Enhanced Program Notes – The Great Bach

Portrait of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1748

The monument of J.S. Bach in front of the house the composer’s family lived in, 1719-1723

Leipzig in the 17th century

Exterior of Thomaskirche

Interior of Thomaskirche

If ever the definition of the word “great” could be applied to a composer, that composer would be Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whose skill in combining counterpoint, formal design, text expression, and instrumentation into a unified whole has inspired generations of musicians and audiences. The power of his musical expression, in both vocal and instrumental music, is evident in the works on today’s concert, all of which are associated with the last two positions Bach held during his life.

Although only 44 miles separate the princely court of Cöthen and the city of Leipzig, Bach’s duties at each location could not have varied more. Each was a step forward in Bach’s career. Cöthen offered a more prestigious position and court than that of his former employer, the Duke of Weimar, while Leipzig, an economic and intellectual hub, promised more opportunities for Bach and his growing family.

In Cöthen, Bach composed a variety of instrumental music for an ensemble of 18 or so well-trained musicians. The Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, was most likely written for the Berlin violinists Martin Friedrich Marcus and Joseph Spiess, who were working at the court when Bach arrived in 1717. Performance scores for this concerto found in Leipzig suggest that Bach revived this concerto for performances by his Collegium Musicum, an ensemble he led in the 1730s.

In the first movement, after the initial passage for the full ensemble,

short ritornello passages between the solo sections act as catalysts, driving to or extending cadences, from which the soloists then emerge with new ideas.

In the poignant second movement, everything flows from the initial descending line.

Only when Bach returns to the same measures with which he opened this movement,

followed by a brief extension,

do we realize that the journey, while necessary, was simply a way back to the beginning. In contrast, the last movement drives forward with ideas that come in short, energetic bursts.

Like the Concerto for Two Violins, the Brandenburg Concertos were likely performed at the Sunday evening chamber music concerts in Cöthen. Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048, is scored for three violins, three violas, three cellos, and continuo —the atypical scoring probably the reason it was placed as the third concerto of the set sent to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in 1721. The first movement begins with a distinctive three-note motive that is passed through each group—a treat for the eye as well as the ear.

Even though this motive is embedded throughout the first part of the movement, its recognizable return toward the end of the movement is refreshing.

The second movement contains only two chords which might be played as written or used as the skeletal structure for a short improvised passage for one of the soloists.

This transitions to the third movement, a swirling dance that opens with a flourish first heard in the violins before being imitated by the violas and cellos.

Although content with his duties at Cöthen, by 1721, Bach may have been contemplating a change. Due to financial constraints, the prince had reduced the music budget and vacant positions were left unfilled. Later in his life, Bach also talked about the declining educational opportunities for his children in Cöthen. Bach’s search for a new job ended two years later, when he accepted a position at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig.

In Leipzig, the cantata was the favored composition for sacred and secular occasions. With his first cycle of cantatas, including Cantata 179, “Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei,” Bach changed the definition of the genre. His cantatas begin with an imposing opening movement and conclude with a four-part chorale, with recitatives and arias in between. Many of these new cantatas were performed with others Bach had written earlier. For the August 8, 1723 service, he wrote Cantata 179 and paired it with a cantata (BWV 199) he had written nine years earlier. This, too, was in line with Bach’s bold plan for his first year. By surrounding the sermon, one of the most important parts of the Lutheran service, with cantatas, Bach was setting his musical mark on the Leipzig service.

For the first movement of Cantata 179, an admonition that requires reflection and action, Bach combines a text painting detail — a chromatic line to underscore a “false heart” —

with a fugal structure. After the basses sing the opening phrase, the tenors respond with the mirror image or inversion of the bass line.

Next, the sopranos enter imitating the basses and finally the alto line imitates the tenor.

Bach consistently sets the opening text to the two-in-one theme so that even as the texture of the movement becomes denser, the command “Siehe zu” (“See to it”) resounds.

The recitative for tenor is substantial and lyrically dramatic,

adding a sense of immediacy that is taken up in the succeeding aria.

In setting the next recitative-aria pair for bass and soprano, Bach implies a conversation between god and the believer, respectively. The text of the aria for soprano is a direct appeal using first person and the addition of the oboes da caccia re-enforces the intimate nature of the text.

The invocation at the opening of the final movement reflects the mood of this aria,

but at the words “have mercy,” the tone of the chorale changes, taking on more urgency and bringing the cantata full circle.

What started as a command has now become a fervent prayer.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a set of six cantatas composed for the Christmas season in 1734. Cantata V, a parody (reworking) of an earlier secular work, was sung on the first Sunday after New Years. Throughout this cantata, the Biblical story of the Wise Men journeying to Herod’s court is told, beginning with a lively chorus.

Equally important to this cantata is the response of the contemporary believer. Past and present come together as Bach underscores this connection through melismas (many notes to one syllable of text) on words such as “Strahlen” (rays) and “Trost der Seinen” (comfort of his people).

Bach expresses Herod’s fear of the child in two recitatives, the first for tenor as the Evangelist, and the second for alto. The Evangelist simply narrates from Matthew’s Gospel, but the alto recitative asks pointed questions, addressed both to Herod and the believer in an examination of conscience.

The terzet for soprano, tenor, and alto, plus the final recitative and chorus confirm the message of this cantata: the light of belief (the Wise Men) dispels the darkness of doubt (Herod).

As he did with the Christmas Oratorio, Bach looked to earlier compositions when he wrote the Mass in G major, BWV 236, each movement of which parodies movements from earlier cantatas. The process is not haphazard; in choosing to adapt the first movement of
Cantata 179 for the Kyrie of the Mass in G major, Bach repurposed a movement whose musical lines also embody the dual nature of the Kyrie text: hopefulness (rising lines)

and penitence (chromatic lines).

Similar to Cantata 179, the two-in-one quality of this theme, which works with its own inversion, unifies this movement.

In the Kyrie, the instruments double the voices, creating a more austere sound and focusing our attention on the voice and text. In the Gloria, however, the independent instrumental lines match the exuberance of the choir of angels represented by the sopranos and altos as they proclaim “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”

This imagery of high (heaven) and low (earth) is completed with the entrance of the tenors and basses at the phrase “and on earth.”

The strings and continuo suggest a lighter feeling for the introduction of the “Gratias agimus tibi.” The gracefulness of the first violin line is echoed in the rest of the ensemble, but is ultimately paired with an intricate bass solo.

The “Domine Deus,” a duet for soprano and alto with strings, reflects the belief in the dual nature of Jesus as god and man.

Bach writes the solo voices predominantly in parallel thirds, recalling the opening of the Gloria. The texture then changes at “miserere nobis,” where heart-rending suspensions become more pronounced as Bach puts greater distance between the initial statement and the imitative response,

waiting until the last few measures to return to the texture from the opening of the movement.

Bach borrowed from the third movement of Cantata 179 for the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” with a strikingly different result. In Cantata 179 the string melody is quick and crisp with a bravado that reflects a text about false images and hypocrisy.

When that same line is slowed and adapted for the oboe, a completely different character emerges.

No less virtuosic, this gentle movement becomes a personal song of praise. The final section, “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” is a continuation of the text begun by the tenor solo. The whole ensemble now unites in a grand statement

that suddenly transforms into a lively and complex dance.

In Bach’s day, few would have known that he had reworked earlier compositions. Today, we can recognize that process and appreciate the richer connections between compositions such as Cantata 179 and the Mass in G major. In carefully selecting and transforming his music, Bach did what he always did: found and brought to fruition every possibility inherent in his music.

Teresa M. Neff