Passion and Joy: The Masterpieces of J.S. Bach Week Four: Lutheran Liturgical Life and the Cantatas
A cantata ( from the Italian word, "To be sung") was an unstaged musical drama of about 20-30 minutes, Cantatas could be either sacred or secular. In 1723, Bach assumed the post of Kantor of Thomasschule and Thomaskirche and as a part of his impossibly demanding post, he wrote one church cantata every week. Of these, about 200 survive. Bach's sacred cantatas formed the heart of his Lutheran Sunday service in Leipzig, and were meant to be a musical commentary on the same scripture that the pastor would expound upon from the pulpit. Typically, a Bach cantata is scored for four soloists and a four-part choir accompanied by a string orchestra with continuo ( harpsichord or organ) and occasional woodwinds or brass instruments to add character and color.
Bach also wrote several secular cantata that were used to celebrate birthdays, weddings and other festive occasions for the aristocracy. In striking contrast to the often darkly sombre pieces he composed for the church services, the secular cantatas are often downright comedic.
Our two pieces of focus will be Cantata BWV 147: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben ("Heart and Mind and Deeds and Life") In this beautiful cantata, Bach elevates the closing hymn to a piece worthy of attention for its own merits. You'll recognize his accompaniment as one of the most cherished pieces of all time, better known as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring".
Cantata BWV 140: Wachet Auf ("Sleepers, Wake!") This cantata dramatizes the story found in the Gospel of Mathew of the wise and foolish maidens. Notice how Bach evokes a bridal processional with the stately rhythm of the opening orchestral introduction, and then abandon yourself to the tender lovesongs of the two duets, in which the bass and soprano are supposed to represent Jesus and the individual soul in a state of betrothal and adoration.
Recitative: For solo voice, sparsely accompanied by punctuating chords and rhythmically free, this narrates the action or addresses the audience directly in a “sermonizing” manner. Recitatives are less melodious, more like speech, and Bach frequently uses them to exhort his audience.
Aria: More melodic and rhythmically regular, often accompanied by another expressive instrument like violin or oboe, the aria is an emotional appeal to the listener
Chorale: Based on a familiar hymn tune, a chorale utilizes new poetry and then scores it polyphonically with harmonizing voices and instrumental accompaniment.
Word Painting: A musical effect used to highlight or mirror the text. For example. Bach makes use of a cascading tremolo in the cello underneath the words "the earthly ball doth quake" in the Bass Recitative. The constant triplets in the famous favorite, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" is a musical symbol Bach frequently uses to invoke the Trinity.
A word about interpretations For many generations, Bach was performed in a very Romantic style using modern instruments, modern tunings, enormous forces, heavy vibrato and lugubrious tempi. The "Baroque Revival" has largely changed all of that, returning to the original instrumentation and authentic tuning of the Baroque era, revealing a lighter, cleaner, more sparkling soundscape- rather analogous to the effect the cleaning had on the Sistine Chapel. There are many musicians to commend in this effort- locally, the American Bach Soloists and Philharmonia Baroque are worth searching out. Internationally, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Orchestra and Choir is excellent, but hands down, my favorite performers of so-called Early music are the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of the brilliant John Eliot Gardiner, Their massive "Cantata Pilgrimage" in 2000 is one of the most exciting musical projects of our age. I cannot recommend their intelligent, informed and impassioned performances enough, thankfully captured on cd and now being gradually released. Gardiner does a stupendous job of the seemingly impossible: revivifying the Christian context of these masterpieces while underscoring their universal appeal that transcends all religious and dogmatic barriers.