Bach cantatas pre-concert talk – full text

In March 2016 the Academy of Ancient Music asked me to give a couple of pre-performance talks before their concerts of Bach cantatas in London and Cambridge. Here’s the full text:

J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas for the Leipzig liturgy, and a close look at BWV 127 – “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott”.
AAM pre-performance talk
1830 Thurs 24th, Sat 26th March 2016

Introduction

Good evening everyone, it’s a great pleasure to be invited to give this pre-concert talk, particularly when it’s on a subject so close to my heart as the 200 or so surviving sacred cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach in the year 2000, when I was slaving at the coal face of BBC Radio 3 as a presenter of classical music programmes, I would often introduce cantata recordings and live broadcasts of the many leading early music groups which were performing this body of work to mark 250 years since Bach’s death.
At the same time, in my local area of Bedford Park, Chiswick, West London, I was directing and masterminding a complete cycle of cantatas of my own at our local church, St Michael and All Angels. It began in 1997 and ended in 2010, everyone worked for free, and we raised money through a retiring collection for a local Christian homeless charity the Upper Room. Only a few of the cantatas were well known, and I’m pretty sure that’s still the case today: for the most part we were all coming to the music completely new; part of the joy of the experience was to relate what we were performing to what we’d already learned about performing the cantatas during the cycle, and to two similar larger-scale and better-known Bach works, the John Passion and the Matthew Passion.

On the one hand the whole thing was very hard work; on the other it was incredibly rewarding and a real privilege; here was our chance to get to know this repertoire from the inside, not just from listening to recordings and professional performances. The strongest impression that I took away from that experience was that the cantatas are completely satisfying. Bach was a supreme musical craftsman – anyone who has worked their way through any of the fugues in the Well-Tempered Klavier could tell you that. But the standout feature of these cantatas isn’t the music – it’s the way he puts his astonishing musical skills directly at the service of the Christian faith. I say directly, because for Bach all of the music he wrote whether it was sacred or secular was “soli Deo Gloria.”

What I’d like to do is to look at just one of the cantatas in this evening’s programme: the first work, BWV 127: Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott – Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God. I’m going to look at each of the five movements and talk about them in some detail. You should all have concert programmes with texts and translations – if not, this is a good time to go and make friends with a stranger…
By way of illustration I’ll be dipping into two recordings of BWV 127; for the first movement I’m using the Phillippe Herreweghe version on Harmonia Mundi; I’m using volume 21 of the John Eliot Gardiner Bach cantatas cycle with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists for the other movements; and I’ll also be playing an aria from the St Matthew Passion in the Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording on the Teldec label.
I’m going to talk about the movements of the cantata in this order: 5, 2,3,4, 1: for reasons which will become clear.
So let’s begin at the very end with the final movement, in which the last verse of the chorale of the same name (Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott) is sung straight in four part harmony. The text, in translation- my translation may be slightly different from yours, is this:

Ah, Lord, forgive all our misdeeds, / help us to wait with patience
until our hour comes upon us;
also may our faith be always brave, / trusting Your word firmly,
until we fall asleep contentedly. [MUSIC FOLLOWS]

Music one –BWV 127/5 – play all – 00’00” to 00’50”

Chorales were very important in Lutheran worship, right from the very beginning. The Augsburg Confession, a sort of road map for Lutheranism of 1530, specifies that in certain places in the celebration of mass, “German hymns are sung … for the instruction and exercise of the people.” The melodies were newly written, or adapted from pre-existing plainchant or even popular songs; the texts could be adapted from Psalms, sacred songs, or hymns. With memorable, singable tunes, and words in everyday language that people could understand, the chorales were a key element of getting the Lutheran message over to people. Fast forward two hundred years or so, and we find the chorale still at the heart of the work of a Lutheran composer like Bach, whether he set them simply as there or in a much more elaborate way, as he does in the opening chorus of BWV 127 which I’ll come on to last.
Almost all Bach’s cantatas end with a straightforward harmonisation of a chorale, which the congregation would recognise and relate to if not necessarily sing along with. You might have noticed an interesting modal quirk in that chorale. Simply put, it seems to start in F major and end in C major; tonally it inhabits a kind of F Lydian mode. And while most of the harmonisation is straightforward, Bach does bring in some chromatic colouring in the last phrase, to reflect the closing words “until we fall asleep contentedly.” In other words, not so much falling asleep as dying. Death was a blessed relief for C18th Lutherans, though not without pain and sadness, which is reflected in the harmonic setting there.

