-1762), who studied with Johann Gottfried Walther and Sebastian, is believed to be the composer of the Eight Short Preludes and Fugues previously attributed to Sebastian. Krebs’ son, Johann Ludwig, who studied with Sebastian, was considered to be his equal as an improviser on the organ.

Johann Ludwig Krebs

Alas, the younger Krebs (1713-1780) had a difficult time finding work, as the Baroque style (considered to have ended in 1755, five years after Sebastian’s death) was shifting to stil galant

Saturday, March 26, 2016

CBC Sings Easter Cantatas

These two Easter cantatas will be sung by Chorale Bel Canto on April 2, 2016 at First Friends Church in Whittier. Join us!

BWV 4, Christ lag in Todes Banden (also spelled Todesbanden), “Christ lay in death’s bonds,” is an Easter cantata probably first performed in 1707 at the Divi Blasii Church in Mülhausen. Bach revised it for performances in Leipzig at the Thomaskirche on April 9, 1724 and April 1, 1725.

This is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, composed when he was 22 years old and the organist of New Church in Arnstadt. He wrote his early cantatas, called “chorale concertos,” in the 17th century style established by Dieterich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel. After 1714, Bach used the recitative and aria form for his cantatas, a form associated with Erdmann Neumeister, a German pastor and hymn writer.

Bach had studied with Buxtehude in Lübeck and, although he never met Pachelbel, his elder brother, Johann Christoph Bach, studied with Pachelbel in Erfurt. Pachelbel died in 1706, and some think that Bach may have wished to honor him with this cantata.

Johann Pachelbel

The text of this cantata is a hymn of the same name by Martin Luther first published in 1524 based on the Latin hymn “Victimae Paschali Laudes.” It stresses the struggle between Life and Death. The final stanza refers to the tradition of eating Easter Bread, concluding with “Christ alone nourishes the soul.”

John Eliot Gardiner describes it as “Bach’s first-known attempt at painting narrative in music.” It differs from his later cantatas, which placed less emphasis on the narrative and gave more attention to a particular moral thesis or religious theme. Bach used the symmetrical structure of the seven stanzas of this cantata in his more mature cantatas, but Cantata 4 differs from those later works in that all stanzas are in the same key.
Music historians note that the dilemma Bach and other contemporary religious composers faced was how to reconcile the two contrasting moods—Christ’s pain and the joy of salvation—in one movement. Bach’s solution in this cantata was to end each stanza with a Hallelujah.
The cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia, similar to an overture to a Venetian opera of the period. Its somber mood leads in to the first stanza, “Christ lay in death’s bonds,” a chorale fantasia begun by the sopranos. The ending Hallelujah is a faster four-part fugue, recalling 16th century stile antico.
In the second stanza, a duet for soprano and alto, Bach achieves feelings of weeping and deep sadness by using musical suspensions, in which prolonging a note while the underlying harmony shifts from one chord to another, creates the tension of sustained dissonance until resolution into the new chord. The joy of the Hallelujahs is subdued in this stanza, which serves to sustain its tragic tone.

The third stanza is a tenor aria accompanied by violins and continuo. It is in the form of chorale prelude, with the tenor singing the tune while the violins bustle with a life of their own. Bach interrupts the musical flow at one moment in order to paint a particular image of the void where Death once reigned. The tenor’s final Hallelujahs are a joyous celebration of Christ’s victory.
The fourth stanza is the center of the symmetrical structure, sung in four voices accompanied only by the continuo. It continues the story begun by the tenor and depicts the battle between life and death, with life devouring death. The Hallelujahs speak of the mockery life has made of death, and the music conveys this feeling.
Many have compared Stanza Five, a bass solo, to the “Crucifixus” of Bach’s Mass in B minor. Some have described the antiphonal exchanges between the bass and the strings as a parody of the passacaglia-style Venetian opera aria of the previous century. It tells the story of the blood that ensures the individual’s passage to heaven. The bass spans two octaves in the final Hallelujah, the lowest note on the word tode (“death”), followed by a high burst of joy.

Stanza Six, a duet for soprano and tenor accompanied by continuo, has been called a “dance of joy,” and compared to the music of Henry Purcell and the form of the French Overture. The text describes a feast celebrating redemption, with Christ compared to the sun lighting our hearts. Bach often used a large orchestra with trumpets and drums to create this mood, but here he practices restraint, using flowing triplets to symbolize joy and warmth.

