Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Autumnal Reflections, II

Bach and Vivaldi: Baroque Voices on Death and Bounty

[Updated: See below.]

I. Bach

Yesterday Mr. Northcutt thoughtfully reflected on the aesthetic and theological profundity of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. The corpus of Bach's cantatas (and chorales) astounds in its size as a whole as well as in the size and complexity of each work. Still it has been estimated that only about 200 of a potential 500 cantatas were preserved. Each has its own character and each of the sacred cantatas reflects the context of its place in the Christian liturgical year. We have mentioned here already Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, his journey through Bach's Europe to play the cantatas on their appropriate day.

The cantata for this past Sunday, the 17th Sunday after Trinity, Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, BWV 114, has to me an appropriate autumnal quality and such is what brought it into this series of reflections.

Summary of Movements:
  1. Chorale Fantasia: Ach, Lieben Christen, Seid Getrost
  2. Aria: (Tenor) Wo Wird In Diesem Jammertale
  3. Recitative: (Bass) O Sünder, Trage Mit Geduld
  4. Chorale: (Soprano) Kein Frucht Das Weizenkörnlein
  5. Aria: (Alto) Du Machst, O Tod
  6. Recitative: (Tenor) Indes Bedenke Deine Seele
  7. Chorale Finale: Wir Wachen Oder Schlafen Ein

1. The opening choral fantasia expresses an admission of sin and a welcoming of punishment, senses expressed with great potency in three themes: 1) the rather despondent opening theme on the oboes and 1st violin,  2) the contrasting figure in the lower strings urging us to "keep heart," and 3) the trilled, trembling dotted quaver figure. The contrasting and appearances of these themes, in different voices, modulated, in imitation, make a richness of both musical texture and theological expression: it is not the sorrowful but the joyful theme which accompanies the final phrase, "Niemand darf sich ausschließen/Let no one be excepted" [from punishment] and with which the chorale ends.

2. The following recitative for tenor is intensely personal. Following the journey of the wandering flute theme would make for a wonderful meditation and I recoil from dissecting it. We might simply say this recitative in D minor is in two parts: a peregrinate and somber opening on "Wo wird in diesem Jammertale Vor meinen Geist die Zuflucht sein?/Where will within this vale of sorrow my spirit find its refuge now" and an almost-sprightly passage, vivace in 12/8, on "Allein zu Jesu Vaterhänden/Alone in Jesus' hands paternal."

4. The striking and transporting effect of this soprano choral is ingenious in its simplicity: the gently lilting, almost declamation of the text over the "scattering" continuo figures.

Kein Frucht das Weizenkörnlein bringt,
Es fall denn in die Erden;
So muss auch unser irdscher Leib
Zu Staub und Aschen werden,
Eh er kömmt zu der Herrlichkeit,
Die du, Herr Christ, uns hast bereit'
Durch deinen Gang zum Vater.
No fruit the grain of wheat will bear
Unless to earth it falleth;
So must as well our earthly flesh
Be changed to dust and ashes,
Before it gain that majesty
Which thou, Lord Christ, for us hast made
Through thy path to the Father.

5. Here is one of Bach's most beautiful and tender melodies and in perfect character in the voices of the oboe and alto. Sublimely intertwined as none other would be for some time, they travel together. We are protected and in death not destroyed but transformed (Verklärt) and pure (rein.)

Wir wachen oder schlafen ein,
So sind wir doch des Herren;
Auf Christum wir getaufet sein,
Der kann dem Satan wehren.
Durch Adam auf uns kömmt der Tod,
Christus hilft uns aus aller Not.
Drum loben wir den Herren.
In waking or in slumbering
We are, indeed, God's children;
In Christ baptism we receive,
And he can ward off Satan.
Through Adam to us cometh death,
But Christ frees us from all our need.
For this we praise the Master.

What strength, invention, vision, and beauty Bach poured into all of his creations. Here is an autumn-tide reflection on death and new life, on man's state and redemption. It is a meditation from a man who knew much death throughout his life, losing both his parents within a year when he was ten, his wife Maria Barbara, and seven young children. Here is a world tinged with sadness at its fallen state, but vivified and made significant through a most profound and glorifying faith.

II. Vivaldi

Where Bach's cantata relentlessly looked beyond this world Vivaldi's concerto is of a decidedly earthly nature. It is a jocular celebration of not just the autumn harvest bounty but of all the uniqueness of the season. One risks making Vivaldi and this work seem frivolous by placing it in direct comparison with the Bach cantata above, but the works are of a different nature and character. Bach was writing a musical expression of not autumnal ideas specifically but theological ideas with similar notions of seasonal motion and generation and corruption. Vivaldi was writing a programmatic concerto about the character and joys of Autumn and as such is a wonderful and contrasting companion to the Bach cantata. (Coincidentally, both pieces date from around 1724.)  A poem accompanies the concerto, perhaps also by the composer.

Op. 8, Concerto No. 3, 'Le quattro stagioni: L'autunno'

The first movement is notated, ballo, e canto de vilanelli, that is, with dancing and singing and in a rustic style, and del felice raccolto il bel piacere, i.e. the joy of a good harvest. We hear the rippling dance rhythms, piano and forte, the descending scalar figures of falling down tired, twirling triplets mixed with the dance rhythm, and racing scales. The festivities conclude with a contented sleep: piano and larghetto, cautious little figures in the first violin over repeated quavers in the others. It's like tiptoeing through a room of passed out revelers: don't wake anyone.

The slow movement is ubirachi dormienti, in a drunk sleep. Nature calls us to cease and invites rest. The atmosphere remains as the end of the fast movement, though we transition to the relative, D minor. Here the mood is dominated by the figure of a dotted half note and an either ascending or descending crotchet triplet. The bass chords are arpeggiated throughout the movement and with the timbre of the harpsichord the effect is that of a chill setting in, an icy stillness settling over a landscape.

The final movement is in the old style of the caccia, the hunt. Even in Vivaldi's time the caccia was an old Italian form (though French in origin) which commonly included rustic themes of fishing and fires, and particularly, of course, hunt. The form may be in canon, but here we have two characters introduced by the tutti one after the other. The first figure is a smooth and striding choriambic figure, i.e. its metrical quantity is long-short-short-long, following by a descending semiquaver figure in the lower voices. The second figure is a scampering little thing of semiquavers. The soloist then takes up the second theme for a few bars followed by the tutti with the first theme for a few more. Now the chase ensues, the beast flees to a flurry of triplets, dogs chase to a rush of thirty-second-notes, and with rising and falling figures they chase here and there. With a dazzling array of virtuosity we experience the frenzy of the hunt before it suddenly ends, the pursued overcome, as the first theme trots to a halt.

Whereas Bach's cantata was sobered by, even preoccupied with, the notion of death, Vivaldi's L'autunno' brims with the joys of a happy and healthy life. In Part I we read Horace stress balance and these two views of the Autumn and all of its associations neatly contrapose and make for a healthy disposition.

Update: This interview (in two parts: Part I | Part II) with Trevor Stephenson is a great introduction to the stylistic differences between German and Italian Baroque composers like Bach and Vivaldi. It nicely elucidates some of the reasons for the contrast we discussed here.

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