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Cantata BWV 31
Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of April 24, 2005

Thomas Shepherd wrote (April 23, 2005):
BWV 31: Introduction

The cantata for discussion this week (April 24-May 1) is:

Cantata BWV 31
Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret
Event in the Lutheran church calendar: Cantata for Easter Sunday

Composed: Weimar, 1715; Re-fashioned for re-performances in Leipzig in 1724 and in 1731 | 1st performance: April 21, 1715 - Weimar; 2nd performance: April 9, 1724 - Leipzig; 3rd performance: March 25, 1731 - Leipzig

Link to texts, commentary, vocal score, music examples, and list of known recordings: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV31.htm

Link to previous discussions:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV31-D.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV31-D2.htm

Streamed over the internet, it is possible to hear Leusink's version of the whole cantata [12]: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Stream/BWV31-Leusink.ram

Link to liturgical Readings: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Read/Easter-Sunday.htm

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From Tadashi Isoyama's 1997 notes for vol 6 of Suzuki's Cantata cycle on BIS records [9]:

"With the exception of the Easter Oratorio, only two of Bach's cantatas for Easter Day are still in existence: BWV 4 and BWV 31. Both of these works are relatively early but offer a wide range of contrasts, and were often reperformed in Leipzig.

"Unlike BWV 4, which looks back on the Passion through a Lutheran chorale text, BWW 31, which uses a libretto by Salomo Franck, is a true festival piece, requiring three trumpets, timpani, three oboes and an oboe da caccia, which captures the great rejoicing of Jesus's resurrection. This rejoicing is transformed into fervent hope of
participation in the resurrection of Christ, at last leading to a great chorale singing of death and eternity. The cantata was first performed on 21st April 1715, when Bach had just turned 30. It was heard again the very next year…

"The cantata opens with a movement entitled Sonata, which is a concerto-like instrumental overture. Dancing 6/8 metre here is evocative of the Brandenburg Concertos. As this movement ends, the chorus introduces the shouts of 'The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices!' The Allegro C major chorus uses short blocks and fugue-sections in alternation to present very lively images of 'laugh' and 'rejoice'. After an Adagio section in A minor, which refers to the grave and rest, and an Allegro section, which praises the Most High, the opening idea returns to close the movement.

"Next the bass announces Christ's resurrection (Recitative, number 3). Bach's meticulous use of tempo changes, perfectly suited to the words they accompany, creates an ideal musical rendition of the Bible verse. The bass continues in the fourth movement to an aria in C major with basso continuo, marked Molto adagio. Images from the text, painting the Lord as 'Prince of life, strong Champion,' are powerfully declaimed. Schweitzer called this 'rhythm of solemnity'; a sharply demarcated rhythm is brought out here.

"With the tenor's bright exhortation to the soul to look to the new life in spirit, the perspective changes in the fifth movement to portray the path of the believer. Here follows a sprightly G major aria for full strings (number 6), in which the believer becomes 'der neue Mensch' ('the new man'), free from the grip of sin.

"From this point on, the cantata becomes more spiritual in focus; the narration is from the viewpoint of the soul in the first person (number 7, soprano recitative). The conviction of participation in the resurrection of Christ and in the attainment of everlasting life is here emphatically presented. The soprano aria in the eighth movement (C major) is filled with a mysterious brightness. The oboe obbligato with its echo effect blends with the solo soprano voice, and in the background the violins and violas accompany her with the melody of the closing chorale ('Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist' [When my last hour is at hand]).

"The last movement of the cantata, the above mentioned chorale, contains a remnant of the exuberance of the opening movement. In an exquisite emphasis on the attainment of eternal heavenly life as the true joy of the Resurrection, the first trumpet and first violin soar above the chorus, shimmering like the halo for which the soul waits."

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I'm sorry that the only musical examples I can offer week by week are from the same four cantata cycles. The first two movements were analysed in some depth in the last round of discussions so this week's recordings are of the hauntingly beautiful soprano aria (and chorale) Letzte Stunde, brich herein - the eighth movement of the cantata.

Rilling: Arleen Augér [7]: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/MusEx/BWV31-M8-Rilling.mp3

Harnoncourt: Boy Soprano of the Wiener Sängerknaben [5]: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/MusEx/BWV31-M8-Harnoncourt.mp3

Suzuki; Monika Frimmer [9]: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/MusEx/BWV31-M8-Suzuki.mp3

Leusink: Ruth Holton [12]: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/MusEx/BWV31-M8-Leusink.mp3

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I hope to see many of you enjoying the music and joining in the discussion about this aria or any other aspect of the cantata.

Doug Cowling wrote (April 23, 2005):
[To Thomas Shepherd] I first heard this cantata as a teenager and have for ever been a fanatic for Bach's grand festive scoring for three trumpets and timpani.

It struck me listening to the opening that we have much the same situation as "Gott ist mein König" (BWV 71) with the Sonata providing the singers with the key of the chorus which begins ex nihilo. Perhaps an argument for the Gott ist Mein König beginning with a brass canzona. I'm also wondering now about other cantatas such as "Es Erhub Sich Ein Streit" which begin without any orchestral introduction.

The grand style of the cantata seems so appropriate for the principal day of the church year. The contrast with "Christ Lag in Todesbanden" is striking. Has there been any discussion that BWV 4 might be a cantata "sub communione" performed during the reception of communion? McCreesh suggests that "Schmucke Dich" is another communion cantata. Certainly, the references to the Passover feast in BWV 4 make it a likely candidate.

