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Bach and Forth

Commissioned notes to a choral program of Bach, Bruckner, Brahms, Reger, and late 20th-century composers.

  • program note

Anton Bruckner’s (1824–96) innovations are generally regarded as having been symphonic; his a cappella sacred works are more closely associated with the Cecilian movement, a conservative Catholic movement in Germany that endorsed musical reform. The bulk of Locus iste is cast in a serenely syllabic C major. That context makes the subtle chromaticism to express God’s “priceless mystery” and melismatic blossom on “Deo” are all the more poignant. Os justi is even more restrained, adhering to strict rules of Renaissance music theory: there are no accidentals, no dominant sevenths, and no cadential six-four chords. A beautiful modal fugue on “et lingua eius”, and a plainchant Alleluia as a coda are the highlights of this timeless jewel.

The formal sophistication of Jesu, meine Freude is justly celebrated as representative of Bach’s maturity: its eleven movements are arranged in arch form with a double fugue directly in the middle (209 measures precede the fugue; 208 follow) as a keystone. The odd verses comprise the six strophes of Johann Franck’s hymn, and variously harmonize Johann Crüger’s chorale. These numbers are interspersed with passages from Romans 8. The outer chorale verses are musically identical four-part harmonizations that belie the essentially five-voiced nature of the motet as a whole. Numbers 2 and 10 have much musical material in common; the awkward text setting in the latter suggests it was adapted from the former for symmetry’s sake, rather than newly composed. Numbers 3–5 correspond to Nos. 7–9; each group features a dramatic chorale setting, a trio, and an arioso movement. Movement 9, a chorale prelude in continuo style, stands out among the chorale movements by virtue of its key (A minor) and its use of an alternative version of the chorale tune (here as a cantus firmus in the alto). The central fugue is unusual for its unaccompanied tenor entry, and for its four-voice exposition despite being for five voices; it, too, may have been reworked from an earlier composition.

┌─ 1) Jesu Meine Freude [SATB]
|   ┌──2) Es ist nun nichts [SSATB]
|   |    ╔ ┌─ 3) Unter deinem Schirmen [SSATB]
|   |  ╔═╣ |  ┌─ 4) Denn das Gesetz [trio: SSA]
|   |  ║ ╚ |  │  ┌─ 5) Trotz, dem alten Drachen [SSATB]
|   |  ║   |  |  |     6) Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich [fugue: SSATB]
|   |  ║ ╔ |  │  └─ 7) Weg mit allen Schätzen [SATB]
|   |  ╚═╣ |  └─ 8) So aber Christus [trio: ATB]
|   |    ╚ └─ 9) Gute Nacht [SATB]
|   └─ 10) So nun der Geist [SSATB]
└─ 11) Weicht, ihr Trauergeister [SATB]

Johannes Brahms (1833–97) published his Two Motets, op. 74 in 1878, dedicated to the great Bach biographer, Phillipp Spitta. The first movement has four cadential pillars on “Warum?”, between which lie three episodes. The first is fugal, in an imposing and angular D minor; the second is freely imitative and contrasting in mood, moving toward A major; while the largely homophonic third recasts the opening subject in a triple time. For the second movement, Brahms adapts the Benedictus from his own Missa Canonica, expanding it two six voices at when the text repeats. The third movement is in two parts: the first features free counterpoint against a chorale-like melody in the soprano; the second begins with a slow waltz that dovetails into a reprise of the music of “Lasset uns”. The final movement is a harmonization of Luther’s chorale tune “Mit Fried und Freud ich far dahin”—also used by Bach in several of his chorale cantatas.

In Lobet den Herrn, Bach assigns “Lobet” a rising arpeggio as its fugal subject; the second versicle, beginning with “preiset” is florid and descending. The “preiset” subject is developed in stretto before the “Lobet” subject returns (first presented by the tenors) in double fugue to close the first verse. The second verse is set more homophonically, with some excursions to new harmonic territory and duets within the texture. Long suspensions draw attention to the deliberate text painting on “Ewigkeit” (“forever”). “Alleluia” had received special musical treatment from its plainchant origins; Bach extends that tradition, and captures all of the joy associated with the word in a dance-like fugue in triple time.

Knut Nystedt (1915–2014) is almost certainly best known to Canadian audiences through Immortal Bach (1988). The work is constructed on a simple premise: the choir sings through a straightforward harmonization of the first strophe of Bach’s continuo song “Komm, süßer Tod” (BWV 478). The choir proceeds to sing each of the three phrases again, but at with each choral group to its own tempo—a sort of paraphrase of mensuration canon technique of the mid-15th century. The performed effect is greater than the technique described; the result is a classic musical instance of the formula “Modern art = ‘I could do that’ + ‘Yes, but you didn’t’”.

Sven-David Sandström (b. 1942) has composed many works to Baroque models. His Magnificat and High Mass follow the division of movements of Bach’s BWV 243 and BWV 232, respectively. He has also cast new settings of the texts of Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Matthäuspassion, and each of the texts of Bach’s six motets. Hear my prayer, O Lord (1986) is formally similar to the Nystedt work: Purcell’s anthem (1682) is performed in its entirety, before Sandström’s own elaboration grows out of a pppp hum. Sandström greatly expands the dynamic range and tessitura of Purcell’s original, and sixths and sevenths abound in the vocal lines, inverting Purcell’s predominant intervals. In his setting of Lobet den Herrn, Sandström employs an eight-part double choir (as Bach had done in his 4 motets not on this evening’s program). The form and texture generally follows the Psalm text’s divisions as Bach had read them: the relative similarities of Bach’s and Sandström’s treatments of “Denn seine Gnade” and “Alleluia” are obvious. But where Bach’s granular unit of text is the phrase, Sandström’s is the word, and Sandström’s compositional focus is not contrapuntal. Instead, he builds up his texture from a number of rhythmic cells (frequently 3 or 5 pulses in length) that constantly shift with a regular 4/4 framework.

Clytus Gottwald (b. 1925) celebrates his 91st birthday today; with the Stuttgart Schola Cantorum, his work is known to millions from the performance of Ligeti’s Lux aeterna on the soundtrack to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Performing Ligeti’s masterpiece gave Gottwald the idea to apply “Ligeti’s innovations to models of late Romantic music”. Gottwald acknowledges his debt to Ligeti in his use of “micropolyphony”, in which “the harmonic background is dispersed into a multitude of tiny polyphonic gestures.” In transcribing Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from the Rückert-Lieder, Mahler’s orchestral song cycle from 1901–2 (which Mahler himself reworked the song for the famous Adagietto of his Fifth Symphony, which was in turn transcribed for choir in 1997 by Gerard Pesson), Gottwald has remarked that “the stylistic emphasis is clearly laid on the layout of the sound, which [he] attempted to define through a specific orchestration of the voices.”

It is almost too poetic that Max Reger (1873–1916) should have been found dead in Leipzig’s Hotel Hentschel, aged just 43, with the galley proofs of Der Mensch lebt und bestehet open at his bedside. Reger was deeply involved with early music (Bach’s above all) during his short life; influence of Bach’s chorales is plain on the surface of the music, and Trinitarian key symbolism of A major at the poetic volta emphasizes the switch in focus from temporal/human to eternal/divine in a tradition dating back to Bach’s time. The penultimate sonority is all Reger’s own, and is just as moving at 100 years’ age as when it was born.