A Festival for Spring
By Elisabeth LeGuin
Welcome to the third collaboration between the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. LACO season subscribers come to this evening’s performance with one Bach cantata already under their belts. September’s intensely cathartic Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut. For all its memorable qualities, this is but one jewel among many jewels. Tonight’s program can serve a further gesture toward acknowledging that range, but even if we were to perform all 200 surviving works in this genre (as we plan to do over a period of many years), we would only have achieved a little over half of what he actually produced. It is estimated that about forty percent of Bach’s church cantatas are simply lost.
It would be hard to imagine a more explicit contrast to Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut than Cantata 68, Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt. The text explores the condition of confirmed, contented faith. There is no hint of self-doubt; all may safely be laid in the hands of the Redeemer. These sentiments are shared among chorus and two soloists, rather than dramatically performed by one singer, and thus emphasize the inherently communal nature of faith. With the emotional precision we expect from Bach, each of the two solo arias develops a different face of spiritual contentment, commenting upon the nuances of the brief text: in the first, ebullient rejoicing, and in the second, reflective satisfaction. However, a curious problem emerges. For all the psychological insight at work here, it so happens that neither aria was originally written for these texts. In fact, this music was not conceived as sacred at all. Bach took it from the so-called Hunting Cantata, BWV 208, a work filled with worldly pastoral references.
Should the sacred guises that appear within these arias somehow change our admiration for Bach’s skill, knowing that he recycled his own music as readily as his contemporaries? In the end, the answer to this question is personal, though the fact that Bach himself had no problem with it may serve as a corrective to any latter-day cult of originality.
The Double Concerto in C minor for oboe and violin enjoys a similar ambiguous status, though for a different reason. In this case, the problem is that the original oboe and violin score was lost. The version we have today was reconstructed by latter-day scholars from a concerto for two harpsichords and strings. For various reasons, it is clear that the double harpsichord version was transcribed from the original oboe-and-violin configuration, which will be the one we hear tonight. If argument is needed for this reconstruction’s legitimacy, then we may surely invoke sheer timbral convincingness: The C-minor key gives both solo instruments a uniquely throaty urgency.
If Cantata 68 is the soul of contentment, Cantata 105, Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht, takes us quite far in the opposite direction. Through a pervading metaphor of the debt or mortgage of the soul to Jesus’ mercy, the text speaks of contrition and even shame. This is not meant to humiliate us, but to exhort us to do better. The trajectory of humility toward resolve repeats itself on several different levels. For example, in the opening chorus, stark lamentation gives way to a fugue, a procedure borrowed from instrumental music and emblematic of discipline and strictness. In the first aria, the shakiness of the sinner’s moral condition is depicted memorably by a pulsing, unstable figure in the strings. This shaking accompaniment returns, most unexpectedly, in the final chorale, by which point most cantatas would have resolved any doubts. The eleventh-hour manner in which Bach achieves musical, and therefore spiritual, atonement in the brief course of this movement is one of the most strikingly dramatic passages he ever wrote.
In all cantatas, recitatives (the speech-like parts) play a key role. There is evidence that eighteenth-century people, like us, tended to “wait through” recits, in order to get to the more tuneful, colorfully orchestrated and generally more satisfying arias. But in the sacred context of these cantatas, it is important to acknowledge that merely being satisfied was not necessarily the purpose. It is the recits that contain the real substance of a cantata’s message, delivered with the eloquent concision of a good preacher, and Bach’s settings of them are admirable for the sensitivity with which he emphasizes key words and concepts or adds subtle resonances to apparently simple sentiments.
In Cantata 140, Wachet auf, moral vigilance meets its just reward: the heavenly city so lovingly described in the final chorale. The ongoing metaphor for this process is that of an impending marriage. Of course, this is the marriage of the soul to God, and the desires so ardently expressed in the arias are spiritual desires. Yet Bach is by no means above setting them as duets of the most bewitching and authentic musical eroticism. The arias are interspersed with choral settings, in which familiar, heraldic tunes — several of the chorales in this cantata are still well known in Protestant communities — peer through rich tapestries of Bach’s contrapuntal ingenuity. Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the simplest of them all, “Zion hört die Wächter singen.” Here Bach gives the text a strange, spare setting for unison male voices, unison violins, and continuo. The violin tune, resolute yet disjunctive, is segmented this way and that, intercut unpredictably with the simple, firm, and old choral tune. There is no evolution of these materials, no thickening of texture or expansion of register to depict the rising exaltation of the text. The effect is frankly stark, archaic, and utterly unforgettable. Why does this piece “work”? How can one explain its singular effectiveness? I have tried for many years without success. It is in the end an honor to be defeated by such an undertaking.