The original music for the final Stanza Seven has been lost, and the music that is heard today Bach composed in Leipzig in 1724. Consequently, this music is quite different from that usually heard in Bach’s early cantatas. Christ’s agony is transformed into the individual’s personal deliverance from death, expressed in a final musical sigh.

BWV 6, Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend warden (“Stay with us, for evening falls”), was first performed at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig for Easter Monday, April 2, 1725. Two hundred and ninety-one years later, Chorale Bel Canto performs it in Whittier on the same day!

In contrast to Cantata 4, Cantata 6 is one of Bach’s mature cantatas, written 17 years later. In the Lutheran liturgical calendar, the prescribed readings for this day were Peter’s sermon to Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43) and Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25). The librettist is unknown, but he incorporated texts from Philipp Melanchthon, Nikolaus Seinecker and Martin Luther. The theme is a request for the light of Christ to shine upon sinners in order to protect them from the darkness of sin and ignorance.

Music historians comment upon the relationship of Cantata 6 to Cantata 4, noting that C 6 comes immediately after Bach’s revision of C 4. The lack of poetic quality in the text of C 6 suggests to some that Bach may have lost his librettist and been forced in a crisis to accept someone new.

C 6, different from the preceding cantatas in this cycle, is the first of four cantatas that begins with a choral movement that is not a chorale fantasia. Some speculate that Bach may have been experiencing creative burnout at this point, others that he might have enjoyed the opportunity to explore more deeply the mood and themes of the text, which is a characteristic of his later cantatas, in contrast to the narrative emphasis in C 4 discussed above.

This cantata has six movements. It begins with a chorus that reminds one of a sarabande or the closing music of Bach’s St. John Passion.

Bach often used the sarabande, a lively dance that originated in Spain and was often banned as risqué. By Bach’s time, the sarabande had evolved into a slow and stately dance, considered the most noble of dance forms. The mood of this opening movement evokes quiet contemplation at the close of day, with a throbbing repetition of bleib bei uns (“tarry awhile”).

The second movement is an alto aria da capo, accompanied by an oboe da caccia, a Baroque instrument tuned a fifth lower than the oboe proper. The key shifts from minor to major. These establish a shift toward optimism, but the mood remains somber. One critic notes: “He works like a visual artist, mixing his paints in order to achieve just the right degree of light and shade.”

The third movement is a chorale for solo soprano, asking Jesus to remain and shine his light upon us as evening approaches. Bach accompanies the soprano with a piccolo cello—added for a later performance, says musicologist Christoph Wolff—which is able to play difficult parts in the upper register. The use of the upper voices creates a feeling of buoyant optimism.

In the fourth movement, a recitative for bass, the depth of the voice warns us that “the darkness has taken over in many places,” and we are responsible. This and the final two movements are in the key of G minor, ending the piece in a serious tone.

The penultimate movement five is a tenor aria the picks up the theme established in the third movement. It is a plea to Jesus: “Let us look upon You, so that we do not walk on the paths of sin. Let the light of Your word shine brightly on us and continually bring You to mind.” Using a relentless rhythm, Bach paints the picture of one trodden down by those sins that the light of Christ has yet to reach.

The final chorale leaves us in a mood of serious contemplation, asking, “Reveal Your strength Lord Jesus Christ, You who are Lord of Lords; protect Your poor Christianity, so that it praise You eternally.”

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Cantata Cycles

March 25

On this date in 1714 occurred the first performance of BWV 182, and in 1725 the first performance of BWV 1.

These two church cantatas provide out Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach’s Cantata Cycles. Tomorrow we will talk about the two cantatas Chorale Bel Canto will sing on April 2, 2106.

A cantata (contare, “to sing”) is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment in several movements, usually involving a choir. The cantata form evolved over the centuries, but in the 18th century Sebastian’s cantatas usually require four soloists and a four-part choir (SATB). Often he assigned the voice parts to suit the dramatic situation: soprano for innocence, alto for motherly feelings, tenor often for the Evangelist, and bass for the voice of Jesus, when he was quoted directly.

