The Hong Kong Bach Choir Sings Bach...Plus. Or, The Bach choir Returns to its Roots. Tonight we present two important works by Bach, from either end of his creative career, sandwiching motets by an important precursor and, arguably, his most important twentieth-century successor. The structural precision and symmetry with which Bach was preoccupied throughout his career are exemplified within the early and mature masterpieces which we sing. Might it not, then, be proper to reflect this symmetry throughout the evening? By completing our programme with motets by Gesualdo and Stravinsky, w do exactly that: trough separated in time by three hundred years, the two are intimately connected in the fascination Stravinsky found in Gesualdo's music, extending to this completion of several works by the earlier master.
"Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir", despite its relatively high Schmieder number (131), is almost certainly Bach's earliest surviving cantata. With but one exception a straightforward setting of Psalm 130, familiar in Latin as "De profundis", it most likely was commissioned for a penitential service after a fire, during Bach's first significant posting, as organist in the town of Mühlhausen, in 1707.
At the age of twenty-two, Bach had already mastered the vocal and instrumental styles of the German mid-Baroque, his models such men as Pachelbel and Buxtehude. The structure of the cantata derives from an alternation of the earlier German motet (choral) and "sacred concert" (solo or duet) forms, and closes, with its final verse promising redemption, in a rather festive fugue. Unlike Bach's more mature cantatas, which generally feature at least one harmonization of a pre-existing Lutheran chorale melody suitable for congregational singing, this one, though incorporating such a tune, never presents a simple harmonization. Instead, Bach presents us with a rather elaborate series of linked movements, with subtly symmetrical inter-relationships. The only use of a chorale melody - "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut" (Lord Jesus Christ, you highest good) - two verses of which accompany the solo arias (themselves linked by this shared accompaniment, though in different keys) brings the sole departure from the Psalm text. These interpolations introduce a Christian message into what, in the Bible, is a plea for the redemption of Israel. The virtuosity of Bach's writing suggests his use of this commission to demonstrate his suitability for a more prestigious post. Whether as a result of this of for other reasons, he moved the next year to the court of Weimar, as music director.
Only six authenticated motets by Bach have come down to us. Written for occasional purposes, unlike the weekly cantata that Bach was obliged to provide as part of his duties as Thomaskantor in Leipzig (a post he held from 1723 until his death), four were composed for memorial services for high-ranking civic personages. Jesu, meine Freude, largest and most majestic of the motets, was first performed in 1723 in memory of the wife of Leipzig's postmaster. Has any postal employee ever received a greater gift?
Like many of the Leipzig cantatas, Jesu, meine Freude is based on a Lutheran hymn and chorale tune, which Bach sets and harmonizes differently throughout the work, forming six of its eleven movements. These settings alternate with verses from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. The chorale is set more and more elaborately through the motet, until it finally regains its original simplicity at the end of the work. The alternating verses from St. Paul are set in pairs, forming an arch - the second movement matched with the tenth, for example. The combination of the two cycles (chorale and epistle) brings a larger symmetry, reaching a climax of exquisite restraint in the ninth movement - almost a lullaby - in which the choral tune is embedded as in the solo portions of Aus der Tiefe, and reminding us, near the end of the programme, of its beginning.
Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa: has a more romantic and mysterious figure existed in musical history? At the age of twenty-eight, discovering his wife in bed with another man, he killed them both. As a reigning prince, he escaped earthly punishment, but spent the remainder of his life in anguished penitence, composing self-indulgently morose vocal music.
Gesualdo was one of a generation of gifted, aristocratic amateurs some of whom, among other things, invented opera at the turn of the seventeenth century. The Florentine Camerata, fed up with the increasing complexity of the Italian madrigal, determined to simplify dramatic music by eliminating the overlapping textual settings characteristic of both sacred and secular vocal music. Gesualdo, on the other hand, extended the reach of existing forms by heightening their chromatic content. The sudden turns of phrase and idiosyncratic cadences which result make Gesualdo a favourite of twentieth-century musicians, though the difficulty of performing them keeps them from the forefront of audience consciousness.
Gesualdo's mannered style is most familiar in his many madrigals, mostly for five voices; his sacred music is less well-known. The nineteen five-part motets of the Sacrae Cantiones (Sacred Songs) focus primarily on subjects such as guilt and death, befitting a composer of Gesualdo's notorious past.
Among them, Deus refugium et virtus and O vos omnes both demonstrate their creator's art in all its manifestations: technical expertise, audacious chromaticism and haunting beauty.
Rather late in life, Igor Stravinsky was introduced to the works of Gesualdo by his acolyte, Robert Craft, who was largely responsible also for Stravinsky's new-found interest in the music of Anton Webern. These twin discoveries fertilized Stravinsky's late period, in his recognition of their shared exploitation of highly chromatic polyphony. Stravinsky went so far as to complete three of Gesualdo's seven-part motets which had not survived whole, and arranged some Gesualdo vocal music for instruments, as Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa.
At an earlier time of his life, however (the 1930's), Stravinsky had composed three short Russian motets, suitable for use in Orthodox services. These works remind us of Stravinsky's deep and enduring ties to traditional Russian music, helping us locate his typically obsessive, spiraling melodies in Orthodox chant, with its restricted, gently rocking pitch-palate. Tonight, we perform two of these motets, Ave Maria and Credo, in the Latin versions prepared by Stravinsky in the late 1940's. In adapting them, the composer performed wholesale revisions, altering phrase lengths, meters and rhythmic scansion, so that the Latin versions become new works, which should not be compared to the Russian in terms of quality, as some commentators have done. The simplicity of Stravinsky's settings belie his reputation for fearsome modernity, speaking directly to the heart and, from his French, and later American, exile, reminding us of his ties to Mother Russia.
- Jerome Hoberman -