Friday, February 16, 2018

God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise

Well, around here lately the creeks have indeed been rising. What with snow, sleet, and freezing rain being followed by warmer temperatures and then followed by pouring rain, the creeks are full and still rising. Below is a shot of Branch Creek at McLean House on King St.; it's a couple of feet above it's normal level. It's got a ways to go before it hits flood level, but still, it's running fast and deep, and you wouldn't want to fall in!

[Note on the title: For those unfamiliar with American idioms, this is an old country saying when someone promises to visit or go somewhere, as in, "We'll be by Friday, God willin' and the creek don't rise." Especially in mountainous areas, rising creeks, especially in the mid-Winter thaw and in the Spring, are a definite travel hazard.]

© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sight & Sound - A Pause for Reflection

Sitting on a bench by the north duck pond meditating on the reflection of a large Birch on the water. Add some reflective music by Shadowfax. A perfect moment.

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday Bach - Quinquagesima

Quinquagesima means 50 days before Easter; it's the last Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, so people are eating and drinking to empty their larders before the penitential Lenten season forces them to partake of more plain fare. And in Leipzig in Bach's time. orchestral music like his cantatas was forbidden in the churches, so the cantata for this last Sunday before Lent would necessarily be fairly impressive to make up for the musical drought to come. Bach wrote several cantatas for this Sunday, including the two that were his audition for the post of Kantor at Leipzig in 1723, but this one feels far more celebratory to me - BWV 127, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott (Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God, Leipzig 1725). This is considered one of Bach's greatest cantatas, mainly because he musically creates the picture of Jesus as both man and God. The late Craig Smith's essay on this cantata for Emmanuel Music is well worth the read:
Quinquagesima (or Estomihi as it was called in Bach’s day) is the last Sunday before Lent. It was the last time in which any concerted music was heard in Leipzig until the feast of the Annunciation about five weeks later. The readings for this Sunday are both important documents and central to Christianity. The epistle is the great 13th Chapter of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. After many warlike and browbeating excepts, this reading is the familiar chapter about love. It is perhaps the profoundest thing in the Epistles. The Gospel is from the eighteenth chapter of Luke. It begins with Jesus announcing “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.” The disciples do not understand the significance of that statement. On the way a blind man cries “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus cures him of his blindness and they all continue their journey. There are several significant events here. Today’s cantata BWV 127 is mainly concerned with the dual human and divine identity of Jesus. The significance of the journey to Jesus’ final fate is always present, albeit here somewhat in the background. 
Cantata BWV 127 has always been recognized as one of the finest of the cantatas. The scholar Arnold Schering even went so far as to call it the greatest of all of the cantatas. It exhibits the qualities that we have admired in all of the 2nd Jahrgang pieces in abundance. It addition, there is a sense that Bach knows that this will be the last music parishioners will hear for many weeks. All of the Quinquagesima pieces go to great lengths to set up the important issues that will be confronted during Lent. That sense of abundance is projected from the beginning: two and maybe three chorales are represented in the opening chorus. The chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’r Mensch und Gott” both appears motivically throughout the orchestration and is sung by the chorus, led by the sopranos singing the melody in long notes. The chorale tune “Christe, du lamm Gottes” is played in the orchestra in long notes, first by the strings, then at various times by the oboes and recorders. A third chorale, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” has been spotted by some scholars buried in the continuo line near the beginning. It is the kind of thing that you hear after it has been pointed out to you. The texture of the chorus is high, bright and dense. The dotted rhythms that dominate the piece are like angel wings, rather than aggressive. They are both static and they travel. The 2 main chorales so permeate the texture that one can hardly see any bar in the piece without them. Unlike the monomaniacal chorus that began BWV 123, however, there is inherent in the combinations of both chorales and other materials the possibility for great variety of phrase length. There are of course, many things that are sui generis about this chorus. One of the most remarkable is the associative way that an idea is begun and passed through the texture and then discarded. The ideas are always begun by the words. An example is in the fifth phrase of the chorale .The second statement of the text in the alto part introduces an expressive little half step. This is passed around all of the vocal parts and then to the instrumental parts. It disappears at the end of the choral phrase. The last phrase of the chorale is repeated at the very end with the sopranos leaving the tune and joining the commentary. It ends not with a long note but an almost unresolved quarter note. There is no orchestral postlude. 
The tenor recitative and soprano aria describe a sinner’s last moments on earth. The tenor with great horror and vividness enumerates the last terror, the chilling sweat of death, the stiff limbs. He begs for repose. That moment of repose is the soprano aria. Two recorders play little repeated bell tones over a pizzicato bass. An oboe sings a melody of heartbreaking sadness and repose. The child soprano sings of the soul resting in Jesus’ hands, when earth covers the body. The B section begs for the death bells to call one soon. At this point all of the upper strings join in with the continuo pizzicatos. At the end of the line of text on the word “unerschrocken” the pizzicatos stop and the oboe like a tiny “last trumpet” plays a flourish up to high Bb announcing the awaking of Jesus. The gesture is so amazingly dramatic that one feels Bach has to undercut it by giving the aria a full da capo. A drama so profound needs distance from this kind of realism. 
The last large piece in the cantata is a complex and formally advanced vision of the last judgment. The distinction between recitative and aria is here blurred to the breaking point. The trumpet enters in fanfares over repeated note string passages as the bass in recitative announces the last trumpet. The motion gradually becomes calmer and the voice with continuo introduces an arioso utilizing the first notes of the main chorale tune “Herr Jesu Christ,wahr’r Mensch und Gott.” This arioso passage rather abruptly cadences into a vivid 6/8 picture of the last judgement with full strings and trumpet. What is surprising here is that the chorale arioso makes an entrance two more times in the last judgment music. Any semblance of recitative followed by aria is gone in this movement. It is reminiscent of the experiments with the Cavatina-Cabaletta formula that Verdi initiated in his middle period. Like the opening chorus the bass aria comes to an abrupt close and the brilliant harmonization of the chorale ends the cantata. Cantatas such as BWV 127 are so removed from the norm of either religious or operatic music of the period that it is hard to understand where they came from. Even such masterpieces as the St. John and St. Matthew Passion have identifiable precedents in the German Lutheran tradition. There is simply nothing in German Lutheranism or in any other religious tradition to prepare us for ideas as complex and all-encompassing as these presented in this work. There is a way in which Bach would never reach this level again. 
© Craig Smith
This week's performance is by the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe from a 2007 recording on the Harmonia Mundi label. Enjoy!