The orchestra consisted of strings (violins and violas) and basso continuo (cello, double bass and organ or harpsichord), the continuous bass being a regular feature of Baroque music. A single movement might involve winds, brass, or tympani, with special occasions calling for richer instrumentation. In his early compositions he often used instruments that had become old-fashioned, such as the viola da gamba.

Readings were prescribed for every event during the Lutheran church year. Music was expected for all Sundays and Holidays except the “quiet times” of Advent and Lent. The readings consisted of Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. Ideally, a cantata text started with an Old Testament quotation related to the readings and reflected both the Epistle and the Gospel. Most of the solo movements were the poetry of writers such as Salomon Franck (Weimar) or Georg Christian Lehms or Picander (Leipzig). The final words were usually a stanza from a chorale (hymn).

The typical structure of a cantata includes:

1.   Opening chorus, a polyphonic (multi-voiced) setting in which the orchestra presents the theme
2.   Recitative, text sung with the rhythms of ordinary speech and accompanied by the continuo
3.   Aria, a song, most typically an aria da capo, in which the first part repeats after a middle section
4.   Recitative
5.   Aria
6.   Chorale, a homophonic (accompanied single melody) setting of a traditional hymn

When he arrived in Leipzig, Sebastian set himself the task of composing a cycle of cantatas for every Sunday and holiday of the church year. Beginning with Trinity of 1723, he composed a new cantata every week. Works from three complete cycles have survived—209 individual compositions. In some instances, he recycled works he had written previously, such as the first one we’ll examine today.

On March 2, 1714 in Weimar, he was promoted to Concert Master. His first cantata written after this promotion was BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (King of Heaven, welcome), was for Palm Sunday, which was also the Feast of the Annunciation that year, first performed on March 25, 1714.

In a church setting “quiet time” would have been observed, but in the Court of Weimar, music was permissible. Later in Leipzig, Sebastian was able to use this cantata again on the same date, for the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, 1724. In all, he performed this cantata six times throughout his life.

This cantata celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Although not found in printed editions, biographer Philipp Spitta concluded from stylistic comparisons that the enhancing poetry was written by Salomon Franck, whose language emphasizes the mystical aspects of a similar entry into the heart of the believer. The final chorale is stanza 33 of Paul Stockmann’s “Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod” of 1633. It is arranged in the style of Pachelbel, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner notes that it is “a sprightly choral dance that could have stepped straight out of a comic opera of the period.”

Our second cantata, BWV 1, was actually composed in Leipzig as the last cantata of his second annual cycle. It was performed for the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1725, which was again also Palm Sunday.

The readings for this feast day are Isaiah 7:10-16, the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah, and Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Jesus. The librettist for the arias and recitatives is unknown, but the chorale is based on the hymn “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” by Philipp Nicolai (1599). This cantata was chosen by the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) to begin their first publication of Bach’s complete works in 1851, thus its listing as BWV 1.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Destination  . . . Chorale Bel Canto

On April 2 . . . the City of Whittier.

“Destination . . . Chorale Bel Canto” posts in advance of each of our concerts, offering ideas for a different day trip to the city in which we’re singing, with a Chorale Bel Canto concert at the center of your experience.

On April 2, we’re in Whittier, singing as part of the 79th Annual Whittier College Bach Festival. Enjoy a day of unique shopping and moving music.

Morning. Spend the morning shopping at the 21st Annual Whittier Uptown Art and Antiques street Faire. It's in the heart of historic Whittier on Philadelphia Street between Greenleaf and Painter Avenues. Hours are from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Admission is free.

Stroll tree-lined streets while shopping at over 200 vendors
 featuring distinctive handicrafts, artworks, and quality vintage items 
from local artists and those as far away as Laguna Beach and Sherman Oaks.
 Shop early for Mother's day or graduation! 
Bring the kids and participate in activities for all ages,
 including live entertainment throughout the day.

Lunch. Partake of festival food or lunch at one of Whittier’s celebrated restaurants:

Rocky Cola Cafe, 6757 Greenleaf Avenue
Bizarra Capital, 12706 Philadelphia Street
Rick’s, 7254 Greenleaf Avenue

California Grill, 6751 Painter Avenue

Bailey Street Kitchen, 13010 Bailey Street

Afternoon. At 2:00 pm stroll to the corner of Washington Avenue and Philadelphia Street to First Friends Church.