By the way, the "laughing" runs in the opening chorus are horrifically difficult to sing. You can easily sound like a Valkyrie jumping from rock to rock.

Peter Smaill wrote (April 24, 2005):
'The progression from the riotous laughter of heaven and earth to the intimate and affecting close provides a varying and dramatic scheme of arresting significance and human interest, and Bach's magical touch has endowed every phase of it with immortal art' (Whittaker on BWV 31.)

lt's tto stop there regarding "Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret". However, scholarship has moved on since Whittaker, and more points of interest emerge - if it were possible adding to the significance of this work which, contains one the greatest choruses (BWV 31/2), most beautiful arias (BWV 31/8), and noblest chorales (BWV 31/9).

The development of interest on the textual front is the alignment by Eric Chafe of this cantata with the New Year piece, BWV 41 ("Jesu nun sei gepreiset"), and also less directly with BWV 1 ("Wie schoen leuchtet) BWV 140, BWV 49 and BWV 61. The idea expressed by Chafe as the key, is the "Angfang und Ende": the "beginning and end "; that Jesus is made, the "Alpha and Omega", "A und O."

This allusion to Jesus derives from the quasi-apocryphal Book of Revelation and finds expression particularly in BWV 31 and BWV 41. One is for Easter Day; the other New Year. BWV 1 is set for the the Annunciation; BWV 61, the first Sunday in Advent. Only BWV 49 ("My treasure is the A and O"), for the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, is not a major date in the calendar. As we discussed, BWV 140 is for the end of a very prolonged Trinity. Chafe detects in the alignment of the "A and O" ideas, alternately the "Morningstar "concept, a deliberate marking out in Bach's libretto of the order of salvation implied by "Anfang und Ende" each time it is found on a significant and related date in the liturgical year.

In BWV 31, the A und O idea comes immediately after the dialogue of heavenly trumpets and earthly choir in the Chorus 31/2. Imagine the effect in the high gallery of the Himmelsburg in Weimar on Easter Day!

The allusions to "Death's prison" resonate with "Durch deine gefaengnis" in the SJP (BWV 245). Bach accommodates the theologically competing emphases regarding the Resurrection; both the idea of "Christus Victor" (breaking out of prison, breaking the bonds of sin, taking the keys of hell, mighty warrior); and that of Atonement/sacrifice (emphasising the efficacy of the wounds of Jesus, suffering with Christ, the unlocking of the door of Heaven), are found together, or rather, in sequence as the narrative progresses.

A fuller discussion of these tensions can be found in Jaroslav Pelikan's book "Bach among the Theologians", where he contrasts the emphasis in the SJP (BWV 245) and SMP (BWV 244) and notes that the 'Christmas Oratorio' (BWV 248) in its final chorale conflates triumphalist text/ trumpets with the sacrificial theology of the chorale which includes "O haupt von Blut und Wunden." But it also appears to me that Bach is also, in this early collaboration with Salomo Franck, also balancing sacrificial and triumphalist imagery.

Unusually this libretto has two references to colours; the red-sprinkled robe (from Isaiah, OT), and the purple wounds; perhaps derived from the "purple cloak" in Mark, NT). I read once that colour /color is absent from the Gospels (except for white and purple); and thus rare too in the cantata texts, despite the references to extra-biblical mystical imagery.

The contemplation of death in the midst of Easter joy suprises some commentators, bringing forth from Bach the lovely "Letze Stunde, brich herein" (BWV 31/8). As with other sterbenlied, pizzicato is used, when a repeated monotone in the bass, suggests the ticking of clocks and the passage of time. The theme of renewal, the "neue Mensch" appears, as in the schlusschoral of BWV 22, the probe cantata :

"Ertodt uns durch dein Gute
erweck Uns durch dein Gnad ;
Deb alte menschen kranke,
Dass der neu leben mag
wohl hier aug dieser Erden..
."

("Mortify us through thy Goodness
Awake us through thy Grace
Chasten in us the old man
That the new life may live well here on earth...")

Thus it is that this cantata provides us not just with a musical feast, but a theological one in which libretto and setting illustrate the antitheses of old man and new life, beginning and end, victor and victim, sinner and saved, living and dying, today and eternity, sleeping and waking, heaven and hell.

Were there any other (now lost) Cantatas for Easter Day? it is difficult even with Bach to imagine another production outshining this brilliant work.

Doug Cowling wrote (April 24, 2005):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< This allusion to Jesus derives from the quasi-apocryphal Book of Revelation and finds expression particularly in BWV 31 and BWV 41. >
The Book of Revelation has always been one of the canonical books of the New Testament.

This cantata is one of those rare instances of Bach writing for five voice choir (SSATB). The most notable other examples are in the Magnificat (BWV 243) and the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232). Is there any significance to Bach's choice of scoring?

Peter Smaill wrote (April 24, 2005):
Bach and the Book of Revelation

[To Doug Cowling] Doug Cowling has spotted that I hedged my bets on the Book of Revelation, calling it quasi -apocryphal. It is indeed as he says historically a canonical book of the Bible, but is the most challenged right from the beginning and even today scholars doubt its status.

St Jerome never accepted it as part of the Bible; his view found support in Luther and only by Bach's time had Revelation been accepted into mainstream Lutheranism.