Photo © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Sunday Bach - Sexagesima

After the Blizzard, January 2016
Bach's cantatas for Sexagesima (60 days before Easter) Sunday are a tad grim as they play on Luther's less jolly side; they are, in fact, diatribes against unbelievers, and specifically Catholics and Muslims. Given Luther's rabid anti-Semitism, it's a wonder he didn't include Jews in these particular circumstances as well. But musically, his earliest cantata for this Sunday in the liturgical calender is less virulent and shows off Bach's experimentation in new forms - BWV 18, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (Even as the rain and snow fall from heaven, Weimar 1715). Bach was impressed with the concerti of Vivaldi, and this cantata is his first experiment with the Italian concerto form. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music:
BWV 18 - Cantata BWV 18 is an important transitional work in the Bach canon. Soon after arriving in Weimar in 1713 Bach discovered the Italian concerti that he was to arrange for keyboard solo. These Italian works were to be very influential in the development of his international style. The Sinfonia that opens our cantata is Bach’s first original foray into the Italian concerto form. The movement for the unusual combination of four violas and continuo shows complete mastery of the Italianate style that he had seen in the Vivaldi models that had so impressed him. The top two violas carry the weight of the argument with the third and fourth violas as well as the continuo instruments providing the accompaniment. The dark color of the massed tenor instruments provides a perfect illustration of the stormy weather at the beginning of the text. Bach’s recitative style is not so fully formed as we will find in the later Leipzig pieces. The first recitative in particular is reminiscent of the earlier 17th-century arioso style. The central body of the work is in an unusual form with extended recitative alternating with a rather fierce soprano Litany. The soprano aria with all of the violas in unison is a very simple, Italianate aria, one of the first of its type in Bach. The violas doubling of the voices in the chorale provide a darkly appropriate color to the final chorale, a setting of "Durch Adams Fall." 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is by the Ricercar Consort under the direction of Philippe Pierlot. Enjoy!

Photo © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, January 28, 2018

An Austere Beauty

Winter without snow makes for a bleak season indeed. Yet there's an austere beauty to the dormant earth that can catch you by surprise and feed your soul. I was caught by that beauty on my regular Sunday walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning; it was enhanced by rain overnight, and the damp seems to have enhanced the normally muted colors of the Winter landscape. My soul was most definitely fed.