First Friends Church

Walk half a block north on Washington to the Church Courtyard and take your seat at 2:30 pm for an outdoor Guitar Concert presented by Chorale Bel Canto and featuring students from Whittier and Rio Hondo Colleges. Each year the Bach Festival has a special emphasis. This year’s theme is “Bach and the Guitar,” and these students have prepared a special musical treat for the occasion that includes music from a variety of periods and styles. Admission is free. While waiting for the concert to begin,

Get a Taste of Philly!

Following the Guitar Concert, follow the crowd into the Meeting House for the 

Chorale Bel Canto Bach Concert at 4:00 pm.

First Friends Meeting House Interior

The Chorale will perform J.S. Bach’s motet, Komm, Jesu, Komm and two of his Easter cantatas, Cantata 4, Christ lag in todesbanden, set to a hymn by Martin Luther, and Cantata 6, Bleib bei uns, both featuring stellar guest soloists.


Dinner. Maintain that exalted feeling by dining at a one of Uptown’s nearby fine dining restaurants, such as Setá at 13033 Philadelphia Street, 562-698-0578, or Phlight at 6724 Bright Avenue, 562-789-0578. Reservations recommended. Evening. Conclude your day in Whittier by attending the performance of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet at the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at the corner of Philadelphia and Painter Avenues. The concert is at 7:30 pm. Continue the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Shannon Center with this Bach Festival event. 

Sunday. We hope you enjoyed your day of music and antiques in Whittier. We invite you to return for the conclusion of the Bach Festival on Sunday. The Whittier College Memorial Chapel, just east of the Shannon Center on Philadelphia Street, will house an instrumental concert at 4:00 pm. The concert will feature a new harpsichord, built by the renowned German firm J.C. Neupert, and presented to the Music Department by the Whittier College Class of 1963. Grammy-winning flautist and Whittier College Professor of Music Danny Lozano, and alumnus and noted Bach scholar Raymond Erickson ’63 will perform.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Brandenburg Concertos

March 24

Several events occurred in Sebastian’s life on this date:

1721   Six Concertos were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt

1729   Schott left his position as director of the Leipzig Collegium musicum to go to Gotha, and Sebastian took over the directorship (see March 20 in Bach Bagatelles)

1742   The third revision of the St. Matthew Passion was first performed (see March 23 in Bach Bagatelles)

It is 1721 that provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: The Brandenburg Concertos.

Christian Ludwig was Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. What and who was he?

A March is a boundary or borderland between two centers of power. The word comes from the Frankish marka, and we see it in the name “Denmark.” The Germanic tribes that the Romans called Marcomanni meant “men of the borderlands.” As a county is ruled by a Count, so a march is ruled by a Marquess, Marquis, or Margrave.

Originating in the middle ages, the northern march, or the Margraviate of Brandenburg, was one of the electoral states of the Holy Roman Empire and, along with Prussia, formed the original core of the first unified German state, with its capital in Berlin. After 1688 the two were combined into Brandenburg-Prussia, ruled by the House of Hohenzollern. These grew to become the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701.

Christian Ludwig (1677-1734) was a military officer of Brandenburg-Prussia’s Hohenzollern dynasty, given the title of Margrave of Brandenburg, a title which did not reflect territorial rule.

 In 1721 Sebastian faced musical frustration in Cöthen owing to the fact that his patron Prince Leopold’s new wife did not like music. The story is told that while shopping for a new harpsichord Sebastian accidentally met the Margrave of Brandenburg. The Margrave apparently asked for some music and Sebastian, possibly searching for a new job, sent him the six concertos that have become known as the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach’s dedication reads:

            As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness's commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honor me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness's most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

Sadly, the Margrave never had the works performed. At his death in 1734 they were sold for what today would buy about half a tank of gas, and lay hidden in the Brandenburg archives until rediscovered by Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn in 1849 and published in the following year.

Perhaps the Margrave never had them performed because he did not have access to musicians capable of playing them, which often prevents them from being performed as a complete set even today. They are composed in the most complex high Baroque style, with each concerto having at least two solo instruments.

Scholar Heinrich Besseler is certain that Sebastian did not write these specifically for the Margrave, but that he had composed them earlier in Cöthen, since the orchestration matches perfectly the 17 musicians available to him there.

