Bach’s sacred music continues to grip audiences throughout the globe, centuries after its composition. Since Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) in 1829, Bach societies have flourished in many nations steeped in the Western Classical tradition and beyond. Presently in East Asia, a region where native folk music once ruled, the European ideal has taken seed. Those of us in the West continually find ourselves exploring the work of our contemporaries in far-away lands, the artistry of Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan is one such example. Here in Boston, David Hoose’s Cantata Singers and Ensemble and Craig Smith’s Emmanuel Music are world-class ensembles with an emphasis on the works of J.S. Bach. Why then does Boston need yet another ensemble specializing in Bach’s music?
In an era mired with more and more class distinctions and socioeconomic inequity, a decade dominated by an increasingly unsophisticated popular-culture and a time in which our political leaders choose to wage war around the world without prejudice, the human race needs every possible opportunity to have a passion for a higher level of the human experience. In live performances, we experience first-hand the sublime melodies of Ich habe genung, BWV 82 and the sense of joyful urgency throughout Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51. Through this music we see that Bach’s concept of death comes with an almost fervent sense of expectation. Though difficult to understand in modern society, as one examines the context of Bach’s life, (losing his first wife in 1720 and ten of his children to premature death), the composer’s keen hope for peaceful finality is understood. This essence of spiritual reflection, central to all of Bach’s sacred music, is manifested throughout these masterpieces and is essential for the soul of human existence.
Born on March 21, 1685 in Eisenach, Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach was the youngest son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, a town musician, from whom he most likely learned the violin and basic music theory. At age ten, Johann Sebastian was orphaned and went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph, the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, who gave him keyboard lessons. From 1700-1702, he attended St. Michael’s School in Lüneberg where he sang in the church choir and came into contact with the organist and composer Georg Böhm.
After an unsuccessful bid for an organist’s post in Sangerhausen in 1702, Bach spent the spring and summer of 1703 as a violinist in the court of Weimar. Beginning in the fall of 1703, he took up the post of organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. In June of 1707, he moved to St. Blasius Church in Mühlhausen, and four months later married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach in the nearby town of Dornheim. In 1708, Bach was appointed organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Weimar. Over the next nine years, he established himself as a leading organist, and during that time composed many of his finest works for the instrument. In addition to his professional activities in Weimar, he also fathered seven children, including Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emmanuel. In 1717, Bach was appointed Kapellmeister at Cöthen, which resulted in his imprisonment for a month, until he received permission to leave Weimar the Duke.
Bach’s new employer, Prince Leopold, was a talented musician who adored and appreciated the arts. Since the court at Cöthen was Calvinist, Bach had no church duties and concentrated on instrumental compositions. During this period, he produced the violin concertos, the six Brandenburg Concertos, numerous sonatas, suites, keyboard works, and pedagogical compositions. In 1720, Bach’s wife, Maria Barbara, died and in December of the following year, he re-married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, daughter of a court musician in Weissenfels. A week later, Bach’s patron, Prince Leopold married. Prince Leopold’s bride lacked enthusiasm and interest in the arts, which led to a steady decline in the court’s support of music. In 1722, Bach became a candidate for the prestigious post of Kapellmeister at Leipzig and Kantor of the local school, the Thomasschule. He was appointed to the position during April of 1723, following the withdrawal of the preferred candidates, Georg Telemann and Christoph Graupner.
Bach remained as Thomaskantor in Leipzig for the remainder of his life. His duties in Leipzig centered on Sunday and feast day services at the city’s two main churches. During his early years in Leipzig, Bach composed prolific amounts of church music, including several cantata cycles, the Magnificat (BWV 243), and the St. John (BWV 245) and St. Matthew (BWV 244) Passions. He was renowned as a virtuoso organist, in demand as an organ teacher, and sought after as an expert in organ construction and design. His fame as a composer spread gradually when he began to publish editions of his keyboard and organ music in 1726.
Bach’s interest in composing church music sharply declined from 1729 onward, as most of his sacred works after that date, including the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) and the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), consist mainly of arrangements from earlier music. At this point in his career, he also took over the direction of the collegium musicum founded by Telemann in 1702. This mainly amateur society gave regular public concerts for which Bach composed and arranged harpsichord concertos and several large-scale cantatas.
