Program Notes by Robert Kirzinger
Robert Kirzinger is Director of Program Publications of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has provided program essays for the BSO, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Lincoln Center, the BBC Proms, and many other venues in the U.S. and Europe, and has annotated dozens of albums.
Simone Dinnerstein and her ensemble partner, Ensemble Baroklyn, welcome into their intimate sphere two solo performers equally well-versed in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Reginald Mobley and Peggy Pearson. Dinnerstein also transcribed a number of the chorale preludes on this concert; the others were made by a close colleague, composer, scholar, and administrator Alan Fletcher.
Dinnerstein created this program around the genre of the cantata because of its centrality to Bach’s music. The term “cantata” broadly refers to a sectional narrative work for voice or voices and ensemble, with or without chorus. Bach wrote cantatas in all periods of his compositional life, but his most intensive focus on the genre was during his first years in Leipzig. As the city’s general music director, he was responsible for the music at the Thomaskirche and other major churches as well as the music training curriculum. Upon his arrival there in 1723, his primary—nearly his sole—focus compositionally was to write cantatas for the entire church calendar (excepting Lent, when cantatas were not typically part of church services in Leipzig). Within his first two years he had assembled two nearly complete church-year cycles of cantatas, totaling more than 100 large-scale works. He completed two more cycles by 1729, and yet a fifth by the 1740s. In addition to church cantatas, Bach also wrote secular cantatas, including the famous Peasant and Coffee cantatas; virtually all of Bach’s cantatas were sung in German.
The two cantatas on this program are both solo cantatas, that is, featuring only a single voice and no chorus. There was no set template for the form of a cantata, and therefore Bach could, and did, explore a variety of musical types within these multi-movement works. Bach composed many different types of vocal music within these works—recitative (a semi-sung style used for more direct presentation of words), solo and multi-voice arias, sometimes with an added solo instrument (called “obbligato”), complex, sinfonia-like choral movements, and simpler, hymn-like chorales (typically based on existing hymns) for mixed chorus.
In addition, many a Bach cantata begins with an instrumental movement, or sinfonia, which could feature a solo instrument. Within the cantata genre, he continued writing the types of purely instrumental music that he had explored prior to his Leipzig years. In several cases, Bach repurposed earlier concerto or solo instrumental movements as parts of cantatas, and in many cases gave pieces further life by creating new, independent concertos from the originals. This was the case with the Keyboard Concerto in E, BWV 1053.
Bach—whose Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (c. 1721) is considered the first accompanied keyboard concerto—expanded the genre after becoming director of a concert-giving collective called the Collegium Musicum. It was to provide repertoire for this group—which included his older sons—that he wrote his keyboard concertos of the 1730s. All but one of these were based on earlier (and in most cases lost) concertos for melodic instruments, such as violin or oboe. In the case of the E major concerto, scholarly consensus points to oboe.
Prior to its new life as a keyboard concerto (originally played on harpsichord), that lost concerto had already resurfaced in two different cantatas. A version of the concerto’s first movement was used as the bright, active opening instrumental movement, a sinfonia with organ solo, of Cantata 169, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (“God alone shall have my heart,” 1726). A version of the concerto’s middle movement is found in the same cantata’s alto aria “Stirb in mir, Welt und alle deine Liebe” (“Die in me, world, and all your love”). In the concerto, this poignant C-sharp minor lament in 12/8 time is referred to as a Siciliano. The dancing triple-meter finale of the concerto corresponds to a different cantata movement, the fast sinfonia from his 1726 Cantata 49, Ich geh und suche mit (“I’ll go and search with you”). Thus, the Keyboard Concerto in E has the conventional three-movement, fast-slow-fast form. The accompanying ensemble is strings alone. In this as in his other keyboard concertos, the solo part aims for virtuosity and is considerably elaborated compared to its earlier versions.
As previously mentioned, Bach wrote cantatas throughout his composing life; prior to Leipzig, his cantata output was greatest during his tenure in Weimar (1708-17), when he wrote some two dozen, including No. 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde (“Be steadfast against sin”). (The catalog numbering of Bach’s cantatas is not usefully related to their chronology.) The most likely first performance date was March 25, 1715, the third Sunday after Lent. The text, sung here by solo countertenor, is by Georg Christian Lehms (aka Pallidor, 1684-1717), whose libretti Bach set on several occasions. The poet presents sin as a beautiful temptation that one must work to resist, remembering that the consequences will otherwise be dire. The very simple large form is three parts, aria-recitative-aria. The opening aria begins on an exquisitely dissonant harmony, as if in mid-phrase, and avoids true resolution until just before the entry of the soloist. The pulsing strings add to the impression of struggle. Craig Smith, founder of Boston’s Emmanuel Music, called the aria “one of the most astonishing things in all of Bach,” adding “Sin is portrayed as a gorgeous, irresistible thing.” In slightly modified form, the music was reused for the aria “Falsche Welt” (“False World”) in Bach’s St. Mark Passion (no longer extant), with a completely new text. The recitative amplifies the aria’s admonition with more concrete imagery. The quick and virtuosic final aria relies on a chromatic melody’s falling contour to represent the descent into sin, “Whoever sins is of the devil.” That melody is the basis for a fugal approach, the imitative responses suggesting the prevalence of the challenge outlined in the text.
