A little preview of “Music for Good Friday”…

Our Music for Good Friday program  is called “Pardon our Dust: Remembrance”, because, by performing the work of one composer, we remember the life and music of another, as we also remember this night and its meaning in the Christian observance of Holy Week.

There are very fine scholars in this world who devote their lives to the study of composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and his music, and I will tell you, before I continue, that I am not one of them.  But as I began to look for music for this, our fourth “Music for Good Friday” concert, I wanted to find a different text other than the famous Stabat Mater around which to build our program.

Having had the opportunity last year to perform Franz Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ with the Friday Morning Music Club Chorale, I had hoped to find a work using that most important of Good Friday texts, but that will have to wait for another year.  Where my research led me was back to the music of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, but this

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Mantegna, 1490)

 time as transcribed by the master church musician, Bach, himself. This year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736), the composer of what might just be the most famous setting of the work of the poet Jacopone da Todi (1228-1306), and, as we began this concert series with a performance of that work, it seemed an interesting way to remember Maestro Pergolesi while presenting something actually quite different and quite rare. The second work on our program is one of Bach’s own church cantatas, “Ich habe genug”, BWV 82, for solo bass (or mezzo), oboe solo, strings and continuo.

Bach, unlike his contemporaries Handel, Vivaldi and Pergolesi, was primarily a church musician.  I will not even try to enter into the discussion about whether he was a church musician by economic necessity or by calling of faith, an argument which has formed a sizeable portion of Bach scholarship over the years, and seems to me insolvable, unless we discover a letter in his own hand. But we cannot deny the fact that the largest part of his compositional output is church music.

Bach Basics

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, violist, and violinist whose ecclesiastical and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo might be called the great summary composer of the Baroque period, as it is in his work that we find the weaving together of the various threads of that musical style, a style in fashion during the century before his birth.  Bach’s abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognized as a great composer during his own day. The “rediscovery” of his compositions in the 19th century by Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn changed everything: he is now regarded as the supreme composer of the Baroque, and as one of the greatest composers of all time.

In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of Thomasschule, adjacent to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas’s Lutheran Church) in Leipzig, as well as Director of Music in the principal churches in the town. Bach’s job required him to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide weekly music at the two main churches in Leipzig, St. Thomas and St Nicholas.  It also required the creation of original music to be used in worship service. In what can only be viewed as an amazing burst of creativity, he wrote five annual cantata cycles (that is at least 260 cantatas) during his first six years in Leipzig.  Two cycles have apparently been lost.

Church Music in Bach’s Day

Bach worked as a church musician in the heart of Martin Luther’s Germany, as an employee of the State of Saxony, in an orthodox Lutheran city.  The church year was dictated by the lectionary texts of the Lutheran church (the “lectionary” is a traditional organization of Biblical texts, designed to lead a Christian through the church year in a somewhat orderly fashion by applying specific texts to Sundays of the calendar).  Scholars today use these “lectionary” texts to ascertain when various cantatas or other works were performed in worship service by Bach, since we have very few letters, journals or notebooks as reference.

His service compositions, referred to as cantatas, generally incorporate the important text for a specific day. For example, our first work has as its text a paraphrase of Psalm 51 from the Hebrew Bible – this text appears several times throughout the church year in the lectionary, it was also suitable for any occasion when communion was celebrated. Our second cantata for this evening, “Ich habe genug”, centers on the text of Luke 2:22-42, the story of Jesus’s presentation in the temple as a baby. It actually incorporates a paraphrase of the Song of Simeon (known as the Nunc dimittis in Latin, actually Luke 2:25-32).

Neither of these works would have actually been performed at service on Good Friday, however, because the church of the day did not allow musical instruments to be played in service on holy days of penitence, such as Good Friday.

Bach’s Transcription of Pergolesi’s Famous Stabat Mater

Bach may have been a church musician, but he was interested in the musical currents of his day.  While we have no information that Bach travelled widely as did Handel or Haydn, he did keep up with the work of other composers.  Our best guess is that, given the level of fame experienced in the Europe of his day by Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Bach was most likely aware of the work in the late 1730’s.  We know that copies of the score began to circulate in Germany in the early 1740’s, and it was probably at that time that it came into Bach’s possession.

Even today, a composer will frequently study another composer’s work by “adapting” it, that is, by analyzing its style and form, and then resetting it according to their own stylistic interpretation.  But Bach’s adaption of this most famous Stabat Mater is rare and unique because it was, well, so unlikely.  A setting of the Stabat Mater poem, a poem that speaks of a deep compassion for the mother of Christ as she stands and watches her Son at the Cross, was simply not a part of the Lutheran orthodox liturgy.  Both music and text would have run directly counter to Bach’s sense of aesthetics, morals, and his musical training.  But the young Pergolesi had a rare gift – he had an ear for the “new”, and Bach apparently was interested in understanding the “new”.  While Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater setting comes to us firmly in the musical period of the Baroque, we hear in its sweet music and more operatic texture the beginnings of the Classical style that was to follow.

