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Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

Cantata BWV 60
O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of November 25, 2001

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 26, 2001):
Introduction

The week of November 25, 2001 is the turn of Cantata BWV 60 to be discussed in the BCML, according to Michael Grover’s proposed list of cantatas for discussion. The connection between the concluding chorale of this cantata and the heart-rending Violin Concerto by Alban Berg has already been discussed during May 2001 between Satoshi Akima, Thomas Braatz, Andrew Oliver and Peter Bloemendaal. I put this discussion also in the Bach Cantatas Website in the following page: Cantata BWV 60 – Discussions Part 1. I warmly recommend to the members in the BCML reading this discussion as 'homework' for the discussion of this week.

I hope to see many of the members in the BCML participating in the discussion, because this cantata is available now in all the five complete cantata cycles (Rilling, H&L, Koopman, Leusink, and Suzuki), as well as in a recording by Richter.

Background

As a background for the review of the recordings of BWV 60, I shall return to Alec Robertson’s excellent book ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’ with some personal comments.

See: Cantata BWV 60 – Commentary

Personal Comments

a. We all know that Bach have never tried his powers in the field of opera. But dramatic composer he was, and when he was given the opportunity to show his gifts for drama, he got down to the challenge with overt delight.

b. All the movements of this cantata are in dialogue form, except the concluding chorale. There is not even a single aria for solo voice, which we often find in other cantatas in dialogue form. Nevertheless, this is a most fascinating cantata and the tension is kept along the whole work.

c. Vibrato is a musical tool, which many people find inappropriate for Bach’s music. However, vibrato seems to be the most appropriate tool to express fear. It is interesting to investigate how the various alto singers, who recorded this cantata, chose to interpret their part of Fear.

d. In the second movement (first recitative) Fear and Hope alternate their comments on death, presenting opposite points of view. They do not agree and Bach found a wonderful way of presenting this disagreement. They never sing together, that is to say they never meet. In the ensuing duet (in aria form, Mvt. 3), Fear is not yet convinced, but he starts to get used to the idea, maybe by the good tidings that ‘Jesus bears the burden with me’. Jesus himself will join the events in the next movement, but Fear is almost ready at the end of the duet (Mvt. 3). We hear it when his lines intersect those of Hope.

e. Robertson states that ’The connection with Epistle and Gospel (Matthew 9: 18-26; Raising of Jairu’s daughter) in tenuous. I can hardly agree with him. Although I am not Christian, I usually read the Gospel as a background to the listening, trying to understand the source for inspiration of both the librettist and the composer. In this case I have read carefully the Gospel Matthew 9: 18-26, and also the other two version of the same story: Markus 5: 21-43 and Lukas 8: 40-56. I see a strong connection between the two stories (Raising of Jairu’s daughter and the healing of the bleeding women) and the debate between Fear and Hope, which comes to its solution with the appearance of Christ.

f. I have wondered why did bach choose the voices of alto and tenor to represent Hope and Fear. The answer I can propose is that he chose them because these two voices are close. The represent two voices in the mind of the same tortured man, and as such cannot differ too much from each other. He chose tenor to be Hope because usually we identify confidence with lower voice. No wonder that the complete confidence comes with the authority of Vox Christi, embodied by the bass singer.

g. Some conductors give the part of Fear in the opening movement to the alto section of the choir rather than to the alto singer. I cannot see justification for such a decision, because IMO it diminishes the dramatic intensity of this movement in particular and the cantata as a whole. There is continuity between the movements and it sounds strange when the role of Fear is transferred from the choir to the solo singer. Furthermore, Fear is in the heights of his fear in the opening movement and a good solo singer can convey these feeling much more convincingly that a choir.

Review of the Recordings

The details of the recordings can be found at: Cantata BWV 60 - Recordings.

[2] Karl Richter (1964)
I believe that this is Hertha Töpper who is singing with a small section of the choir in the opening movement. Haefliger sounds really anxious to support Fear and give her confidence. In the second movement Hertha Töpper uses her vibrato economically to express her fear. She is so touching that you can easily identify with her. Engen in the fourth movement has the kind of deep and warm bass voice, with which everybody can feel safe and secure. The singing of the choir in the concluding chorale is moving in a way rarely achieved by a choir.

[3] Martin Turnovsky (Early 1970’s?)
I have never heard this recording. It was issued on LP in the first half of the 1970’s by the Czech label Supraphon. I do not know if it has ever been re-issued in CD form. The work on the other side of the original LP was Berg’s violin concerto performed by Josef Suk (violin) with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karel Ančerl. In the first edition of ‘Penguin’s Stereo Record Guide’ (1975), through which I found the information about this recording, it was written as follows:

“It was a good idea to couple Suk’s beautiful performance of the Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Bach work from which Berg took his chorale theme, though in fact Czech interpretation of Bach is far less stylish playing than the playing of the modern work. Turnovsky does not avoid rhythmic lumpiness with his slab-sided continuo-playing, and though the soloists are good, there is not enough variety of expression among the instrumentalists. The recording is well spread in stereo.”

