WDBX Opera Overnight – Der Ring des Nibelungen, Part 3; Bach, Schütz

Lauritz Melchior

Lauritz Melchior, one of the all-time great heldentenors, who played Siegfried 47 times during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

We continue tonight with our playing of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.  As we have stated in the last two weeks, Wagner wrote the libretto between 1848 and 1852, writing the four operas in reverse order.  The music, on the other hand, was written in the order of the narrative.  Wagner had the music for Siegfried written up to the end of Act 2, at which point he set the opera aside while he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  He picked up where he left off in 1869, and had the rest of the cycle completed by October of that same year.  Although he had completed the music, Wagner delayed publishing the opera because he wanted the cycle premiered in its entirety, not in individual parts (King Ludwig had insisted on hearing Das Reingold and Die Walküre upon publication, in spite of Wagner’s objections).  The premiere was also delayed because of Wagner’s desire to have a theater built for his music.  Siegfried was eventually premiered on August 16th, 1876, in the newly completed Bayreuth Festspielhaus, as part of the first complete performance of the cycle.

Tonight’s recording is from Karl Böhm’s excellent live recording from the 1967 Bayreuth Festival.  We hear Wolfgang Windgassen (like Lauritz Melchior, one of the all-time great heldentenors), Erwin Wohlfahrt, Birgit Nilsson (one of the all-time great Brünnhildes), Theo Adam, and Gustav Neidlinger.  Böhm leads the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus.

en: Mathilde Wesendonck 1850. Painted by Karl ...

Mathilde Wesendonck 1850. Painted by Karl Ferdinand Sohn. Öl a. Lwd. StadtMuseum Bonn, Inv. Nr. SMB 1991/G313 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For our second piece this evening, we’re going to hear one of Wagner’s few non-operatic works.  The Wesendonck Lieder is a song cycle that Wagner wrote while writing Tristan und Isolde, using poems by  Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner’s patrons, and the focus of an alleged love affair of Wagner’s.  Wagner used the music as studies, and eventually used some of this material in Tristan und Isolde.  The cycle was initially written for female voice and piano, but eventually set the 5th movement, Träume, for chamber orchestra in 1857.  The rest of the orchestration was completed by the noted Wagnerian conductor Felix Mottl.  There have been other orchestral arrangements of the cycle, but Mottl’s is the most commonly performed version.  Tonight’s recording is a 2010 recording, with Measha Brueggergosman singing.  Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra.

Our next work is an oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, written for Ascension Sunday, which was celebrated today.  Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (Praise God in his Kingdoms), BWV 11, was likely composed in 1735, with Bach recycling older material, as he often did.  It was first performed on May 19, 1735.  The text is presumed to have been written by Picander, who used multiple Biblical sources.  Tonight’s recording is a 1989 recording, with Emma Kirkby, Evelyn Tubb, Margaret Cable, Wilfried Jochens, and Stephen Charlesworth.  Andrew Parrott leads the Taverner Consort & Players.

Our last work of the evening is a piece by the German early Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz.  Schütz wrote Kleiner Geistlicher Concerten sometime around 1639, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, as an attempt to console those who had lost so much to the violence that surrounded them.  We shall hear a 1990 recording of the Concerto Vocale, under the direction of Rene Jacobs.

Advertisements

The Galaxy – Celebrating Bach, Part 2

Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959), Polish harpsich...

Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959), Polish harpsichordist and pianist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, we continue our celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach by starting with another landmark recording.  Wanda Landowska was a true musical pioneer, a musicologist whose work helped revolutionize what we now might call the “period instruments trend”. Like many of the great musicologists, she was a critical writer whose opinions went in direct contrast with popular opinion of the day.  She had some rather interesting things to say:

We very rarely hear the genuine music of the Leipzig Cantor. We are compelled to listen to modernized Bach, arranged according to the musical fashions of today, approximated to the conditions of our time. We are within two centuries of Bach, nevertheless his epoch is ancient history vague and totally distinct from that in which we live, different in life, art, impressions and ideas. What we seek eagerly, what we like and what we admire, often did not find favor in those days.