The original title of BWV 1046-1051 was Six Concerts á plusiers instruments. They are widely praised as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque period. In them he uses the widest possible spectrum of instruments in bold, adventurous combinations that demand virtuoso playing. Christoph Wolff says, “Every one of the six concertos set a precedent in scoring, and every one was to remain without parallel.”

Concerto No. 1 is the only one with four movements. It prominently features the horns and oboes. The first movement is an Allegro with a winding melody that features the horns in harmony. The second movement allows the violin and oboe to shine in an expressive, passionate duet. After a lively third movement, the concerto closes with a dance-like section that pauses briefly then pushes through to a dazzling close. Sebastian uses music from the first and third movements BWV 52, 207, and 208.
Concerto No. 2 features violin, flute, oboe and trumpet as the solo instruments. Scholars think the challenging trumpet part was written for a singularly accomplished trumpeter, Joann Ludwig Schreiber of Cöthen. Schreiber was a clarino player, a term that in earlier periods may have referred to either a style of playing in the high register of the trumpet or a distinct type of trumpet, a smaller, treble instrument. By the 18th century, however, it referred to the style of playing in the high register. The extremely high range of this trumpet solo called for uncommon skill. Even today, trumpeters find it difficult, often choosing the smaller, higher piccolo trumpet.
Since Baroque trumpets only allowed the musician to play in major keys, it is often excluded from second movements, usually in minor keys. This exclusion is the case with this concerto. The third movement of the concerto is on the “golden record,” sent to space with the Voyager probe. It was also used by William F. Buckley as the theme song for his Firing Line, and begins each lecture for The Teaching Company’s Great Courses series. The thrilling final movement is thought by many to be one of the most ennobling and beautiful pieces Sebastian ever wrote.
Concerto No. 3 contains a string ensemble in which the instruments are equally balanced throughout. Owing to the simplicity of its structure, this is thought to be one of the earliest compositions in the set. The second movement is unusual, however, in that it consists of only two chords, suggesting that the center of the movement was an improvised cadenza (solo improvised passage) for a harpsichord or violin. Modern performers either play it as written, insert movements from other of Sebastian’s works (often BWV 1019 or 1021), or orchestrate a new movement to fit the key and style of the entire concerto, leading to the vibrant and cheerful final movement. Wendy Carlos (see March 26), for example, wrote two quite different versions for Switched-on Bach and Switched-on Bach 2000.
Concerto No. 4 features a violin and two flutes as solo instruments. Sebastian called for “echo flutes,” instruments unknown ever to have existed, suggesting that he intended an effect that sounded as if the instruments were playing at a distance. It is even possible, think some, that recorders were used to create this quality, even though the flute of Sebastian’s time was made of wood. Today, it is most often the custom to use the modern flute. Sebastian adapted this concerto as the last of his set of six harpsichord concertos.
Concerto No. 5 features solo flute, violin and harpsichord, but the virtuoso harpsichord part makes it almost a harpsichord concerto. Scholars speculate that Sebastian may have written this to highlight his well-known improvisatory keyboard skill (specifically for his intended Dresden competition with Frenchman Louis Marchand, since he uses one of Marchand’s themes in the central movement), or that he was demonstrating the new Mietke harpsichord he had acquired in Berlin when he met the Margrave. Although an earlier version of this concerto exists (BWV 1050a), its composition date is believed to be 1720-21.
Concerto No. 6 is curious in that it features violas da gamba but no violins. There are some interesting assumptions about this fact. The viola da gamba was, by 1721 when this work was written, an old-fashioned instrument, but one associated with aristocracy, while the viola da braccio (viola) was typically played by the servant class. One theory holds that Sebastian’s patron, Prince Leopold, played the viola da gamba and the composer wished to honor him. An alternate theory contends that by focusing on the viola rather than violins, thereby upending the balance of musical roles, Sebastian signaled that he wished to end his tenure under Leopold and seek new employment. In either case, the use of the violas creates a richer, warmer sound that sets this concerto apart from the rest of the set. The jaunty gigue in the final movement provides a stirring finish to the piece.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Dancing Motets

March 16

Today’s Bach Bagatelle is about Sebastian’s “dancing motets,” but we arrive at our theme by way of a series of connections between Bach and Mozart.