A fuller set of references would include:

Cantata Imagery / (text in Revelation)

BWV 49, BWV 31, BWV 41 etc.
A and O (2:10)

BWV 61/4 Jesus knocking at the door (3:20)
BWV 21/11 The Lamb that was slain (5:11-12)
BWV 50/1 Casting down of the accusers (12:10)
BWV 60/4 Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord (cf Brahms) (14:13)
BWV 106 He who testifies says, "Come, Lord Jesu" (22:20)

The affinity of Revelation with mystical language helps to explain the move within Lutheranism away from the rejection of this Book as inauthentic, to the position where Bach's librettists could use its texts. The composer almost invariably produces settings (either of the words or in the relevant cantatas overall) of exceptional musical quality.

These texts help to confirm that Bach did not simply churn out Cantatas, sometimes striking lucky with the effect, but responded to the nature and quality of the sources and images which he handled. in BWV 31 Salomo Franck gave precisely the quality of libretto allowing Bach to achieve an outstanding musical tour de force.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 24, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
>>This cantata is one of those rare instances of Bach writing for five voice choir (SSATB). The most notable other examples are in the Magnificat and the Mass in B Minor. Is there any significance to Bach's choice of scoring?<<
In keeping with its editorial policy ('aus letzter Hand'= the last version available represents the composer's final intention) of ascertaining and printing the latest version (often they do print earlier versions as well as later versions), the NBA, in this instance presents BWV 31/2 as SSATB. As David Schulenberg (OCC) determined, it is 'the only such mvt. in Bach's regular Sunday cantatas' [actually, Easter is anything but a 'regular' Sunday!] A glance at the BWV (Alfred Dürr, et al, 1998) will inform the reader that this cantata is for SATB as far as the choral forces are concerned. Interesting! To find out what has really happened here, it is necessary to consult the NBKB I/9 pp. 34ff for Bach's original intentions on April 21, 1715. Even here the editor (Alfred Dürr in 1986) came to the conclusion (a 'wild' guess without any evidence to back it up other than that Bach once performed this mvt. in 1731 with a second soprano part) that among the missing vocal parts there must have been two soprano parts [p. 44). Fortunately, on p. 35, the NBA KB gives the necessary evidence in the form of an autograph [!!!] title page from 1715 which states quite clearly:

Feria 1 | Pashatos. | Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret | a | 4 Voci. | 3 Trombe | Tamburi | 2 Hautbois. | 2 Violini | 2 Viole | 3 | Continuo | di |
Joh. Seb. Bach.

Based upon this, we can assuredly assume that the 1st performance of this work had only a single soprano part.

I would rather doubt that anyone has attempted reconstruct the original of this mvt., or does anyone know of any recording where the sopranos are not split into two parts?

Doug Cowling wrote (April 24, 2005):
BWV 31: SATB Chorus?

Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Feria 1 | Pashatos. | Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret | a | 4 Voci. | 3 Trombe | Tamburi | 2 Hautbois. | 2 Violini | 2 Viole | 3 | Continuo | di |
Joh. Seb. Bach.
Based upon this, we can assuredly assume that the 1st performance of this work had only a single soprano part.
I would rather doubt that anyone has attempted reconstruct the original of this mvt., or does anyone know of any recording where the sopranos are not split into two parts? >
Looking at the opening chorus, I find it impossible to believe that it was ever in four parts. The second soprano line is no "ad placitum" part but an integral part of the counterpoint. In fact, the fugal exposition of the chorus bears a resemblance to "Fecit Potentiam" in the "Magnificat" (BWV 243) where the fugal subject is equally long and the other voices enter with homophonic "fanfares" of "fecit potentiam" each time a new point of imitation enters; in this cantata the shouts of "Die Himmel lacht" mark the fugal entries. If this was ever a four-part version, it must have a radically different piece of music.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 24, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
>>Looking at the opening chorus, I find it impossible to believe that it was ever in four parts.<<
What you may find impossible to believe about Bach's abilities to transform and reuse his existing compositions as needed may arise from an underestimation of Bach's abilities.

>>If this was ever a four-part version, it must have a radically different piece of music.<<
Your determination seems to have overlooked and fails to consider some very important aspects of Bach's compositional techniques such as "Choreinbau"/"Vokaleinbau" or in the case of instrumental compositions used in the cantatas, the fuller arrangements of movements from the Brandenburg Concertos, which illustrate how Bach frequently expands already existing material.

The NBA KB believes that, based upon the available evidence, BWV 50 "Nun ist das Heil" was originally the 1st mvt. of a church cantata and would not have been scored for a double choir, but rather for SATB.

Consider also what you hear in the final instrumental conclusion of BWV 31/2...now, suddenly, the 1st trumpet plays the fugal theme (after the 3 trumpets had only been used for short flourishes throughout the mvt.) What could have prevented Bach from having used the same 1st trumpeter in playing the Soprano I fugal entries in the body of this piece?

The only original parts from the Weimar period are: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Oboes, Tenor Oboe ("Taille"), Bassoon, 1st and 2nd Violins and Violoncello.

Crucially missing are all the vocal, trumpet, and remaining string parts (1st and 2nd Viola).

The first real evidence that a 2nd Soprano part was added comes from a performance in 1731.

From all appearances at the present time, and the BWV confirms this, BWV 31 was originally composed for only 4 vocal parts and 16 years later Bach added the additional soprano part.

