A Mighty Fortress

Sunday morning in the devout Leipzig of Sebastian Bach, centuries before the Lutherans’ conquest of Minnesota, was an arduous if uplifting experience. The faithful gathered in one of the two main churches, St. Michael or St. Thomas, at 7 a.m. By the time they had, in heart, soul, rump and knees, journeyed past the readings from Scripture, sung along in the day’s chorale plus a few dozen hymns, absorbed the musical wonders of Kapellmeister Bach’s latest cantata and the Sermon — ah, yes, the Sermon, the 1725 forerunner of “News From Lake Wobegon” but without the jokes — the noon hour would have struck. There would be time for socializing, the exchange of the “Grüss Gott” and the week’s gossip, but by then the Sunday Rostbraten und Kartoffeln would be waiting at home.

The nucleus of the Lutheran service was the body of the chorale melodies, collected and codified by the Founders, and assigned to each Sunday of the church year — as the Gregorian melodies were assigned to the Roman year. Like the dozens of other musical craftsmen in the organ lofts of Germany and Northern Europe, Bach had the task of fashioning each week’s music as a paraphrase — a recycling, if you will — of that specific melody, and the miracle is the amazing resource with which he went about his task. His 200 or so surviving cantatas, most of them created during his time as music director for the city of Leipzig, are more than merely a collection of great and beautiful executions of the given task; they represent the outlook of a devout and devoted mind on the nature of faith and its interaction with the nature of artistic expression. (Another 100 or so cantatas, by the way, are noted in catalogs but have yet to be found.)

Sir John Eliot Gardiner was in town recently, primarily to conduct a Mozart concert (which I had to miss due to an exceptionally conflicted weekend, with nothing less than Wagner’s Ring and a new arts center competing for attention), but also to talk about Bach cantatas. In 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, Sir John had taken his Monteverdi Choir, the small instrumental group called the English Baroque Soloists and a solo vocal group on a “pilgrimage” to perform and record all surviving Bach church cantatas, in churches worldwide chosen for ideal size and sound qualities, and all on the appropriate Sunday in the church calendar. This would mean four or five works on most days: a full-length concert and, better yet, a full CD. Deutsche Grammophon was to release the performances; it issued five discs and backed off from the project, returning the masters to Sir John. Now, with private funding — from a donor list including Alberto Vilar, but we won’t go into that — Sir John has undertaken to release the recordings on his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, which was Bach’s own signature, in handsome two-disc packages distributed by Harmonia Mundi. There will be some 25 in all; there are five so far. Even if you were deaf, you’d want them for Steve McCurry’s haunting cover photographs: faces in Asian villages and monasteries, whose haunting eyes prepare you for the music inside. The music making under Gardiner, with his superbly motivated soloists both vocal and instrumental, somehow goes with this artwork. Even with the tiny and negligible flaws of live performances, I find this a new and deeply satisfying way of listening to Bach.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Whatever your beliefs,” said Sir John, “you have to respond to the irresistible power in this music, of Bach’s ambition to serve a higher power. What is even more remarkable, of course, is the way even his self-doubts come through, the anxieties, the pleading. This is the most human of all Bach’s music, and the most humanistic as well. Probably for that reason, because it is so unlike the standard image — the ‘divine sewing machine’ of the instrumental works, for instance — these cantatas are the least explored of all his works. They are also the music that he was most obviously creating for the future. His sons recognized this. Carl Philipp Emanuel, who moved so far ahead of Sebastian in so much of his own music, listed the cantatas first when he set about cataloging his father’s legacy.

“In later time, too,” Sir John went on, “even in the 19th century, when so much was being reorchestrated and romanticized for Victorian audiences, there were passages in the unadulterated cantatas that were amazing Romantic composers . . .”

“That sequence in Cantata No. 8 . . .” I interrupted.

“Exactly. That passage sounds exactly like Brahms, and Brahms knew it and recognized it. And in No. 27, that opening chorus turns up exactly in the Brahms Requiem: ‘Denn alles Fleisch . . .’ And what is the Brahms Requiem? Music about death, ‘borne patiently only by the corpse,’ as G.B. Shaw once said. And what are Cantatas 8 and 27? Also music about death.”

Cantatas No. 8 and 27 — the numbers are a cataloger’s caprice and have no relation to chronology — go along with 161 and 95 in the set for the 16th Sunday after Trinity; they were performed and recorded on October 7, 2000, at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Death is the subject matter in all four works: not the tragedy at life’s end, but the release at life’s fulfillment. All four works include at least one aria, usually toward the end, that is downright jovial; the piece in jig time at the end of No. 8 is a ringer for the jiggety-jog at the end of the sixth “Brandenburg.” What I find even more striking are the opening movements, each of them a multilevel musical drama.

No. 161 dates from Bach’s Weimar years before he moved on to Cöthen and then to Leipzig. “Come, sweet hour of death . . .” sings the alto, and the chorus answers with comforting words: “Though the body be consumed by worms . . .” To complicate matters still further, a solo oboe intrudes with yet another tune, the so-called “Passion” chorale, which will be a frequent visitor throughout Bach’s legacy. A chorale tune in No. 95 hollers out a death warning over a syncopated chorus exulting that “Christ is my life!!!” No. 8, from the Leipzig years, starts off with that Brahmsian harmony, and with what is supposed to be a funeral chime but clanging (!) merrily; “Dear Lord,” sing the young men and women of the Monteverdi Choir, “when will I die?” Not soon, if the vitality in these superb new discs is any indication.?

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