Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Happy Birthday Papa Johann!

Today is the most important day of the year for me, at least as far as my musical life goes. It's Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday, and every year I do a special post featuring his music. I share the late Douglas Adams' attitude toward Bach: "When I hear Mozart, I understand what it is to be a human being; when I hear Beethoven, I understand what it is to be Beethoven; but when I listen to Bach, I understand what it is to be the universe." He's considered to be one of, if not THE, most important composers of western music.

Bach was best known in his own time as a virtuoso keyboard player, on organ as well as the harpsichord. His compositions for keyboard set the rules for writing keyboard music for centuries. Perhaps his best known collection is his Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of paired preludes and fugues demonstrating the "flavors" of the different key signatures. Here's the Prelude and Fugue #1 in C Major:

Bach also composed suites for solo instruments, my favorites being the cello suites. Here's the great Yo-Yo Ma playing the Cello Suite #1 in G Major:

Some of my favorite Bach compositions are his chamber works, especially the Brandenburg Concertos. And my favorite of the Brandenburgs is #3 in G Major:

And finally, my favorite Bach works are his cantatas, both secular and liturgical. The combination of the human voice and orchestra create the finest of Bach's compositions; it's in these works that he truly earns the title of maestro. One of the best of these is his cantata for the Feast of the Reformation, the celebration of the beginning of the Lutheran Church, which includes the hymn by Martin Luther which gives the cantata it's name: Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), BWV 80. Here's a magnificent version with Philippe Herreweghe directing the Collegium Vocale Gent and La Chapelle Royale:

And that's my Bach birthday tribute for this year. I hope you've enjoyed it!

© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Joy Spring! - Vernal Equinox 2017

Today is the Spring Equinox! The sun reached the equator at 6:29 EDT this morning. This, however, doesn't mean that suddenly, magically, trees are greening and flowers blooming. It's been cold this last week (although it might get up to 50º [10º C] today), and we still have some snow on the ground, as these pictures taken yesterday morning in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park show. The seasons aren't events, they're part of a continuous process, and a fairly slow one at that. We're working our way toward green lushness. Just have patience!

An American Robin enjoying some Staghorn Sumac along the Dykeman Walking Trail
The creek in the park looking south from the red bridge
Yes, I managed to get my annual "Daffodils in the Snow" shot this year!
The north duck pond featuring the new bridge over the creek
The perfect music for the Spring Equinox is the late, great Jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown's song "Joy Spring". He wrote it for his wife, LaRue Anderson, who he called his "joy spring". It's definitely full of an upwelling joy the season often inspires. Enjoy!

Photos © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sunday Bach - Third Sunday in Lent

Robin in a Snowstorm, Shippensburg, PA
Bach actually did write a cantata for the third Sunday in Lent, in 1714 as kapellmeister at the Weimar court. It's a lovely, if somewhat fierce, solo cantata for alto voice - BWV 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde. Here's what musicologist Craig Smith at the Emmanuel Music website has to say about it:
At the beginning of his tenure as court composer in Weimar, Bach set several of the texts of J.C. Lehms. The Lehms texts are the most luridly bloody and preachy of all the Bach texts. They also have a raw power that suits Bach’s in-your-face style of that period. The opening aria of Cantata 54 is one of the most astonishing things in all of Bach. Sin is portrayed as a gorgeous, irresistible thing. One is reminded of the Andrew Marvel poems that refer to the jewel-like blood on the back of Jesus. The aria begins with a grinding and shocking dissonance in the orchestra. Gorgeous, lapping phrases build up like layers of velvet on this dissonant bass. The expressive voice part is like a rich, deep nap on the many levels of gorgeous chromatic harmony. Bach wants us, in this lengthy and incredibly expressive aria, to feel the push and temptation of sin. The lengthy recitative that follows clarifies his point of view. The fugal last aria is spikier but no less astonishingly chromatic. While this cantata is not very well known, it is a remarkable missing link in the Bach oeuvre and essential to our complete understanding of this composer.
Here's a lovely recording by the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe, featuring counter-tenor Andreas Scholl. Enjoy!

Photo © 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Some interesting sights from the aftermath of Tuesday's snow, caught while running errands about town (and out my window) this morning.

Icicles just outside my study window
A friend of mine and his "crew" made a snowman in his front yard
Hmmmm... The umbrella worked!
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Finally! Real Snow at Last!

We had no Winter this Winter. Until now, when it's almost Spring. Yes, we finally got a decent snow last night and this morning, about a foot (30.5 cm) when I was out in it taking pictures. Of course I went over to the Dykeman Spring Nature Park! And got some shots in town as well. C'mon along and look at our snow-covered scenery.

The gazebo across the street from my house
Branch Creek at King St.
A Robin in the snow, along the Dykeman Walking Trail
The creek in the Dykeman Spring wetland from the red bridge
The view of the creek from the new bridge
My usual Sunday pew, buried in snow today
© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday Bach - Second Sunday in Lent

Stormy Weather, October 2006
As mentioned last week, Bach wrote no cantatas for Lent other than two for the third Sunday, so I've gone diving into the vaults to look for something written for an occasion outside the liturgical calendar. What I found was Bach's first cantata, written in 1707 while he was organist at St. Blaise church in Mühlhausen. This is BWV 131, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, "Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord", from Psalm 130. From musicologist Gerhard Scuhmacher:
"Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131) is Bach's earliest extant cantata. The reference at the very end to the commission: 'Set to music at the request of Dr. Georg Christ. Eilmars by Joh. Seb. Bach, organist at Mühlhausen,' also indicates some tension there: Eilmar was the parish priest at St. Mary's, Bach was organist at St. Blaise. Like the 'Actus tragicus' (BWV 106) this cantata was written in 1707, presumably for a penitential service after a fire. The chamber music texture of the orchestration - one violin and two violas (one written in alto clef, the other in tenor clef) indicates the link with the music for the gamba; the scoring is completed by an oboe. As far as the form is concerned, there are no independent arias, recitatives or, except for the rather old-fashioned sinfonia, extended instrumental movements. The structure and arrangement are conditioned by the work's origin in the motet and sacred concerto. It is fascinating to observe, with hindsight, that the particular musical quality of this (probably) first cantata is the result of a desire for symmetry and the conflict between the 'no longer' of the motet and sacred concerto on the one hand, and the 'not yet' of the later cantatas on the other.
Here is an excellent interpretation from Philippe Herreweghe directing the Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale Gent in 1992. Enjoy!

Photo © 2006 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Little More Snow

We got a little more snow this morning. Not much, just 2 or 3 inches, and very wet; it didn't stick to the roads or sidewalks. And now, about 4 hours after I shot these photos, the snow is pretty much gone. Winter is winding down, and the Vernal Equinox is a scant 2 weeks away. But it may not be over yet; there are signs we may get a nor'easter next week. We'll see. Meanwhile, here are some views of this morning's snow.

© 2017 by A. Roy Hilbinger