Bach at Easter • WCFSO Soloists
April 6, 7:30 pm
Great Hall, GBPAC
Johann Sebastian Bach • Cantata BWV 31, Sonata
Johann Sebastian Bach • Cantata BWV 4, Sinfonia
Johann Sebastian Bach • Cantata BWV 104 with UNI Cantorei & John Len Wiles
Johann Sebastian Bach • Cantata BWV 12, Sinfonia
Johann Sebastian Bach • Cantata BWV 42, Sinfonia
Johann Sebastian Bach • Cantata BWV 182, Sonata
Johann Sebastian Bach • Brandenburg Concerto no. 1, BWV 1046
Johann Sebastian Bach • Easter Oratorio BWV 249, Adagio and Sinfonia
Enliven your Easter season with festive music from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Easter cantatas and his first Brandenburg Concerto. The program showcases the transcendent genius of Bach’s weekly music for the church service and brings to life the vivid musical history of Easter. This special seasonal event features the incredible talent of our own WCFSO principals as well as the cantata expertise of UNI Cantorei under the direction of John Len Wiles.
The life of Johann Sebastian Bach
It is amazing to contemplate how Bach became one of music’s most highly influential voices. He never travelled more than a few hundred miles from his home of Eisenach. By the age of 10 both his parents had died. As an young man he held several lesser posts and then he spent the bulk of his career in Leipzig, and his music was considered anachronistic by the time of his death. Thanks in no small part to associations of musical connoisseurs (such as Baron van Swieten, who introduced Bach’s music to Mozart) as well as the conductor/composer Felix Mendelssohn, the great Bach Revival of the nineteenth century continues unabated through the twenty-first.
Orphaned at a young age, the young Johann Sebastian spent his formative years in the care of his oldest brother, Johann Christoph, organist at the Michaeliskirche in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. A mere four years later, after having immersed himself in the music of the great composers of the day (as well as in theology and several languages), he was awarded a scholarship to study at the well-respected St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg. After graduation, he traveled among lesser posts in Weimar (“court musician” in 1703), the organist position at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt (1703) and, subsequently, an organist position at St. Blasius’s in Mühlhausen (1706-08).
While it is somewhat difficult to develop an exact chronology of Bach’s compositions (the official catalog, the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis or BWV lists them thematically), Bach’s official positions provide valuable insight. For example, his extended stay in Weimar (1708-17), as organist and concertmaster at the ducal court, included primarily instrumental music for keyboard as well as orchestra. Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, subsequently hired Bach as Kapellmeister in 1717 and Bach’s output was limited to orchestral works and secular cantatas as the need for elaborate church music was not necessary in the Calvinist court.
It was Bach’s appointment as Cantor of the Thomasschule at Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and director of music in the principal churches in the town that brought about his prolific number of cantatas, the B-minor Mass and countless other masterpieces. His astonishing work load including preparing choristers for three local churches. He also taught Latin in additional to preparing a new cantata for every Sunday of the liturgical year. He added music direction of the local Collegium Musicum to his duties in 1729.
While over 200 of Bach’s cantatas remain extant, he probably wrote at least 100 more - meaning that he penned a new work every week for over six years! These works, written for the liturgical feast with its accompanying texts and tunes, served as a kind of musical commentary for the church services. Bach’s cantatas would also served as a virtual treasure trove of ideas as he “recycled” the materials in other works, particularly the B-minor Mass, the “little” German masses, and other works.
• Brian Hughes
Johann Sebastian Bach • Cantatas for Easter
BWV 31, Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, (The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices) was composed for Easter Sunday, and was first performed in Weimar in 1715, with subsequent known presentations in Leipzig in 1724 and 1731. His instrumentation would have been quite large for the time and includes three trumpets, timpani, four oboes, tenor oboe, bassoon, strings and continuo, all accompanying soprano, tenor and bass soloists and chorus. The Sonata opens and closes with unison trumpet-like figures from the entire ensemble and prepares the worshippers for a glorious celebration, a jubilant instrumental dance for the most important date in the Christian year.
