SFEMS Baroque Music Workshop
June 24 – 30, 2012
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This year's workshop project will highlight selections from
Bach's cantatas Wachet auf! and Ein feste Burg
as well as from Bach's orchestral works.
Our choral conductor, Bob Worth, describes these two magnificent cantatas:
Cantata 140, Wachet auf!, composed for the 27th Sunday after Trinity
(25 November, 1731), is based upon the Gospel reading for the day,
the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In
this story, Jesus compares the faithful to a bride, who, knowing that
her bridegroom is coming for her in the night, must keep her lamp
ready and her spirit open to receive him. The wise do thus; the
foolish do not replenish their lamps and are left in darkness at
the critical moment.
Bach's cantata paints this drama of the arriving bridegroom and
the eagerly awaiting (and meticulously prepared) bride from two
points of view. Movements 1, 4 and 7, forming the pillars of the
symmetrical structure, are based upon Philipp Nicolai's famous
chorale melody, Wachet auf. The three verses depict three phases
of the drama from a public point of view: the call to action
(It's midnight! Light your lamps! He is coming!); the response
(We hear, we rise, we're ready!); and the outcome (Eternal joy!).
Each chorale verse receives a distinctive musical treatment. In
the first movement, Bach uses equal choirs of oboes, strings and
chorus to accompany the long-note melody, painting a scene of the
excitement and anticipation aroused in the city by the imminent
arrival of the bridegroom and his procession. The fourth movement,
one of Bach's most famous chorale settings, introduces a noble
accompanying melody in the upper strings, while the men play the
role of the faithful. Finally, Bach closes with one of his most
transcendent four-part chorale settings, evoking the voices and
instruments of angels.
The private perspective on the story is presented in the
intervening movements: a most intimate dialog between Jesus and
the Soul. In the third movement, accompanied by the violino
piccolo, the soul longs for the arrival of the Savior, and
Jesus provides comfort and reassurance. In the fifth movement,
Jesus pledges his troth and intentions in sensuous phrases,
and in the following love duet, the two celebrate and delight
in their union.
Cantata 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, (for Reformation Sunday) is one of Bach's best-known cantatas; many are familiar with it in a version with trumpet and timpani parts not written by Bach. The situation with the sources for this cantata is very complex, and it is difficult to identify a definitive version. Our performance follows the score of the Neue Bach Ausgabe, which omits the spurious trumpet parts but includes the oboe parts for the fifth movement, which Bach probably added at a late stage in the work's history.
Bach provides diverse settings for four verses of Martin Luther's hymn, which stands as perhaps the most potent musical symbol of Lutheranism and of the Reformation. The hymn is concerned with the battle between good and evil, using specific images of weaponry, power and field strategy. Evil is personified as the Devil, whose fantastic powers would control humanity forever but for the miraculous intervention of a power even greater: Jesus Christ.
In the first movement, Bach creates a mighty fortress of sound to match the image conveyed in the text. Using imitative lines based on the chorale melody, he builds each section to a climax, at which he brings in oboes and bass instruments in a giant canon on the chorale tune. The second movement presents the chorale in the soprano and oboe, with a complementary aria in the bass voice. The fifth movement uses the full ensemble of winds and strings in a swirling, disorienting portrait of the battle, while the chorus stands firm on the rock of the chorale. Finally, Bach closes with a grand and satisfying four-part setting, claiming victory once and for all.
The intervening recitatives and arias serve, as in Cantata 140, to bring the message of this grand struggle down to human scale, so that the faithful are provided with a spiritual map for avoiding all diabolical traps, and, by adherence to the path of righteousness, may emerge, with Christ, victorious even in the face of Death itself.
Last updated 01/25/2012.
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