someNotes on the music Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) Christ lag in Todesbanden, bwv 4  Before discussing this particular cantata, let us discuss the form of the chorale cantata in general. In Bach’s day, this was a setting based on the words of a particular hymn and its tune. Usually, the words of the hymn, with its many verses, served as the basis of the individual movements of the piece. But, most importantly, the tune of the hymn served as the musical basis or thread of the work, and this tune appeared in each movement as a cantus firmus or “fixed melody” from which the composer could not stray. Thus, each movement of the cantata contained that tune somewhere, whether it was in the soprano or the tenor, or the bass of the orchestra, or as an oboe obligato, played quickly, played slowly, it appeared somewhere and all the rest was musical invention designed around it.  Christ lag in Todesbanden, considered Bach’s earliest Easter work and one of his earliest cantatas, was possibly written to be performed on Easter Sunday of 1707. It is based on Martin Luther’s 1524 Easter hymn of the same name. The piece contains an opening instrumental sinfonia and all seven verses of Luther’s hymn. The verses are set in sequence with variations on the melody, and the entire text and tune appears in each verse. ﷯ It has been suggested that Bach altered the first interval in the original melody from a major second to a minor second, and this half-step figure is prominent throughout the work as a “sighing” figure. He may have altered this to give semantic meaning to the musical line, as the adding of a sharp symbol was also a reminder of Christ’s cross. In German, the sharp symbol is known as a Kreuz, also the word for cross, and the modification of the melody could have been Bach’s allusion to man’s elevation from sin by the cross. The text contains vivid imagery and biblical references, including the metaphor of Christ as Paschal lamb from 1st Corinthians 5:6-8, the statement that Death has lost its sting (1st Corinthians 15:55), and references to Christ’s blood as the sacrificial blood that marks our doors and wards off the angel of death (Exodus 12).  Luther’s original hymn ended with a Halleluja only at the end of the first verse, but Bach chose to end each stanza the same way, with a simply stated, elegant and understanding expression of that Hallelujah, one of many devices Bach employed in setting a joyful and yet painful text entirely in a minor key and with no fanfare. Calvin R. Stapert says, “He had more than enough compositional resources and sensitivity to the breadth of religious feeling to express Easter joy without recourse to trumpets and major keys.” Ominous though it seems for a cantata of the joyous celebration of Easter, Bach would not have us forget the path traveled by Christ to arrive at Easter morning.  In the first chorus, the violins exchange an animated motive, emphasizing that Death’s bondage is in the past. The treatment of the word fröhlich (joyful) in sixteenth note duets and the framing of this particular text with instrumental interludes emphasize the importance of having joy in Christ’s sacrifice. In the alla breve section, Bach expands two short motives in any number of combinations, resulting in a jubilant cacophony of Hallelujas.  The second verse duet returns to gravity with prominent descending half-step figures and chains of suspensions that eventually resolve, alluding to suffering and salvation. In the third stanza, the tenor tells his story very clearly, with almost no variation until a brief, yet stunning halt, then breaking out into sixteenths for the final Halleluja.  Verse four is the central movement of the piece and returns to the full chorus. The altos intone the unaltered chorale tune in B minor, the only time the tune appears in any key other than E minor. The other three vocal parts dance and weave around it in elation. Bach emphasizes the mockery of Death with a pointed two-note figure on ein Spott (mockery) and allows the chorale tune to linger in the air while the other sections conclude.  The fifth verse bass solo, poignantly highlighting the graphic bloodstained Paschal lamb text, and the final Halleluja is especially striking with a two-octave range and large leaps outlining the cross figure. In the final duet, triplet figures abound to match the exuberant text and are accompanied by an animated continuo. The piece concludes with a setting of the chorale as a congregation of the time would have been accustomed to hearing it, with the tune in the soprano and Bach’s unmistakable harmonization. The deceptive cadence before the final Halleluja adds to a heightened exultation in the conclusive major chord. Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 105  The six Brandenburg Concertos stand at the crossroads in musical history where chamber music and orchestral music went their separate ways. These Concerts á plusieurs instruments (Concertos for various instruments), as Bach named them, were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, who employed a modest orchestra that was probably too small and inexpert to play them all. The current mint condition of the manuscripts, now in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, indicates that the Margrave’s orchestra seldom if ever performed them. ﷯ These same Concertos, however, were common fare at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach’s employer. Three of them, Nos. 2, 4 and 5, are true concerti grossi, specifying a solo instrument or group of instruments, requirements that correspond closely to the better players found in the prince’s orchestra. Bach composed them between 1718 and 1721, although parts may have been written as early as 1708. They were not composed as an independent group, but rather assembled from various orchestral works already written over the years as courtly entertainment music.  