The Joys of Music
By Tom May
The abundance of the Baroque - in works that find ingenious ways to tell and retell familiar stories - illuminated by its limitless capacity for the impulse to rejoice.
There's a remarkable slant to human imagination: we’re much more adept at describing varying states of unhappiness and misery than sheer well-being. Of course, it's become a cliché that bad news is what sells. Poets and novelists have always grappled with the phenomenon that our attention almost inevitably gravitates toward the dark side. Paradise Lost is what comes to mind when we think of the genius of Milton - not Paradise Regained. We can't get enough of Hannibal Lecter's latest incarnation.
But music, with its direct access to emotional states - both expressing and provoking them - is equally vital across the entire gamut, from suffering to joy. In this, music enjoys a unique privilege among the Arts. The fact that a musical piece resists being reduced to words is not a signal of fuzzy, vague generality. Quite the opposite: music captures nuances of sensibility with an uncanny focus. As the poet Wallace Stevens phrased it, "Music is feeling, then, not sound." Composers of the era generally known as the Baroque - which spans widely in time as well as space - were keenly aware of this special power. The Baroque in fact embraces many different styles across an international spectrum. But its guiding thread is a conviction of beautiful order sustaining the cosmos, an order which gives meaning and clarity to our emotions. And when it comes to the feelings associated with joy, the Baroque composers reach wildly imaginative extremes. Tonight's program samples the range of that splendor, whether in the glorious and communal sound effects of antiphonal echoing or the intimate spirituality of the individual's dialogue with the divine.
Contained in the word "re-joice" itself is the idea of amplified intensity. Jubilation can't easily be confined to the individual - it cries out to be shared, to be echoed by the larger community. This spontaneous impulse is apparent throughout the evening's program. But it’s intriguing to consider what role it may have played in particular during the experimental fervor of the years when the Renaissance was giving way to the Baroque in music. The tremendous accomplishments in which the visual arts gloried were by now widespread. Perhaps a desire to emulate these, along with a new confidence inspired by technical advances, drove composers on a quest for grandiose effects. As the official composer for St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice during Shakespeare's lifetime, Giovanni Gabrieli explored a veritable acoustic architecture. This highly public aspect of the baroque - what Music Director Grant Gershon notes is sometimes called "the colossal baroque" - revels in the layering of antiphonal choirs, the interplay of human voices with a full panoply of ringing brass, and an extremely sophisticated calculation of sound effects. Such music is still capable of inducing thrills, no matter how coddled we are by surround-sound and the comforts of custom-made home electronics.
This is a period of remarkable synthesis as well: fusions which incorporate past traditions within a new outlook or which braid distinctive styles from Northern and Southern Europe into a new whole. The Italian Gabrieli spent some time in Germany and, as an influential teacher, imparted his insights to a new generation of German composers. One of these was Michael Praetorius. An earnest Lutheran born over a century before J.S. Bach, Praetorius generated a vast volume of work from already existing, well-known hymn tunes and melodies.
The old Christmas carols Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen and In dulci jubilo (employing a so-called macaronic interlacing of Latin with vernacular German) are classic examples of this kind of synthesis of old and new. Praetorius transplants the former into a new setting of stunningly rich and resonant harmony, while a Gabrieli-like fondness for echo effects permeates the double-choir fragmenting and recombination of the latter (known as a carol in its English version as Good Christian Men, Rejoice, the original melody is attributed to a 14th- century German mystic who had visions of dancing with angels). Contemporary Dutch composer Jetse Bremer adds yet another link to this tradition with his own quasi - minimalist riffing on In dulci jubilo.
Composers like Praetorius show an uncanny ability to strive for innovation while never losing track of their listeners. The need to remain grounded in the community - indeed to encourage its eager participation - is of course essential for the religious function in which so much of this music has its context. But one long - ignored angle is shedding new light on the Baroque: the geographical mixture of Old World and New that occurred in the music produced within the Spanish colonies of Latin America. Here we find yet another kind of fusion, with unexpected consequences: a hybrid of European-style polyphony and harmonic language with the complex rhythmic textures of both indigenous peoples and American slaves.
Representing this aspect of the Baroque are the pieces by Juan de Araujo and Gaspar Fernandes. The story of the Nativity is here clothed in language that incorporates a newfound rhythmic vitality. To be sure, the flesh-and-blood of dance permeates the spirit of much Baroque music it can be felt even in the most abstract ruminations of Bach's instrumental masterpieces. But we sense a different kind of groundedness in the strikingly urgent, physical rush of joy that Araujo evokes in Los Coflades de Ia estleya, a so-called negrilla whose text also attempts to imitate the sounds of Creole speech. Its heavy syncopations foreshadow that whole wonderful taxonomy of rhythmic nuances we know from Latin music. Contemporary composers such as Osvaldo Golijov (in his enormously successful Pasion segun San Marcos) have continued to explore the syncretism of classical traditions with indigenous Latin American folk music - now no longer limited to the perspective of the colonizers.
Cantata No.4: Fallt mit danken, fallt mit Loben
Bow with thanks, bow with praise
Music by Johann Sebastian Bach
Text from Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 2:21
Translation by Dr. Thomas Somerville
BWV 248, composed for New Year's Day. Saturday June 1, 1735, the Festival of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus; movement numbers from the New Bach Edition published by Bärenreiter in 1960
It's hard to wrap our minds around the reality that Johann Sebastian Bach produced his enormous body of work with a factory-like efficiency - much of it as part of his day job, written for a very specific purpose: next Sunday's church service, or a royal birthday or a teaching exercise. How then did he manage to create such towering masterpieces in every genre he touched? And Bach's are masterpieces not just for an elite. They exude the robustness we find with Shakespeare: an art that offers something for everyone, across all levels of knowledge and background.
The one genre of his time Bach didn't take up was that of opera - explicitly, that is, for "drama through music" is the very essence of the sacred choral music so central to his oeuvre. The story of redemption was for Bach the fundamental human drama. It reaches its most cosmic proportions in the grand canvases of the Mass in B minor and the St. Matthew Passion, where his musical invention achieves an existential intensity.
But Bach is a master as well at depicting the sacred in the ordinary emotions and drama of everyday life. His weekly Sunday cantatas and liturgical music entail a plethora of variations on this theme. Like Praetorius before him, Bach often takes a familiar chorale tune - such as the one known in English as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring - and creates something entirely new, here wrapping it in a cocoon of gorgeous counterpoint that conveys peace of mind
And Bach brings his narrative and dramatic gifts together in ways that constantly elicit emotional involvement from the listener. His Christmas Oratorio presents a cycle of six cantatas which trace the drama of the entire Nativity, with all its paradoxes of humility and glory. Tonight's cantata is the fourth in the cycle, intended for New Year's Day (also marking the feast of Jesus' circumcision). Its framing chorales - warmly scored with horns - invoke a joyful rhythmic impulse. The cantata's most enchanting moment is the soprano's "echo aria" in the center, with its decision to choose joy over despair. Few composers depict joy so convincingly as Bach, for his music also embraces the bittersweet path leading to it.