Intensity of expression and breadth of sonority are the qualities now most sought after, most admired in every musical performance. Nevertheless these ideals of contemporary art were not in high favor two centuries ago. In prefaces to their works or in treatises on playing the harpsichord, the authors recommend above all, grace, finesse and precision. “Experience has taught me,” says Francois Couperin, “that the hands which are the strongest and capable of playing the most rapid passages are not those which succeed best in expressing tender sentiment.”  (This study was originally published in The Etude Music Magazine (September 1906): 562-3.  The quote was found at Polish Music Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 2003)

Wanda Landowska.

Wanda Landowska. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her life was just about as interesting as her work.  She was an innovator in the construction of new harpsichords, and she had works written especially for her by Francois Poulenc and Manuel de Falla.  She established the École de Musique Ancienne in Paris in 1925, and her home in St. Leu became a center for the study and performance of old music.  However, when the Nazis invaded France, Landowska (who was Jewish) had to flee France with her assistant and companion Denise Restout, leaving behind all her harpsichords and manuscripts (which were subsequently stolen).  She resettled in Connecticut, and was able to continue her work until her death in 1959.  It is largely thanks to Ms. Restout that her many writings have been translated and archived, and thus preserved for future generations.

As is natural when considering her interest in harpsichords, she had a special interest in the work of the great Baroque masters like Bach.  Her 1931 recording of the Goldberg Variations was the first ever attempt at recording that important keyboard masterpiece.  It is that recording that we hear tonight, as archived from the original 78 rpm recordings.  I find the sound quality to be quite spectacular, given that it was made in 1931.  All in all, a worthy musical experience.

Bass patterns from BWV 582/1, Passacaglia in C...

Bass patterns from BWV 582/1, Passacaglia in C minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Christe – Trio en passacaille from Messe du Deuziesme ton, by André Raison (c.1650-1719). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the Goldberg Variations, we then heard the sole Passacaglia that Bach wrote. It is not known exactly when Bach wrote his Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, a situation that we have with many of Bach’s early works where the original manuscript is lost, a group which includes many of his organ works.  It is believed that the piece was written between 1706 and 1713.  As with all passacaglias, the work centers around a theme (possibly borrowed from André Raison  – the similarities are explored in the figure at right), which is stated with the bass pedals at the opening, at a length of 8 bars.  After the statement of the initial theme, the work explores a number of variations on the initial theme, 20 variations in all.  After the conclusion of the variations, the work immediately, without the usual pause, steps into a double fugue (a fugue with two subjects), again with the same initial melody serving as the starting point, but one can immediately tell where Bach swerves away from the original melody into new heights of organic bliss.  At one point the work becomes a permutation fugue.  The work was quite influential, with Robert Schumann describing it as “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.”  Tonight’s recording is a 1979 recording by Peter Hurford.

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in...

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the passacaglia, we then heard the Musical Offering, BWV 1079.  The work was the result of a visit Bach paid to Frederick II, then King of Prussia.  During the visit, the king gave Bach a short theme, which Bach improvised into a three-voice fugue on the spot.  He also attempted to improvise a six voice fugue.  After this, Bach promised to set the fugue to paper and have it engraved in copper.  When Bach did this, he added to the royal theme (the “thema regium”) two ricercaris, ten canons, and a trio sonata in four movements.  One of the interesting points to the piece is that this is perhaps the only piece written by Bach for a new invention that the king was showing off, the piano (in its early form, the piano-forte).  The piece is also interesting in that it is written for a quartet combo of violin (changing over to viola from time to time), flute, viola da gamba, and keyboard, with the keyboardist from time to time switching from harpsichord to the new piano-forte.  Tonight’s recording is a 1999 edition by the combo of Gottfried von der Goltz (violin and viola), Karl Kaiser (flute), Ekkehard Weber (viola da gamba) and Michael Behringer (harpsichord and fortepiano).