Those “plain” chorale endings to Bach’s cantatas can present a challenge for those of us with modern musical ears. There is no grand finale … but within the context of the Lutheran service it made more sense; as the last chord of the cantata was still reverberating at its first performance in 1725, the Pfarrer, the pastor, would be rising to his feet to deliver the sermon. Cantata and sermon were side by side; the twin high points of the Sunday morning Hauptgottesdienst.
Most of tonight’s music comes from Bach’s time at Leipzig, where he served as Thomaskantor from 1723 until he died in 1750. His early years in Leipzig were incredibly productive; he saw this job as his opportunity to realise a long-held dream of creating “a well-regulated church music”. And so he embarked on a remarkable flurry of activity, writing cantatas like this one for every Sunday and holy day service week in and week out – on top of all his other work – for, according to CPE Bach, five years on end.
This cantata was first performed on 11th February 1725; it belongs to Bach’s second annual cantata cycle, the standout feature of which is the way Bach didn’t just stick chorales on the end of his cantatas but integrated them into the whole work. The chorale we’ve just heard which dates from the 1560s informs every movement of BWV 127. Its melody by Claude Goudimel opens with eight notes that reappear strikingly throughout the cantata: F | F F E C |D E F. While it was one Paul Eber who wrote the chorale text, originally laying it out in eight verses. Bach takes the first verse and sets it in his first movement, sets the eighth verse in that final movement, and quotes from the six internal verses in the second third and fourth movements of his cantata. I say Bach, I really mean the author of the libretto, who is anonymous. So you might say that the hymn from back in the 1560s is being exploded with C18 meaning in 1725 – updated with modern insights and indeed musical resources.
Let’s look at the second movement now – a solo recitative for tenor and continuo rich in vivid imagery. Just cast your eye over the text …

Within a minute of music the singer paints a vivid unflinching portrait of a human’s final moments before death, and the arrival of Jesus to offer emotional support as death is embraced. The text of this recitative is based closely on the second and third verses of the sixteenth-century hymn, but with one modification. Bach or his librettist adds something new towards the end which isn’t there in the original. And it’s this phrase: “He who endured His suffering with patience accompanies me also on this difficult journey…” This cantata was written for Estomihi, as the Lutherans called it the last Sunday before Lent, a period which was a tempus clausum for Lutherans – after this Sunday there would be no concerted music for the entire period of Lent, right the way up to Good Friday.
And we know what happened on Good Friday – it was on Good Friday that the Passions were first performed – imagine the impact of that music, church music at its most powerful, after weeks of having heard nothing like it! Similarly, the Estomihi cantatas that Bach wrote for the Sundays in the church year just before that drought of church music was due to start seem to have been put together especially carefully. As Alfred Dürr says: “Almost all bear the mark of specially high artistic skill.”
Movement three now … back in the C16th Paul Eber wrote the text of that chorale just after his son has died, perhaps sharpening even more the idea of death in the Lutheran mind. The third movement of BWV 127, based on the fourth verse of the chorale, begins with the words:
The soul rests in Jesus’ hands,
when earth covers this body.
The sound world that Bach conjures up here is extraordinary; he scores it for solo soprano – a boy treble in those days, with all the associations of purity and innocence that go with it – and a florid oboe obbligato, against staccato chords from recorders and continuo.

Music two – start of BWV 127/3 – play 00’00” to 01’30” and fade

The staccato backdrop there makes the sustained word “ruht” – “rests” – really stand out. And the restful feeling of this exquisite aria is brought out even more by the fact that while this cantata for the most part is in the tonality of F, this aria is on the flat side of that key, in B flat. In other words, one degree deeper. The sound world of this aria makes me think of another moment in which Bach does something similar, and maybe this similarity strikes you too: an aria again for soprano which sets a flute obbligato over staccato accompaniment from two oboes da caccia, and no continuo whatsoever: the believer’s response to Pilate’s questioning in the Matthew Passion, Aus Liebe:

