Bach Family Motets and Cantatas

with Featured Guest Artist Counter-tenor Reginald Mobley

Works

Das ist meine Freude
Johann Ludwig Bach

Ach, dass ich Wassers genug hatte
Johann Christoph Bach

Das Blut Jesu Christi
Johann Ludwig Bach

Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54
Johann Sebastian Bach

Der Gerechte, ob er gleich
Johann Christoph Bach

Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182
Johann Sebastian Bach


Musicians

BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir
North Carolina Baroque Orchestra
Reginald Mobley, Counter-tenor

Soloists

Margaret Carpenter Haigh, soprano
Bryon Grohman, tenor
Edmund Milly, bass,
Reginald Mobley, counter-tenor

Cantata Choir

Soprano: Margaret Carpenter Haigh, MaryRuth Lown, Emily Shusdock
Alto: Elizabeth Eschen, Reginald, Mobley, Virginia Herrick
Tenor: Bryon Grohman, Robert Jones, Michael Trammell
Bass: Edmund Milly, Colin Burns, Christopher Gilliam


Performances

Friday, January 19, 7:30 p.m.
Davidson United Methodist Church
Davidson, NC

Saturday, January 20, 6:00 p.m.
Friendship Missionary Baptist Church
Charlotte, NC

Sunday, January 21, 7:30 p.m.
Christ Church Charlotte
Charlotte, NC

book-icon1.pngProgram Notes

By Brett Kostrzewski

The Hope of Salvation

Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses were all primarily concerned with a single issue: the sale and purchase of indulgences, graces offered by the Catholic Church to shorten the stay of one’s soul in purgatory and to better facilitate entry into salvation. While Luther’s theology would greatly expand beyond this single issue, the question of salvation was integral to Luther’s ideas from the outset.

M Luther 1537 275.jpgLuther’s concern with salvation in the face of humanity’s sinfulness could be seen as the locus of a pivotal distinction between reformed and Catholic theologies. The individual’s depth of faith and trust in Christ supplants communal participation in the Church and its works. For Luther, it was Christ who delivered the sinner from the condemnation of God the Father, and fear of that condemnation permeates Luther’s writing. In his Little Catechism, Luther distinguishes the two: “I believe that God created me….I believe that Jesus Christ…is my Lord who saved me.” Christ delivers the sinner, but God remains the entity by which the sinner is condemned—an irony that heightened Luther’s own intense fear of judgment. Certainty of redemption, however, encouraged a longing for death and eagerness for unification with Christ, another theme commonly found in cantatas and motets in eighteenth-century Lutheran Germany.

We should therefore be unsurprised at the poignant intensity of Lutheran devotional texts and their musical settings, such as those presented on tonight’s program. If the believer’s individual faith is the only means of salvation, then sacred music ought to enhance both the fear of condemnation and the joy in Christ’s sacrifice by which we are delivered. Tonight’s program moves through these themes, and despite what we might consider their Lenten character, they hold relevance for the Lutheran throughout the year.

If the believer’s individual faith is the only means of salvation, then sacred music ought to enhance both the fear of condemnation and the joy in Christ’s sacrifice by which we are delivered.

In addition to two cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the program features motets by two of his most talented musical relatives: his cousin Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731) and his uncle Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703). Johann Ludwig and Johann Sebastian were both born and raised in Eisenach, where Johann Christoph served as organist; it is therefore unsurprising, especially given the quality of their music, that Johann Sebastian would perform their music later in his career after landing at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig; Johann Ludwig would go on to work at the court in neighboring Meiningen. Johann Ludwig’s motet Das ist meine Freude, a setting of Psalm 73:28, serves as a general call for trust in the Lord.

Saxony Map 320.jpgThe eighteenth-century German motet was the lower class of vocal genre in eighteenth-century Germany; unlike the cantata (or, as they would more commonly call it, the concerto), motets had no independent instrumental parts, were divided into only two or three sections, and lacked solo passages such as recitatives and arias. Still, in capable hands, a motet can be immediately effective. As is the case with virtually every genre, no motets approach the quality of Johann Sebastian’s, but those of Johann Ludwig and Johann Christoph stand as excellent contributions to the genre and furnish high-quality context for Johann Sebastian’s own compositions.

As was typical for the German motet, Das ist mein Freude is set for double-choir; its rhetorical repetitions of the pronoun Das recall the opening gambit of Johann Sebastian’s motet Komm, Jesu, komm BWV229, and serve as a recognizable motive that recurs throughout, redeployed even in the second section under triple meter. The motet spins out beautiful passages of counterpoint marked by rhetorical exclamations of various phrases from the psalm, and the choirs dramatically unite for one final, alla breve statement of the psalm’s opening line.

Ach, dass ich Wassers genug hatte of Johann Christoph, a sort of lament for solo alto, reminds us of Luther’s fear of judgment in its rich and unsatisfied wallowing in the depths of sin. Like the text of Johann Sebastian’s Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV54 to come, the text of Ach, dass ich Wassers appears incomplete in its lack of any redemptive or hopeful conclusion. Its thick scoring, for three violas between a violin and violone, allows for warmth amidst clear melodic interaction between the alto and violin. The piece features harmonic progressions of stunning beauty in their surprise, such as in the last statement of Meine Seufzens ist viel (loosely, “I sigh a lot”) and its long triplet lines on fliessen (“flowing,” of tears). Other noteworthy moments are the dotted rhythm leaps of the violin that end the first section, and the off-beat motive of the alto on the first statement of Seufzens (“sighs”). For its brevity and simplicity of texture, the piece is immensely striking, reminding the believer of his or her sinful nature almost to the point of despair.

