Bach Handel

The College Choir presents
Bach Cantata 80 and Handel Chandos Anthem 6

It was common practice for Baroque-period composers to recycle, combine, modify, or re-set their own older compositions and those of other composers. This practice could satisfy their master’s constant demand for new music while also exploring and exploiting interesting musical territory, territory that might yield more than one musical occasion worth of material. One could experiment with foreign styles, dance rhythms, galant ornaments, exotic instruments, or new contrapuntal techniques without having to create an entirely new work. Through borrowing and recycling a composer would rework these Mother Lode ideas over a lifetime.

Both of the musical works presented tonight are a concatenation of musical occasions. Both works are born out of musical ideas that first become apparent early in the respective careers of their composers, and both versions presented tonight were set by the composers later in life, drawing upon their experience, steady craftsmanship, and habitual acceptance of musical challenges.

Shortly after his return to England, young George Handel was hired by Henry James Bridges, first duke of Chandos, as composer-in-residence at Cannons Manor. Handel joined a staff of thirty fine musicians (including the brother of Alessandro Scarlatti and a cousin of J.S. Bach). Handel’s first project was a pair of anthems for the Duke’s personal church, one of which is As longs the hart for flowing streams. Handel created five versions of this anthem (the first one in 1711, the last one in 1738), shifting and borrowing the individual movements for his various musical enterprises. Material and movements from As longs the hart show up in an oratorio, concerto grosso, and trio sonata as well as within pastiche concerts.

Handel, who did not speak English fluently at the time, looked for a model to fulfill the requests of his employer. He found Henry Purcell’s English anthems and with the self-confidence of a genius set the English text and composed in a “foreign” choral style while applying his vocal-writing skills and continental tastes to the task. The opening movement of As longs the hart is in the French royal style with a stately tempo and snapped rhythms, but Handel creates deeper structures instead of just copying others. The articulated theme of the opening is later used as the counter-theme of the final alleluia fugue, and the closing section is reused to wrap up the second movement, tying the first two and the last two movements together.

The second movement introduces the chorus and the “flowing” theme, presented in canon first by the alto soloist, then the choral altos, then again and again throughout the various instrumental families and singers. The orchestra begins this movement as a stage setting device (like an opera orchestra), later joining as an equal partner.

The third movement is closely allied to the phrase and cadential structure of a minuet. The legato solo “tears have been my daily bread” strongly contrasts with the marcato interrogative of the chorus “where is now thy God?” but in the end the chorus softens its demand and the music ends in a question (half cadence).

The fourth movement is one of the last additions to the work, creating not only a plot point for the following movement but also modulating to create a sense of arrival for the fifth movement. The fifth movement is an exemplar of Handelian fugue: a relatively simple subject with clear text declamation and frequent entries, but few complex episodes. This changes the anthem’s mood from fear to confidence. The fugue subject is traded between choral and orchestral families eventually piling up in a grand stretto.

A slow contemplative movement follows that is set ingeniously as a duet of duets: violin with oboe and alto with tenor. This movement also exhibits the characteristics of a minuet.

The multi-layered finale builds momentum in sectional panels. First a soloist extols us to trust God. He is joined by the chorus and full orchestra bringing a contrapuntal treatment of that subject. The “alleluia” fugue subject is derived from earlier material. The main staccato subject is highly contrasted with the legato countersubject in a stunning double fugue that explores both major and minor keys. Handel also used this fugue to end his oratorio Athalia.

Cantata 80, Ein feste burg ist unser Gott, is the final version of a series of different works and places. Johann Sebastian Bach reaches back for his initial seed idea to the year 1528. By using a tune and text created by Martin Luther, Bach not only harkens to the pre-Baroque days of the Protestant Reformation but he also acquires a 2000 year chain of musical development. Luther’s chorale Ein feste burg ist unser Gott is an example of “bar form,” an aesthetic principle derived from Greek dramatic chorus texts in three sections: strophe, anti-strophe, and epode. The chorus moves right while declaiming the strophe, left for the anti-strophe, then centers for the final section. This AAB format reappears in the early Middle Ages in Gregorian alleluia chants, next develops into the canto of the French troubadours and the trouvères’ ballade, ultimately becoming the bar form of the German minnesingers and Meistersinger who labeled the sections stollen, stollen, abgesang. This cantata represents a culmination of not only the bar form but also of Bach’s musical experience, style and craft in that there are movements from his younger days at the Weimar court (circa 1715) through his mature artistry in Leipzig (mid 1730s).

The tune and text was conceived by Luther as a hymn of faith, but it gradually took on the connotation of a battle cry starting with the Kaltic Wars. A later version of this cantata by one of Bach’s sons added trumpets and drums furthering the militaristic perception of this tune and cantata. Around 100 years after Bach composed his Cantata 80 it and Luther’s chorale were drafted to serve as propaganda tools in the unification of the German nation. Ein feste burg ist unser Gott was the first Bach cantata published, and it was used as a musical banner of German nationalist music through WWII.

