Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80
Johann Sebastian Bach
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
Johann Sebastian Bach
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230
Johann Sebastian Bach:
October 21, 4:00pm
Open Lecture Recital
Wingate University, Wingate, NC
October 22, 3:00pm
Music at St. Alban's
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Davidson, NC
October 22, 7:30pm
Cantata Series Inaugural Concert
Myers Park Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC
BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir
North Carolina Baroque Orchestra
Margaret Carpenter Haigh, soprano
Charles Humphries, counter-tenor
James Jones, tenor
Michael Trammell, tenor
Charles Wesley Evans, bass
Soprano: Jessy Garthe Margaret Carpenter Haigh Virginia Herrick Cecillia Moneta Rebecca Saunders Emily Shusdock Sarah Towner
Alto: Kelsey Harrison Charles Humphries Megan Jones Sara Terrell
Tenor: Adam Hunter James Jones Robert Jones Michael H. Trammell
Bass: Colin Burns Charles Wesley Evans Chris Gilliam Pete Leo
By Brett Kostrzewski
Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, home to one of the largest relic collections in the world. So began his campaign to replace the Roman Church with the personal piety of the individual Christian. In seeking to enable such personal piety, Luther promoted the singing of what we know as chorales—simple tunes with devotional texts in the vernacular. He also composed a few; one, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, soon became a celebratory anthem for the entire Protestant world. Luther likely composed the hymn around 1528/1529, around the early peak of his public conflict with the Roman Church and the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire (the Augsburg Confession was presented to Emperor Charles V in 1530); the strength and security of the City of God enumerated by Psalm 46 no doubt spoke to Luther and his supporters as they made their public, political case for the reformed faith, a conflict that would eventually lead to executions for heresy and wars across Europe. For Johann Sebastian Bach, as for most Lutherans then and now, the tune was enshrined as a battle cry for the faith in as much a political sense as a theological one; the Reformation Festival on 31 October was therefore as much a civic event as a religious one.
The most recent version of Bach’s cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott BWV80, like so many of Bach’s works, was the result of intermittent compositional re-workings over decades. Its earliest roots lie in the cantata Alles, was von Gott geboren BWV80a, which survives only as a libretto by Weimar court poet Salomo Franck, the supplier of cantata libetti for Bach during his tenure as that court’s Konzertmeister (1714-17). Alles, was von Gott geboren had been composed for the Third Sunday of Lent; in that form, it was of no use in Leipzig, where music was not performed during any Lenten Sundays. Recomposition for the Reformation Festival, however, was straightforward, as the tune of Ein feste Burg had been incorporated into the Weimar cantata both in the concluding chorale of Franck’s libretto and as an obbligato melody (in Weimar, likely instrumental) in Bach’s setting of the aria “Alles, was von Gott geboren.” Bach first used at least some of the Weimar cantata for the Reformation Festival between 1728 and 1731; sometime after 1731, he composed the large-scale opening chorus and first presented the cantata in the form we know it today. Later, trumpets and timpani were added to the opening chorus by Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann.
For Johann Sebastian Bach, as for most Lutherans then and now, Eine feste Burg was enshrined as a battle cry for the faith in as much a political sense as a theological one.
Bach’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott follows a typical textual layout for Bach’s earlier Leipzig chorale cantatas (a complete cycle of which he composed during his second year in Leipzig, 1724-25): the complete text of the hymn is presented with intermittent poetic reflections, one movement of which combines free poetry with a verse of the chorale simultaneously. Franck’s libretto required virtually no alteration for the cantata’s new context; the Lenten Gospel recounts Jesus’ expulsion of a demon, after which he expounds on the defense of God with militaristic imagery: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe….Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (cf. Luke 11:21,23) Rounding out the cantata with the other verses of Luther’s chorale and applying the libretto to the Reformation Festival was a straightforward affair.
This fusion of sacred and secular, ecclesiastical and civic, theological and political, are made manifest in the extensive opening chorus. Bach chooses to compose a chorale-motet movement, in which the instruments play strictly colla parte with the fugally composed vocal parts; the rhythm and the counterpoint of the music move squarely within the sturdy alla breve—one never loses the feel of the firm duple meter of the movement. Each line of the chorale initiates a passage of imitation based on the tune’s melody; after the entrance of each of the four voices, the oboes state the melody with only slight elaboration above the texture. The chorus is noteworthy for its conservative harmonic motion of its first half, which itself reinforces the movement’s sensation of impermeability; up until the line Der alte böse Feind (“the old evil enemy”), Bach hardly ventures outside the tonic D major. Some developmental exploration of A minor and other nearby related keys accompany the text’s description of the Christian’s enemies; wandering chromatics are particularly poignant on the text Sein grausam Rüstung ist (“[they] are his cruel armament”), before a quick reorientation to the tonic for the final, hopeful line of the opening verse.
The first aria pairs a strophic aria for bass and violins with the second verse of Luther’s hymn, presented by soprano and oboe. The joy of Christ’s victory is unmistakable in the hurried, repeated notes of the violins, lengthy melismas in the bass, and (to my ear) most particularly in ornamentations to the chorale melody by both the oboe and the soprano that sparkle amidst the aria’s activity.
The recitative for bass and aria for soprano that follow take on a more somber and personal tone, a transition effected by minor harmonies in the recitative and a rhythmically regular Arioso on the text Daß Christi Geist mit dir sich fest verbinde! (“That the spirit of Christ may be firmly united with you!). “Komm in mein Herzenhaus,” the only da capo aria in the cantata, continues the theme of personal engagement with Christ—and the corollary refusal of Satan—in the voice of a pious believer (“Come into my heart’s house, Lord Jesus, my desire!”). Thinly scored for continuo and soprano only, and devoid of references to Luther’s chorale, the aria is a respite from bellicose imagery and the multitudes it recalls; here, the individual believer’s personal relationship with Christ are in focus, poetically and musically.