Dinnerstein asked her friend the composer Philip Lasser to realize the cantata’s keyboard part, which provides essentially the harmonic framework that Bach would have elaborated on the spot, common practice in Baroque music. She writes of Lasser’s result, “He created a truly gorgeous continuo part that sounds both old and new, and is a fully beautiful work even without all the other voices.”
The genre of chorale prelude originated as just that, a short organ work preceding the singing of a hymn and using the hymn’s musical material as its basis. Bach would often have improvised such introductory works, but dozens of them also exist in score form (including more than 40 in his Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) collection. These typically feature the hymn tune nested in a highly intricate contrapuntal texture. Their inherent textural richness invites an expanded instrumental palette. The preludes nos. 600, 611 (in arrangements by Alan Fletcher), and 617 (in arrangement by Simone Dinnerstein), are from the Orgelbüchlein and are based on hymns by Johann Spangenberg (1484-1550), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and Tobias Kiel (1584-1627) respectively. The chorale “Der Leib zwar in der Erden” (“The body that is in the earth”), here in an arrangement by Dinnerstein, concludes Bach’s Cantata 161, Komm, du süße Todesstunde (“Come, sweet hour of death”); the text was composed by Christoph Knoll (1563-1650). BWV 659, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Now comes the savior of the unbelievers”), also arranged by Dinnerstein, is from the group known as “the Leipzig Chorales” compiled by the composer near the end of his life. The text is by Martin Luther; the melody is based on a plainchant (Gregorian chant). Bach returned to many of these same hymns frequently; “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” is the basis for several other chorale prelude settings as well as being the titular hymn of two cantatas, nos. 61 (1714) and 62 (1724).Bach composed Cantata No. 82, Ich habe genug (“I have enough”), for the Feast of the Purification of Mary; it was first performed February 2, 1727. The libretto is based on a reading from the Gospel of Luke: it is revealed to the righteous man Simeon that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. Upon blessing the infant Jesus in the temple, he prays, “Now let me depart in peace.” The cantata was originally composed for bass voice; a version for soprano was created in about 1731, and a version for mezzo-soprano (or alto) was made in 1735. The oboe is introduced as the cantata’s obbligato solo instrument in the well-known opening aria “I have enough.” (The aria bears a striking resemblance to the soprano and violin aria “Erbarme dich” in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, also written in 1727.) As in Cantata 54, the recitative repeats the sentiment of the aria. Here the text underlines how the singer (and thus the listener) takes on Simeon’s experience as his own.
“Schlummert ein” (“Fall asleep”) is famously known as the “slumber aria.” The idea of sleep (transparently a metaphor for the release of the soul in death) is supported musically by frequent pauses, notes sustained through several chord changes, and a tendency for the harmony toward “flat” keys. The recitative “Mein Gott! wenn kömmt das schön: Nun!” ("My God! When comes the beautiful ‘Now!’”) expresses the singer’s excited anticipation of death and salvation. The dancing, constantly moving finale again amplifies: “I delight in my death; if only it had arrived.” The singer’s use of melismatic (a long melodic line for a single syllable) aligns it as an instrumental partner to the oboe, which has returned in its obbligato role.
Throughout Bach’s music we find a reliance upon, or to put it another way a delight in, archetype and genre—not just with piece types (e.g., cantata, oratorio, partita, sonata) but with musical styles as well (for example, the “French” and “English” keyboard suites, the “Italian” concerto, and in myriad individual movements in the Well-Tempered Clavier and Goldberg Variations, among other pieces). The all-embracing possibilities of the cantata form allowed him both to explore these ideas and to push beyond them, creating in the process new and hybrid styles and genres, such as the accompanied keyboard concerto. Within an outwardly conservative approach (resulting in some contemporary opinions of his music as outmoded), Bach continually strived to find new solutions and expressive possibilities to age-old musical problems, in the process establishing a standard to which three succeeding centuries of musicians in that tradition have aspired.