Our show this evening has a dual-fold purpose. We have Easter coming in two weeks, and this year the timing coincides with the occasion of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday. I celebrate both occasions on a yearly basis, given the importance of Bach to the development of musical theory and technique in the Western Hemisphere. This actually works out pretty well for us, in that Bach wrote a number of pieces for use during the Easter holiday season, and several of these pieces rank among some of the great historical examples of classical music. So, to me, to spend a few weeks observing the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach does not feel like a limitation, it feels like an opportunity.
So we’ll begin our Easter celebration with St. John’s Passion, BWV 245. The piece was first written in 1724 for that year’s Good Friday Vespers service Bach made several revisions to the work, including a 1749 revision done as part of his notable late-life revision project wherein he made revisions to what he considered to be his key works, with an eye towards his legacy. This revision largely returned the work to its 1724 form, with some alterations in orchestration to replace instruments that had largely passed from use (i.e. the viola da gamba). The Johannes-Passion is the oldest of Bach’s 3 known Passion works; a St. Mark’s Passion was written in 1731 but has been lost, with a surviving libretto having been destroyed in the WWII bombing of Dresden. In addition to the well-known St. Matthew’s Passion, there is also a St. Luke’s Passion that is not believed to be Bach’s, but which may contain some contributions from him.
Tonight’s performance is a 1993 performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, with Angela Maria Blasi, Marjana Lipovsek, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Robert Holl, and Anton Scharinger. Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Schoenberg Choir.
When one is looking for Easter music, Bach certainly gives us a number of compelling options, especially his great Passion works. But he did not limit himself to the Passion works. Bach’s Easter Oratorio (Kommt, eilet und laufet – “Come, hasten and run”), BWV 249, was first performed on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1725 (the year following his St. John’s Passion). Its composition is a substantial departure from the form taken by his numerous cantatas (among other areas, it is notably longer than most of his cantatas – most of his cantatas run between 24 and 30 minutes, whereas the Easter Oratorio runs in the 40-45 minute range), and in parts is a parody (in other words, a recycle) of a secular cantata that Bach had written a few months earlier. But Bach’s practice of recycling music was not just a cut and paste job – in many instances, music was rearranged to fit the libretto, instrumentation changed, parts added or removed. Like the aforementioned Passions, the Easter Oratorio also received several revisions, once in 1735 (when it was given the title of “Oratorio”) and another in the 1740s.
Tonight’s recording is a rather striking rendition by the Bach Collegium Japan from 2005, directed by Masaaki Suzuki. Soloists were Yukari Nonoshita (soprano), Patrick van Goethem (counter-tenor), Jan Kobow (tenor), and Chiyuki Urano (bass).
Our last selection of the evening is Christ Lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4. It is believed to have been written in 1707, when Bach was 22, and may have been related to his move from Arnstadt to Mühlhausen, possibly being used for his application for the position of church organist. The chorale portion is based on a hymn of the same name by Martin Luther, which was in turn based on an Easter hymn from the 12th century, Christ ist erstanden (“Christ is risen”). There are compositional similarities to a work by Johann Pachelbel, which is not surprising given Bach’s young age, Pachelbel’s known influence on Bach (he was a friend of Bach’s family), and the common practice of quoting other composers. Original copies of the cantata do not survive, but there exists a copy that Bach made for a 1725 performance. The piece has been recorded many times by many orchestras with many conductors. Tonight’s recording is a 2003 recording by the Hilliard Ensemble with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph Poppen.