The works composed during Bach’s last years are predominantly geared towards contrapuntal mastery. His membership in Lorenz Mizler’s Society of Musical Sciences profoundly influenced his musical thinking. Works from this time include the “Goldberg” Variations (BWV 988) and the unfinished Art of Fugue (BWV 1080). It is in these compositions that Bach’s status as the culmination of Baroque aestheticism is unquestioned. Of particular relevance to tonight’s program, Bach composed his homage to Pergolesi, a paraphrase of the Stabat Mater, BWV 1083 around 1748.
Bach’s eyesight began to fail during his last year, and in March and April of 1750, the itinerant English oculist John Taylor operated on him twice. Bach’s death may have been hastened by the operations and treatments that followed them. He took final communion on July 22, 1750 and died six days later.
Bach’s output embraces practically every musical genre of his era except for the dramatic forms of opera and oratorio. Though his creative production was hindered by external factors in his pof employment, his works explore new dimensions of form, musical quality and technical demands. Of special note is the layering of religious and numerological significance found in his compositions. In a time when Baroque ideals were being rejected for a new, “enlightened” aesthetic, Bach’s musical development as a contrapuntist was unaffected, and his music serves as the model for generations of musicians.
Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 and Ich habe genung, BWV 82 are among a group of exquisite solo cantatas that also includes Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54, Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht, BWV 55 and Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56. All five of these cantatas demonstrate Bach’s undisputed mastery of contrapuntal technique, harmonic originality and word-painting.
Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 was most likely composed at some point during the early 1730’s for an occasion not known. Scholars conjecture that this cantata may even have been intended to serve as music for New Year’s. The joyful text made it suitable for other celebrations in the ecclesiastical year such as Michaelmas Day or even an election of the Council in Leipzig. The author of the text in the first three movements is unknown, though some scholars contend it came from the pen of Bach himself. The text of the closing chorale verse is from Johann Gramann’s Nun lob mein Seel.
The opening aria of Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 is a jubilant exclamation in C Major from both the soprano soloist and trumpet. The aria’s middle section, in the relative minor key of A minor, provides an expected harmonic contrast before a return to the triumphant opening. The solemn yet brief recitative following the aria, also cast in A minor, induces a plethora of striking images with Bach’s lithe melody and quick modulation in only sixteen measures. It is in the third movement where Bach’s commitment to faith and sense of urgency breaks forth. The soprano soloist, with only continuo accompaniment, implores the listener to be righteous children of God. Bach’s exploitation of the circle-of-fifths throughout this movement heightens the drama. The fourth movement is a C Major fantasy on Johann Kugelmann’s exquisite choral melody with the cantus firmus sung by the soprano. The cantata concludes with a lively fugal treatment on the word Alleluja including frequent imitation between the soprano and trumpet.
Ich habe genung, BWV 82 was first performed in Leipzig on February 2, 1727 for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, an event widely celebrated during Bach’s time, but barely recognized today. Conversely, the biblical story (Luke 2:25) is quite familiar, commonly known because of the Song of Simeon, or Nunc Dimittis. The author of the text is unknown. Though most often heard with a bass soloist and oboe obbligato, manuscripts indicate Bach originally conceived Ich habe genung, BWV 82 for an alto voice, opting to characterize Simeon with a bass voice during the compositional process. This version in E minor, featuring a soprano soloist with flute obbligato, dates back to 1731 and was a known favorite in Bach’s family circle. Anna Magdalena Bach herself made piano reductions of the third and fourth movements.
In the first aria, cast in E minor, the orchestral introduction with flute solo sets a tone of introspection that pervades all five movements of Ich habe genung, BWV 82. The soprano soloist emerges from the texture peacefully stating her faith and welcoming the journey to Providence. The following recitative in the relative major of G Major, reaffirms her conviction before a cadence in the dominant transitioning to the comforting serenity of the aria, Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen. The fourth movement, a brief recitative, segues to a fiery vivace of the closing aria, translated as “I delight in my death.”