Doug Cowling wrote (April 24, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] To begin, I have never underestimated Bach abilities to transform and transfigure pre-existing music! I could well accept that "Nun is das Heil" was a single choir piece, just as the antiphony of "Osanna in exclesis" in the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) is engineered from another piece.

However, if you look at the second soprano part in Cantata BWV 31, you will see that its tessiatura lies in a "mezzo" range between the usual soprano and alto ranges. This was never the top vocal part of the chorus. Neither is there any Bach choral work in which the first entry of the fugue is taken by an instrumental line. There are plenty examples of the FINAL entry being taken by say, a trumpet, but the first entry? - never. The whole structure of the counterpoint in this cantata argues against that it was a four-part fugue. I have no doubts that Bach could have reworked this movement from an earlier four-part version, but it would have been a very different piece.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 24, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
>>However, if you look at the second soprano part in Cantata BWV 31, you will see that its tessiatura lies in a "mezzo" range between the usual soprano and alto ranges. This was never the top vocal part of the chorus.<<
Performing pitch must be considered here as well. In Weimar in 1715, according to Bruce Haynes in his article on pitch in the OCC, a' was approximately equal to 390 Hz in "tief-Cammerton" but in Leipzig Bach used "Cammerton" = 415 Hz. Correct me if I am wrong about this, particularly since Ulrich Prinz has recently (2005) criticized and seriously questioned numerous aspects of Haynes' theory on pitch.

>>Neither is there any Bach choral work in which the first entry of the fugue is taken by an instrumental line. There are plenty examples of the FINAL entry being taken by say, a trumpet, but the first entry? - never.<<
Generally this seems to be true when Bach has a 4 part choral fugue beginning in the bass and then adds a fifth, glorius, crowning entry by the 1st trumpet at the end of the ascending fugal pattern.

Take BWV/2 now an examine it carefully:

I. descending fugal entries (only 3!!)
mm 1-7 treated just as mm 63-71 at the very end

II. ascending 5 part fugue
mm. 8-21 at m 15 the 1st trumpet plays the 5th entry, thus replacing the 1st soprano part.


III. repeat of sections I & II above
mm 22-42

IV. Adagio all but trumpets play colla parte with choir
mm. 43-50 Block chords

V. Allegro descending fugal entries (no trumpets)
mm 51-62

although not Bach's usual practice (Bach is quite experimental in his compositions), the first entry by the 1st violin, 1st oboe and the 1st trumpet in unison would certainly give a strong 1st entrance of the fugal them followed then by the SATB entrances.

VI. Ritornello by the instruments alone as written.
mm63-71

>>I have no doubts that Bach could have reworked this movement from an earlier four-part version, but it would have been a very different piece.<<
Not that very different! The music remains essentially the same and still achieves it original glorious effect.

Teddy Kaufman wrote (April 24, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz & Doug Cowling] Music, Painting and Sculpture mean Art, respectively produced by musicians and artists.

During the evolution of painting and sculpture, it has been a common and a well accepted habit that the artist "reworks" or reuses his own previous motives, figures , backgrounds and even landscapes.

I don't think that Composers are an exception nor Bach in particular. Am I wrong ?

Doug Cowling wrote (April 24, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
>>(Braatz) Performing pitch must be considered here as well. In Weimar in 1715, according to Bruce Haynes in his article on pitch in the OCC, a' wasapproximately equal to 390 Hz in "tief-Cammerton" but in Leipzig Bach used "Cammerton" = 415 Hz. Correct me if I am wrong about this, particularly since Ulrich Prinz has recently (2005) criticized and seriously questioned numerous aspects of Haynes' theory on pitch.
(Cowling) Neither is there any Bach choral work in which the first entry of the fugue is taken by an instrumental line. There are plenty examples of the FINAL entry being taken by say, a trumpet, but the first entry? - never.<<
(Braatz) Generally this seems to be true when Bach has a 4 part choral fugue beginning in the bass and then adds a fifth, glorius, crowning entry by the 1st trumpet at the end of the ascending fugal pattern. >
Even with considerations of tuning, the Soprano 2 line in Cantata BWV 31 lies in a mid-point between Soprano 1 rarely approaching the top of the staff and frequently including middle C. That is not the tessiatura of the usual soprano line in Bach. Normally, middle C does appear but G's and A's at the top of the staff are characteristic of Bach's soprano range.

Having just pronounced that Bach never begins a choral fugue with an instrumental line, I'm reminded that Cantata BWV 43, "Gott Fähret Auf" begins with the trumpet on the fugal theme and the strings entering with at least one answer before the choral bass enters with what I think of as the beginning of the fugue (it rises through the choir). I only have the vocal score, so it's not clear what Bach is doing. Would someone check the full score and see if the instrumental opening is the real beginning of the counterpoint or a faux-fugue introduction?

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 24, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
>>Even with considerations of tuning, the Soprano 2 line in Cantata 31 lies in a mid-point between Soprano 1 rarely approaching the top of the staff and frequently including middle C. That is not the tessiatura of the usual soprano line in Bach. Normally, middle C does appear but G's and A's at the top of the staff are characteristic of Bach's soprano range.<<
The correct word is 'tessitura' (which does not simply equate with 'vocal range.') Along with the change in pitch, consider also that Bach probably had some special male 'Concertisten' singing these soprano parts in Weimar. Their ranges may have been somewhat different (very likely a wider range than regular boy sopranos.) When Bach 'reperformed' this mvt. in 1724 in Leipzig, he probably discovered that it did not work as well as he might have expected (too demanding for the Thomaner boys, hence the revision (additional soprano part) in 1731.