The respite is short-lived; a choral setting of Luther’s third verse follows, where—in an exceptional example of rhetorical composition—all four voice parts sing the melody in unison amidst fireworks in the strings and oboes. The verse’s description of the world’s devils and its prince (a veiled reference to the pope?) cue Bach’s music to take up the battle-like imagery of the earlier bass aria, and we enjoy a movement that would be equally at home (less the chorale verse) in any of Bach’s concertos. Luther’s description of the world’s evils, and its fallibility, lead to a recitative for tenor that encourages the believer to confront that evil with the confidence of Christ’s victory.
The duet that follows stands as the jewel of the cantata, richly scored for oboe da caccia, violin, and the two inner voices (plus continuo). We are always lucky to come across a duet by Bach; his contrapuntal genius in the service of two vocal lines carries remarkable power, in this case enhanced by the warm sound of this exceptional instrumentation. A declamatory passage on Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan (“he is indeed with us on the battlefield”) provides a moment of contrast from the surrounding passages; but overall, the duet occurs in a moment of peace on the battlefield—when the believer, facing death, can find true consolation in the presence of Christ. The cantata concludes with a plain chorale of Luther’s final verse.
The motet Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden BWV230 is impossible to date with any certainty, as its two sole early sources are from the late nineteenth century; furthermore, as only one of them is attributed to a “Signor Bach,” we cannot be certain if it was composed by Johann Sebastian in the first place. Its music does not necessarily argue against his authorship, however; absent further evidence, then, we can probably be satisfied with an attribution to Bach or someone close to him.
The motet in Bach’s Germany occupied a different status from what we now call the cantata. The latter being a church work on poetic texts with independent instruments, the motet usually set text from Scripture for voices and continuo only. Motets were widely held to be a lower-class genre than the cantata, reflected by Bach’s own preference for the latter genre. But Bach hardly phoned it in for his motets; indeed, they remain some of his most exceptional and beloved vocal works. Lobet den Herrn, albeit his shortest and smallest motet, is marked by a richness both in contrapuntal detail and structural form. The motet sets Psalm 117, each verse receiving a distinct musical treatment. The first verse (up to alle Völker) is set in florid imitation, its primary motive of a broken triad gliding into eighth-note runs. The second verse shifts to minor harmonies in a more homophonic setting; we can detect musical variety composed for its own sake rather than anything suggested specifically by the text. The verse concludes with counterpoint over pedal points on the word Ewigkeit. The motet concludes with an Alleluia in triple meter, recalling the shift from duple to triple common to motets from the sixteenth century—the older style that Lutheran motets often sought to integrate in their contemporary musical language.
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV140 is another one of the few chorale cantatas composed by Bach after his first two years in Leipzig, and it too takes on the traditional appearance of verses (by Philipp Nicolai) spread throughout the cantata, interspersed with poetic text (by an anonymous librettist) rich in allusions to the Song of Songs. The cantata was written for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Trinity, which is always the last Sunday before Advent and occurred only twice during Bach’s tenure in Leipzig; we can therefore assign the cantata’s first performance to 25 November 1731, with a possible revival in 1742. It would have been, on both occasions, the last concerted music in church before Christmas. Nicolai’s chorale extrapolates on the parable of the ten virgins, read in that day’s Gospel, in which half are excluded from the wedding feast for their lack of preparation for the groom’s coming.
Wachet auf conveys an air of grandeur from beginning to end. The opening chorus deploys the chorale verse quite differently from Ein feste Burg; the chorale is sung by the soprano, doubled by the horn, accompanied by concerted music in all the other parts. The movement hints at a French overture, marked by its dotted figures that lead to a fugue (on Alleluia), an archetypal opening to any major work—but also ideal for a cantata that, in its text and place in the calendar, is meant to prepare the believer for the arrival of Christ. Bach conveys the rhetoric of each line from the chorale with variously composed lower voices at each statement, all within a relatively consistent, homogeneous instrumental accompaniment.
Each singer takes on a specific role in this large-scale cantata: the tenor as narrator (mimicking his traditional role as Evangelist), the soprano as the soul of the believer/the Church, and the bass in his traditional role as Jesus. A dialogue between soprano and bass follows the first recitative, in which the soprano takes up the role of the prepared believer (Ich wart emit brennendem Öle, “I am waiting with burning oil”) and Jesus lets her in (Ich öffne den Saal/Zum himmlischen Mahl, “I open the hall for the heavenly feast”). A concertante “violin piccolo” accompanies the Italianate composition of the dialogue.
The chorale that follows, for tenor and strings, stands as one of the most enduringly famous excerpts composed by Bach.
The chorale that follows, for tenor and strings, stands as one of the most enduringly famous excerpts composed by Bach. Recalling the first aria of Ein feste Burg, the strings play a melodic accompaniment to a regular continuo, the tenor presenting the second verse of the chorale in strict values. The movement is one of simple beauty and delight. An accompanied recitative for bass follows, in which Jesus invites the Church (his Bride) to enter into union with him.
A second duet for soprano and bass, accompanied by oboe, follows, in which union is achieved between Christ and Church; here is the only da capo aria of the cantata. Its playful figures and exchange between dialogue and shared runs of parallel thirds highlight the joy of communion. The final chorale that concludes the cantata conveys the grandeur of the chorale itself, set in simple four-part harmonization without any further decoration by Bach.