On This date in 1781, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart returned to Vienna from Salzburg on the occasion of Joseph II becoming sole emperor of the Holy Roman Empire following the death of his co-ruler Maria Theresa.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

When Mozart was in London as a child, he met Johann Christian Bach, Sebastian’s eighteenth child and youngest son. Known as “John Bach,” “the London Bach,” or “the English Bach,” he composed in the 18th century galant style, quite different from the style of his father. The full-blown Classical style that was to follow him, exemplified by Haydn and Mozart, fused the galant style with a renewed emphasis on counterpoint.

John Bach

We see the musical influence of John Bach in the later works of Amadeus as well. In his symphony No. 5, he borrowed the opening theme to the finale from the finale to a keyboard concerto by John Bach. The same theme also appears in the Act Two finale of his comic opera Le nozze di Figaro.

Additionally, J.S. Bach himself was a direct influence on Mozart. On his return to Vienna, Amadeus soon took lodgings with his friends the Webers. He had earlier engaged in a flirtation with Aloysia, the eldest of three daughters of this musical family, but now he seriously courted Constanze, also a noted soprano, who became his wife.

During their courtship, Amadeus visited Baron Gottfried van Swieten, where he examined manuscripts by J.S. Bach and Handel. Amadeus later wrote: When Constanze heard the fugues, she absolutely fell in love with them. Now she will listen to nothing but fugues, and particularly (in this kind of composition) the works of Handel and Bach.

Later, in 1789, Mozart visited Leipzig, where he sent to the St. Thomas Church, where Bach had been cantor, to play the organ. The choir, under the direction of Bach's student Johann Friedrich Doles, surprised Mozart with Bach's motet Singet dem herrn ein neues Lied.

Startled, Mozart asked, "What is that? When the motet ended, he exclaimed, "Now here is something one can learn from!"

He called for the manuscript, but there was no complete score, so he laid all the parts about him on the floor and studied them separately--just one example of the happy accidents by which Bach's music survives today.
Mozart had heard a double-choir motet. On April 2, you will hear Chorale Bel Canto sing another such motet, Komm, Jesu, Komm. The noted Bach conductor John Eliot Gardiner calls this “the most intimate and touching of his double-choir motets.”

A motet is a polyphonic choral composition with words, usually sung without accompaniment. The text is from the Bible or religious poetry, and announces the theme for the church service on a given day.

The double-choir style of motet composition evolved from the Venetian polychordal style, in which spatially separate choirs sing in alternation. Under the leadership of Giovanni Gabrieli, this style became the foundation of early Baroque music. Bach, who knew it from the work of Heinrich Schütz, Gabrieli’s star student, carried the style to its height.

Bach’s treatment of the two choirs, however, varied from the usual practice, in which one choir was low voices and the other high voices. Bach’s two choirs are equal in vocal range and difficulty.

In performance, Heinrich Schütz had encouraged the Venetian tradition of the two choirs performing from different balconies, crosswise in the church, so that the music seemed to come from different directions. Sadly, this grandeur ended with the Thirty Years’ War. Bach’s practice is that common today—a moderate distance between the choirs, with a continuo group in the middle between them.

In Lutheran liturgical practice, the motet was often sung as the Introit, or “entering in,” with clergy moving toward the altar from the back of the church or clergy and congregation entering the church. Bach’s church often used motets for special occasions, such as funerals, where they might accompany the body carried to the church.

In the early 20th century, the word motet was said to derive from the Latin movere, “to move.” It is now believed to have derived from the Latin motetus, “word.” For our theme today, though, we focus on the sense of movement in the motet.

John Eliot Gardiner comments that Komm, Jesu, Komm contains “some of the most exhilarating dance-impregnated vocal music Bach ever wrote.”
John Eliot Gardiner

The selected quotations in the following description of this motet are from Gardiner’s book Music in the Castle of Heaven:

In his opening supplication to Christ, Bach uses “the expressive and physically explicit language of a love-song.” In the next portion of Paul Thymich’s text, die Kraft verschwindt (“strength fails”) “he inscribes an arc that hints at life’s downward journey.” By the time we have heard the melody from all eight voices, “Bach has achieved an overwhelming depiction of personal and collective distress,” with “passing harmonies of ravishing pathos.”

