Program Notes: J.S. Bach ~ Sacred & Secular


Bach’s musical career took him to a series of towns in northern Germany. His final move came in 1723, when he left his position as court musician at Cöthen to take the post of Kantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. His new responsibilities included teaching at the school and organizing the city church music. Bach was the third choice of the councilors who hired him, and he was not exactly what they were looking for–it was the beginning of a tumultuous, but long, tenure. Bach found some professional consolation in his association with Leipzig’s collegium musicum, an instrumental ensemble of impressive musical expertise. In 1729, he would take over the running of this ensemble, but for the time being, his immediate duties kept his hands mostly full.

Music historians have recently decided that during these first years at Leipzig Bach composed, along with many other orchestral works, the first of his four orchestral suites, no. 1 (1725). The third and fourth suite probably date from around 1729, and the famous one for flute soon thereafter. It is fairly clear from these dates–and from the works themselves–that the suites were not conceived as a group, unlike many of Bach’s suites for solo instruments.

The third suite, in D major, consists of six movements, all of which follow an “AB” form with repeats for both sections. The first is the Overture, which takes the format of the French overture (a slow-fast-slow structure with a very grand feeling at the beginning), but with repeats. It shows off the trumpets’ fanfare abilities. The next movement is the most famous, the Air, written for strings alone. Its finely shaped, singable melody wanders over a firm walking bass and complementing inner voices. The next two movements, Gavotte I and II, become a unit when the first gavotte returns after the second. They use a moderately paced duple meter that leans into the strong beats. The Bourée moves a bit faster with some quick repartee between the strings and trumpets. The final Gigue trips along in a rejoicing triple meter.

One of Bach’s earlier appointments was to the city of Weimar, where he worked from 1708 to 1717 as organist and, eventually, Konzertmeister. It is thought that most of his organ music dates from these years, as do six of his children. Initially, there were no cantatas, except for one secular work, but in 1713 he was asked to provide a new cantata every four weeks. BWV 12 dates from April 22 of the following year.

Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, highlights a standing contradiction, or, dialectic, if you prefer. It was composed for the third Sunday of Easter, the Christian church’s celebration of the glory of one of its central beliefs: the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. In the midst of this seven-week festival, this cantata is intent on reminding its hearers that the path to resurrection, to eternal life, is not easy. The text, likely written for this cantata by Salomon Franck, is inspired by the readings for the day, which consisted of Peter’s warnings to the early Church to be wary of the “passions of the flesh” and of Jesus’s words in the upper room regarding the “time of grief” the disciples will endure.

The cantata begins with a Sinfonia prominently featuring a lamenting, yet embellished, oboe solo over a full string accompaniment. The sense of lamentation increases in the ensuing chorus, the text of which strongly refers to the reading from John. The music of the chorus begins and ends with an early version of the Crucifixus from the Credo of the B minor Mass. The central section sounds like a choral motet with the instruments merely doubling the voices. The recitative preceding the alto aria states the thesis of the cantata: we must endure great tribulation (Trübsal) in order to enter the Kingdom of God (Reich Gottes). “Trübsal” is repeated four times. The alto’s moving aria further explores the contradiction—the link between Cross and crown–enhanced with an obbligato oboe solo. A brief reflection by the bass ensues, with no da capo. The image of “following” is rendered by the canonic writing in the music, and the fact that the voice also takes up the melody of the instruments. It is the fifth movement of the cantata, yet the first in a major key.

The last aria, sung by the tenor, has two interesting facets beyond the vocal writing. One is the chorale tune in the trumpet: Jesu meine Freude, a tune that is a virtual theme song among Lutheran Pietists such as Bach, as they seek refuge in Jesus. The other facet is the interesting bass line, which is not just a bass line, but conveys both hesitancy and resolution, reflecting the text. The final chorale once more turns to major and offers the promise of God’s fidelity.