[4] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1976)
Harnoncourt gives the part of Fear in the opening movement to the choir (see point g above). Why did he decide to do so when he had a fine alto singer as Paul Esswood, I cannot understand. This rennin lacks any tension. In the second and third movements we are compensated by the dialogue between two exquisite singers in their prime – Esswood as Fear and Equiluz as Hope. The combination of two male voices to embody the two contradictory feelings within the same human soul is sounds even better than the combination of Töpper and Haefliger (see point f above). Ruud van der Meer sings the part of Christ in the fourth movement with beautiful courtesy, serenity and confidence. He is not as authoritative as Engen, but is not less convincing.

[5] Helmuth Rilling (1977-1978)
The major weakness of this rendition is Helen Watts, who has to sing in all the first four movements. It can easily be heard that she is behind her prime in this cantata. She is much aware of what she is singing, but her voice is not stable and most the charm it once had, has been lost. On the other hand Adalbert Kraus is in fine form regarding his voice, but his expression leaves something to be desired. The result is that this performance is not well balanced. Huttenlocher is the best of Rilling’s singer in this cantata. But even he is not up to the level of both Engen and van der Meer. Because the relative weakness of the four preceding movements, the fine singing of the choir in the concluding chorale is less effective than in the too previous recordings.

[6] Ton Koopman (1998)
No, no, no! I said to myself when I was hearing the opening movement in Koopma’s recording. Why does he take so fast tempo? All the atmosphere of this movement is corrupted in such velocity. I simply cannot accept such approach. It works against the content of the text and the spirit of the music. Furthermore, Koopman, as Harnoncourt, gives the part of Fear in the opening movement to the choir. Bogna Bartosz singing is gentle and delicate, and Jörg Dürmüller’s singing is passable if not very exciting or convincing. Mertens is Martens, which means that, as always, he is very reliable performing Christ. But his singing cannot compensate for a rendition, which can be summarised as superficial.

[7] Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)
Leusink’s rendition is an improvement over Koopman’s. Buwalda performs the role of Fear along the first four movements relatively satisfactory. Maybe his timbre of voice and general approach suit this kind of tasks better than others. Beekman proves himself once again as the best tenor singer Leusink has used in his complete cantata cycle. Ramselaar’s singing is simply not interesting as Christ here and the singing of the choir in the concluding chorale is somewhat bland.

[8] Masaaki Suzuki (2000)
This recording was issued only last month and I do not have a copy, because it is not yet sold in Israel. But I believe that it already available in other countries (Poland, for example). I would like to hear the opinions of the members who have this recording. Considering the high level of most of Suzuki’s cantata recordings, I have high expectations from this recording.

[M-1] Frank Brieff & Bach Aria Group (1953; Mvts. 3-5 only)
The material for the Boston CD, on which these movements appear, was supplied by Teri Noel Towe (TNT), a member in the BCML. The transfers were done by "his" sound restoration engineer, Seth B. Winner. (TNT persuaded Bill Scheide, the founder and the Director of the Bach Aria Group, who is his treasured friend and mentor, of the importance of making archival transfers of the lacquers and open reel tapes that he had made of the Bach Aria Group's New York performances, and Seth and TNT were hard at work making these transfers when Sally (widow of Robert Bloom) came up with the wonderful idea of honouring the memory of her late husband with the series of 7 CD’s that are now available. The performance that Sally included is drawn from a concert performance that was given in Town Hall on January 7, 1953.

According to TNT there is a complete performance of this cantata, also by the Bach Aria Group with the same singers. The complete recording is included in 2-LP album on RCA (LM-6023), which was recorded in a series of sessions in the Manhattan Center in 1953. The "orchestral" movements were conducted by Robert Shaw. TNT also writes: “For me, no other performance of any of the Cantatas in that set matches or exceeds those. The recording of ‘Jesu, nun sei gepreiset’, is a particular source of joy to me, and I really do not give a damn if ‘modern’ instruments and a piano are used. These performances are music. And, as Duke Ellington put it, ‘It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!’”

As somebody who loves both Jazz and Bach’s music I can easily concur with the last statement, but for me this recording, intriguing as it is, does not meet this criteria. The use of a piano as a continuo instrument is forgivable, considering the circumstances and the period in which this recording was made. But this recording has some more important drawbacks. Firstly, the tempo is too slow, up to losing any tension. Secondly, the anonymous tenor singer sounds totally alien to Bach’s music. I can enjoy singers from the past singing Bach, but only when they are fully aware of what they are doing. Carol Smith exaggerates in her expression and Farrow’s singing is one-dimensional. I hope that the complete and formal recording of this cantata by Bach Aria Group (with Robert Shaw as a conductor) is an improvement over this one.