We concluded the evening with a fragmentary cantata, Bach’s Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, BWV50.  It is believed to be part of a larger cantata that was written for a special occasion, possibly Michaelmas.  The composition is unusual for Bach in that the instrumentation calls for two choirs and a large orchestra, and some scholars have suggested that Bach may in fact no have been the author (the suggestion has been quite controversial).  Tonight’s recording is a 1993 recording by Andrew Parrott, leading the Taverner Consort and Players.

Further reading:

  • Wanda Landowska – A 1996 article that focuses on the reminiscences of Denise Restout,  who was still living and teaching in Connecticut at the time (she passed away in 2004)

WDBX Opera Overnight – Bach

Autograph of the first page of the Johannespas...

Autograph of the first page of the Johannespassion by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

'Berlin' portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

‘Berlin’ portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

The Galaxy – Celebrating Bach, Part 1

Once again, we embark on my annual musical odyssey that is the celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.  As I’ve done this every year since shortly after I began broadcasting, and since I’ve written multiple blog entries that explore the wonders of his music, it is hard for me to write much without becoming repetitive.  Yet this music is so glorious that it begs for at least some form of mention.

J.S. Bach's The Art of Fugue, breaks off abrup...

J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, breaks off abruptly during Contrapunctus XIV due to his death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s show begins with a work that I often feature as a part of these birthday celebration, his Kunst der Fugue, or Art of Fugue, BWV 1080.  He began the work at some point during the early 1740s, and assembled an fair copy manuscript in 1742 that had 11 fugues and 2 canons.  Another assembly of the work was produced in 1745, often referred to as the Berlin Autograph, which contained 12 fugues and 2 canons.  As Bach was engaged in a process of revising a number of what he likely considered his key works (including the two Well-Tempered Clavier sets, the two surviving Passion works, and his B Minor Mass, among others), he also began a revision of Art of Fugue.  All indications are that this revision was largely completed at the time of his death in 1750, with the exception of a “colossal” unfinished fugue that was based on the four letters of his last name, B-A-C-H (a compositional device that he liked to use from time to time), of which he had completed all but the culminating section.  This revision was published by his heirs in 1751.  While attempts have been made to put together a completed version of this fugue, it is often performed as Bach left it, leaving us to wonder what Bach would have written for a coda had he had the time.  Yet this is but the ending to an already colossal work, an assemblage of movements of increasing complexity, all based upon a simple musical figure expressed in the first movement.  As Christoph Wolff puts it (in his excellent book, Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician – a great read for anyone with an interest in music history), it serves as “an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.”

English: Gustav Leonhardt at the MAfestival in...

English: Gustav Leonhardt at the MAfestival in Bruges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight’s recording also has some individual significance.  This 1953 recording by the late keyboard giant Gustav Leonhardt was the first complete recording of the piece.  The relative clarity of the recording is astonishing for a recording from such an early date.  Although there have been excellent subsequent recordings by some tremendous keyboardists, this remains one of the best available.  This also holds an important place in what was then a growing trend towards historically informed recordings of such important works, and it was also part of a series of early recordings that featured the clavichord in performance.  In that regard, Leonhardt was one of the great innovators, and deserves credit for helping establish the clavichord and its early keyboard cousins as a point of interest among fans of classical music.

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 by Johan...

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 by Johann Sebastian Bach, opening bars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We then continued with a hearing of a lovely rendition of the infamous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, by another excellent keyboardist, the great organist E. Power Biggs.  There is some question as to whether the work was actually written by Bach.  A number of theories have been suggested, both pro and con as to Bach’s authorship, but the reality is that, as so many of Bach’s pieces have been lost to the ravages of time and circumstance, the truth will never be authoritatively established.  But the question of authorship in no way detracts from the extraordinary beauty of the piece.  Tonight’s recording is a lovely 1973 rendition that was made in a rather unique 4-organ installation in the Freiburg Cathedral in Freiburg, Germany.