The aria opening the second half comes from Bach’s first secular cantata, Was mir behat, ist nu r di munre Jagd!, BWV 208, with a text by Salomon Franck. Also known as the Jagd-Kantate (Hunting cantata), it was written for the 31st birthday celebration of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels, which fell on February 23, 1713. The likely links here are that: a) Bach was lodging at the castle at Weissenfels at the time, and, b) the composer was in the employment of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, who likely commissioned the work for Duke Christian.

The tune of this precious gem will be immediately familiar. The text, on the other hand, with its gentle exposition in political theory may need reviewing. Franck uses the image of the “worthy shepherd” to praise the prince, and remind him that, where rulers are ruling well, the citizens rest in peace and, further, even achieve a certain bliss. Could we make this aria required daily listening for elected officials? The aria is written in da capo form, and the lovely melodic writing demonstrates the composer’s success in his early attempts to imitate the Italian style.

The final work on the program returns us to the collegium musicum of Leipzig, which probably performed this cantata when it was written in 1729. The story of Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan comes from Metamorphoses (xi.153–79)  by the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-16/17 A.D.). The story in Ovid focuses on a musical contest, set in motion when Pan, with his syrinx, brashly challenges the great Phoebus Apollo with kithara. In Ovid’s story, the superior musician is clearly Apollo but Midas, one of the judges, sides with Pan. Midas is punished by being made to grow ass’s ears, a demonstration that he is unable to perceive beauty.

The cantata is often described in terms of a competition between musical styles: namely counterpoint versus the Italian, melody-dominated style. For sure, Bach’s music was drawing increasing negative attention because of his continued use of counterpoint in an age that was increasingly enamored with the Italian-influenced way of composing. But Bach’s point is not that subtle. Rather he is highlighting the difference between competent and incompetent music making and musical judgment.

The author of the text was the German poet Christian Friedrich Heinrici (1700-1764) , who published under the pseudonym Picander. His initial works were often erotic or satirical, but then, in 1724 and 1725, he released a series of devotional poems reflective of the readings for Sundays and feast days of the Church year. Before completing the series, he made the acquaintance of Bach, who began collaborating with him. Picander would go on to write more librettos for Bach than anyone else, including two Passions.

One can hear the confidence Bach has in his musical ensemble in the first virtuosic movement—rapid runs, intricate interplay between the various parts. The chorus is written in five-part counterpoint. The contest between the protagonists is set up in the first recitative, during which Momus, a personification of satire and mockery, slips in sarcasm directed at Pan. Her exuberant aria follows, dripping with derision. Mercury, in the next recitative, proposes the contest. Phoebus and Pan choose their judges, and the singing begins, and, to fully participate in this performance, you should be particularly attentive to the two entries that follow.

Phoebus goes first, delivering some of the best music written for the bass voice. Bach injects great skill into this extended aria, masterfully layering the accompaniment underneath a carefully articulated vocal line, and artfully sculpted melismas. The subject is Hyacinth, a murdered lover of the god. Pan, on the other hand, mocks Apollo’s art, suggesting that music that is overly complex inspires no joy. The music is straightforward, and very suitable for dancing.

The judgments are then pronounced. Tmolus votes for Phoebus, and sings an aria that mirrors the god’s own efforts, accompanied by an oboe d’amore obbligato. Midas’ s recitative, itself written in strange turns of phrase (is he intoxicated?), ironically points out that Pan’s music is so simple, it can be taught to trees (Is that really a compliment?) At the mention of ears, Bach hints at braying sounds, foreshadowing the poor man’s future. The recitative sextet plays out this drama, wherein Midas is accused of madness, and awarded with ass’s ears. Mercury’s aria is the final one, and drives home the moral, in case you did not get it before. Some final words of encouragement from Momus lead directly into the final chorus, which highlights the significance of art and grace (Kunst und Anmut—technique and imagination), neither of which is sufficient without the other.
~ Joseph Orchard ©2016