BWV 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, (Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death) is among the composer’s most well-known works and is believed to be an early work, composed during Bach’s short stay in Mühlhausen (1707-08) but revised for Easter presentation in Leipzig in both 1724 and 1725. The orchestration is significantly darker than Der Himmel lacht, being scored for two violins, two violas, and continuo, along with a contingent of winds (cornetto and three trombones) that double the voice parts. Martin Luther’s text of the hymn tune stresses the struggle between life and death, and this all-too-brief Sinfonia establishes the mood of Easter morning, before the discovery of the open tomb. Subsequent movements of the cantata are all crafted around the seven verses of the original tune.
BWV 104, Du Hirte Israel, höre (You Shepherd of Israel, hear) dates from the second Sunday of Easter, 1724. Bach’s orchestration again reflects the nature of the text, this time focusing on the parable of the Good Shepherd and including two oboe d’amore and taille (tenor oboe) along with the usual complement of strings. Bach employs “pastoral” rhythms (triplets creating an undulating serenity) as he sets the words, “You Shepherd of Israel, hear, you who watch over Joseph like a sheep, appear, you who sit above the Cherubim.” The oboes join in a kind of lament with the tenor soloist singing a florid aria, “Whene’er my shepherd too long hideth, the desert makes me all too anxious, my feeble steps run ever on. My tongue cries to thee, and thou, my shepherd, stir’st in me a faithful “Abba” through thy word.” Pastoral sounds return with the bass soloist, intoning “Ye herds, so blessed, sheep of Jesus, the world is now your kingdom come….” The final movement, a straightforward chorale setting, recalls Psalm 23.
BWV 42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats (On the evening of that very same Sabbath), written for the first Sunday following Easter, was first performed in Leipzig on April 8, 1725. Alfred Durr believes that Bach took the Sinfonia from an earlier work; these kind of “parody” compositions had been common since the Middle Ages and, in fact, much of the great B-minor Mass is a patchwork of cantata movements, ingeniously woven into a new fabric. Here Bach writes an instrumental composition akin to a concerto, with the winds interacting with the string compliment, before exchanging material and eventually joining together. The middle of the Sinfonia is unique in that Bach actually marks the score cantabile (song-like), a far cry from the many works in which there are no tempo indications at all.
• Brian Hughes
Johann Sebastian Bach • Brandenburg Concerto no. 1 in F, BWV 1047
The Brandenburg Concertos, along with the aforementioned B-minor Mass, are among the most ambitious job applications ever submitted to a potential employer. Originally titled Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments, these were presented to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721, although it is thought that they may have been composed earlier. It is distinctly possible that these were not performed during Bach’s lifetime, as they were found unused in the Brandenburg archives in 1849 and finally published the following year. Each of the concertos is scored for a unique body of soloists, the first including three Corni di Caccia (hunting horns), three oboes and bassoon, and the small Violino Piccolo.
Carol Traupmann-Carr notes that, “Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is a good example of a work inspired by the Italian instrumental composers Torelli, Albinoni, and Vivaldi,” works that Bach would have known from his youth. He combines ritenello movements (with “spun-out” melodies) with popular dance forms of the time, including a courante, minuet and trio, and the closing polacca and trio, a nod to the “national dance” of Poland.
• Brian Hughes
Johann Sebastian Bach • Easter Oratorio BWV 242, Sinfonia and Adagio
The Easter Oratorio began its life as the Easter Cantata for April 1, 1725, and originally named Kommt, gehet und eilet. A subsequent revision from 1735, including an additional chorus and the two instrumental movements, is allegedly taken from a concerto written during Bach’s years in Kothen. The resulting Oratorio’s opening Sinfonia is a buoyant concerto grosso with solo sections for violins and oboes, while the Adagio changes moods with a lyrical and plaintive oboe melody over sighing strings setting the stage for the mysteries of that first Easter morning.
• Brian Hughes