Conclusion

Personal priorities (complete recordings) - Richter [2], Harnoncourt [4], Leusink [7], Rilling [5], Koopman [6]

And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.

Dick Wursten wrote (November 27, 2001):
Aryeh wrote:
<begin> a. We all know that Bach have never tried his powers in the field of opera. But dramatic composer he was, and when he was given the opportunity to show his gifts for drama, he got down to the challenge with overt delight. <end>
He is not the first who says that. I don't understand. Dit Bach not have opportunity to write an opera ?
1. He had plenty. He served a worldy and rich music freak (Köthen), who liked to show off with his musicians, not only at home, but also on holiday.. He treated Bach as a friedn: If Bach would have said: Look here, man, I want to perform an opera next month.. What about the Coronation of Poppeia or someone else, or about the Battle of Herman agains Jule Cesar..
2. Bach never had the opportunity to write a RC Mass in Latin (he nevertheless wrote one and offered it to get a title and protection) etc..

Conclusion: Bach had his job (director musikes in Leipzig and cantor) and created the opportunities for everything he thought worthwhile...

ERGO: Bach was not interested in the STAGED operaform of his time. The only statement I know about opera (in neighbouring Dresden, where he often went, and gave recitals etc.) it the pejorative and denigrating (is that correct english?) sentence of Bach to his son....:
Situation: Bach wanted to relax, get out of the stress, he therefore (sic!) went to Dresden to visit the italian influenced operahouse. To his eldest son who accompanied him he referred to that glamorous operabusiness there as: 'Dresdner Liedergens'. I don't know an english translation which conveys the humorous and respectless tone of this statement. But the message is clear... Plenty of opportunity, not interested. The coffeecantata is dramatic enough.

So far my amateur opinion. Professionals, its your turn !

Dick Wursten wrote (November 27, 2001):
I did not have time to listen to the whole cantata, but want to ask a question provoked by the pro-posed discussion on the first 4 notes of 'Es ist genug', the final choral of bwv 60.

The first phrase of this melody rises in three whole tones. That is remarkable indeed. The 'scale' is blown up. But: this is only remarkable, when you think in minor-major tonalities.

My suggestion though is to look at this melody as if it is written in the old church-tonalities. I looked it up in 'Algemene Muziekleer' (General Musictheory) by Theo Willemze. Well: This sequence of three whole tones can be found when you start at f - g - a - b. This is known as the HYPO-LYDIAN tonality.

Characterized by Willemze as the most clear, floating, cheerful and angelic of of all church tonalities... A pity he didnot use the word 'detached', which would have given a strong link with the text, which also speaks about 'detaching' (ausspannen) ..., a link which still is very strong

Is it possible that the melody-composer, Ahle, wrote a Lydian melody, or is
that not imaginable in his days anymore?

TRANSLATION problem:
I wanted to give a translation of Willemzes characterization of this scale, but I know nothing of musical terms in foreign languages. Can someone (Dutch-english speaking and musical more learned than me) help me to provide a translation of Theo Willemze's words about the Lydian tonality (or is it scale?), It is about terms for DUTCH
rein interval = pure interval ?
overmatig interval = over-measured interval (suspended?)
groot interval = great, large ? interval

Henny van der Groep wrote (November 27, 2001):
Aryeh wrote:
[3] < Martin Turnovsky (Early 1970's?)
I have never heard this recording. It was issued on LP in the first half of the 1970's by the Czech label Supraphon. >
It's indeed recorded by Supraphon in 1967. Time 17:15

< The work on the other side of the original LP was Berg's violin concerto performed by Josef Suk (violin) with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karel Anèerl. In the first edition of 'Penguin's Stereo Record Guide' (1975), through which I found the information about this recording, it was written as follows: >
I was happy to find them both on one record.

< "It was a good idea to couple Suk's beautiful performance of the Berg's Violin Concerto with the Bach work from which Berg took his chorale theme, though in fact Czech interpretation of Bach is far less stylish playing than the playing of the modern work. Turnovsky does not avoid rhythmic lumpiness with his slab-sided continuo-playing, and though the soloists are good, there is not enough variety of expression among the instrumentalists. The recording is well spread in stereo." >
To put it mildly I should say.

The Alto is very difficult to understand. And the tenor sounds under stress. The harpsichord is a bad instrument and out of tune, perhaps we have here some difficulties with recording. The orchestra is little subtle. The Bass in Mvt. 4. is OK. and I like the organ accompany. The two melt nicely together on the words "Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Hern sterben”. It's not a very exiting performance, there's even lack of expression due to all the problems. Finally the Choral is the finest part. At least I hear them sing from their heart.

