J.S. Bach

Bach Birthday Concert Program Notes

For many musicians and music lovers, every day is Bach’s birthday. The great 20th-century cellist and musical luminary, Pablo Casals, celebrated Bach every day of his adult life. “He went out and had a wonderful walk and had his benediction from nature. Then he would come back and play two preludes and fugues of Bach on the piano. Then he would have breakfast,” remembered his widow, Marta Casals Istomin. “By this time, it was 9 am. Then he would take the cello and play for three hours straight. The morning session would always end with one of the [solo cello] suites of Bach every day. But on Sundays, he would play prelude six because it was the most difficult.”

J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Sinfonia to Cantata 196

Dornheim Church
Kirche Dornheim, where the Wedding Cantata may have first been performed.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 31, 1685. This year will be his 338th birthday. The first light of day in this celebration is gently captured courtesy of the Sinfonia from what has grown to be called “The Wedding Cantata” — Der Herr denket an uns (The Lord is mindful of us), BWV 196, composed likely in 1708 in Mühlhausen. This brief instrumental prelude is simplicity itself and exhibits a winning formula applied by the then 23-year-old composer: rudimentary demands on cello and violone (double bass) players. It is postulated that those roles were taken up by inexperienced student players.

Selig ist der Mann BWV 57

Any day of Bach’s life would include affirmation of his faith — a vital survival mechanism for anyone living in the inherent darkness and looming tragedy that consumed Germany in the first half of the 18th century. No composer in his day was better at depicting that sadness and passion and the corresponding promise of eternal glory than our birthday boy.
Written in 1725 for the second day of Christmas in Leipzig, the cantata Selig ist der Mann (Blessed is the man) BWV 57 is set as an eight-movement musical dialogue between Jesus in bass voice and Das Seele, The (Believing) Soul, in the soprano voice, concluding with a four-part chorale. It is one of the most dramatic of the church cantatas, with recitatives mirroring the operatic conventions of the day.

The Soul’s struggles are comforted by Jesus, culminating in the soprano aria ‘Ich ende behände mein irdiches Leben,’ (I eagerly end my earthly life). We are greeted with a solo violin (the spirit of Jesus?) sounding much as it would in the final movement of a concerto. As the Soul takes the spotlight; the violin recedes, gently embracing it. The ecstasy of the now-resolved Soul leads inevitably to the question, “Here you have my soul, what will you bestow on me?” The text makes it impossible to render the traditional da capo structure in which the opening section is repeated. So Bach does as he must — he gently winds down the aria before applying a triumphant bow to this glorious gift in the form of a chorale:

Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben,
Mit Freuden zu scheiden verlang ich itzt eben.
Mein Heiland, ich sterbe mit höchster Begier,
Hier hast du die Seele, was schenkest du mir?

I end quickly my life on earth,
With joy I am now longing to depart
My Saviour, I die with the greatest eagerness,
Here you have my soul, what will you bestow on me?

Trio Sonata BWV 1039

Thomaskirche in 1723, the year Bach was appointed Kappelmeister there.

If Bach’s primary mission was to galvanize the faith of those among him living in anguish, he was equally adept at providing them with a taste of heaven. From its downbeat, the Trio Sonata in G Major soothes and refreshes the spirit as an antidote for a troubled soul.

A healthy debate exists as to the date and place of the composition – the latest scholarship places its origin at Lepzig in 1740 – but it is one of the few trio sonatas that is said to be genuine J.S. Bach. It also exists in two versions: BWV 1039, scored for two traverse flutes and continuo (performed by flute, violin, cello, and harpsichord on this program), and BWV 1027, for viola da gamba and harpsichord (often given by cello and piano). The work is in G major, a key the master often used for his more lighthearted efforts. The first two movements (Adagio and Allegro ma non tanto) are joined at the hip by both triple meter and carefree demeanor. What differentiates them is the contrast between smooth, lyrical beauty and energetic spirit. Moving to the relative minor, the Adagio e piano in E minor moves to the heart of the matter. Flute and violin offer a pensive imitative canon, while harpsichord and cello offer support with falling bass lines. The finale breaks the spell just cast with a frolicking, presto fugue.