Concerto No. 5 broke new ground in music history. For the first time, the harpsichord, previously the “utility harmonizer” of the basso continuo section, is elevated to the rank of soloist. It begins as a “first among equals,” sharing the solo passages with solo violin and flute, shifting into rhythmic passing-gear midway through the first movement and leaving the other two soloists in a dustcloud of swirling 32nd-notes. The extended solo senza stromenti (“cadenza”) concluding the first movement gives us a glimpse of Bach the virtuoso improviser. The work must have made a great impression on Bach’s contemporaries, to judge from the number of copies that have survived. Bach himself played the solo harpsichord in performances in Cöthen. The harpsichord subsequently occupied a crucial place in his creative output. During his final position as Kantor of the St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, he transcribed sixteen concertos originally for other instruments for the harpsichord.  All of Bach’s concertos adhere to the Italian style championed by Antonio Vivaldi. Each movement consisted of a single theme, or ritornello, introduced by the full ensemble; the solo part often picked up individual motives from the ritornello or played new episodes, for which the ritornello served as a refrain.  The opening ritornello of this Concerto, with the harpsichord in its role as member of the continuo, gives little clue of what is to come. Unlike the other concertos, where certain episodes were dominated by a single solo instrument, here all three soloists contribute to every episode, except for the harpsichord cadenza. The slow movement bears the marking Affettuoso instead of a true tempo marking. In the form of a trio sonata, it restores parity with the flute and violin soloists, with the right hand of the harpsichord contributing a third treble melody while the bass line returns to its continuo duties. The final movement is a treasure often overlooked because of the flashy first movement. It is a gigue, or “jig”, traditionally the final movement of a dance suite, and begins as a canon. As the three soloists begin, Bach sets up a series of expected cadences and then systematically avoids them by changing key, or dovetailing phrases, so that there is virtually no rest until over a minute into the movement when the soloists begin the first episode. The harpsichord has a brief solo episode in the manner of a two-part invention, and running passagework in double-time under the other instruments, though more in an effort to remain audible than for overt virtuosic display. The concerto ends as it began, with the harpsichord returning to its continuo accompanist duties, sweeping out the fireplace after the ball, as it were. Magnificat in D, bwv 243  The Vespers service at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, on Christmas day of 1723, probably lasted several hours. The new Cantor, if he was going to write his own music for the service, was going to have to keep it short. One always did the Song of Mary, of course. That was a Christmas tradition. For ordinary occasions, one would use Luther’s German translation “Meine Seele erhebt den Herren”; but on high feast days such as Christmas, it would be in Latin, with instruments: fiddles, some flutes and oboes, brasses if you could find any. A real production: Magnificat anima mea dominum. ﷯ The new Cantor, a Bach named Johann Sebastian, decided to make his own music for Christmas that year. He needn’t have; he could have used any of several Magnificats in the school’s music library. Since his installation in June, he had written one new piece almost every week until the middle of November. Now he had six weeks to write a Magnificat. The musical setting of the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) that Bach worked up during that Advent season nearly 300 years ago is intimate, immediate, dense with musical imagery, achingly tender, startlingly powerful, and unique in the long, long catalog of the man’s masterpieces.  Quite literally, yes, unique. Bach never did another piece of music quite like this Magnificat. For one thing, it’s dense. In spite of, or maybe because of its small scale, it’s packed with intensity, in a way that his larger choral works couldn’t be. And each part of it is short. Each verse is set as a separate musical movement, but none of these are built to any sort of standard pattern or form: there are no da capo arias, no recitatives, and no “big” choruses of the sort that he would have used to open a cantata, for example. Each of the twelve movements is a tiny musical gem whose only purpose is to exhibit, with the utmost conviction, clarity, and vividness, its text: Magnificat anima mea dominum. My soul praises the Lord highly. The music of this first verse is supremely joyous, exultant, and light and tender. Here, in this movement, everything is lightness and grace, even in the highly charged rhythm of the repeated word ‘magnificat’. The music modulates as directly and innocently as if each new key center were being discovered here for the very first time. Each cadence, as it arrives, brings a new inflection, a stance: “ah, we will magnify the Lord in A major, and—look at this—in E, and—my goodness—in B minor too.” Picture the choral writing, if you will, as though it were a tiny Vivaldi concerto, with repeated shouts by the choral tutti ‘magnificat’ alternating with florid little episodes in the individual parts. Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo. And my spirit has exulted in the God of my salvation. The keyword here is ‘exultavit’; listen to how important a role is given to rising melodic phrases such as the very first one. So the music itself rises, exults. Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae;  ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes. For he has been mindful of the lowly status of his handmaiden;  surely, henceforth I will be called ‘blessed’ by all generations. Here is a picture of ‘humilitatem’, exquisitely chiselled, sculpted lines of heartrending expressiveness. Listen to the exclamation ‘ecce, ecce’. And prepare to be surprised at how literally Bach sets the words for “all generations”; the chorus enters, one layer piled on another without end, one generation after another. Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius. For He who is mighty had done great things for me, and His name is holy. The operative ideas are ‘magna’ and ‘potens’. So the setting must of course be for bass, accompanied only by a bass line built of strikingly rhythmic and, well, powerful gestures. Et misericordia a progenie in progenies timentibus eum. And there is mercy from generation to generation for those who fear Him. ‘Misericordia’ and `timentibus’. Working from these ideas, Bach elaborates a duet of astonishing sweetness and depth. Listen, in the final vocal cadence, to the interrupted tenor notes on ‘timentibus’. Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui. He has showed the strength of His arm, He has scattered the proud by the thoughts of His heart. Powerful harmonic motion exhibits ‘potentiam’; a curiously shaped melody (sung first by the tenors, and eventually by each voice in turn) seems to have elbows in it like a ‘brachio suo’. Listen for ‘dispersit’—it chases itself through the whole choir. And the full power of the divine ‘mente cordis’ is revealed, awesomely, in the final measures. Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles. He has cast down the mighty from their seats, and has lifted up the humble. Almost every individual word of this verse has its illustration in the music. It’s not hard to hear at all; what’s remarkable is that Bach, unpretentiously, in all innocence, can express the simplest of musical imagery. On ‘deposuit’, the melody falls; on ‘de sede’, it bumps like humpty-dumpty; on ‘exaltavit’ it rises, and on ‘humiles’ it descends gently into the lower part of its range. Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes. He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent away the rich empty-handed. Notice how the words ‘implevit bonis’ become gradually “filled” (with notes) as the movement progresses, and the words ‘dimisit inanes’ are “emptied” (of notes). Just how far would Bach go to illustrate a point? One of the better-known examples comes at the very last measure, when the flutes omit their last note: the rich are sent away “empty-handed”. Suscepit Israel puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae suae. He has raised up Israel, His servant, and has remembered His mercy. References to “Israel” or “Abraham” are often represented by Bach in archaic or old-fashioned styles. Here, the vocal writing for the trio is in a Palestrina-like style, while the accompanying instruments intone the traditional plainchant melody of the Magnificat. Sicut locutus est ad Patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in saecula. As it was told to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed for all ages to come. A fugue, a little heavy-footed and pedantic, a very Old-Testament fugue about Abraham and the multiple generations plodding along, having waited for the promise of the Messiah to be fulfilled. Perhaps Bach is holding back a little, so as to increase the musical impact of what’s coming up: Gloria Patri, gloria Filio, gloria et Spiritui sancto! Glory to the Father, glory to the Son, and glory to the Holy Spirit! Like all the angels in heaven praising the Holy Trinity, in musical triplets, building each shout of praise in turn... Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum. Amen. As it was in the beginning, so also now and for all ages of ages to come. Amen. ...until all things are made anew. The music that was “in the beginning”, i.e. that made up the first movement, returns and persists for all eternity. Notice that the themes are those of the beginning, but what actually happens to them is different: there’s a long-held chord just before the final exultant cadence, on the word ‘saeculorum’. Of course.

Annibale Carracci, The Dead Christ (1585)

A harpsichord by Michael Mietke. It was probably a new Mietke harpsichord which served as Bach’s inspiration for the Fifth Brandenburg concerto.

The interior of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

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