The Choir remains on hiatus for one more week, but a few of us will be on hand at this Tuesday’s Bach at Noon to sing the closing chorale of Cantata No. 57. Because of The Choir’s break, this Bach at Noon will feature two soloists, perennial favorites Bill Sharp and Rosa Lamoreaux. The program will also feature Bach’s D-Minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1052, with our excellent continuo player, Charlotte Mattax-Moersch, at the keys of The Choir’s harpsichord, built by the internationally-renowned local artisan, Willard Martin.
The D-Minor concerto begins with a unison statement by harpsichord and strings, which immediately puts the listener on notice that this will not be the regal and cheerful affair that we heard at the last Bach at Noon! Instead, we’ll be treated a highly chromatic fantasy of some of Bach’s flashiest and substantive music for the instrument. Charlotte always plays with poise and elan, and I’m eager to hear how she and the string players render this very intricate and exciting music. Bach scholars of previous generations might describe this music as very grave, and there are surely many recordings that affect a sort of heaviness, but this is ultimately music for the fleet of fingers, and I think, despite the minor key, there will be a smile on the faces of the audience as Charlotte and her colleagues bring this piece to its rousing close.
Cantata No. 57 makes for an wonderful pair with the D-Minor concerto. It’s set as a dialogue between the soul and Jesus, and as often is the case in Bach’s cantatas, the soul is represented by a soprano, and Jesus by a bass. Bach wrote the piece for the second day of Christmas, which, in Leipzig was the feast of the martyred Saint Stephen (the Leipzig Lutherans really knew how to keep the Christmas party going!). The cantata begins with a bass aria which assures the faithful soul that endures temptation the crown of life. Next is a recitative for soprano, in which the soul laments its earthly existence, using language some have described as “tortured.” It’s definitely dark, but firmly establishes the juxtaposition for which Bach and the librettist, Georg Christian Lehms were aiming: the darkness and pain of life on earth versus the “sun that will shine brightly” with one’s heavenly reward. An aria for soprano continues that theme of lament, followed by an recitative which includes a dialoge for bass and soprano, in which the bass (as Jesus) stretches his hand out to the troubled soul. Following this beautiful moment, there’s a wonderful, brisk aria which evokes Jesus striking the enemy of the tortured soul and offering the comfort of the aforementioned sunshine. Another dialogue recitative follows in a very dramatic fashion (the recitatives in this cantata are almost operatic in their evocation of an intimate variety of emotions), with the soul seeking heavenly reward, a theme that continues in the next aria for soprano. The cantata concludes with a chorale that affirms the reward of heaven for the faithful. The melody of the chorale will be familiar to listeners as that of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” with a few Bachian modifications.
I have to confess that the seeming obsession with death that marks many of Bach’s cantatas and the librettists of his time are often difficult to relate to for twenty-first century minds. In the case of this cantata, I think placing it in its historical context is very important – Bach’s was a world rife with warring principalities, medical epidemics, an infant mortality rate of at least 50%, and a vastly shorter average lifespan. Because of this, the 18th century relationship with death was quite a bit less fraught (to say the least) than in our time. It was often thought of as a release from earthly hardship, and many of my favorite Bach arias touch on this theme, sometimes uncomfortably for me. What makes it all palatable for me, then, is the rapturous vision of a life of faith and the heavenly reward that is always promised in Bach’s music. There is always redemption, and I think that helps twenty-first century ears accustom themselves to the mindset of earlier generations.
Please join us for this seasonally appropriate exploration of some substantive themes this coming Tuesday. The music is ravishingly beautiful! The doors will open at Central Moravian at 11:30 am – it’s best to arrive early in order to get a good seat!