Bach Christmas

Thursday, December 15, 2016 at 7:30pm
Sunday, December 18, 2016 at 3:00pm
NEC’s Jordan Hall

Our  Sunday performance of Bach Christmas on December 18th is currently sold out.

“It was just one Christmas present after another.”
The Boston Globe

H+H’s beloved holiday tradition returns with these sparkling Baroque delights written for the season, performed with the authenticity and verve that only H+H’s Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus can bring.

Ian Watsonconductor

Program Notes

In 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was offered an important musical post in Leipzig: cantor and director musicus. The job description included teaching music, directing the ensembles, and composing for St. Thomas’s church as well as overseeing music for the other churches in the city and providing music for any civic celebrations. The selection committee chose Bach after two other candidates, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) and Christoph Graupner (1683–1760), declined the position.

In his early autobiography, Georg Philipp Telemann said he went to the University of Leipzig to study law in 1701 to please his mother, but later said he simply wanted to continue his studies at the university level. No matter his motivation for moving to Leipzig, his musical interests soon overshadowed everything else. A performance of Telemann’s composition at St. Thomas’s led to a commission to write church music for both St. Thomas’s and St. Nicolas’s. Soon after, Telemann founded the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a group later led by Bach, and was made music director of Leipzig’s opera house. In 1705, Telemann left Leipzig. He held a series of other posts until 1721 when he became cantor of Johanneum Lateinschule and director musicus in Hamburg. Although Telemann held this post for the rest of his life, there was a point when he considered returning to Leipzig. When the position at St. Thomas’s became available in 1722, Telemann applied and was the unanimous choice of the selection committee. After some back and forth with his employers in Hamburg, the result of which was greater job security and more money, Telemann turned down the Leipzig position.

In his autobiography of 1718, Telemann wrote that a composer must discover the sound possibilities of each instrument because this will please both the performer and composer. This is a fitting description of Telemann’s Sinfonia spirituoso for two violins, viola, optional trumpet, and basso continuo. The first movement captures the intimacy of the small ensemble with conversational passages that then alternate with sections that feel more robust due to their rhythmic momentum. The second movement, a delicate Largo with sustained sonorities, is followed by an energetic closing movement.

The Leipzig town council’s second choice to fill the position of cantor and director of music for the city was Christoph Graupner. As a child, Graupner’s natural abilities in music led to other opportunities, including studies with Johann Schelle (cantor at St. Thomas’s from 1677–1701) and Johann Kuhnau, (cantor at St. Thomas’s from 1701–1722). Graupner became friends with Telemann and also studied law at the University of Leipzig. In 1709, he became the vice-Kapellmeister and later Kapellmeister in Darmstadt where he composed numerous operas and other works, including over 1,400 church cantatas. Graupner applied for the position at Leipzig, and after Telemann refused the appointment, was offered the post. Graupner’s employer at Darmstadt would not accept his Kapellmeister’s resignation, but did offer a large salary increase and future job security. Like Telemann, Graupner, declined the offer from Leipzig.

Graupner’s Die Nacht is vergangen was composed in 1722 for the first Sunday in Advent. The seven-movement cantata for soloist, chorus, oboes, bassoon, horn, strings, and basso continuo opens with an extended movement. Bursts of rhythmic motion in the instrumental lines, particularly the horn, are reflected in the vocal parts as the text speaks of the transformation of dark into light. The horn is also featured in the fifth movement for bass and chorus. Here it recalls the rhythmic vitality of the first movement even as it matches the dance-like mood in this movement. In the final movement, the chorus sings a chorale in alternation with instrumental passages featuring the oboes d’amore. Graupner creates another layer of complexity in this movement by means of an intricate violin line that bridges the instrumental and vocal sections.

Bach chose to accept the Leipzig position; he and his family, along with four wagons of belongings, moved to the city in May 1723. His acceptance of the position and arrival was reported in newspapers as far away as Hamburg: This was an indication of the importance of the position, not necessarily Bach’s fame. One town councilor said that Leipzig had tried to hire the best candidates (meaning Telemann and Graupner), but now had to settle for the mediocre one!