Music three – SMP: start of Aus Liebe – play 00’00” to 00’15” and fade

Bach composed and performed his Leipzig liturgical music in less than ideal circumstances. But one respect in which it seems he was well provided for was in the trumpet department. Indeed to play the trumpet and the kettle drums was a high-rank occupation which was jealously guarded by members of a guild. Bach always put the music for trumpets and kettle drums as and when he wrote it at the top of his manuscript paper, which may have been an indication of their social status.
Outstanding amongst the Stadtpfeifer who performed this role in Leipzig was Gottfried Reicha. He had his portrait painted by Haussmann who also later painted Bach’s famous portrait – another indication of status. Reicha often played the first trumpet parts in the first performances of many of Bach’s works, and in fact it seems that they were his undoing. While playing in an open-air performance of a congratulatory cantata by Bach in 1734 he was badly affected by the smoke of the flaming torches around him – so much so that he collapsed of a stroke and died in the street. So although I’ve been overcome by Bach’s cantatas many times, I haven’t yet paid the ultimate price like Gottfried Reicha…

Anyway, it must have been him that Bach had in mind to play the dramatic obbligato in the fourth movement of this cantata, an accompanied recitative for bass which depicts the Last Judgement. There are three dramatic sections framing two more reflective passages in which the continuo section imitate the bass and vice versa with a motto derived from the first phrase of the hymn – some text from it is also incorporated. In its original version the phrase reads:
Truly, truly I say to you … [he who keeps my word and believes in me … ] will not come before judgment and never taste death.”
I’m going to play the end of one of those passages moving back into the final Last Judgement section. I drew your attention to a parallel with the Matthew Passion earlier; the resemblance this time round is unmistakeable:

Music four – BWV 127 movt 4 – play 03’22” to end at 03’50”

The music in that passage is a carbon copy of one of the Matthew Passion’s most dramatic moments – the Sind Blitze, sind Donner double chorus. Jesus has been betrayed and captured, and his disciples are wondering out loud: “have lightning and thunder vanished in the clouds?” The Matthew Passion wasn’t first performed until Good Friday 1727, but this is one of the pieces of evidence that suggest or maybe even proves that Bach was already composing it at the start of 1725, with a view to performing it on Good Friday of that year.

Bach usually reserves the most complex music in his cantatas for the opening movement, and the musical elements at work in this one are so rich that I’ve left it to discuss last.
There are several layers at work here, and so I’m going to play the first few bars a couple of times, pointing out different details as we go. The first thing that will strike you is the texture. Over strings and continuo, we hear pairs of recorders and oboes in a wonderfully shrill combination:

Music five – BWV 127 movt 1 – play 00’00” to 00’30”

In the upper register there we heard the recorders introducing a figuration of dancing dotted semiquavers. That motif dances its way through every single bar of this opening movement.
The oboes meanwhile play a quaver figure F | F F E C |D E F which I’ve already introduced you to – it’s a sped-up version of the Herr Jesu Christ hymn which as I’ve said is the backbone of this cantata. It was common practise for Bach to double up the speed of the chorale phrases as a prelude to us hearing the main theme itself, and that’s what Bach is doing here; we will hear the hymn tune sung in long notes by the sopranos shortly.

For any normal conscientious Baroque composer that might be enough. The fascinating thing about Bach though is that in his work he consistently goes further than he needs to; and in BWV 127 he draws on not one but three chorale themes in that opening – in fact you’ve already heard them although you’d be forgiven for not noticing. The second is the Lutheran Chorale version of the Agnus Dei: Christe, du Lamm Gottes –
SING Christe, du Lamm Gottes theme: F G A A |B flat ¬¬– A –
… it’s first played by the upper strings (although very much in the background at the start of this recording), and appears two more times. And the third is much harder to spot – the continuo line quotes from the Passion chorale “Herzlich tut mich verlangen”, in a dotted version, from the sixth bar.
SING Passion chorale theme: G | C Bflat Aflat G| F—G

It might have been unconscious, or deliberate, but as it seems Bach was preparing his Matthew Passion at the time it’s a musical figure which would have been in his mind. If we accept it is a deliberate quotation, then just through these three chorales Bach is conveying a threefold picture of Christ as
1.) Lord Jesus Christ, true Man and God
2.) the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world
And 3.) O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, a poignant picture of Jesus on the Cross.

Here’s the whole thing up to the point where the sopranos enter with the first line of the chorale – I’ll point out the Passion chorale quotations as they occur because they’re not easy to spot:

Music six – BWV 127 movt 1 – play 00’00” to 01’23”

That magnificent opening chorus will be the very first thing you hear in the concert tonight, and as an example of the richness of Bach’s imagination it could hardly be bettered. And it’s also a great example of how from the theological, the intellectual and the musical points of view, these cantatas are so worth getting to know. I spent 13 years of my life on my Bach cantata project and my love affair with this music isn’t over yet!
[ends]

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