In terms of harmony, tonal relationships, or instrumentation Bach is not breaking new ground in Cantata 80. In fact the entire cantata is almost a mono-tonality as it revolves around a key signature of two sharps. I believe that in Cantata 80 Bach explores the layering of textures, forms, and genres in a tour de force of German and French international styles, all built on a single Lutheran hymn. Any unwritten French styling would have certainly been expurgated by subsequent performers and theorists intent on making Cantata 80 something purely German, so tonight’s performance seeks to restore some possible un-notated French practices in this cantata.

The opening movement was probably the last piece to be composed and is one of the most complex contrapuntal creations ever made: a Leipzig-style chorale motet so complicated that Bach uses two basso continuo units to support everything. Bach reminds the performers that he is reaching back in time because the first movement is set in antique “white-note” notation, a hallmark of severe counterpoint that would not be out of place with a melody from the 1500s. Luther’s tune is easily heard in all this but is expanded in such an ingenious way that the pair of stollen (first 8 measures of the hymn) are stretched to encompass sixty measures of music. The subject lines are set in multiple points of time and space as the theological message is bounced throughout the chorus and orchestra. The chorale tune itself is presented in strict augmentation as a cantus firmus from above (3 oboes in unison) and below (organ pedal and string bass) symbolically echoing from the highest to the lowest points in creation. This massive undertaking fills fully one half of the entire cantata.

The second movement strikes a completely different pose. Entitled “aria,” it begins with a ritornello and a bass soloist, but instead of a predictable aria unfolding an oboe and sopranos sing the second stanza of Luther’s hymn while the bass uses text by Weimar court poet Franck. This top line text is first person plural and it mimics the high-heavens triple oboe line of the previous movement. To mix styles and textures even further, Bach uses the metrical accents of the gavotte, a passionate dance recalling Bach’s time in Weimar. The layering is multifarious; a gapped cantus firmus sung simultaneously over a trio sonata using a bass narrator, all in the rhythmic framework of a courtly dance.

The basso soloist continues in the recitative that follows. The text entreats us to confess, and the confessional section is set as a Weimar arioso. This is no confession of sins but rather a confession of faith and doctrine which climbs on rising melodic sequences.

The fourth movement is definitely an aria, but rather than being a da capo form it retains Bach’s Weimar style. Even more interesting though are the accretions of other genres; the accompaniment is more like a recitative (minimalist basso continuo) and the phrase structure and cadences ape the courtly passepied dance, particularly set in the pastorelle style of French court composer Lully. This dance portrays a fickle affect and was reserved for young women. Bach takes advantage of this in his word painting (stepping down into the house and flinging the pitch away on the word “out”). The cadences are reminiscent of the double-measure hemiolas in François Couperin’s Pieces Ordre (1713) and so we perform the hemiolas and graces in the French manner.

Bach leaves the relative minor key and returns to the stalwart land of D major for the fifth movement. He pulls the unison melody directly from the cantus firmus third stanza but, in contrast to the foursquare feel of Luther’s hymn, Bach modifies the meter to a rollicking 6/8. There are two other genres interlaced within the hymn tune: the accent and motion of a complicated instrumental dance, the giga, and a concerto style of instrumental writing, the Gruppenkonzert (group concerto). The giga is an especially joyful French dance and we therefore render it in the rhythmic style of notes inegales, a triplet jigging motion similar to the un-notated “swing” of American jazz. The orchestra assumes a virtuosic role with six layers of counterpoint buzzing around the choral cantus firmus. The orchestral lines follow a Baroque system of “spinning out” in the perpetual triplet motion.

The cantata returns to the minor mode in the sixth movement, a recitative and arioso that mimics the third movement, but instead of a bass the messenger is a tenor, and the confession is a belief that strength comes from faith.

The tonality softens to G major for a duet in movement seven. Once again Bach layers multiple topics over an ordinary form, first in the nature of the duet: violin and oboe are the first pair to emerge, followed by alto and tenor – another duet of duets. This quasi da capo aria is in a Leipzig motet-style but was composed in Weimar (before Bach moved to Leipzig), and is further organized as a minuet. Slowly the dancing pairs move through the French-mannered phrase lengths and hemiola cadences, with a contrasting minuet and trio further complicating any resemblance to an ordinary aria. There is ample use of word painting in the carrying of the melody on the word “tragen,” and cloudy diminished harmony at the time of “death.” This dance, used at this particular point in the cantata, further exemplifies Bach’s Leipzig practice of using courtly triple meter dance to evoke a motion of something heavenly, in this case being “blessed.”

The chorus and orchestra close by presenting the moral of the entire story with Luther’s fourth stanza set in a rich four-part harmonization of the chorale tune.

Sources: The projection of affect in Baroque dance music by Butler; Playing with history by Butt; Analyzing Bach Cantatas by Chafe; Handel’s dramatic oratorios and masques by Dean; The cantatas of J.S.Bach by Dürr; Grove Dictionary of Music; Harvard Dictionary of Music; Dance and the music of J.S. Bach by Little and Jenne; Handel’s oratorios and Eighteenth-century thought by Smith; The Learned Musician by Wolff; The world of the Bach cantatas by Wolff and Koopman.  – all rights reserved to Richard Gard