Philip Peters wrote (November 27, 2001):
[3] < Aryeh Oron wrote: Martin Turnovsky (Early 1970's?)
I have never heard this recording. >
I have it. If you want me to tape it for you (I have not yet mastered the noble art of transfering LP's to CD) I would be happy to. If I remember correctly there was another cantata of which I have early recordings that you were not familiar with (was it BWV 51? I can check) and if you are interested we might swap tapes or something like that.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 27, 2001):
The Recordings (I am still working on the first section of my report.)

This week I listened to Richter (1964) [2], Harnoncourt (1976) [4], Rilling (1977-78) [5], Koopman (1998) [6], and Leusink (1999) [7]

[2] Richter
Mvt. 1 Töpper, singing with a full (operatic) voice is very convincing here because she seems to understand (as an operatic singer) that a chorale must be sung differently than a recitative or aria. Her strong voice is needed here as she is singing ‘against’ a full orchestra. The otherwise great tenor (I have heard him in great performances [on recordings] in the passions and cantatas) Haefliger sounds somewhat strained in the upper range of his voice. Mvt. 2 Now Töpper becomes much more operatic than in the 1st mvt. as she attempts to become more expressive. On the initial ‘d’ of “diese Glieder” there is a “Glottisanschlag,” (this is best described as an unaccented appoggiatura with the first note being lower than the note to be sung – this first unwritten note is entirely unintentional, not a grace-note, and usually more than a semitone or one note lower) a sign that the singer has lost control of the voice. It is definitely an indication that the singer is past her prime, or ‘over the hill’ as far as acceptable singing is concerned. Mvt. 3 Both vocalists are very operatic here, but Haefliger is better here in the lyrical passages (the melismas or coloraturas.) Mvt. 4 Engen sings with a full bass voice that has the necessary commanding quality that his part deserves. Richter goes overboard in applying a tremulant to most, if not all, of the organ stops. For me this destroys the illusion rather than augments it. Töpper swoops up to a note. This technique used in opera seems out of place in a Bach cantata. Mvt. 5 This is Richter’s masterpiece in the subtleties of expression possible in a 4-part chorale: particularly noteworthy is the strength of conviction that the listener can feel on the words, “sicher hinfahren.” Richter uses crescendi which fit in well with this non-HIP approach to interpretation. Listen to this interpretation a few times, and you will discover new subtleties that were not obvious upon the first, casual hearing of this marvelous chorale harmonization.

[4] Harnoncourt
Mvt. 1 Immediately my attention is drawn to the sick-sounding oboi d’amore. Then I hear the foreshortening of note values in ms. 6-9 where Harnoncourt has the strings use staccato which is not marked that way by Bach. Poor Esswood with his half-voice is pressed to the extreme limit of his voice. When this happens, you will hear a very fast vibrato. In contrast to this, Equiluz is excellent. Mvt. 2 Esswood’s voice has a very reedy quality and is a bit out of tune at times (flat as usual). The bc accompaniment follows rigidly the Harnoncourt Doctrine (what you see in the score does not count, forget about Bach’s note values since Harnoncourt knows better what Bach really wanted.) Mvt. 3 Similar to the blaring horns and trumpets, the oboe d’amore creates a primitive strident sound, an effect that Harnoncourt seems to promote throughout this series. Once again it is evident that Esswood goes beyond the limits of his voice. Even Equiluz comes rather close to his own limit in this mvt. Mvt. 4 Now, when Esswood attempts to be really expressive, he begins to sound comical, he becomes a caricature of this type of voice. At times, he is flat and there are slight imperfections in the pronunciation of German. Van der Meer gives us a reasonably convincing performance despite the fact that he does not have a full operatic voice. He is more of a baritone and lacks volume in the low range, which, unfortunately, is very important here in order to have a commanding quality in the voice. The bc, once again, is according to the Harnoncourt Doctrine. Mvt. 5 The final dotted half notes with fermatas are abruptly shortened, depriving the performance of solidity. The melodic line receives an extra emphasis on each quarter note. Harnoncourt certainly knows how to destroy such a wonderful chorale. He saps all the strength and dignity out of it by applying absolutely silly extra breaths after emphasizing each note with a special accent. These breaths are more in the nature of “abheben” (“lifting off, a ceasing of singing without actually drawing a breath in after each note.”) This type of thing can only happen when someone attempts with stubborn persistence to undo what is natural for the voice and has been upheld by all good choir masters of the past and present. Too bad that Harnoncourt did not learn what is necessary from Leonhardt (as Aryeh suggests.) But even Leonhardt with his primarily instrumental background is not the best model for choral singing. At least Leonhardt generally tends to be on a slightly higher level of understanding in regard to good vocal performance practices.

