Climbing the Musical Ladder: Bach at Noon, Oct. 12th

“This great man (J. S. Bach)…would be the admiration of whole nations…if he had more amenity, if he did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, and if he did not darken their beauty by an excess of art.”

So wrote one of Bach’s contemporaries, a 29 year old, largely self-taught musician and scholar, Johann Adloph Scheibe. The eminent Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff, begins his epic biography of Bach with Scheibe’s reflections contrasted and refuted by one of Bach’s friends and colleagues, Johann Abraham Birnbaum, as a prologue. (NB.: Professor Wolff will be offering the Distinguished Scholar Lecture at the 2011 Bach Festival, this coming May – not to be missed!)  It’s safe to say that history has not looked kindly on Scheibe’s accusations, and Wolff’s masterwork of biography and commentary devastates the impetuous youngster’s arguments. What, however, might have impelled this sort of Scrappy-Doo of musical criticism to take on someone who was regarded as such a powerhouse in Leipzig’s, and indeed, Germany’s, musical circles?

Some translations replace “excess of art” with “overabundance of art,” and, thinking about the music for October’s Bach at Noon, it’s easy to judge these two pieces as brimming over with musical art. Perhaps Scheibe’s “excess” is our embarrassment of riches, and, if the music for September’s Bach at Noon was characterized by its ebullience and joy, the two pieces for October demonstrate a sort of muscular brainpower of the highest order (while, it should be said, not sacrificing one whit of beauty).

Bach’s Sonata for flute and harpsichord in B-minor dates most likely from his time in Cöthen, where he lived from 1717 – 1723. Here, he served as the court composer to Prince Leopold, and his duties were mainly secular. He composed a great deal of chamber music, and this sonata is a shining example of the kind of work he cheerfully completed there -his relationship with his employer was uncharacteristically good in Cöthen. If we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of instrumental sonatas as a solo instrument with subservient accompaniment, Bach’s writing here is of a different kind altogether, in which several independent parts make up a musical whole. At times you will hear flute and harpsichord united in a florid musical dialogue, sometimes the harpsichord by itself. Melodic material is traded off between harpsichord and flute, and musical ideas are developed in a variety of ways as they work through several keys, frequently elaborating on the theme introduced at the beginning of the piece. This is elaborate music, but no less beautiful for its complexity. The opening Andante (indicating a walking sort of tempo), full of melodic invention and development, gives way to a beautiful and more simple Largo. A brief Presto creates a modulation of tempo and key into the final Allegro, an ornate and swift-moving dance. Principal Flute Robin Kani and Greg Funfgeld, frequent chamber music collaborators, will offer this beautiful music. Robin’s playing is always revelatory – listen carefully to her uncanny knack for phrasing and how each note and each phrase have a life of their own. Listen also for the instinctive phrasing between Robin and Greg, how they breathe together, and for the excitement that always marks their collaborations.

Bach’s compositional art is exceptionally abundant, indeed, in the brief Cantata No. 150, Unto Thee, O Lord, Do I Lift up My Soul (to be heard for the first time in Bethlehem at this concert). Barely fifteen minutes in length, it is so overflowing with musical ideas, that, to even begin to touch on them would require a chapter-length essay, which would be inappropriate for a blog entry. Instead, we’ll delight in Greg’s explanations of the musical highlights with his trademarked enthusiasm and eloquence at the concert. But, I can’t help but give you a little preview: written circa 1708-09 (when Bach would’ve been 23 or 24), this cantata is thought to be one of his first, and it demonstrates an assimilation of styles from the composers well-regarded by the young musician. Some scholars see, in this music, with its many gear-changes of tempo and mood, the hand of Dietrich Buxtehude, a Northern-German composer whom Bach made his famous 200 mile pilgrimage to visit. An opening Sinfonia begins with strings, organ and bassoon. The chorus enters with entrances that leap from low to high, suggesting the lifting of one’s soul. The piece continues with a brief soprano aria, followed by an especially effective piece of text painting: on the word leite (lead – as in “lead me…”) Bach constructs an ascending musical ladder, through all four voice parts, then continued by violins – a play on a similar word, leiter, which means ladder. The text painting continues with the next movement, in which a whirling and churning continuo part (organ, cellos, basses, bassoon) represents cedars in a tempest as the choir implores the listener to hold fast to God and not to heed what “howls against you.” After a brief chorus, Bach concludes the piece with such a masterstroke of writing that great romantic composer, Johannes Brahms, recycled some of Bach’s musical ideas from this movement for the last movement of his own Fourth Symphony. It may seem incredible that a piece from Bach’s relative youth should have so inspired Brahms at the height of his musical maturity – perhaps, but only until you’ve heard Cantata 150! The last movement is a chaconne, which is a Baroque form that uses what’s called a ground bass, or a fairly short, repetitive bass line. On top of this repeated bass line, Bach superimposes a set of choral and instrumental variations that grow in intensity, particularly so when the listener’s ear grows accustomed to the repetition. Mantra-like, almost bluesy repetitions in the string parts add to this intensity, and at one point the voice parts take turns coming to the fore with figurations that sound like sighing, while the rest circle around them. It’s a striking moment that brings to mind Frederick Hart’s stunning sculpture for the tympanum of Washington National Cathedral, Ex Nihlio – something recognizably human comes forth from an almost otherworldly swirling of voices. The piece ends wistfully as chorus and supporting instruments make the last repetition.

Please join us on October 12th for what promises to be a most satisfying exploration of how Bach balanced the highest levels of technical compositional artistry with a compelling and natural beauty that inspired composers through the ages and still sounds fresh and new to listeners today. Reminder: The concert starts at 12:10 pm at Central Moravian Church, in downtown Bethlehem. The doors will open at 11:30 – please plan to come early to get a good seat!

Update, 10/10/10: Here’s Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, discussing the use of repeated or ostinato (obstinate) bass lines throughout musical history, a technique that connects Monteverdi to Bach to Brahms to the Beatles.  It’s featured in the last movement of Cantata 150:


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