The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: 3 famous and related Bach cantatas are on tap this weekend from the superb Madison Bach Musicians

November 16, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

As I wrote in yesterday’s post — about the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra doing two performances of Handel‘s great oratorio “Israel in Egypt” — this coming weekend will see an 18th-century Battle of the Bands when it comes to Baroque choral music.

Also on Saturday and Sunday, at 8 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. respectively (with accompanying pre-concert lectures at 7:15 and 2:45), the outstanding early music group the Madison Bach Musicians will perform three cantatas by J.S. Bach in Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square downtown. (The exterior and interior of this old church, an ideal acoustical and atmospheric setting for the cantatas, are shown below.)

The cantatas are: BWV 4, “Christ lag in Todes Banden” (Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds); 
BWV 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (God’s Time Is the Very Best Time);
 and BWV 196, “Der Herr denket an uns” (The Lord Thinks of Us).

Tickets are may be 
purchased in advance or at the door.

Advance ticket prices: $20 general admission, $15 students and seniors (over 65)
; tickets at the door are $25 general admission, and $20 for students and seniors.

Cash or checks only are accepted, no credit cards: Make checks payable to Madison Bach Musicians (below).

Advance ticket purchase locations in Madison include:
 Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe Street,
 608 255-8211; Farley’s House of Pianos,
6522 Seybold Road,
 608 271-2626; A Room of One’s Own,
 307 W. Johnson St.
 608 257-7888; Ward Brodt Music Mall,
2200 West Beltline Highway (Exit Todd Drive);
 608 661-8600; and Willy Street Co-op, 
1221 Williamson St., 608 251-6776.

MBM director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below), one of the most articulate spokesperson around for early music and classical music in general, recently spoke to The Ear about the upcoming concert:

Briefly, what is the place or role of the cantatas compared to Bach’s other works and other baroque vocal music by, say, Handel or Vivaldi or Telemann? What was the original purpose and context of the cantatas?

They were an integral part of the Lutheran church service. The Cantata was usually performed right before the sermon, and the Cantata text was often related to the scriptural readings for the particular Sunday in the church calendar.

The Cantata was designed to get the congregation into the spirit of the message for that week. Imagine, what an introduction a Bach Cantata would be for a sermon! These historical Lutheran services, which were three to four hours long, have been recreated from time to time, particularly in Europe, but some in the US as well.

Why did you choose these three particular cantatas out of the 200 –plus that have survived?

The three Cantatas we will perform on this concert all date from early in Bach’s career, around 1707-08, when he was in his early 20s. All three reflect 17th-century practices much more than 18th-century.

In particular there are no recitatives, no free poetry, and there is no Vivaldian ritornello structure (which is everywhere in Bach’s Cantatas written after 1713). The text for Cantata 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” comes from Martin Luther’s hymn meditation on the Easter message. Cantata 196, “Der Herr denket an uns” –probably a wedding Cantata — is based upon four Psalm verses. And Cantata 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” is most likely a funeral Cantata, and draws from a variety of Bible verses and chorale strophes. (A photo of the manuscript for BWV 9 is below.)

I think these three works form a nice set in that they are stylistically unified and yet deal with such different subjects. Christ lag always seems to me chiseled out of marble. Its austere treatment of the subject of Jesus’ self sacrifice for love of humanity is masterful.

I always think that Stravinsky was trying to emulate this approach (though perhaps failing) in his “Oedipus Rex”; in Cantata 4, the marble-like feeling makes you feel even more Jesus’ unswerving devotion to us. Cantata 196 is full of love and warmth and has an out-doorsy feel to it. 106 is a window onto eternity.

What special moments or effects should the public listen for in each one?

The unearthly beautiful dialogue between the viola da gambas and the recorders at the beginning of Cantata 106, “God’s time is the very best time,” is without equal in Western music—I know that’s a big claim, but I’m sticking with it. Also the tenor/bass duet in Cantata 196, “Der Herr segne euch je mehr und mehr, euch und eure Kinder” (May the Lord bless you more and more, you and your children) is written very much in the 17th-century idiom, and is so graceful and tender.

And if I had to pick a desert island piece (if you can only take one piece with you to the desert island, what would it be) it might very well be the soprano/alto duet from Cantata 4, “Den Tod, niemand zwingen kunnt” (Death, which no one could overcome). The way the two lines at times float about one another and then inevitably converge in excruciatingly beautiful dissonances, forging the soul–it is haunting, mesmerizing, and enlightening all at one. As Martin Luther wrote at the end of each dark verse: Hallelujah!

Also, watch how Bach’s music has an infinite ability to morph without ever losing the thread of its story. Pattern and variation, wood grain in sound. Debussy said of Bach—the subject is never lost.

Why do you think are the cantatas of Bach (below) not performed more often?

Probably because they fall in the cracks between weekly church music and concert music. First of all, most of them are challenging to perform for modern church choirs. Bach hardly ever makes things easy. At the same time, the serious spiritual message of the music’s text makes the Cantatas somewhat out-of-place in the concert hall.

I think this gap has been closing in recent years, more choirs are taking on–or are at least are considering taking on—Bach’s Cantatas, and we are seeing more performances by early music groups as concerts in churches, which is what MBM is doing for these concerts.

How have performance style or practices of them changed over the years?

Starting from the beginning, what wouldn’t we give for just a five- minute recording of Bach himself leading his group. And for that matter, how about a clip of Mendelssohn conducting the “St. Matthew Passion” in 1827? What would we think? Have things changed so much since then that we might not even be able to recognize the interpretive advantages that their approaches have.

As an example, even the spoken English language has changed quite a bit in the last 100 years. Listen to recordings of spoken English from 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940 and so on—the rhythms, pacing, inflections, cadences, groupings have all changed.

Here is a an appetizer: the final chorus from Cantata 196. Enjoy!

Posted in Classical music

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