[5] Rilling
Mvt. 1 All the altos sing the cantus firmus here. As is typical for Kraus, he hits the opening “Herr” too hard with his penetrating voice and he uses too much vibrato. It sounds rather unpleasant to my ears. However, as usual, the coloraturas are excellent. Perhaps a penetrating voice is necessary here to get the message across with everything else that is happening in the orchestra. Mvt. 2 Watts is very operatic, on a par with Töpper. Kraus is never my favorite in recitatives because he tends to hit every note very hard (the exact opposite of Equiluz, whom I would always prefer in recitatives.) Mvt. 3 Now both voices are much too operatic for my taste. Kraus’ final coloratura is very good. Mvt. 4 Watts again overdoes the expression in certain passages. It is at times like this that I ask, “Where is Andreas Scholl?” Huttenlocher, although he can not approach the depth and commanding power of Engen, surprises me here with his interpretation. perceive a very comforting quality in his singing. It made me wonder, “Perhaps he is best when he sings slow, lyrical passages?” Mvt. 5 Rilling has great expression in the chorale, but it is less obvious than Richter’s. The operatic voices are generally under better control here. (Did he tell the members of the choir to be more careful this time? I love to hear the tension that continues beyond the end of a line or phrase (consider, in contrast, Harnoncourt’s appalling method of dissecting each phrase until nothing more of it can move foreward, it simply expires under its own heavy weight.) Richter’s version is slower than Rilling’s. Richter makes the commands stronger (lines that end with an exclamation mark) than Rilling does. For Rilling, “Ich fahre sicher” is presented much more gently, but Rilling’s “Jammer” is very moving indeed. With Richter the word “Frieden” takes on a very special quality. Rilling does more with the loud and soft versions of the same text, “Es ist genug.”

[6] Koopman
Mvt. 1 As Aryeh pointed out, Koopman has lost all sense of proportion by engaging singers and instrumentalists alike in a race to see who will get to eternity first. He also uses altos rather than a soloist. The same staccato passage interpretation that Harnoncourt originated (ms. 6-9) also appears here. The tempo makes it very difficult for Dürrmüller. He almost has to swallow certain notes and words in order to make it to the end of a phrase. In this ‘lite’ approach there is no thunder or shuddering to be felt. This is Koopman’s tour de force to see if everyone can make it all the way through without any major mishap. Unfortunately the greatest mishap escaped Koopman’s attention: the entire mvt. is a loss, unless you want to have it as pleasant background music devoid of any meaning that was originally attached to it. This is not a unique aberration on Koopman’s part. A very sad situation indeed for recent recordings of Bach’s cantatas, as it will give a false impression of what is really present in this great music. Mvt. 2 Can you hear the lute in the bc at the very beginning? Isn’t this great? This is what we have been waiting for! The only problem is, as I pointed out in a recent discussion, that this is entirely unnatural because the microphone is placed one foot away from the sound hole of the lute. Bartosz, another half-voice goes noticeably flat in the andante section on the word “martert.” Dürrmüller, although possessing a clear voice, is rather expressionless. Mvt. 3 Here you can hear the wonderful sound of an oboe d’amore! It is rather difficult to hear all the notes Bartosz is supposed to be singing. Consider the fact that there are only two solo instruments and also that the violin sounds very distant. Mvt. 4 The bc is a la Harnoncourt. This must make Koopman feel good that he is very HIP. Mertens surprises me in a negative way. As a half-voice, he is unable to give a convincing performance, since he is weak in the low register, just where it is very much needed in this portrayal. Mvt. 5 This is a smooth performance with very little expression. There are some crescendi, there is a ‘piano’ on a repeated section, and all the vocal parts are cleanly sung, but what is lacking here is intensity and seriousness which would be necessary for the text to be sung properly. Everything is taken in a lighter vein. The full weight of the death experience is glossed over. Certainly this chorale deserves more than what Koopman is able or willing to give it. It remains a ‘lite’ version which is simply too pleasant sounding.

[7] Leusink
Mvt. 1 The tempo is fast, the bc too heavy throughout, the staccato section, already pointed out above, is accepted without question. The sense of drama is lacking. Buwalda’s half-voice is overtaxed for this type of part. Where’s the horn that is supposed to support him? Let’s forget about that, it would only cover up the voice unnecessarily. Beekman’s half-voice fares similarly. After you hear the mvt., you ask yourself, “What was that they were singing about?” Mvt. 2 I find Buwalda’s recitative style of singing very difficult to listen to. This is a thin, reedy voice that is always on the verge of breaking. Beekman is slightly better than Buwalda. He has a clear, accurate delivery (like Holton) without much in the way of expression. The bc is treated according the Harnoncourt Doctrine. Mvt. 3 At least the violin can be heard better than in Koopman’s recording. I do not like Buwalda’s voice and Beekman has a ‘dead’ quality in his voice. Mvt. 4 Now Buwalda’s expression is exaggerated to an extreme that I find intolerable. Ramselaar has slightly more voice or volume in the low range, but Merten’s expression is much better than Ramselaar’s. Once again the bc is played according to the Harnoncourt Doctrine. Mvt. 5 As usual, individual voices poke out of the choral texture from time to time, just as also the yodeler’s put in their appearance. Any expression is limited to making the last “Es ist genug” louder than the one before it. Very annoying is the fact the Leusink seems to change an important note in the opening first 4 chords. On the 4th chord the tenors appear to sing a G# instead of the F# in the score. It may however simply be due to the fact that the tenors suddenly quit singing on this note, only to reappear on the next chord. Such things, more often than not, do happen with Leusink.