Bach then provides release by shifting to the dance meter of a French minuet, which he continues for 88 measures, “so that the music appears never to stop while conveying the balm and reassurance of Christ’s words, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” (John 14:6)”

The finish “stretches the technical control of his (and every subsequent) choir to the utmost degree.” He unites the two choirs in the final stanza, which he calls an aria, “a lyrical prayer of submission to Jesus’ lead and protection here at life’s end.”

Gardiner and others contend that these dance passages, derived from the French dance suites, unite Bach with the early Christian church practice of using dance in worship. Although from the 4th through 16th centuries the Church tried to suppress dance and still claims that early Christians never danced, there is a great deal of evidence that they did.

Clement of Alexandria (150-216) instructed Christians to “dance in a ring, together with the angles, around Him who is without beginning or end.” Martin Luther said of dance: “So long as it’s done decently, I respect the rites and customs of weddings—and I dance anyway!”

We see religious dance depicted in Renaissance art, exemplified by Botticelli’s Primavera, where the three graces dance.

Gardiner notes that the French sociologist Emile Durkheim talked of “collective effervescence”—a ritually induced ecstasy that Durkheim believed cemented social bonds.

Havelock Ellis, in his book, The Dance of Life, argues that the Christian church was sometimes a theatre, with a raised choir-stage used as a space for dancing, and that the Neo-Platonist church father Origen in 225 AD described a rite called “The Cosmic Mystery of the Church,” which involved a dance symbolizing the creation of the whole universe.

A dancing Christ was a belief of the Gnostics. Fourth Century Eusebius in his book, On the Contemplative Life, writes about festival dancing and hymns of praise to God in thanksgiving for His saving Israel at the Red Sea. Gregory of Constantinople urged his wife Julia to dance to the glory of God. Early fourth century bishops of the church Basil and Ambrose called sacred dance a companion of Divine Grace.

You will hear this “dancing motet” on April 2, 2016.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

March 13 – Bach and the Guitar

On March 13, 2014, the United States Post Office issued the Jimi Hendrix Forever Stamp.
 What does this have to do with the guitar?

James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix, born 1942 in Seattle, Washington, died in London, UK in 1970, is widely considered one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music.

The rock and Roll Hall of Fame names him as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock and roll.” In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine published a list called “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Jimi Hendrix was #1. The magazine, using a panel of guitarists, updated its list in 2011; Hendrix was still among the top five.

What was so great about his playing?

Hendrix pioneered many techniques that are standard today: “shredding”—the use of distortion, reverb and feedback; using the thumb on the fretboard; playing solo on a chord while maintaining the rhythm; playing long legato lines, more like a horn; coaxing unique sounds from the guitar.

Most importantly, say his devotees, Hendrix did it all, did it consistently better than anyone else, did it with more raw passion, and never did the same thing twice.

What does this have to do with J.S. Bach?

Lots; in lots of interesting ways.

For a time, Jimi Hendrix lived in a house in London right next to the house George Frideric Handel had lived in. English Heritage has place two “blue plaques” on the now-conjoined houses and the dwellings function as Handel Hendrix House Museum and concert venue. Remember, although they never met, Bach and Handel were contemporaries, born in the same German state.

Jimi Hendrix, in his autobiography, Starting at Zero: His Own Story, says one of his most important influences was the music of Bach.

Hendrix was not alone. In his 1992 essay, “Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity,” Robert Walser notes the profound influence of Bach’s baroque style (1600-1750) on heavy metal, citing Richard Middleton’s comparison of musical trains shared by both styles, particularly improvisational virtuosity (Bach was renowned for his ability to improvise), the similarity between jazz rhythm sections and Baroque’s continuo sections, and affective power.

On March 13, 1997, in Cologne, Germany, Nigel Kennedy played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the world premiere of his Hendrix Concerto.

Nigel Kennedy is a UK born (1956) violinist who took a hiatus in his classical career to train at the Juilliard School in New York and who also crosses over into the worlds of jazz, blues and popular music. Kennedy, noted for the passion in his playing, speaks eloquently of his reverence for Hendrix: “When I heard Jimi, he made me want to play the violin like a guitar; more aggressive, more passion.” Kennedy believes the world of classical music has a lot to learn from rock ‘n’ roll. “The great rock guitarists were in tune with their instrument. They pushed things. They played like fire.” Kennedy recorded a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” for the 1993 album Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix and the 1999 Sony Classical release The Kennedy Experience, which featured improvisations based on Hendrix’s compositions.

