On Sunday afternoon we attended a marvelous all Bach concert by the Handel & Haydn Society as a tribute to Daniel Stepner who has spent nearly 25 years as concertmaster. We have seen him many times with many groups in Boston and at the MFA, WGBH studios, etc. It was a thrilling concert conducted by the Harry Christopher now in his 2nd season.
It was a wonderful concert with notable solo performances by violin, brass, harpsichord, flutes, and vocal soloists in the last cantata.
Harry Christophers, conductor
Christopher Krueger, flute
Daniel Stepner, violin
Linda Quan, violin
John Finney, harpsichord
Lydia Brotherton, soprano
Thea Lobo, alto
Ryan Turner, tenor
Bradford Gleim, bass
Handel and Haydn Society Chorus
The program consisted of the following pieces.
Bach: "Singet dem Herrn"
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
Bach: Cantata No. 50, "Nun ist das heil" for St. Michael’s Day
Bach: "Der Geist hilft"
Bach: Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins
Bach: Cantata No. 29, "Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir"
It was really a joy to hear this played on period instruments. The chorus was wonderful and we recognized some of the amateurs from other local venues. Stepner graciously acknowedged a smll token of gratitude - the framed program of his first performance with the H&H in 1996. The nearly sold out crown gave both Stepner and the H&H orchestra and chorus a well deserved standing ovation.
For those interested in further info on this concert, I have appended the program notes below:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750):
Master of Musical Expression
Program Notes for Bach Portrait
The city of Leipzig and the princely court at Cöthen provide the backdrop for the music on today’s program. Leipzig was an important and thriving city. It was a center for publishing and its trade fairs brought visitors to the city regularly. The university and the church schools held reputations for academic excellence. Fine keyboard instruments were made by well-known families and the city was a center for both secular and sacred music.
Bach’s motets and many of his cantatas were written when he was employed in Leipzig beginning in 1723. His duties there were two-fold. He was Kantor for the Thomasschule; his primary responsibilities included teaching music, and directing the choirs at St. Thomas Church and St. Nicolas Church on alternating Sundays. As director musices (director of music) Bach was also responsible for overseeing church music in the city and providing music for any civic celebrations such as the election of the town council.
There are only six motets known to have been composed by Bach. When he needed a motet for a Sunday morning or afternoon service, he relied on a collection of Latin motets that were commonly sung in Leipzig and could be learned and memorized easily. Why Bach wrote specific motets is not always certain; this is the case with Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225 (1726-27). Scored for double chorus, this motet contains three sections and uses texts from Psalms 103 and 150. In this intricate and complex work, Bach carefully draws our attention to important words in the text. For example, Bach emphasizes the first word, “singet” (sing) by simultaneously using a pedal tone, text repetition, and embellished melodies in imitation to proclaim this word in an infectiously upbeat setting that carries through the rest of the work. Interestingly, Mozart heard this motet when he visited Leipzig in 1789.
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226 was written for the October 20, 1729 funeral service of J. H. Ernesti, Rector of the Thomasschule. It is scored for double chorus, strings, and winds. The strings double choir 1 and three oboes, including a seldom used alto oboe, plus bassoon accompany choir 2. Almost every time the word “Geist” (Holy Spirit) appears, Bach sets it to a long melodic flourish in sixteenth notes, not only emphasizing this word, but also depicting the ephemeral nature of human beings. This motet concludes with a strophe from a chorale by Martin Luther for both choruses. Though few in number, the motets are exquisitely crafted compositions;
it is clear that Bach brought all his creative forces to bear on these sophisticated sacred works.
Bach’s position before Leipzig was also impressive. In August 1717, Bach accepted the offer to become Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. At that time, Bach was employed by the Duke of Weimar who refused to release the composer from his service, ultimately having Bach arrested and jailed from November 6 – December 2, 1717. After his release, Bach took up his new position in Cöthen. Prince Leopold was an accomplished musician who employed an orchestra of eighteen well-trained players. Bach wrote chamber music for this ensemble, including the fashionable concerto. However, some of the best-known works associated with this period, the Brandenburg Concertos, probably originated with earlier compositions. Bach dedicated these six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. As a whole the six Brandenburg Concertos are a study of instrument combinations and virtuoso instrumental writing. The fifth Concerto features the flute, violin, and harpsichord as the soloists playing in imitation in all three movements. Including the harpsichord as a soloist is unusual; this instrument generally accompanies in any ensemble. In this concerto, the harpsichord has two roles: accompaniment for the tutti sections and dazzling passages in the solo sections. However, its primary role as virtuoso soloist is made abundantly clear towards the end of the first movement, when Bach writes a breathtaking harpsichord cadenza that literally silences not only the orchestra, but the other soloists as well.
The Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043 was composed while Bach was in Cöthen. It was most likely written for Berlin violinists, Martin Friedrich Marcus and Joseph Spiess; Spiess was hired by Prince Leopold in 1714. The concerto follows the three-movement (fast-slow-fast) design codified by Antonio Vivaldi. Imitation features prominently throughout this concerto as does the technical difficulty of the solo parts. This becomes particularly poignant in the second movement as the longer note values of one solo line are embellished and drawn forward by the faster motion of the other solo line. In the third movement, the close interval of imitation and the off-beat accents of the orchestral accompaniment propel the music forward. Performance scores for this concerto have been found among the works performed at the Collegium Musicum (university) concerts in Leipzig in the 1730s.
In Leipzig, the cantata was the favored composition for sacred and secular occasions. Bach provided a new cantata for each Sunday and special feast days of the liturgical year. This amounted to some sixty cantatas per year. In his first years at Leipzig, Bach wrote new cantatas for each service, a daunting challenge for any composer. Even more astounding is the quality of each cantata which explores musical expression in a unique way. Both cantatas on today’s program were sung in church, even though Cantata no. 29 was written for a civic celebration.
One of five cantatas written for St. Michael’s Day, Cantata no. 50 may have been performed on September 29, 1723. Cantata 50 is scored for double chorus and a festive orchestra of three trumpets, three oboes, strings, and timpani. It consists of a single movement with no orchestral introduction. A strong, foundational line in the basses of the first chorus begins the movement. From their line the cantata grows as vocal and instrumental parts are added until the two choirs alternate in a call-and-response fashion.
Cantata no. 29 was first performed on August 27, 1731 in honor of the council election at Leipzig. The intricate obbligato organ part of the sinfonia, like the harpsichord part in the fifth Brandenburg, combines the abilities of Bach as a virtuoso instrumentalist and master composer. Adapted from the first movement of his Partita no. 3 for unaccompanied violin, this organ part was performed by Bach in 1749 to commemorate another town council election. Bach had been so seriously ill just before this celebration that arrangements had been made to name his successor. His choice of cantata may have been a clear indication that these arrangements were premature.
Just as the first movement is an arrangement of an earlier instrumental composition, Bach will return to music of the second movement of this cantata for the Gratias section of the Gloria of his B Minor Mass. The celebratory text taken from Psalm 72 is heralded with the opening sinfonia. Throughout this work, Bach skillfully sets this text of thanks and prayer both subtly and boldly, challenging the singers and instrumentalists technically and stylistically.
When Bach signed each completed cantata with Soli Deo Gratia, he was acknowledging that his commensurate skill in counterpoint, formal design, text expression, and instrumentation was part of a greater whole. It is that sense of the whole that pervades Bach’s compositions, whether sacred or secular, instrumental or vocal. As in all of his works, each piece on today’s program displays Bach’s unprecedented powers of musical expression dedicated to the “glory of God alone.”