>>Having just pronounced that Bach never begins a choral fugue with an instrumental line, I'm reminded that Cantata BWV 43, "Gott Fähret Auf" begins with the trumpet on the fugal theme and the strings entering with at least one answer before the choral bass enters with what I think of as the beginning of the fugue (it rises through the choir). I only have the vocal score, so it's not clear what Bach is doing. Would someone check the full score and see if the instrumental opening is the real beginning of the counterpoint or a faux-fugue introduction?<<
The fugal theme is first announced by the 1st trumpet, then it appears only in the continuo, after which only the vocal bass sings the subject once more as the beginning of the ascending fugue which ascends BTAS and finally, the crowning effect in the 1st trumpet (all by itself). Now, after the trumpet, at the end of m. 54 the soprano has a slightly changed version of the subject which is only an approximate (modified) imitation of the fugal subject. The other voices enter with this subject in descending order ATB.

It is easy to see how Bach could easily modify the fugal subject so that it would not force the voices (or even instruments) out of their normal ranges.

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 25, 2005):
[To Peter Smaill] I'm not sure that Luther ever rejected Revelation. When first translating the Bible, Luther was still to some extent, a "reformer" and a scholar. He didn't reject Revelation, but recognized the tradition of books "spoken against" and those accepted by early Church fathers as unquestionably accurate. As always Luther was good with a quip. Frustrated by the complex symbolism he commented: "A revelation should be revealing."

According to Luther scholar Mark Edwards (former head of St. Olaf College, one of the excellent small and expensive liberal arts colleges in Minnesota) Luther's attitudes toward the book changed greatly as he turned from reformer to revolutionary. When the gloves came off Luther was quick to employ images directly from or associated with Revelation (Anti-Christ, Whore of Bablyon) in his polemics directed toward Rome. Some of the woodcuts Luther used in his editions of the Bible and also in his polemics exploit these images with full impact. (The earthiness of some of Luther's works was nothing unusual. The sainted Thomas Moore replied in exactly the same type of language.) Edwards contends as Luther's life progressed he indeed became influenced by millennial thought and spent much time trying to decipher the more opaque symbols found in Revelation - I bet that gave him a headache. In any case, Luther lived, for his era, a long life. And like many people of genius, particularly individuals prolific with words and speech, it can be tricky to look for consistency in Luther's teachings. As might be exepcted the Church replied in kind. Obviously Luther was pictured as the Anti-Christ. Some early Jesuist writers speculated that the Reformation (if that's the right word) might herald the "end of days" - quite a departure from Augustine. People did take these thing seriously. Oddly this period was one of the few prior to the 19th century where Revelation was looked at as some kind of literal road map toward the end of time. Now such stuff is commonly encountered in fundamentalist sects.

Be that as it may, BMV is another wonderful cantata and certainly doesn't conjure up any feeling of coming apocalypse. I listened to versions recorded by Leusink [12] and Rotzsch with the Gewandhaus/Thomanerchor [6]. The opening sontata does lend itself well to the big band approach employed by the Gewandhaus, although Leusink's players certainly do it justice. (As Aryeh pointed out a few years back, the movement does evoke Händel, espeically when played by the Gewandhaus.) I suppose the highlight of the work is movement 8, one of those lovely bittersweet Bach arias, this one for soprano. Helga Termer sings wonderfully and I would hardly fault her. However, this is the kind of music made for the delicate voice of Ruth Holton and she is in very fine form in the Leusink's recording. If anyone hasn't taken advantage of our online Leusink collection, at least check out this movement - it's really nice. (I really must find a copy of Harnoncourt [5]. Aryeh claims that the boys wreck the kitchen when given this aria. I've never heard them that bad, and have to check it out myself.)

Stephen Benson wrote (April 25, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
[5] < Aryeh claims that the boys wreck the kitchen when given this aria. I've never heard them that bad, and have to check it out myself.) >
Aryeh's right. But as unattractive as this aria is, it cannot compare to the cacophony generated in the opening chorus of the same recording.

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 25, 2005):
[To Stephen Benson] Okay, now for sure I'll find a Harnoncourt BWV 31 [5]. But there isn't a possibility here that some of the reviewers have had anything to do with Middle School education is there? My wife has been waging war with elementary school kids for thirty years. The only thing that made her question her vocation was one year when she did a 5th/6th grade combination. The experience brought her closto breakdown and injected a general dislike of the male gender that was long lasting. A rough time for myself (our son escaped censure of course because he's special.) But I will allow for a bad outing for the Tölzer choir.

Yet I still like boys in Bach - a lot.

Neil Halliday wrote (April 25, 2005):
BWV 31/2 (Mvt. 2): opening chorus; and sonata

It's interesting to look at (and listen for) the order of the appearance of the fugal subject, in this massive chorus.

Firstly (allegro); successively S1,S2, (trumpet flourish) A; then (with the initial notes of the basses' entry hidden behind another trumpet flourish) B,T,A,S2,S1. Note that in this section there is not a complete downward movement through all voices. This pattern is repeated, bringing us to the wistful, non-fugal 'adagio' section.

At the return of the 'allegro' section ("The Holiest cannot decay"), there is a new fugal subject, stated successively (this time we make it all the way from highest to lowest voice) in the order S1,S2,A,T,B.