Raindrops on Viburnum berries
The creek in the park from the red bridge
A shelf fungus along the Dykeman Walking Trail
A view of the north duck pond
The rolling hills of Central PA seen from the top of the upland meadow in the park
© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Septuagesima

Song Sparrow
Septuagesima Sunday marks the beginning of the Lenten/Easter season; septuagesima means seventy, and the name of this Sunday means there are seventy days until Easter. Septuagesima Sunday is also the start of the 17-day Mardi Gras/Carneval season, when everybody gets their jollies in before the dour, penitential 40 days of Lent. Bach composed three cantatas for this Sunday, and for me this solo cantata for soprano best exemplifies the spirit of the season - BWV 84, Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (I am content with my good fortune, Leipzig, 1727). There's a lighthearted, playful feel to this cantata, especially the interaction between the soprano and the accompanying instruments. Here's what Simon Crouch has to say about this cantata:
One of Bach's supreme gifts was to make so much out of what seems so little. Here is a good example. The cantata for solo soprano, BWV 84 has the very straightforward structure of aria, recitative, aria, recitative, chorale. None of the movements has a complicated orchestration or musical structure and the total duration is typically under fifteen minutes. The effect, however, is delightful. The first aria starts with an introductory ritornello on the oboe which skips along with delicate trills and the soprano is soon mirroring the oboe trill for trill. The second aria is even more playful. In the meantime the text, apparently by Picander, quietly but firmly reinforces part of the message of the Gospel of the day, that we should be happy with what we have.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.
Today's performance is from a recording by the Collegium Vocale, featuring soprano Dorothee Mields, under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. Enjoy!


Photo © 2013 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 3

Winter Reflections (2015)
Bach composed four cantatas for the third Sunday after Epiphany; all are beautiful, all have unique distinctions that draw attention and praise. But this one of the four stands out for me - BWV 111, Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit (What my God wills, that will always be, Leipzig, 1725). This cantata is the epitome of the German Baroque contrapuntal style, and Papa Johann was the undisputed master of that style. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music wrote a brilliant essay on this cantata:
BWV 111 The story of the Centurion who has faith that Jesus will cure his servant brings forth from Bach in Cantata BWV 111 first a meditation on steadfast faith and finally martyrdom. The Cantata begins with a bracing and energetic chorale fantasia on the melody "Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh' allzeit."

This chorale has an interesting and important history. Beginning as an elegant chanson by de Sermissy, it is prominent in both the Lutheran and the Catholic liturgies. There is a Lassus mass bassed upon the tune, and many 17th Century German settings including a marvelous extremely contrapuntal one in the appendix of the Geistliche Chormusik of Heinrich Schütz. The melody is in Bar form but interestingly repeats the whole Stollen (first half repeated section) as the last two phrases of the Abgesang (second half). This complete recapitulation is of course useful in large settings of the chorale. Bach uses it to great advantage in both of his chorale fantasia versions. Strangely there is no extent Bach organ chorale prelude based on this melody.

The melody has another distinctive feature. Although it is solidly in the minor mode, the first phrase is in the relative major. Bach turns this into a wonderful moment in the chorus of BWV 111. The chorus entrance is in A minor and he modulates to a brilliant and assertive C Major at the cadence. Even by Bach's standards the energy of the piece is remarkable. The opening motive, first in the oboes then the strings, virtually explodes over a striding and purposeful bass. The choral parts remain in quarters and eighths, never going into the sixteenths that dominate the orchestral texture. This is straight-ahead battle music absolutely riveting in its strength and purpose.

The bass aria continues the aggressive, straight-ahead kind of writing. The declamation is unusual though. The phrase "Entsetze dich mein Herze nicht" is always broken with a pause after "entsetze" and a leap up to the word "nicht." This could be construed as a peculiarity of the moment but the words are declaimed in this fashion without exception. The effect is not halting or stumbling as Bach would sometimes set his text, but stubborn and considered. It is as if the soul is considering every possibility. The line of chorale is so subtly included into the texture that it can be easily missed.The aria is in an extremely sophisticated, written-out da capo form.

The secco alto recitative introduces the first signs that the theme of martyrdom will dominate the last half of the cantata. Is there any piece in all of Bach like the duet #4? The great striding melody with its volcanic eruptions of arpeggios and the thunderous dotted bass line all give the piece an heroic cast that is astonishing. Even the harmonic turns that propel us through the middle section of the opening section have a breadth that is overwhelming The choice of alto and tenor as the solo voices once again brings out the Janus-figure quality to the piece.The cadential heroic cries over the wild arpeggios in the violins have to be heard to be believed. 
Bach seems to know that he must calm down before the end of this cantata so he gives the soprano recitative added weight of two obbligato oboes. The arioso of the last line with the calm oboe figuration is marvelous in its soothing effect. As if to emphasize structural intricacy of the chorale, Bach harmonizes the end of the Abgesang identically with the Stollen. 
© Craig Smith
This weeks performance is once again from the great Sir John Eliot Gardiner directing the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. For me Gardiner is the greatest of the early music conductors and interpreters, especially where it concerns J.S. Bach, and his performances are always a treat. Enjoy!