[M-2] The Swingle Singers (Virgin Classics 7243 5 61472 5)
Mvt. 5 In lieu of not having a Rifkin recording of this cantata, this represents, for me, the OVPP approach with, of course, some very negative, but also extremely worthwhile qualities: The Swingle Singers blend together even better than Rifkin’s soloists do. This is definitely a plus point in their favor. If you can disregard the negative aspects of this recording (no, they do not ‘jazz up’ this performance, but the female voices, particularly the soprano, sound extremely breathy, their pronunciation of German is quite American [listen to the 1st syllable of ‘gefällt.’]) As well as they sing many of the other Bach works, this hymn, sung a cappella proves to be very difficult for them: they definitely have problems in maintaining their starting pitch. (Remember that all the other recordings had an instrumental accompaniment!) The Swingle Singers go sharp very quickly and then stay at that pitch. Their expression is much less than you would find in the other choral groups, but there is crescendo and also a differentiation between piano and forte. This recording moves me in a very different way, a way that is peculiar to OVPP recordings: suddenly everything becomes very personal, very intimate. Now my attention is drawn even more closely to the harmonic tensions. The wonderful passing notes become even more evident than they would be normally. I feel the chromaticism more deeply, and because the voices have no vibrato whatsoever, the voices achieve an ideal blend and the pure tones at certain intervals resound in my head with what in German is called “Reibung,” a word for which I can not find a good English equivalent (‘a clashing? friction?) It must have something to do with the ‘beating’ that occurs when intervals are ‘tuned.’ The closest equivalent would perhaps be with thirds and sixths. This fast beating, if you strike a third or sixth on a piano, however, is weak indeed when compared to what you can hear in this recording or what you can hear if you play a recorder along with others. Certain interval combinations will have a special resounding effect, as if the resounding is taking place inside your head. So despite all the negative characteristics that are apparent in this recording, there is a special experience in listening to this chorale presented in this fashion.

 

BWV 60 ‘diabolus in musica’

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 28, 2001):
Long live the augmented 4th! The Tritone rules!

It seems the diabolus in musica (the devil in music) has been pursuing me about wherever I turn for information on BWV 60. Aryeh already pointed to the discussion that took placeearlier this year on the final chorale from BWV 60 “Es ist genug.” But I have found (“Seek and ye shall find.” – Dick Wursten’s recent comment, but meant differently) much more that could be interesting and add some worthwhile information to one’s understanding of this cantata, in particular the final mvt.

The Tritone. What is it?

The most complicated interval of a key, and at the same time causing the greatest harmonic and functional dissonance is the tritone (Tritonus). This is a term generally applied to the augmented 4th, but less frequently to the the diminished 5th. Simply put, it is the sum of three whole notes/tones and is located exactly midway between the lower note and its octave. Going up, it is sounded as an augmented 4th, and going down a diminished 5th.

For those who have understand everything up to this point, skip the following paragraph which is intended for those who have a rudimentary understanding of a (piano) keyboard.

On a keyboard play the C key. As you move upwards stepwise, skipping the semitone each time (the black key in between the white ones), you want to move always by whole notes or tones. This works fine as you move from one white key to the next from C to D, then from D to E, but now where the black key is missing between E and F, you need to remember “only in whole tones” because E to F is only a semitone. So far we made it up to the interval of a third, but now we need to go from E to F#, the latter note being the next black key. From C to F# is an augmented 4th, a regular, normal 4th would be simply from C to F. From C downward to F# is a diminished 5th. “Es ist genug,” the chorale, begins in A major. The soprano part starts on A (locate, if you can, this key on the keyboard), then it goes up one whole tone to B (the black key for A# or Bb lies in between.) Now we need another whole tone, but there is no black key between the B and the next white key, C, hence we need to go up one more semi-tone to C#. We have landed on a black key (which is at the interval of a major third from the starting point A,) but need to move upward once more by a whole tone, skipping the white key D and landing on the augmented 4th, the black key which is a D# here.

Bach uses the tritone in “Es ist genug” embedded in the major scale to create an ambiguity in the relationship between tonic and dominant. In harmonic progressions of this type there is an evident instability. [This makes me think of the association with the instability of life. Did Bach feel this sort of connection?]