The original fugal subject reappears, unusually, at the end of the movement in the instruments alone, in the order: trumpet 1, violins 1, trumpet 2.

=================

The rhythm of the initial massive unison section, in the instrumental sonata (1st movement), is tricky and highly effective, because all 15 staves of the score are silent on the first beat of the bar. (In 6/8 time, start counting on beat '2', when the music starts!).

This unison section contains only the notes of the C major chord, revealing an 'economy' of means similar to that displayed (though with completely different structure) in the several minutes of the the development of a major chord at the start of one of Wagner's operas (I forget which one).

==========

The score of the chorus is on 20 staves, and includes (as in the opening sonata) separate parts for cello 1, with cello 2 being designated to the continuo part; there are four oboes (including a taille), bassoon, and two violas etc, etc. Hearing the following recitative and bass aria leaves me with the impression that Bach was exhausted by the effort of writing the first two movements....

Neil Halliday wrote (April 25, 2005):
BWV 31/4 (Mvt. 4)

I wrote:
"the bass aria leaves me with the impression that Bach was exhausted by the effort of writing the first two movements"
But this may be because I had Werner's bass aria [3] in mind, in which he reduces the forces to a single cello, 'tinkly' harpsichord and voice - incredibly austere after the richness of the first two movements.

Listening to Harnoncourt's bass aria [5], I am pleasantly surprised; apart from Nimsgern's strong, expressive voice, we have a cello/violone combination, and most surprisingly of all, a pleasingly developed organ realisation, and a lively tempo, all adding up to a substantial bass aria.

Just goes to show how critical is the organist's realisation in this type of continuo only aria. (The only criticism I have of the Harnoncourt is that the organ sounds too small for my taste; I would prefer to hear this realisation a larger instrument).

Stephen Benson wrote (April 25, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< But there isn't a possibility here that some of the reviewers have had anything to do with Middle School education is there? My wife has been waging war with elementary school kids for thirty years. The only thing that made her question her vocation was one year when she did a 5th/6th grade combination. The experience brought her close to breakdown and injected a general dislike of the male gender that was long lasting. >
Perceptive sort, aren't you. Try 29 years in a middle-school classroom, 26 of those years with 6th-graders! (When I can force myself to read the local newspaper, the first place I turn is the police blotter to see which of my former students' names appear there.)

This also brings to mind a quote regarding boy singers I may have mentioned before, but which fits here so well it merits repeating. David Mason Greene in a CD review in the American Record Guide in the March/April 1992 issue said:

"Boy sopranos seem to be admired for different qualities in different cultures. Italian trebles tend to sound like an elementary-school playground at noon recess. French trebles sound like killing-time in a poultry abattoir. British trebles have a pure, innocent, angelic quality, for which Americans seem also to strive—thereby suckering a large part of the gullible public as to the true nature of children."

Doug Cowling wrote (April 25, 2005):
BWV 31: Boys will be boys

Stephen Benson wrote:
< This also brings to mind a quote regarding boy singers I may have mentioned before, but which fits here so well it merits repeating. David Mason Greene in a CD review in the American Record Guide in the March/April 1992 issue said:
"Boy sopranos seem to be admired for different qualities in different cultures. Italian trebles tend to sound like an elementary-school playground at noon recess. French trebles sound like killing-time in a poultry abattoir. British trebles have a pure, innocent, angelic quality, for which Americans seem also to strive-thereby suckering a large part of the gullible public as to the true nature of children." >
Bach's boys were not angels either. The complex schema of fines for various misdemeanors at St. Thomas' indicates that boys have always been boys. I always imagine a mad rush up the gallery stairs at the last minute to avoid the late fine on Sunday morning.

My sons sang as boys for composer, Derek Holman, at St. Simon's Church,Toronto. Dr. Holman was for me JSB redivivus. His brilliant musicianship and genius for training inspired the boys to quite pheonmenal heights. At the same time, he ran a tight ship with a caustic wit and the occasional well-timed bellow when the boys misbehaved. The boys adored him and many have gone on to become fine musicians and composers as adults.

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 26, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] I believe either Wolff or Boyd recounted a warning from school authorities toward the musical establishment (not sure it was directed at Bach personally) to make sure that the boys stayed in the church throughout the service and didn't duck out to throw snowballs or chuck rocks at birds. And Bach had to stare down one student with a sword - just like Blackboard Jungle, and ended up in some trouble for defending himself. (This was pre-Leipzig.) All that sounds familiar enough. At least he didn't get sued as I recall.

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 29, 2005):
BWV 31: Revisited

As threatened I got my mits on a copy of Harnoncourt's BWV 31 [5], wanting to hear for myself whether others on the list were correct in their claim that Harnoncourt's boys had made a complete botch of things. I've listened to the thing five times through and also revisited Leusink [12] and Rotzsch [6] because both employ boys in the choir. I also have Koopman's recording [8], but as his version is "state of the art" (no boys) there is no reason to consider it further.

I will admit the very real possibility that I am either hard of hearing or have very bad taste. That said, I take strong issue with Harnoncourt's critics of this performance. I think what we have here is the Harnoncourt approach to the Teldec cycle written large. He uses small forces. There is no question that his players are using instruments that Harnoncourt believed produced a sound representative of the early 18th century. The singers are all male. And in BWV 31 the "heavy lifting" is left to the boys.

