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.

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