Songs of Hope: Singet dem Herrn

Dr. Robin Leaver, our program annotator, writes of Singet dem Herrn:

All the verbal superlatives that have been heaped on this work – and there have been many – cannot do justice to the impact that this marvelous sound makes on performers and hearers alike.

This motet, composed for an indeterminate occasion, has scholars speculating on its provenance – we’re just not sure of the occasion (if any) for which Bach composed one of his greatest contrapuntal masterpieces.  That’s quite alright – just performing or hearing this piece is a grand occasion.

Bach sets verses of Psalms 149 and 150, along with a paraphrase of Psalm 130 for double choir, meaning that there are two four-voice choirs, often with colle parte instruments (instruments that double the vocal lines, note for note), and continuo (organ, ‘celli and basses).  When members of The Choir are polled about their favorite pieces, this one is invariably at or near the top of the list.

The piece begins with the two choirs duetting, followed by an lovely call and response section, the two choirs imitating one another in a strikingly exuberant way.  This beginning section constitutes a sort of prelude, matched to a ridiculously (in the best possible sense of the word) ornate fugue.  The text begins:

Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Let them praise His name in dances,

On the word dances” (or reihen), a long melismatic passage begins – many notes are sung to one syllable, creating the aural image of a florid dance.  With each succeeding entrance of the fugue, there is accompaniment from the opposite choir – when all of the voice parts have entered, it’s hard to describe the sheer thrill of the moment.  It requires a lot of vocal and rhythmic dexterity on the part of the choirs – the piece requires a lot of cogs and gears working in perfect synchronicity.  This is one of the reasons this section of the piece is such a white-knuckle thrill for the performers – the fugue moves along at an exciting clip, and the texture is quite thick.  Usually I like to imagine Bach’s faster fugues as dances after seeing the wonderful choreography of Barbara Pearson to the Cum Sancto Spiritu from the B Minor Mass at a Family Concert a few years ago.  Such is the density of this music, that this is next to impossible to do (a large company would be necessary, and there would be lots of acrobatics)!

Following the fireworks of the first two sections, the singers are given a kind of a rest with a more lyrical dialogue that has four singers – in our case, the quartet of soloists – singing aria-like extrapolations on a chorale theme that is sung by the two choirs.  This dialogue is slow-moving, and quite beautiful, an invocation for God’s continued protection in the future.

After the relative rest, the choir begins working towards the final fugue, by way of another prelude, this time set to a verse of Psalm 150.  The dialogue comes quickly with rapid calls and responses, and then the two choirs unite into one on a final section to the text:

Everything that has breath, praise the Lord,

This section is, again, pure vocal dance with long melismas in an act of text painting: the first is on the word “alles” or everything – underlining the how vast a quantity of souls that would mean.  In a sense, Bach creates a valedictory lap for the two choirs – the music of this last fugue is so infectious in its exuberance that it sort of sings itself (though no vocal complacency is possible – we work hard in this movement!).  The fugue theme is quite bravura, and the piece climaxes with a high b-flat at the end for the sopranos.   Greg often says that this music isn’t for the faint of heart, and that’s quite true – it’s a kind of inexorable musical journey, and one that is a pure delight to sing, provided the singers have put in long hours of rehearsal.  It’s also monumentally rewarding to hear  – I have several recordings of it, and I’m very much looking forward to adding a new one – our own – to my library in the coming year.  I’m also eager for this piece to be heard by our fantastic audience surrounded by the other music on this particular program.  The themes of hope and joy that suffuse the repertoire for our concert should be an early taste of spring, which begins the Monday following our Bethlehem performance.  We’ll be returning to the First Presbyterian Church to begin our recording sessions for our newest CD on that day – I can’t think of a better way to welcome spring.  Please join us for an exciting afternoon of thrilling and beautiful music.

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