Harnoncourt obviously had no desire to temper the impact of this approach and it shows in 31. After all, after a lively, almost martial sonfinia, Harnoncourt puts the fate of the work squarely in the lap of his boy singers. There eight movements. The sonfinia, recitatives for bass and tenor, short arias for bass and tenor (all nicely done by Equiluand Nimsgern) a long chorus for the boys, a boy soprano recitative, a boy soprano aria (the longest movement of the bunch) and a short choral where there are more boys.

Let's look at the aria. This has got to be tough stuff. Anyone that likes boys in Bach quickly realizes that they aren't going to match the virtuosity or strength of tone of someone like Ruth Holton (Leusink) [12] or Helga Termer (Rotzsch) [6]. But comparing a boy with a female soprano I would argue is impossible. It's not like comparing a piano to a harpsichord. It's more like comparing a flute to a tuba. I can see why modern audience would rather listen to female sopranos. (I wonder if counter-tenors would still have a job if that were up to the average Bach fan.) In a very real sense they are better singers. Their music more beautiful. But when a boy does nail a note, he's doing something that no one else can. I am very glad that Ruth Holton sings Bach cantatas. I'm also glad that one can also listen to Harnoncourt and hear a boy give a very demanding aria a good try. I find the results most satisfying.

The chorus is a little different. Both Leusink [12] and Rotzsch [6] have boys choirs to make music with. But comparing the respective results with that of Harnoncourt isn't easy. Rotzsch's forces are, unless I'm really deaf, larger, older and more fully supported by a likewise larger orchestra. The sound is certainly more pleasant, but the Thomanerchor is getting a lot of support. I will stand correction here, but I would say the same thing is true with Leusink's forces. Either Leusink has one very good boy alto or Buwalda dominates the opening chorus. Both are in their own way very good music, but they don't sound like Harnoncourt. Perhaps they are simply better.

Or perhaps they are simply different. One of the problems I have with judging Harnoncourt's singers is that nobody else gives boys the same parts. Pick a famous Bach aria and you can compare a large number of fine tenors, countertenors, female sopranos etc. But how do you tell if a boy singing an aria in Harnoncourt's cycle is doing a bad job or sounds like a boy? There is simply no body of work to act as a comparison. So one is left with taste.

In my case, I am also left with an image I have cultivated in my mind as to what Bach's music sounded like. Some musicologists have suggested it was probably pretty terrible. I rather doubt it. I don't think Bach would have composed a huge body of music that he knew full well couldn't be performed without embarrassment. (I wouldn't doubt he composed work that he believed could have been better done by adult women, but ultimately that is beside the point.) Obviously it would not have had the kind of polish available to a modern professional ensemble working with top recording engineers. But I can hear boys singing sincerely and at least sometime with considerable skill. Perhaps they dropped a note. Perhaps they dropped a lot of them. But I think there must have been moments when things worked and the result was sublime.

I guess that's really what I hear in Harnoncourt. It may not be the best cycle. No one has reproduced it. No one is likely to do so. (I still will not consider the OVPP argument over until someone shows that it can work with boys - that should be a self-evident acid test.) But I am absolutely sure that when listening to Harnoncourt I am listening to music that comes the closest of any modern ensemble to that created and played by Bach. That's important to me. And yes, I find it very beautiful.

Neil Halliday wrote (April 29, 2005):
BWV 31/8 (Mvt. 8) examples

Of the examples at the BCW (soprano aria): http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV31-Mus.htm

I like Leusink's version [12] the most. The tempo is perfect, and supports the tenderness of Holton's expression. Leusink's continuo group, including organ, is fine in this example; but I would like more emphasis of the cello pizzicato element in the score. (Werner [3] - not in the examples - is excellent in this regard).

Harnoncourt's orchestra [5] sounds very quiet, and the organ realisation sounds lame along-side that in Leusink's version [12]. (Imagine the artistry Bach himself would have brought to the continuo, on one of the organs installed on St. Thomas's church.

(BTW, do we know for sure whether Bach employed the organ proper for the continuo keyboard in his cantata performances, or one of the 'toys' you can hear in the Harnoncourt? Directors should realise that quiet stops are available on real organs, if that is the concern.)

OTOH, Leusink's organist [12] seems to do a good job, despite the small instrument - I suppose that's where improvisational/compositional artistry comes in.

The boy soprano is one of the excellent ones in the H/L series [5].

Rilling/Auger's version [7] is bright and strong - but too much so, because this aria seems to call out for a more tender expression. The jangling harpsichord does not help.

Suzuki [9] is too brisk and care-free, lacking a deeper connection with the music and text. There ought to be some wistfulnes in wanting to die, even with the prospect of heaven at hand.

Werner's version [3] is enjoyable, except that Giebel does not quite capture the tenderness that is such an attractive feature of this aria. Werner brings out the backgroung chorale tune (in the unison strings) better than the other recordings.

=============


A brief ranking of movements of the complete cantata, in Werner, Rilling and Harnoncourt.

Mvt. 1. (Sonata) 1. Werner [3]. 2. Rilling [7]. 3. Harnoncourt [5] (This last recording is amazing for a demonstration of the struggle that players had with their period instruments back in the early days of HIP).

Mvt. 2. (Chorus) 1. Werner [3]. 2. Rilling [7]. 3. Harnoncourt [5].
Rilling's trumpets lack presence. Harnoncourt's solo boys on the S1 S2 lines tend to slide between the 1/16 notes in the (admittedly difficult) beginning part of the first subject.