Legend has it that near the end of his life, the virtually blind Bach was given a banquet in his honor. When he arrived, an aspiring student was improvising at the harpsichord. At the sight of the master, the student turned ashen, stopped in mid-phrase and sheepishly stepped away from the keyboard. Herr Bach walked over to the harpsichord, resolved the phrase, and sat down to enjoy a delicious dinner. Perhaps this is a myth. But undeniably true was that Bach, who was underappreciated as a composer, was heralded as the greatest keyboard artist of his time.

D major Sonata BWV 1028

There is every reason to expect it was the composer himself who was at the keyboard for the first performance (in Leipzig, c. 1742) of the D major Sonata for Viola da Gamba (here on viola) and Harpsichord BWV 1028. The opening Adagio acts as a gentle prelude but sets the ground rules for what’s to come: these two instruments are to be partners in musical matters. Theirs is an equal conversation. This partnership heats up in the ensuing Allegro. Shortened phrases and infectious rhythms create joyful tension and high-octane momentum. Although still bustling with musical invention, the harpsichord takes on a more a traditional supporting role in the Andante. The spotlight is on the viola, which offers a quintessential Baroque vine-like melody that could only have been written by Bach. This solemn and deeply felt expression seems appropriate for the St. John or St. Matthew Passion. The melody culminates in a dramatic trill in the viola, leading to its resolution with a long, final note. To say the tension is broken by the shimmering Allegro finale would be a major understatement. The music is as exuberant as anything Bach composed and demands supreme virtuosity from both players. Even a brief visit to the minor mode in the movement’s central section hardly makes a dent in the unabashed joy of the music-making.

Cantata No. 209, “Non sa che sia dolore”

If it’s a birthday, then there must be presents, and that’s exactly what the concluding work on this program is. Except, Cantata No. 209, “Non sa che sia dolore,” seems to be a gift our honoree gave to another. Names of many possible recipients have been bantered about through centuries. The cantata is one of only two from Bach with an Italian text that bids farewell to a citizen of Leipzig who was likely an intimate of the composer, possibly Johann Matthias Gesner (1691-1761), or Lorenz Albrecht Beck (1723-1768). The story tells of a young Italian artist leaving Germany to fulfill his military service in his native land. His friends express their sadness at his departure, but all ends joyously. The stars here are soprano and flute. The opening extended Sinfonia sets a spirited mood and could easily be mistaken as the first movement of a flute concerto. The following Recitative laments the loss of the traveler while wishing him good fortune. The aria ‘Parti pur e con dolore’ (But depart with sorrow) seconds both of those sentiments through rich, passionate melody from the soprano and ongoing commentary from the flute. The middle section sweetens the sentiment through a shift to a major key and cascading textures. A second Recitative lauds the traveler’s skill and character, leading to the final aria, ‘Ricetti gramezza e pavento’ (Do away with anxiety and dread). It’s another chance for the soprano and flute to dance together, this time in pure jubilation. The sailor gains control of his ship after braving stormy weather and sails on.

II. Recitative

Non sa che sia dolore
Chi dall’ amico suo parte e non more.
Il fanciullin’ che plora e geme
Ed allor che più ei teme,
Vien la madre a consolar.
Va dunque a cenni del cielo,
Adempi or di Minerva il zelo.

He does not know what sorrow is
who parts from his friend and does not die.
The child who weeps and groans
and then is more afraid,
his mother comes to console.
Go therefore at the signs from heaven,
fulfill now the zeal of Minerva.

III. Aria

Parti pur e con dolore
lasci a noi dolente il core.
La patria goderai,
a dover la servirai;
varchi or di sponda in sponda,
propizi vedi il vento e l’onda.

Depart then and with sorrow
leave to us sorrowing hearts.
You will delight your fatherland,
in its service you will do your duty;
Cross now from shore to shore,
may you see the wind and waves favorable to you.

IV. Recitative

Tuo saver al tempo e l’età constrasta,
virtù e valor solo a vincer basta;
ma chi gran ti farà più che non fusti
Ansbaca, piena di Tanti Augusti.

Your knowledge contrasts with the time and age,
virtue and valor alone are sufficient to conquer;

but who will make you greater than you were
Ansbach, full of so many distinguished people?

V. Aria

Ricetti gramezza e pavento,
Qual nocchier, placato il vento
Più non teme o si scolora
Ma contento in su la prora
Va cantando in faccia al mar.

Do away with anxiety and dread,
like the steersman, when the wind is calmed,
who no more fears or turns pale
but content on his prow
goes singing in the face of the sea.

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