Photo © 2015 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The High Priestess

Back in the '80s I hadn't yet discovered photography, and of course there was no Internet and I didn't own a personal computer. In those days I was practicing calligraphy, even doing an informal business in it designing flyers, posters, wedding invitations, and show pieces. I also wrote poetry from time to time. AND... as many of you who have been following this blog for some time know, I also do things with the Tarot. My best piece of art combines all three of those, and I discovered (while going through my photo collection on my hard drive) that I hadn't made a digital copy of it. So here it is, "The High Priestess", a poem I wrote even further back in time than this calligraphic piece, based on my own meditations on and interpretation of the Tarot card. The calligraphy is on hand-laid paper in gouache, and the "illustration" is imitation gold leaf over an impasto base with some of the leaf rubbed to small pieces and sprinkled  on the paper to suggest stars. I love this piece but I've never had the money to have it properly framed. It's kinda big - 22" x 30" (56 x 76 cm) - so framing is something of an expensive proposition. In any case, here's my artistic pride and joy!

© 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 2

Winter Fog, January 2015
Bach composed three cantatas for the second Sunday after Epiphany, but this one is a true gem and one of my favorites - BWV 3, Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (Oh God, how many a heartache), Leipzig, 1725. The Epiphany cantatas tend to be a tad gloomy, focusing on human imperfection and the need for redemption, and pointing to Christ's approaching ministry as the vehicle for that redemption. This cantata tackles the subject with great beauty. I'll let the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music explain:
The wedding at Cana was Christ's first miracle and is the Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in the Epiphany. All three of the cantatas for that day are concerned less with the miracle than the mysterious line of Jesus answering his mother's plea for help: in the KJV "Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come." All three cantatas associate this day with the beginning of Christ's difficult journey, and by association our souls' difficult journey.

The chorale "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" was a favorite of Bach but not particularly popular in the canon of Lutheran chorales. We see very few settings of it by other composers. Bach's versions of the melody cover an enormous range, from the brilliant and vivacious allegro that ends Cantata BWV 58, through the crabbèd and knotty continuo-with-soprano setting in Cantata BWV 44. Our setting that begins Cantata BWV 3 is the most exotic sounding of all and one of the most ravishing bits of chromaticism in all of Bach.

The chorus begins with a quiet string chord that becomes the accompaniment to an extraordinarily expressive and chromatic oboe d'amore line. Soon the other oboe enters and the two sing an amazing duet above a string part that includes both sustained chords and also an expressive sighing motive that goes through the movement. The entrance of the chorus is magical. The chorale is in the bass, doubled by a trombone. The sopranos, altos, and tenors enter before the bass chorale with the same theme as the oboes. The only accompaniment is a sketchy and barren string part. The most important point about the harmony throughout this movement is that for all of its chromaticism, it has a kind of warm melancholy glow about it. It is worlds away from the kind of harshness that we saw, for instance in the opening chorus of BWV 101 or, for that matter, in the version of "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" in Cantata BWV 44. Each line of text is highly characterized. Notice how "Der schmale Weg ist trübsal voll" includes in the vocal parts not only the opening theme but also a new trudging countermelody. This rising line will come back to us in the last phrase in "Den ich zum Himmel wandern soll." The whole color of this movement is bathed in a kind of Romantic glow that is unique in Bach. The chorale with tropes movement #2 is like a splash of cold water. Only continuo accompanies the chorus and soloists. The harmony is hard and brittle instead of warm and rounded. Each phrase is introduced by a tough little reduction of the chorale theme. All of the mysterious cross relations that Bach found in the first movement are gone, replaced by an almost banal diatonicism. The journey has begun.

The chorale with tropes leads directly into the bass aria with continuo. The aria treats "hell and pain" in an almost abstract manner. One could almost call smug the way that the opening line is encapsulated in the texture. The opening jagged line is omnipresent in the aria and undergoes amazing transformations as it underpins what is mostly a joyful and confident text. At first the aria, a full da capo, can seem too long, but its secure doctrine is at the spiritual center of this cantata. Its bare-bones quality makes one long for the richness of the opening chorus.

The soprano-alto duet, which follows a brief secco tenor recitative, occupies a halfway ground between the lush opening and the thorny bass aria. For all of its easy melodiousness and childlike quality, it is very complex in phrasing and textual content. The opening tune seems so easy until one tries to figure out how it really is phrased. The phrasing throughout the movement is complex and determined with Bach's most artful overlaps. Look at what happens with the connection between the 2nd line of text back to the first. The alto is still firmly in E Major while the soprano begins its line in A Major. The duet is one of those pieces that is very difficult for performers and when successfully played will seem completely artless to the listener. The final chorale harmonization is rich without ever reverting to the lushness of the opening.

© Craig Smith
Today's performance is a live recording from 2000 by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of the great John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2015 by A. Roy Hilbinger