Mvt. 3. (bass recitative) 1. Werner [3]. 2. Rilling [7]. 3. Harnoncourt [5].
I would prefer the approach that the Bach Aria Group might bring to this 'string of alternating recitative and arioso' type of movement, because the usual methods employed by both HIP and non-HIP ensembles can become tedious. BAG would give the 'recitative' accompaniment to sustained piano chords without cello, and only bring in the cello, with tasteful piano accompaniment, in the 'arioso'sections. This creates a pleasing contrast between the sections and and helps sustain interest.

Mvt. 4. (B aria) 1. Harnoncourt [5]. 2. Rilling [7] (enjoyable except for the jangly
harpsichord). 3. Werner [3].
Harnoncourt's organist shows some artistry here, helping to fill-out the accompaniment to an otherwise austere aria.

Werner's austerity and slow tempo begin to drag.

Mvt. 6. (T aria) 1. Rilling [7]. 2. Werner [3]. 3. Harnoncourt [5].
I like Rilling's vivid 5 part string orchestra, and Kraus' good expression of the confidence and cheerfulness in tuneful aria.

Mvt. 8. (S aria) commented on, above.

Mvt. 9. Chorale. Werner [3] and Rilling [7]: both pleasing; and both feature the trumper part.
The trumpet in Harnoncourt [5] seems to have turned into a squeaky violin; however, the choir sings with enthusiasm, thus helping to mask the usual hiatuses (Harnoncourt style) between the words. As well, Harnoncourt's usual tendency to 'die' on the last note of a chorale line, is not so evident here.

Doug Cowling wrote (April 29, 2005):
BWV 31: Boys Choirs

Eric Bergerud wrote:
< The chorus is a little different. Both Leusink [12] and Rotzsch [6] have boys choirs to make music with. But comparing the respective results with that of Harnoncourt [5] isn't easy. Rotzsch's forces are, unless I'm really deaf, larger, older and more fully supported by a likewise larger orchestra. The sound is certainly more pleasant, but the Thomanerchor is getting a lot of support. I will stand correction here, but I would say the same thing is true with Leusink's forces. Either Leusink has one very good boy alto or Buwalda dominates the opening chorus. Both are in their own way very good music, but they don't sound like Harnoncourt. Perhaps they are simply better. >
Evidently the new pope's brother was the director of the Regensburger Domspatzen, perhaps the best boys choir in Germany. Perhaps we'll see a little Bach in the Sistine Chapel sometime: I certainly don't want to hear the ragazzi of the papal choir taking on "Lobet den Herrn".

Robert Sherman wrote (April 29, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] I understand the Catholic Church doesn't allow Bach because he belonged to the Church That Must Not Be Named. Or am I wrong? I hope so.

Neil Halliday wrote (April 29, 2005):
BWV 31/1 (Mvt. 1)

For a polished HIP version of the Sonata, listen to the Heinrich Schütz Ensemble recording: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV31-Mus.htm

Interestingly, this has the same brisk tempo as Werner's performance [3]; both vividly capture the incredible animation in Bach's score.

Doug Cowling wrote (April 29, 2005):
Robert Sherman wrote:

< I understand the Catholic Church doesn't allow Bach because he belonged to the Church That Must Not Be Named. Or am I wrong? I hope so. >
The Sistine Choir hardly ever sings anything of historical significance even from the Italian patrimony -- not a note of Palestrina at the recent funeral and election. Most of the music is the pseudo-Renaissance schlock which Italian church musicians churn out by the basketful. Some Bach organ works were played however.

An interesting point. The only time that a concerted mass has ever been heard in St, Peter's was a liturgical performance of the Mozart "Coronation Mass" led by Herbert Von Karajan who brought the Berlin Philharmonic and Chorus to Rome for the occcasion. Italian church musicians were not happy about a "noisy" Viennese mass in "their" church.

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 29, 2005):
BWV 31: Pope & Boys Choirs

Doug Cowling wrote:
< Evidently the new pope's brother was the director of the Regensburger Domspatzen, perhaps the best boys choir in Germany. Perhaps we'll see a little Bach in the Sistine Chapel sometime: I certainly don't want to hear the ragazzi of the papal choir taking on "Lobet den Herrn" >
Anyone else notice that after Benedict's first mass to the Cardinals as he exited the organ played Handel? And then as he was greeting the people in St. Peter's square after his installation, the organist played Bach? Some things have changed.

Robert Sherman wrote (April 29, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] Doug, thanks.

BTY, the Karajan Coronation Mass you refer to was recorded live, and it's quite good. Kathleen Battle's performance is the only one I've heard to rival Maria Stader with Markevitch from the 1950s. The recording quality is a lot better than I thought it would be, without the diffuseness and excessive reverb that spoils many church recordings.

Boyd Peherson wrote (April 29, 2005):
Robert Sherman wrote:
< I understand the Catholic Church doesn't allow Bach because he belonged to the Church That Must Not Be Named. Or am I wrong? I hope so. >
The Roman Catholic Church today enjoys using J.S. Bach as well as other Lutheran Hymns for worship. For instance, the traditional St Borromeo's Church in Los Angeles used the great Gerhardt/Hassler Lutheran hymn "O Scared Head, Now Wounded" forthe eucharistic apex of thier service on this past Palm Sunday. The post-Vatican II tradition in the Roman Catholic church is to allow for forms of music that don't directly conflict with church teaching. The church has around one billion members(!), so it would be impossible to put that church's music forms into a particular box.

 

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