We finish the evening with another Leonhardt recording, this time with Leonhardt performing the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546.  Like with many of Bach’s organ works (see above), the origins of this set are also not entirely clear, although in this instance Bach’s authorship is not questioned.  It has been suggested that the fugue may have been written during his Weimar period (1708-1717), while the Prelude may have been added after his 1723 arrival at Leipzig.  It is a striking example of how essential Bach’s organ compositions are.

The Galaxy – In Celebration of Reformation Day

English: Postage stamp depicting Martin Luther...

Postage stamp depicting Martin Luther, the initiator of the Protestant Reformation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

October 31 is well known for the common celebration of Halloween.  However, there is an event of great historical importance that also occurred on October 31 that I’ve always found to be of great interest.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote (or at least dated) a letter to Albrecht, then Archbishop of Mainz, in which he included his infamous 95 Theses (a dissertation with the title “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”).  He also is said to have posted the dissertation to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany; this fact is disputed, as there is no eyewitness account of the event, but the posting of such things was standard practice for those wanting to post questions for dispute and debate.  This act was an act of extraordinary courage on Luther’s part, as he easily could have been charged with heresy, and he eventually was excommunicated.  But this simple act had widespread implications – it was the opening salvo of what became the Protestant Reformation.

Not only was Luther a theologian of considerable significance, but he was also a prolific songwriter.  Many of his hymns were used as the basis for musical works, both vocal and instrumental, by a number of composers, and a number of his hymns remain familiar with modern church-goers.  It seems only appropriate that we celebrate this notable occasion with a few of his compositions.

Johann Pachelbel

Johann Pachelbel

When hunting down renditions of Luther’s many hymns, it is easy to start with Johann Sebastian Bach.  However, I do like variety, so I started tonight’s show with a hymn, Christ Tag in Todesbonden, in a setting by Johann Pachelbel, not Bach (although Bach used the same hymn as the basis for one of his early cantatas – Bach’s work may have in fact been modeled on Pachelbel’s).  Pachelbel is believed to have written the work sometime during his Thuringian period (from 1677 to 1690), a timeframe wherein he had contact with the Bach family, and he scored the work for 4 voices and a small instrumental ensemble.  Tonight’s recording is a 2004 recording by La Capella Ducale and the Musica Fiata, under the leadership of Roland Wilson.

Luther-Lied-1

A song-book copy of Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott, possibly dating from 1533 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At some point it was inevitable that we were going to have to hear some Bach, given the numerous settings that Bach made of Luther’s hymns.  Luther’s best known song is most likely Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (trans: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God).  Paraphrasing Psalms 46, Luther wrote the song at some point between 1527 and 1529, although some theories have it existing as early as 1521.  While there are a number of theories surrounding its origin, it served as a rallying cry for Protestants for many years, thus resulting in its wide usage by many composers as a basis for their music.  Bach wrote his chorale cantata for the song, BWV 80, between 1727 and 1729 for a Reformation Day observance.  He based it on an earlier cantata that he wrote in Weimar around 1715-16 that is now lost (BWV 80a), expanding it to achieve the current form.  Tonight’s recording is a 1967 recording by the South German Madrigal Choir and Instrumentalists, with the Consortium Musicum, under the direction of Wolfgang Gönnenwein.  The soloists were Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Theo Altmeyer and Hans Sotin.

One of the more interesting things that Bach did with these songs were to use them as the basis for keyboard works.  Bach was a noted performer on the various keyboard instruments, with his fame as an organist spreading far and wide.  He liked to use the original song as a seed for larger works that gloriously elaborated on the original.  Happily, the excellent organist Kevin Bowyer has recorded the complete Bach organ catalog that allows us easy access to these compositions.

