The music for tomorrow’s Bach at Noon extends our celebration of Christmas to just under a week past the feast of the Epiphany, serving as a helpful reminder that, in Bach’s time, as well as our own, the liturgical season of Christmas extends into January (when most of us have taken down the decorations and filed away the cards). This bit of liturgical time displacement also builds on the foundation of our Christmas Concerts this year, where we sang the first and last cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio. On Tuesday, we’ll be performing the second part of the Oratorio, with programatic evocations of the countryside and a text that deals with the shepherds of Luke’s nativity narrative. Composed for the Second Day of Christmas, this cantata pares down the ebullient joy of the preceding evening (which would’ve included festive music including brass and timpani), and uses a more delicate orchestration of flutes, two kinds of oboes, strings and continuo. The orchestra sets the stage for the narrative with one of Bach’s most beautiful instrumental pieces: a gentle sinfonia which lilts along easily in three, and evokes a pastoral scene of the countryside. That it has always evoked, in this listener, a kind of Germanic idyll (as opposed to the hillsides surrounding biblical Bethlehem), is a mere quibble. This is an achingly beautiful selection, with the strings adding a halo of warmth around a core of woodwinds who offer a kind of peaceful dance. Indeed, this is of a kind of Bach composition in which time seems to slow down, if not stop, altogether.
The second movement follows and it is a recitative for tenor (the Evangelist) – a kind of accompanied storytelling, where the instrumentation and music are reduced to focus solely on the text, in this case a couple of verses from the second chapter of Luke. In the story, the angels have first appeared to the shepherds, and the shepherds are frightened. Bach interposes one of his most famous chorale settings at this moment in the narrative, “Break forth, O beautiful morning light and let the heavens dawn! Fear not, shepherds, for the angles proclaim that this weak child shall be our solace and joy…” To the recitatives that follow, Bach adds the calming voice of an angel from Luke, a soprano, and then a bass provides commentary. Switching roles, the tenor then sings a moving aria, encouraging the shepherds to make haste to “see the gracious child.” In this intricate composition, the tenor dialogues with the flute in a beautiful musical conversation.
With another recitative, we rejoin the story from Luke, this time for a mere verse. The shepherds are exhorted to find the child in the manger. Again, another interpolation in the form of a chorale follows, this time a verse of Martin Luther’s classic children’s hymn, Von himmel hoch. There is more commentary from the bass, followed by a lovely aria for alto, a lullaby that implores the Christ Child to cherish the quiet. A recitative of one verse from Luke announces the great company of angels praising God with the words of the next chorus, which begins attacca (or immediately). The choir will burst into a daunting bit of music to the text “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, and goodwill to all.” Bach uses a bit of text painting, beginning with the sopranos leaping to high in their register to underline the “highest” nature of the glory, and then suddenly lowering the dynamics and musical activity on the words “peace on earth.” It’s a thrilling moment, and a challenging one for the choir. We near the conclusion of the piece with another recitative of commentary from the bass, and a closing chorale that, in a bit of typical Bach ingenuity, links the dance of the woodwinds in the first movement to a setting of the Lutheran chorale in the seventh. Please join us for this beautiful music (if the forecast snow arrives, I can hardly think of a better musical accompaniment, but do be careful getting to Central Moravian!).
For the instrumental selection, The Choir’s fabulous Assistant Conductor, Rehearsal Accompanist, and Organist, Tom Goeman, will be treating us to a performance of Bach’s Canonic Variations on Von Himmel Hoch. This is a cheerful set of variations that also happens to be one of the more mind-bending displays of Bach’s compositional technique. Steve Siegel of the Morning Call spoke with Tom about the piece and wrote a preview here. To their discussion, I will only add that any opportunity to hear Tom play is one music lovers should take: Tom possesses musical instincts that can belie the careful preparation he puts into every performance. Tom makes the most challenging music look easy, and exudes a hard-won musical intelligence.
All of this music will be a fantastic start to a New Year filled with great riches. Still on tap for the coming year are our Super Bach Family Concert (about which I will be writing soon), the Songs of Hope Spring Concert, and the Festival, which will overflow with musical beauty and intellectual stimulation, as well as more Bach at Noon, featuring repertoire for a baroque wedding, and two other lovely cantatas. Please visit the performance calendar for more information.