Another association occurred as I located the use of this term in musical Expressionism, a connection to Schönberg and Berg is almost always mentioned in regard to this famous chorale setting by Bach. The description of this type of music relates directly to the text that Bach was presenting. “There is a complete loss of musical, tonal relationships, and the power of thematic construction is also lost. Every chord becomes its own center (of the universe). In Wagner’s “Tristan” tonality was “gestört” [disturbed], with Schönberg it was “zerstört” [destroyed]. The end phase (the goal toward which this type of music is striving) is ‘ein agoniehaftes Zittern und eine Zerstäubung in kleinste Zeitwerte’ [a trembling full of agony and a pulverization into tiny, rhythmic time signatures.] In der Dynamik kommt es zur Entmaterialisierung. [The dynamics approach dematerialization.] Der Klang löst sich zum Hauch auf. [The sound dissipates into simply a breath.]“ Perhaps these reasons explain why Schönberg and Berg were attracted specifically to Bach’s harmonization of this chorale. Berg’s violin concerto also has a connection to a death experience.

The MGG also had an extensive article on the tritone (the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians article was rather disappointing in this regard). Here is a summary of what I found:

Gustave Reese, the author of this article, begins by pointing out that primitive societies seem to have had little difficulty with the tritone, but in western civilization there is ample proof that the tritone was viewed with distrust, even repulsion. Is this antipathy caused by a psychological or even a physical factor that still remains to be discovered?

In the earliest reference, a 9th century author of the Musica enchiriadis warned sternly against using this interval and gave special rules that would help to avoid using it. Later Guido of Arezzo (11th century) and Hermannus Contractus also forbade the use of the tritone in melodies. After that there is a monotonous list of many authors who held the same opinion. There were, however, voices pro and contra its use in Gregorian chant. In Ambrosian chant it became the characteristic interval.

In the 13th century it could be found in the chansons and Leonin’s polyphonic compositions. Machaut and Jacopo da Bologna (14th century) had a special predilection for its use. At the same time theoreticians were recommending the use of a flat sign (to reduce the interval from an augmented to a normal 4th.) Despite the evidence offered by these composers, there is no doubt that the majority of composers did avoid its use. In the late middle ages, the tritone supposedly received its appellation “diabolus in musica” [The devil in music.] But there is no evidence available to support this claim that is made by authors of a later (Baroque) period: J.J.Fux (Gradus ad Parnassum) and Heinichen (1728) use this expression.

Dunstable, in the early Renaissance, used the tritone widely. Johannes Galliculus wrote, “The tritone is a mistake, but not a deathly sin.” Gaffurius, in his Practica musicae (1496) gives a good example of repeated tritones. It is taken from the Liturgy of the Dead (Milano) and expresses great sadness and grief. Sometimes the tritone appeared in Renaissance canons (Gombert). Morley (1597) defended its use, but most of the theoreticians maintained the ban of the tritone from musical composition. In the Italian madrigal we find its use primarily for descriptive effects: Vicentino uses it on the word ‘sospirando’, Gesualdo on ‘strana.’

With Werckmeister (Baroque) a discovery was made that the tritone need not sound ugly (did this have something to do with the new, more equalized temperaments in use at that time?) He characterizes it as “Die durchdringende größere Quart” [the penetrating augmented 4th]. Mattheson praised and marveled at the sound of this interval and states that most contemporary composers find it rather silly, that this interval was considered to be the “devil in music.” Mattheson states, “I think, this happened during the time of the witchcraft trials.”

The interval was used impressively by Bach in a very expressive manner. There are other instances of its use in Bach’s oeuvre: BWV 4 (when the bass sings an extremely wide interval that drops from the high to the lower range on “dem Tode für”; BWV 78 on the words “Der SündenAussatz” and at least three instances in the SMP (Mvt. 1 soprano on the words “Kommt, ihr Töchter”; in “Blute nur” on the word “Schlange”; and in “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” on the word “sterben.”

Mozart used it at age 12 in KV 114a and it plays an important role in Don Giovanni’s cry in response to Leporello’s discovery of the Commendatore. In Cosi fan tutte Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio” on the words “tempesta”, but also on “cor” and “fede” (the young lady’s promise to remain faithful is soon broken.)

In Beethoven’s Fidelio, the timpani answer Florestan’s cry, “Gott, welch Dunkel hier! O grauenvolle Stille” with a vacillating E flat and A.

The Romantic composers used the ominous and evil tritone descriptively, especially as a dramatic element in operas where it represented the diabolic, the satanic element (Berlioz, Weber [Freischütz], Gounod, Liszt, Mendelssohn [Elijah], and particularly Wagner [Rheingold, Tristan, Lohengrin, Parsival].