Title page of Clavier-Übung III

Bach actually wrote several settings of the hymn Jesus Christus, Unser Heiland (trans: Jesus Christ, Our Savior).  They are found in the Claiver-Ubung III (BWV 688 and 689), a collection of organ works organized according to musical and theological terms that Bach published in 1739, and in the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes (BWV 665 and 666), a collection of pieces that Bach assembled between 1747 and his death in 1750.  The Clavier-Übung III pieces take the form of a trio and fugue, while the two chorale preludes (a more compact musical form) apply different counter-subjects to the cantus firmus.

Autograph page of BWV 651, Komm, heiliger Geist

Autograph page of BWV 651, Komm, heiliger Geist, from the Leipziger Handschrift P 271 (Staatsbibliothek, Berlin)

Also found in the Great Eighteen set of chorale preludes is Komm, Heiliger Geist (Come, Holy Ghost), BWV 651 and 652.  Unlike the more relatively straight-forward settings of Unser Heiland, Bach turned these preludes into a fantasia (the title page of which is shown at right), and then a sarabande (a dance form that was frequently used in music).  We then returned to the Clavier-Übung for Christe, aller Welt Trost (in which Bach inverted the original song’s melody), BWV 670 and 673, before concluding our Bach set with Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 670 and 673, where Bach turns the song into a 2-part invention for two hands.

We close out the show with another composer with Bach connections, Dietrich Buxtehude.  Buxtehude’s Gen Himmel zu dem Vater mein (BuxWV 32) uses the final two verses of Luther’s Nun freut euch lieben Christen g’mein, turning it into a sort of chorale concerto for a solo voice with a small ensemble.  Our recording is a 1997 recording with soprano Emma Kirkby singing with John Holloway and Manfredo Kraemer on violin, Jaap ter Linden on viola da gamba, and Lars Ulrick Mortensen providing bosso continuo on organ.

The Galaxy – The joys of birthdays

Over the years, I’ve made it a practice of celebrating my birthday by programming in some selected favorite recordings and musical works, as a sort of “best of the Galaxy” edition.  This is really only natural, as music is a big part of my overall mindset – I enjoy nothing more than celebrating a birthday with a few “ultimate” songs.  Of course, such a list would be quite expansive, and would be prohibitive to play over the course of one show.  So, while we’re not going to have an absolute “best of the Galaxy” lineup tonight, I will be making a few selections that could fit into such a list.

Bread (original lineup)

Bread (original lineup, l-r: David Gates, Robb Royer, James Griffin, Mike Betts)

Now, while the first band we heard tonight wouldn’t necessarily fit into an “ultimate Galaxy” list,  the songwriting here is definitely top-notch, and it is something that came to mind earlier in the week.  Bread was formed by David Gates with the songwriting team of James Griffin and Robb Royer in 1969 (Griffin and Royer had that year won an Oscar for a song from Love and Other Strangers; the song was eventually given a well-known treatment by the Carpenters).  As a combo, the three of them (eventually adding Mike Betts on drums) wrote some really interesting songs, largely between 1970 and 1973.  While they had a number of big hits, we heard a few of their songs that may not be heard as often, yet remain worthy of a good listen: Look What You’ve Done, It Don’t Matter To Me, and The Last Time.

First page of BWV 565, oldest surviving copy b...

First page of BWV 565, oldest surviving copy by Johannes Ringk (after 1750). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Any “best of the Galaxy” list would have to include some Johann Sebastian Bach, most notably some of his splendid organ works.  Anytime I do something like this, it is especially hard to resist the temptation to include his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565.  This is in spite of the fact that there is some scholarly dispute as to whether Bach actually wrote the work or not.  As with most of his organ works, there is no surviving manuscript copy in Bach’s hand; the oldest surviving copy was copied by Johannes Ringk, who is noted for his copies of numerous famous works of the era by multiple composers; many of his copies are considered to be earliest surviving copies of numerous important works.  Although this debate is interesting as far as the historical aspect, it is ultimately redundant for the purposes of this show – whether or not Bach wrote it, the music as it stands is pure brilliance, and is a sublime example of the beauty of the pipe organ (called “the King of Instruments” by some – I’m inclined to agree).  We heard the great, late organist Gustav Leonhardt in a recording from ’72-’73.

