By ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Annotator, Los Angeles Master Chorale
In the first volume of A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee developed a theory of challenge and response. This analytic tool can well be applied to the history of music in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to Toynbee, a challenge or vicissitude of some sort provides a stimulus to growth; however, an extreme challenge will tend to stifle growth - all energy is diverted to mere survival.
For most of the 16th century, Europe was in constant ferment from the exterior challenge of the New World and the developing internal pressure of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. During this period, from Prague (Handl) to Mexico City (Franco, de Lienas), there occurred a unique outpouring of great music for the human voice. This was greatly stimulated by a constant cross-fertilization as composers from Germany (Hassler, Schütz), Spain (Victoria, Roblado), the Netherlands (Lassus), England (Dering) and all Europe journeyed to Venice (Andrea Gabrieli, his nephew Giovanni, Monteverdi) or Rome (Palestrina, Nanini) and returned to their own countries. Even the less adventurous Scheidt of Halle went to Amsterdam (Sweelinck) to complete his education. Schütz, ardent Protestant though he was, journeyed twice to Venice, first studying with Giovanni Gabrieli during 1609-12, and returning in 1628 to learn the "new style" from Monteverdi.
This period of fecundity ceased as the effects of the disastrous Thirty Years War (1618-1648) became pervasive. Travel became difficult and dangerous. Noble patrons had only meager funds available for the arts. Growth and experimentation took place at a slower rate and in isolated pockets. As Europe solidified into political and spiritual factions, music became localized in its interests and emphasis.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Monteverdi composed three settings of the psalm Laetatus sum: one in the 1610 Vespers, and two in the posthumously published collection of 1650. The setting performed tonight is the only one for obbligato instruments; the other versions being for voices and continuo only. This largest is held together by a rigid and powerful use of a basso ostinato on the tones G-g-c-d, which is only interrupted at the Gloria Patri.
Messe de Minuit
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704)
When Charpentier returned from his studies in Italy with Carissimi (1605-1674), it was to a Paris dominated by the gifted but jealous Lully (1632-1687). Until Lully's death, the younger composer had to divert most of his energies to sacred music.
Messe de Minuit a 4 voix, flûtes et vioIons, pour Noel is unique among the twelve settings of the Mass left by Charpentier. By no means the most spectacular or profound of his Masses, it is certainly the most charming. Most of its music is based on various Noels, carefully chosen for musical value and allegorical significance. At certain points in his scope, Charpentier directed the organist to play the appropriate Noel. In this performance, they will be sung antiphonally in arrangements by Elliot Forbes.
One result of the parochial compartmentalization caused by the Thirty Years War was that the French developed a rhythmic convention known as notes inegales. This was applied throughout the French baroque period. Whereas the Italians would write a series of notes as even in value and play them that way, the French would play them as if they were of unequal value. The consistently skipping motion (as opposed to the sedate walking rhythm of the written notes) will be immediately noticeable to the listener.
Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750)
Little is known about the "American" Pachelbel, and only one of his compositions has survived - the Magnificat. He was a son of the court organist and composer Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), a friend of the Bach family and the teacher of Johann Sebastian's older brother.
In 1733, he was in Boston. He was called to Newport, Rhode Island, to assist in the installation of an organ and remained there as organist until 1735, when he moved to New York. In 1736, he gave the first concerts known to have occurred in that city. The following year a "Vocal and Instrumental Concert," the first of its kind, was presented - possibly including a performance of the Magnificat. Shortly before his death, he settled in Charleston, South Carolina.