One scholar said that if Pergolesi was known as the beginning transition to the Classical style, Bach took the Stabat Mater and “re-Baroqued” it.  Most of his musical alterations consist of replacing Pergolesi’s messe di voce (long, sustained and swelling phrases) and melismas (long moving lines on a single vowel) for the singers with texted, active lines.  He also removed the viola from its place as part of the basso continuo, and gave it a separate, contrapuntal line in the ensemble writing.

But what of his choice of text?  Again, the Stabat Mater text would not have been acceptable in a Lutheran church in the Saxony of Bach’s day; there was still far too much tension between Protestant and Catholic theologies.  So, Bach chose one of the great Psalms of Penitence, Psalm 51.   Yet another reason that this work is unusual in the corpus of Bach’s church music:  the text is not from the Christian Gospels, but from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.

The version of Psalm 51 we will sing  is not exactly the text we are used to reading in our modern Bibles; in fact, it was a paraphrase in the “modern” German of the day, written by an unknown librettist (possibly by Bach himself).  So you will not hear the familiar phrases we associate with the penitent in Psalm 51 – no one will sing the words “Create in me a clean heart, O God”.  But from the opening phrase “God, wipeout all my sins”, we journey through the prayer of the broken, to the cry for mercy and healing, through confession and petition, to end finally with the vow of the sinner and the promise of redemption.

Comparing Bach’s text to that of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater setting, it is striking how closely the Latin sequence of the Stabat and the Psalm setting are related in mood and musical characteristics.  One such example occurs in Movement 3, which begins in the Psalm with:  “My misdeeds, they press me,/in my conscience ever they rise…”, which shares music from the Stabat that translates as “O how sad and afflicted…”

We perform from the Stuttgarter Bach Ausgaben Urtext, edited by Diethard Hellmann, prepared from the only two remaining copies of this work and only made available for performance in 1989. 

And so, in this performance, we have the unique opportunity to remember the work of Maestro Pergolesi, and through the work of Herr Bach, to ponder that greatest act of penitence in the Christian faith, the Crucifixion at Calvary of Jesus.

The Solo Cantata:  BWV 82 “Ich habe genug (I have enough)”

As mentioned, the second work on our program is one of Bach’s solo church cantatas, BWV 82 [BWV means Bach Werke Verzeichnis  or Bach Works Listing, and refers to the cataloging sequence developed in Germany by which his works are listed].  The title, based on the opening of the first aria, is “Ich habe genug [I have enough]”.  The work, performed in Bach’s day as at the Feast of the Purification in early February of the church year, was originally composed for solo bass voice in 1727, but re-appeared over Bach’s years in Leipzig for solo soprano and solo mezzo-soprano, as it will be performed this evening.  In all of the literature we have, this is the only work to which Bach himself applied the title “Kantate (Cantata)”.  A cantata is a musical work to be sung, in several movements, to an instrumental accompaniment.  It is the vocal version of a sonata, which is a work in several movements to be played on an instrument.

Again, the Gospel reading for this particular cantata is Luke 2: 22-32, the account of Simeon’s recognition of Jesus in the Temple.  The first aria, “Ich habe genug”, in particular, conveys the feeling of spiritual homesickness mixed with a sense of joy that Simeon felt at holding the baby who was the fulfillment of all promises in his arms.  In the second aria, “Schlummert ein”, Simeon sings what sounds like a slumber song to the infant, but in actuality is an expression of the peace to be found in the release of all things of this world.  The third aria, “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod”, is a literal expression of that most perplexing of Baroque sentiments (at least perplexing from our modern perspective), the longing for the moment of death when the soul is united with God.  Much of Bach’s music (and the sacred music of other Baroque composers) falls on our ears as a love song to death itself; the Pietist theological current of Bach’s day supported this belief Biblically with the words of Paul in Philippians 1:23, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” and with the very words of this cantata, the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32): “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, /you now dismis] your servant in peace. /For my eyes have seen your salvation, /which you have prepared in the sight of all people, /a light for revelation to the Gentiles /and for glory to your people Israel.”  Written in the first person, this cantata speaks the words any believer might speak, holding the infant Jesus, or standing on that dark hill in Jerusalem, or finding an empty tomb.

Tonight we perform this work from the edition from Breitkopf & Hartels Paritur-Bibliotek, nr. 4582.

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