After the Toccata, we also heard an absolutely splendid set of chorale partitas (song plus variations, 9 sections overall) based on the Lutheran chorale O Gott, du Frommer Gott (“Oh God, Thou Just God”), BWV 767.  It is thought that Bach wrote this set during his teen years, probably from the period when he was studying at the Johanneskirche at Lünegurg.  During this time period he was heavily influenced by Georg Böhm, and these partitas amply display such an influence.  It is possible that Bach intended these partitas as a pedagogical exercise for himself, trying different techniques on a piece that was not intended for liturgical use.  It is also possible that the piece wasn’t even intended for organ, as it does not utilize the foot pedal.  However, many of Bach’s keyboard works are vague in terms of what keyboard the piece was intended for, and the piece as it stands is quite spectacular as a pipe organ piece.  In any case, these are the sorts of details that are lost to time, and we are actually quite blessed that copies of these works have survived in written form (many of Bach’s known works are lost).  As with the Toccata, we heard a Gustav Leonhardt recording from ’72-’73.

Consider this clip of the piece, performed here in its entirety by Gianluca Cesana.

For Certain Because

The Hollies 1966 album For Certain Because (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Folks who have listened to the Galaxy regularly over the years know that I have a thing for vocal harmony.  The Hollies were a group that made vocal harmony part of their calling card, both while Graham Nash was part of the group, and after he left to join David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and was replaced by Terry Sylvester.  Of course, the Hollies were more than just their vocal harmonies – I find their guitar work to be compelling, and drummer Bobby Elliot ranks among my favorite drummers from that era.  We heard three songs from The Hollies – Bus Stop, Dear Eloise, and The Air That I Breathe.

Cover of "A Farewell to Kings"

Cover of A Farewell to Kings

Any “best of the Galaxy” set would inevitably include some Rush.  There are numerous Rush recordings that I could insert in here, and they just released their 20th album, Clockwork Angels, with a tour that hit St. Louis yesterday (I had wanted to go, but circumstances required otherwise).  As I do not have the new album yet, we can go with the “classic Galaxy” approach with our selections: La Villa Strangiato (their legendary instrumental from Hemispheres), Natural Science (from Permanent Waves), and Cygnus X-1 (from A Farewell to Kings).

Sigur Rós at Somerset House, London

Sigur Rós at Somerset House, London (Photo credit: clarksworth)

We closed the show with some Sigur Rós.  As with the other things we’ve played this evening, there are a number of excellent selections that we could insert in here, making for a difficult choice.  So we started with several songs from their 2005 album Takk (“thanks” in Icelandic), Takk/Glósóli(they sort of run together well), and Mílanó, before closing the show with a song from their 2002 album (), officially titled Untitled 2 (none of the songs on that album were given actual titles), but unofficially referred to as Fyrsta (Icelandic for “first”).

WDBX Opera Overnight: Easter Music

Deutsch: Autograph der ersten Seite der Johann...

Autograph of the first page of the Johannespassion by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Tonight we have an Easter special for you,  two works that fall within the top rank of compositions written for use during Easter observances.  Both of them take the form of Passion narratives, a musical tradition that dates all the way back to the 8th century.  There are 9th century manuscripts that indicate which part of the Passion narratives are to be intoned, and later manuscripts would specify exactly which notes to sing.  So, to a certain extent, , we can find one of the seeds of organized music within the tradition of the Passion narrative.

Among the numerous written Passion compositions, our two pieces are some of the best.  Both were written by Johann Sebastian Bach, and both are considered masterpieces of the Baroque era.  We will begin with a performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion.  Bach wrote the piece in 1724 for the Good Friday Vespers service, and used John Chapters 18 and 19 (as found in the Luther Bible) as the guide for the composition, with the Evangelist part quoting those scriptures verbatim (Bach also inserted two events that were described in Matthew).  The writer of the additional poetry used in the piece is unknown.  After the initial composition and performance, Bach made three subsequent revisions (1725, 1728-1730, and finally in 1749), as well as a partial autograph score in 1739.  The fourth and last revision, from 1749, essentially returns the work to the original 1724 version, with modifications to remove some parts for instruments that were fairly antiquated even in 1724 (i.e. lute).

