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, Himmelsk├Ânig, 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 sch├Ân 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.


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