Nigel Kennedy

What does this have to do with Bach and the guitar?

It is an example of the power of intermingling genres in music. Just as Kennedy plays rock guitar music on his classical violin, so others play Bach’s classical harpsichord music on their modern guitars.

It is likely that Bach never wrote any music for the guitar. Every piece of his played on guitar today, primarily his six cello suites, his four violin sonatas, the Chaconne, his four lute suites, and some keyboard works and the occasional cantata, is transcribed from other instruments,

For 100 years musicians believed that Bach wrote four suites and a number of miscellaneous pieces for the lute, now played on the guitar. More recent scholarship suggests, however, that even those pieces were not written for solo lute, but for a keyboard instrument—the lute harpsichord.

Nevertheless, the tradition, possibly myth, of Bach’s lute compositions continues. Here is a brief history.

During the Baroque period, the lute was the “noblest” instrument, the chosen instrument for the dance and for accompanying solo songs at court. Harpsichordists, influenced by lutenists, copied their style of ornamentation and their grouping of dances according to keys, called “dance suites.” Bach was so enamored of the lute that he had a lute-harpsichord built for him by Zacharias Hildebrand, which imitated the sound of a lute.

Most of Bach’s music remained in hand-copied versions during his lifetime. The Bach Gesellschaft first indexed and published Bach’s entire oeuvre in 1851, listing the “lute” works as keyboard music.

Wilhelm Tappert, a German musicologist, soon (1900) presented a contrary opinion, identifying BWV 995-9 and BWV 1000 and 1006a as lute pieces. In 1905 organist and physician, Albert Schweitzer supported Tappert, spreading the myth of the lute suites outside Germany.

In 1921, Hans Dagobert Bruger published a transcription of the pieces for a ten-string guitar-lute hybrid popular since the 18th century. This was the first edition of lute pieces arranged for guitar. Bruger transposed the pieces into the keys in which they are now usually played on the six-string guitar, setting the precedent for their inclusion in the guitar repertoire.

Other publications supported this tradition up until the 1960s, when musicologists such as Hans Radke began to reexamine the “lute suites” and argue that they had been composed for the lute-harpsichord, but the tradition of composition for lute held.

The tradition received further support from guitarists in performance, beginning with Andres Segovia in 1922 and his passionate playing of Bach masterpieces. Segovia’s performances mark the transition from the lute to the guitar, firmly establishing Bach’s reputation as a composer of lute music. Many other noted guitarists followed Segovia, culminating in 1975, when Australian guitarist John Williams issued a recording entitled The Four Lute Suites, a widely-released work that influenced an entire generation of guitarists.

Also in the 1970s scholars and musical technicians, beginning with Martha Goldstein, re-constructed the lute-harpsichord and recorded selections. Thus, the restoration of the music to its most probable origins began. Nevertheless, a number of artists released complete recordings on the baroque lute. Therefore, while many scholars think the evidence for composition on a keyboard is preponderant, but the guitar tradition continues.

The musical intermingling continues.

In his essay, “Defending Bach against his Devotees,” the sociologist and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno argues that if we try to keep the composer’s spark alive through an emphasis on “purity,” we risk losing the vital spark itself. Adorno says some Bach aficionados have:

      transformed the composer into a simplified signifier for musical greatness, and can be sticklers for historical “authenticity” of performance. They place him on a pedestal, his music completely transcending the sociocultural contexts of his time, and of all time ever after. . . . [Thus], he is changed into a neutralized cultural monument, in which aesthetic success mingles obscurely with a truth that has lost its intrinsic substance.

Whether we accept Adorno’s caution or not, the cross-cultural mingling continues. We will hear Bach on the guitar--On April 2, 2016 at the Whittier College Bach Festival--and the German break dance group will perform Red Bull Flying Bach. A last connection to delight in:

Bach signed all his compositions Deo soli Gloria, “Glory to God alone.” Jimi Hendrix called his music “electric church.”