Adoration of the Trinity, by Albrecht Dürer

Adoration of the Trinity, by Albrecht Dürer, from 1511. Currently housed in the Art History Museum in Vienna

A major part of Bach’s compositional plan was his conscious effort to retain the spirit of a standard worship service.  The Passion was an important part of Lutheran tradition, an emphasis that began with Martin Luther himself, who placed special value on the Passion.  During the post-Reformation years, a number of Passion-related works were written for the Lutheran Church (one such work, Heinrich Schütz‘s St. Matthew’s Passion, we heard earlier on The Galaxy).  To that end, Bach used chorales from Johann Heermann, Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, Paul Stockman, Michael Weiße , Valerius Herberger and Martin Schalling.  In addition, he used a poem by Christian Weise, and adapted an aria from an existing Passion by Christian Heinrich Postel, fitting it to a melody by Johann Hermann Schein.  However, while he wanted the piece to have a congregational feel, the piece was not intended for congregational participation.

Bach appears to have intended the piece for a smaller orchestra, as small as 16 or 17 members, with a similarly small choir.  This is not surprising, given the stage of Bach’s career (1724, relatively early in the Leipzig period), and the use of smaller choirs and orchestras has become a fairly common performance practice for the work.  Tonight’s recording is a excellent 1993 recording, with Angela Maria Blasi, Marjana Lipovsek, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Robert Holl, and  Anton Scharinger.  Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs the Concentus Musicus Wien, with the Schoenberg Choir.

Related articles

No. 71 from St. Matthew Passion from Johann Se...

No. 71 from St. Matthew Passion from Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 244 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For our second work this evening, we’re going to hear one of the absolute epic works of the Baroque era, both in terms of length and content.  Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday, April 11, 1727.  He revised and performed it again in 1736, and then again in 1742.  It received further revision between 1733 and 1746, during a late-life period during which Bach was making revisions to his major works.  This work was also a major part of the renaissance in the public awareness of Bach’s catalog, when Felix Mendelsson conducted a revised version of the work in Berlin.  It has since become a part of the Easter Week tradition in many churches around the world.

Bach scored the Passion for double orchestra and double choir, probably with 12-16 voices per choir.  The double-choir format is important to the integrity of the work, as Bach arranged the piece to create a sort of dialogue between the two sides.  In recent years we have seen a number of St. Matthew Passion recordings done in HCAD.  While it would certainly be helpful to hear the piece in surround sound, careful listening to the piece can allow the listener to detect the shift from one choir to the other – the dialogue effect is most interesting.

Tonight’s performance comes from a lovely 1999 Harmonia Mundi set, a package that includes a lovely CD-rom that goes into depth on the history of the piece.  Philippe Herreweghe leads the  Collegium Vocale Gent & Orchestra, with soloists Ian Bostridge, Franz-Josef Selig, Sibylla Rubens, Andreas Scholl, Werner Gura, and Dietrich Henschel.

Heinrich Schütz

Heinrich Schütz

We close the show with a few selections from Heinrich Schütz‘s Kleine Gestliche Concerten (trans: Little Sacred Concertos).  Schütz, who wrote an early opera that is now lost, wrote two sets of these in the 1630’s, during the Thirty Years’ War.  They consist mostly of duos and trios, essentially chamber pieces that match duo and trio voices to organ accompaniment.  But the small scale of the composition in no way minimizes their quality – this is truly special music.  Tonight we heard four such pieces: Sei gegrüßet, Maria; Rorate Coeli Desuper; Joseph, Du Sohn David; and Hodie Christus Natus EstThe Concerto Vocale was conducted by Rene Jacobs.