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Bach after Martin

Notes on three of Bach's motets

  • program note

The first half of this concert was Frank Martin’s Mass; the ensemble smartly used John Bawden’s excellent notes (with permission and attribution), which can be found on

Frank Martin was (and remains!) not alone in keeping Bach as an idol. For Hector Berlioz (1803-1869, ‘there is one god—Bach—and Mendelssohn is his prophet.’ Mendelssohn more than any other was responsible restoring broad interest in Bach, above all with his famous 1829 performance of the same Passion that so moved Martin. It is less well known that Mendelssohn knew Bach’s motets very well: he sang them in the Berlin Singakademie, played improvisations on them, and included them in programs.

Bach and Mendelssohn are key parts of Chronos’ musical identity; this evening’s performance is special for the ensemble, as it marks the completion of Bach’s motets in Chronos’ repertoire. Officially, there are 6 motets, numbered BWV 225–230 in Bach’s catalogue; a seventh, Ich lasse dich nicht (BWV Anh. 159) is now also included. In Bach’s day, motets were performed almost exclusively for special occasions; Bach’s were all, with varying degrees of certainty, for burial services. Today’s familiar invitation to “join in a celebration of the life of” loved one frames for the joyous tone of these works. The sentiment is broadly similar to Bach’s contemporary Lutheran view of death.

Fürchte dich nicht represents well Bach’s indebtedness to the past. The antiphonal volleys between the two choirs at the opening recall the polychoral style we associate with the composers of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Like Jesu, meine Freude, it has a remarkable symmetry: the first seventy-seven measures set Isaiah 41: 10; the second seventy-seven set Isaiah 43: 1. The first half of the work is formally set up with a new musical idea and brief cadence for each phrase of the text. This union of musical and textual form is the very hallmark of the motet genre, whose name comes from the French mot, or “word”. (I recommend following the text and translation in the program to best appreciate Bach’s on-a-dime responses to the text; please turn pages quietly.)

Singet dem Herrn is arguably the crown jewel of Bach’s motets. Mendelssohn programmed it at the unveiling of the altes Bachdenkmal in 1843—the first such memorial to Bach. We have an account of Mozart’s reaction to hearing the work: ‘Mozart sat up, startled. … He called out: “What is this?” And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears.’ The work is in 3 movements. (The fast-slow-fast pattern recalls an instrumental sonata from the time; although written for voices, it is deliciously virtuosic, almost orchestral in conception.) The outer movements recall preludes and fugues, while the central movement is a choral dialog. Choir II sings a stately chorale, with Choir I (tonight sung by a quartet) sings a lyrical filigree—rather like an overgrown colonnade leading from one sunny courtyard to another. The conclusion is as much a lesson in tonal counterpoint as a celebration of the human voice: strettos and sequence abound in this passepied, a quick-moving court dance. Little wonder that ‘when the singing was finished, [Mozart] cried out, full of joy: “Now there is some thing one can learn from!”’