Cantata, “Uns ist ein Kind geboren," S. 142
Motet, "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied," S.225
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The text of Uns ist ein Kind geboren was one of many written by Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756). Bach superscribed his setting Concerto Festo Nativitatis Christi, rather than the Italian designation of cantata, which still had the connotation of a dramatic scene for one or more voices. Bach's setting dates from the middle of his years at Weimar (1712 or 1713, according to Schmieder) and is scored for 2 oboes, 2 blockfloten, strings, and continuo. Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) set the same text to music while at Eisenach. A comparison between the two settings (Spitta I, pp. 487-491) does nothing to enhance Telemann's reputation. "The difference is as great as that between the characters of the two musicians, and extends to every particular, even to the key." Bach's setting centers in A minor, with the following varied pattern: A minor, E minor, C major, A minor, F major, D minor, A minor. In contrast, "Telemann's eternal C major is often unutterably shallow and flat. (ibid.)." Bach begins his opening chorus with a graceful double fugue; Telemann with a homophonic exploration of the rather limited possibilities of the C major chord. S. 142 may be the work of a still developing composer, but since that composer is Sebastian Bach, it survives comparison quite easily.
Bach composed no Latin motets, since he was not obliged to by his duties in Leipzig. He did, however, write six German motets for special occasions. Werner Neumann joins Arnold Schering in assuming that Singet dem Herrn was written as a song of praise for a New Year's service on January 1, 1746, in which the signing of the Dresden Peace Treaty (December 25, 1745) was celebrated. Geiringer (The Bach Family, p. 223) concurs in this assumption. However, Geiringer (Johann Sebastian Bach, p.1 79) has since had second thoughts about the matter, and now considers it probable that it was first "performed on May 12, 1727, as birthday celebration for the Elector Friedrich August, 'the Strong' of Saxony." In any case, it definitely is not a funeral motet.
Although most of Bach's vocal works were forgotten for generations after his death, the motets never disappeared entirely from the repertoire at the Thomas Schule. In 1789, the then Cantor, Doles, led the choir in a performance of Singet dem Herrn for the visiting Mozart. "Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out: 'What is this?' And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: 'Now, there is something one can learn from!' He was told that this School, in which Sebastian Bach had been Cantor, possessed the complete collection of his motets and preserved them as a sort of sacred relic. 'That's the spirit! That's fine!' he cried. 'Let's see them!' There was, however, no score of these songs; so he had the parts given to him; and then it was for the silent observer a joy to see how eagerly Mozart sat himself down, with the parts all around him - in both hands, on his knees, and on the chairs next to him - and, forgetting everything else, did not get up again until he had looked through everything of Sebastian Bach's that there was there." (Friedrich Rochlitz).
The motet (in B flat) is in three movements. The first movement follows the pattern of a majestic bipartite prelude and fugue. After an antiphonal development of the opening words, the fugue is introduced in Chorus I as Chorus II continues with the original material. "The saints of God, as an assembly or community, continue to praise God in chorus while individual sons of Zion, though they too are members of the assembly, employ a rollicking fugue to praise and extol God with the dance, the timbrel, and the harp. One is hardly aware that the number of real parts gradually decreases as the end of the movement approaches, since, at the same time, the music becomes increasingly dramatic and climatic." (Buszin).
The second movement is in the form of a chorale prelude, in which the phrases of the third verse of Gramann's hymn Nun lob' mein Seel are separated by original material to contemplative words by an unknown author.
The third movement (in E flat) is again antiphonal and triumphant. In listening to it, one is reminded of Goethe's words to Zeiter regarding Bach's music: “... it is as if the eternal harmony were conversing with itself ...” This movement returns to the original key and proceeds without pause to the jubilant unichoral fugue which closes the work. "Based on an unusually long theme in lively 3/8 time this piece bears a certain affinity to the Pleni sunt coeli of the B-minor Mass composed a few years earlier. One cannot admire enough Bach's art of achieving utmost clarity even in polyphonic numbers while putting the gigantic tonal masses into motion. The fugue is clearly divided into 32 + 4 + 40 + 4 + 32 measures thus creating the symmetrical construction A-B-CB- A." (Geiringer: J. S. Bach, p. 181).
Although no instrumental parts survive for Singet dem Herrn, most authorities agree that the motets were sung with organ and available instruments (Geiringer: The Bach Family, p. 223, J.S. Bach, p. 179; Spitta III, p. 607-11). Tonight's performance follows that assumption.