Although Bach presented Cantata 61 for the first Sunday of Advent in 1723, he had composed it in Weimar for the first Sunday in Advent in 1714. The hymn tune or chorale, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (Now Come Savior of the Nations), on which this cantata is based, one was of Bach’s favorites. He used it in two cantatas, plus four chorale preludes for organ, including one in the Orgelbüchlein. Cantata No. 61 begins with an extended movement for choir and instruments. The first line of the chorale tune is heard in the soprano part, then alto, tenor, bass. The with second line of the chorale is harmonized by all four voice parts while the instrumental accompaniment pulses forward purposefully. With the central section of the movement, there is a change to a dancing triple meter as the voices and instruments work in a flowing imitation. The final section of the movement returns to the chorale tune and instrumental accompaniment of the opening.

The libretto was written by Erdmann Neumeister, who based part of his text on the Book of Revelations. The theme of inviting and allowing admittance; that is, of making a choice, fits with the Advent theme of preparation and permeates the inner movements. In the fourth movement, the strings play separated pitches throughout, signifying knocking at the door. This is a turning point in the text and cantata. While the prior movements were invitations to enter, the recitative for bass is a request for entry and the following aria is now a direct invitation of the believer. The final movement is a short, confirming “Amen” based on the final phrase of the chorale tune “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (How Brightly Beams the Morning Star).

Bach composed Cantata 10, Meine Seel erhebt den Herren for the feast of the Visitation, July 2, 1724. The text, by an unknown librettist, is an adaption of Martin Luther’s translation of the Magnificat, Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s statement that Mary is “blessed among women.” In this cantata, Bach incorporates the melody traditionally used to sing Luther’s Magnificat in multiple ways. In the first movement, the sopranos and trumpet proclaim the borrowed melody. In the fifth movement, the same melody is heard in the trumpets and oboes. Bach later transcribed this movement for organ; it was one of six chorale preludes published by Schübler in 1748. The familiar melody returns in the final movement, now in a four-part setting, a familiar close to Bach’s cantatas.

For the 1734 Christmas season, Bach wrote a set of six cantatas, the Christmas Oratorio. One cantata was to be performed during the morning service on December 25, December 26, December 27, New Year’s Day, the Sunday after New Year’s, and Epiphany. The texts of the cantatas tell the story of Jesus’s birth, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, their arrival at the manger, the naming of Jesus, and the visit of the wise men. Bach broke with tradition in his division of the cantata texts. He did not follow the Gospel stories associated with each feast or Sunday, choosing instead (along with his anonymous librettist) to tell a more cohesive story in order to preserve the biblical narrative.

Part V of the Christmas Oratorio was sung on the Sunday after New Years. The story of the wise men arriving at Herod’s court is told beginning with an exuberant chorus announcing the birth of Jesus. In the remaining movements, the blending of the biblical story with contemplations of the believer provides a continually shifting viewpoint and Bach seizes the opportunity to explicate this musically. In the arias, for example, melismas (many notes sung to one syllable of text) on words like “brightness” and “life” relate the decision of the wise men to follow the star with an individual’s journey of belief.

There are two responses to Jesus’s birth represented in this cantata. The first is acceptance, demonstrated by the wise men and their decision to follow the star. Another response is that of Herod, which is expressed in two recitatives, the first for the Evangelist and the second for alto. The Evangelist simply narrates, but the alto recitative asks pointed questions, addressed to both Herod and the believer in an examination of conscience. The terzet, the final recitative, and chorus not only confirm the Advent message of light dispelling darkness but also suggest that the journey represented by the Wise Men is paradoxically long and instantaneous.

All three composers grappled with the same decision of whether or not to accept a pro-offered position in Leipzig. The music on today’s concert addresses a different kind of choice embodied in spiritual contemplation that would have been understood by Bach’s contemporaries and is translatable to our time. Equally transferrable from Bach’s time to now is how the performance of these works—whether in a church or concert hall— becomes a communal and unifying experience.

© 2016 Teresa M. Neff, PhD
Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow

Join H+H Historically Informed Performance Fellow Teresa M. Neff one hour before your performance at Jordan Hall for Musically Speaking with Teresa Neff, a pre-concert conversation of the pieces on the program.

J.S. Bach: Cantata 10, Meine Seele erhebt den Herren
J.S. Bach: Cantata V from Christmas Oratorio
Telemann: Sinfonia spirituosa
Graupner: Die Nacht ist vergangen
J.S. Bach: Cantata 61, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland

Audio Preview

J.S. Bach: Cantata V from Christmas Oratorio
English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Telemann: Vivace from Sinfonia spirituosa
Muisca Antiqua Köln & Reinhard Goebel

J.S. Bach: Chorale: “Amen” from Cantata 61, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland
English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

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