Some relief comes in the way of Johann Ludwig’s Das Blut Jesu Christi, which pairs 1 John 1:7 with the sixth and eighth stanzas of the chorale “Jesu, der du meine Seele.” In typical motet style, the chorale serves as a gloss on the single sentence from Scripture in its extrapolation of vivid imagery (Deine rotgefärbten Wunden, Deine Nägel, Kron und Grab, Deine Schenkel, festgebunden (“Your red-colored wounds, your nails, crown and grave, your legs, bound fast”)) and the relationship between the Passion and the believer (Deine Marter, Angst und Stich, O Herr Jesu, trösten mich (“your pain, torture, and piercing, O Lord Jesus, comfort me”). The darkness of the crucifixion becomes the believer’s hope, a theme not unfamiliar to us from Johann Sebastian’s Passion settings. The motet avoids thick polyphony, favoring instead declamatory homophony with occasional rhetorical statements by the other choir. The concluding “Aria”—which can mean a strophic text as well as a da capo, for soloist or chorus—features delightful antiphony, first between each choir, then between the first choir and tutti.

Johann Sebastian composed Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV54 sometime during his years as Concertmeister in Weimar (1714-17). The source of the text—the cantata cycle Gottgefälliges Kirchen-Opffer of Georg Christian Lehms, published in 1711—assigns it to the third Sunday of Lent, but no musical source is so specific, and its general text is usable at any time of the year. It warns against the perils of sin and Satan; as mentioned above, it appears incomplete without a redemptive or hopeful conclusion.

The opening chord, a dissonant dominant seventh chord against the tonic pedal, suggests the tension of temptation and faith; the theme continues through the aria with its changing harmonies over a comparatively static bass line and constant slide into suspensions—notice the jarring dissonances against the long held notes on widerstehe, and the surprising, entirely dissonant harmonies that occur against the last note of each vocal line in the B section (on …tödlich ist).

The recitative that follows moves efficiently through a lengthy discourse on the dual nature of sin: beautiful in its temptation, devastating in its effect. The scharfes Schwert (“sharp sword”) of sin is depicted by a rapidly moving bass line. The aria that follows is a fugue with accompanying bass, the subject a suggestive descending chromatic figure under a sturdy alla breve. The strict nature of the music highlights the triumph of a strong will over the temptations of the Devil.

Johann Christoph’s motet Der Gerechte, ob er gleich, pulled from the Book of Wisdom, reinforces the certainty of salvation in faith and the longing for death that run so strongly through Lutheran piety. This motet is scored for only one choir, but expanded to five voices with the second tenor characteristic of the seventeenth century (in Bach’s generation, five-voice pieces tend to add a second soprano). The motet moves in large sections with their own musical characteristics of imitation: the first, lush homophony with suspended descents; the second, Presto, with short, snappy rhythms; the third, Adagio, back to homophony; and, finally, a triple section marked by a series of rapid ascending scales.

The program concludes with one of Johann Sebastian’s most arresting compositions, the cantata Himmelskönig, sei willkommen BWV182. The cantata was probably composed within a month of his elevation to Concertmeister in Weimar, premiered on the coincidental feasts of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday on 25 March 1714. Salomo Franck’s beautiful poetry would have offered relief to the Lent-weary believer, after six weeks without any music in church; similarly, it offers us warmth at the end of a program soaked with the perils of sin. The cantata was reprised at least twice in Leipzig, with revisions at each performance (the exact natures of which are difficult to extract from the surviving performance materials).

The opening sonata depicts the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with its dotted rhythms and stately accompaniment; the believer is linked across time and place by the text of the opening aria for chorus in which Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is reinterpreted as his entry into one’s heart. After all four voices have stated the opening motive once, the entrances are repeated, now doubled by the strings and recorder. The aria’s A section ends with a homophonic restatement of both lines, immediately followed by a declamatory Komm herein! (“Come in!”) that moves the tonality to an unstable relative E minor. The B section is marked by a quicker succession of vocal entries that hasten to the da capo.

The recitative for bass sets Psalm 49:7-8, which leads to Franck’s beautiful aria text Starkes Lieben (“What strong love!”). A joyous accompaniment for concertante violin celebrates the redemption that is to come. But it is in the next aria, marked Largo, for alto and recorder, that the cantata reveals its depth of emotion. The alto implores the believer to themselves sacrifice all in the name of Christ the Savior; the urgency is heightened by Bach’s six repetitions of this imploration. The B section that follows, marked Andante, is striking in its tonal instability and its surprising final cadence on a note distant from our tonic E minor.

The tenor aria that follows, for continuo only, changes musical character but abides by the same textual spirit: the believer seeks to join Christ on the cross, hastening in the rapid sixteenth-note runs of the continuo. Bach all but obscures the da capo form of the poetry; the aria instead has the feel of a through-composed strophic movement, emphasizing perhaps the linear, rather than the circular, directionality of the believer’s journey to the cross.

The inclusion at the end of two concerted movements for all four voices—a polyphonic chorale setting followed by another free chorus—is exceptional among Bach’s cantatas, and we can perhaps discern our recently promoted composer demonstrating his compositional talents. The chorale fantasia, with colla parte instruments and free polyphony underneath the soprano chorale, is one of Bach’s finest.

The final chorus leaves us with an optimism that anticipates the Resurrection, a Palm Sunday feeling perhaps not unfamiliar to Christians today. The rousing triple meter and imitation that moves from high voices downward celebrates the believer’s own entry into Salem—the Jerusalem to come, following Christ who shows the way, recalling his own historical entry into Jerusalem depicted at the beginning of the cantata. Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, in its libretto and Bach’s magnificent setting, transmits the universal Christian theology of the sinner’s salvation through Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection—bridging time, space, and even confession in its celebration of the hope that all Christians share. – Brett Kostrzewski December 2017




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