Debussy has in the main motif of “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”

Summary

Did Bach intuitively feel the tritone’s connection with death? From the Miland Liturgy of the Dead until the appearance of Expressionism in the music of Schönberg andBerg, there seems to be a common thread that links this interval with distinct categories of human experience. Perhaps a final comment by Alfred Dürr would be in order here: The whole tone sequences at the beginning of “Es ist genug” may have been perceived as unheard of at the time when Ahle composed this melody and its sole purpose at that time was to depict musically the crossing over from life into death. Bach emphasizes this connection by using the motif A, B, C#, D as the opening sequence in the 1st mvt. and in the last mvt. it becomes A, B, C#, D#. The tritone provides the musical ambiguity that reminds us of our transitory state here in this life.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 28, 2001):
Thanks to Alfred Dürr and Eric Chafe, I have another interesting insight to report.

Listen to the beginning of the cantus firmus (alto) in mvt. 1 “O Ewigkeit”: D, the E is skipped, F#, G, A [From D to G is a regular 4th.] Then listen to the opening (Furcht – alto) of the 1st recitative mvt. 2 where you will hear D, skip E, F#, G#, A#!!! The G# is the tritone, but now Bach goes beyond the G# for yet another whole-tone step to A#, an augmented 5th. What are the words being sung? “O schwerer Gang” [“a difficult step” – Chafe’s translation]. Chafe continues, “This distorts the melodic unit associated with “O Ewigkeit” with the aid of a musico-rhetorical device known as the ‘passus duriusculus,’ of which the German “schwerer Gang” is, in fact, a near-literal translation. In this light, the fact that the pitches are sharpened is probably an indication that the harshness of the progression puns not only on the word “durus” but also on the German word for the sharp sign, “Kreuz.” That is, the difficult path is the way of the cross, embodied in a life of tribulation, which the believer undergoes as the route to the “letzter Kampf und Streite.”

Dürr points out that the 1st 4 notes of the final chorale can be considered as a distortion of the last four tones of the 1st phrase of “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort,” that is the notes on the words “du Donnerwort.”

Isn’t this amazing?

[Aryeh has my discussion on “Kreuz” on his site.]

Henny van der Groep wrote (November 28, 2001):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: The MGG also had an extensive article on the tritone (the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians article was rather disappointing in this regard). Here is a summary of what I found:
Gustave Reese, the author of this article, begins by pointing out that primitive societies seem to have had little difficulty with the tritone, >
I can find myself in that conclusion for the simple reason that the instruments of Afrika, etc were/are hardly tuned the way we know. And perfect parallel intervals can't be perfect. It was/is a common sound for them.

< but in western civilization there is ample proof that the tritone was viewed with distrust, even repulsion. Is this antipathy caused by a psychological or even a physical factor that still remains to be discovered? >
In my view the distrust in the West started with the churchrules at the beginning of the era, were hardly instruments were allowed and were people had to sing in parallel organums etc. until let say 1100-1200. Octaves and quints to begin with. Perhaps some research will proof people outside of the church used the interval as a common interval. I think we'll find here a mixing up between "classical music" and traditional folkmusic in music.

< Did Bach intuitively feel the tritone connection with death? From the Miland Liturgy of the Dead until the appearance of Expressionism in the music of Schonberg and Berg, there seems to be a common thread that links this interval with distinct categories of human experience. Perhaps a final comment by Alfred would be in order here: The whole tone sequences at the beginning of "Es ist genug"may have been perceived as unheard of at the time when Ahle composed this melody and its sole purpose at that time was to depict musically the crossing over from life into death. Bach emphasizes this connection by using the motif A, B, C#, D as the opening sequence in the 1st mvt. and in the last mvt. it becomes A, B, C#, D#. The tritone provides the musical ambiguity that reminds us of our transitory state here in ocs.yahoo.com/info/terms/ >
The text of Bach are about the world of "Light and Darkness" and from that view every body connected with earth is unworthy, unholy. Perhaps its one of Bach's reasons to use such text because they were very usefull to express in music. In his time those texts were a bit old fashion. Therefore everybody, who doesn't trust or has faith in the Lord "Had to Fear Death". Bach used the tritonus that way to express himself rather dramatically.

Looking at the text again were Bach often used the word "devil", we'll find this word expressed with a tritonus too. So every time when there's a connection with evil or unworthy things you will probably find the connection with a tritonus like people, who did have fear or doubt.Harmonically and melodically a perfect way to express tension especially from the point of view in church. And the harmonical rules do play a role there too.

I think the tritonus has probably not much to do with death itself, for the one who had trust in the Lord would "walk" happily to the Lord, as we know from other Cantatas. In my view the dramatical text and music combination had also an educational purpose to underline the service of that day. People in church would easily recognize such wordpainting and remember the sermon.

Later on with other composers the "diabolus in musica" started to live it's own life as you described so nicely.

 

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Last update: ýDecember 27, 2012 ý23:40:32