May 20th, 2016
First Church in Cambridge; David Hoose, conductor
J.S. Bach: Komm, Jesu, komm
Arvo Pärt: Adam’s Lament Boston Premiere
J.S. Bach: Lutheran Mass in A
Notes by David Hoose
J.S. Bach: Komm, Jesu, komm!
The motets of J.S. Bach mark the high point in a line of sacred vocal works that reached back to the thirteenth century. In eighteenth-century Germany, motets were polyphonic vocal compositions without any independent instrumental parts, based on biblical texts or existing chorales. The form developed notably through two cousins of Bach's father, Johann Michael (1648-1694) and Johann Christoph (baptized 1642-buried 1703), and the latter had strong musical influence on the young Johann Sebastian. By the time the young Bach's own composing began to flourish, however, the motet was overshadowed by vocal concertos with independent instrumental parts and non-biblical texts: cantatas.
Bach composed thousands of works, including more than 200 cantatas; fewer than ten were motets. Some musicologists question the authorship of one, Lobet den Herm, but no one suggests a reasonable alternative for who could have written this rich and poised music. Another, Ich lasse dick nicht, once attributed to Johann Christoph, has begun to move to Johann Sebastian's catalogue, a change also justified more by eye than by ear.
Of the remaining five, Komm, Jesu, komm stands out by its personal tone, compact structure, improvisatory spirit, and avoidance of obvious virtuosity. Its text is also unusual for its not being biblical, but rather a poem by poet and opera librettist Paul Thymich (1656-94) that closely parallels John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Bach sets the poem's first and last stanzas as he would have set Biblical verses, line-by-line.
Sounding at once ancient and modern, the opening of Komm, Jesu, komm is startling: isolated pleas from the two choruses call out into a fearful silence. A dialogue flows out of their cries, and the two groups alternate with a regularity that suggests nothing of the music's twisted harmonic journey. A single, lonely chromatic line, "Die saure Weg wird mir zu schwer" (The sour path becomes too difficult for me), builds through higher and higher imitations, and the arduous path grows knotted.
The music collapses in exasperation, and livelier music breaks in, "Komm, komm, ich will mich dir ergeben" (Come, come, I will myself to you yield). The newly optimistic tone clouds quickly, the counterpoint thickening so much that the individual lines become blurred. This tangled music releases into the motet's central section. With veiled joy, the two choruses swing through dozens of iterations of "du bist der rechte Weg, die Wahrheit and das Leben" (You are the true path, the truth and life), sometimes eagerly interrupting each, and other times, listening patiently. They join together, the hypnotic music swirls upward as if toward heaven, and the first part breathlessly closes.
The two choruses join for the last verse, a four-voice chorale. Because the soprano melody is not based on an existing chorale tune, its shape is as fluid as the other voice parts, and the four wind around each other in perfect interdependent freedom. The final measures, "der wahre Weg zum Leben," captivatingly spin out "Weg," and an image of Jesus as the true path emerges.
Arvo Pärt: Adam's Lament
Arvo Pärt wrote Adam's Lament on commission from the Cultural Capital Istanbul 2010 and the Cultural Capital Tallinn 2011. Pärt based the work on a meditation by the Russian Saint Siouan of Athos, using Adam to suggest common roots between Islam and Christianity. The first performance was given by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Vox Clamantis, and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the Estonian conductor Teinu Kaljuste. The single-movement Adam's Lament is twenty minutes long, and it is scored for four-part chorus, with frequent divisions, and string orchestra.
In the mid-1970's, Arvo Pärt's music began to enjoy a popularity almost unheard of in the classical world, appealing to a wide range of musicians and music-lovers—avant-garde enthusiasts, new-age lovers, and pop music icons. Its direct and serenely pristine surface attracts many, but the intricate interior gives his music lasting reward.
Some complex-sounding music doesn't hide its complexities—Elliott Carter's and J.S. Bach's compositions come to mind. There is simple-sounding music that, at its core, is just as plain—Erik Satie's may be classical music's most obvious example. There is also music that sounds involved, but in which little lies below the surface, like that of some minimalists. If there is simple-sounding music that is complex in its organization, Arvo Pärt's music that he calls "tintinnabuli" (bells) and refers to as "white light which contains all colours" would be the quintessential model. This music radiates a cool, dispassionate surface without displaying its elaborate and meticulous organization.
Arthur Lubow (The New York Times Magazine, October 15, 2010) wrote, "Critics of Pärt's work usually complain that it is ersatz and simple-minded. But unlike some so-called 'holy minimalists' (like Henryk Górecki and John Tavener) with whom he is unfairly grouped, Pärt composes by a process that is as rigorously systematic as anything propounded by Schoenberg. He is not an old-fashioned composer but a contemporary one. Without his having traveled through serial music, it is hard to imagine that he could have arrived at his method." Regardless of whether we understand or are curious about the music's inner workings, it is Pärt's deliberate, sometimes complex, and always reflective compositional process that radiates through his music.
In the past ten years, the sound of his music has broadened, reaching beyond that of works like Fratres, Tabula rasa, the John Passion, and Berliner Messe. The 4th Symphony (2008) and Adam's Lament, in particular, adopt enriched textures and a new dramatic energy, a change likely born of Pärt's increasing desire to let his music grapple with moral and social issues. Although Adam's Lament sounds freer than many of the works from the 1970s through the early 21st century, it is just as precisely organized, and his familiar sound remains: the intelligent silences, passages seeming to move and not to move, in essence, a sense of timelessness. The pitches, too, adhere to elaborate organization, and the words' syntax continues to determine much of the rhythm. But the large structure of Adam's Lament has a classical shape, a dramatic design inspired by the text: a surging introduction, an extended and multi-faceted exposition, a breathless center, a ferocious climax, and a coda that starts in darkness, rises in a cry, and retreats in prayer.
Adam's Lament is based on a text by the Eastern Orthodox ascetic Saint Silouan of Athos (1866-1938), a monk of Russian heritage whose writings have fascinated Pärt for decades. Silouan's meditation on Adam captured Pärt's imagination in the 1970s, but his attempt to set the entire text overwhelmed him, and he set it aside. He returned to it in 2009, using only the first fifth of the text and focusing on Adam as Everyman. Pärt wrote, "For me, the name Adam is a collective term not merely for the whole of humanity, but for each individual, regardless of time, era, social class or religious affiliation. And this collective Adam has suffered and lamented on this earth for millennia. Our ancestor Adam foresaw the human tragedy that was to come and experienced it as his own guilty responsibility, the result of his sinful act. He suffered all the cataclysms of humanity into the depths of desperation, inconsolable in his agony."
J.S. Bach: "Lutheran" Mass in A major
Bach composed at least four missae breve, called "Lutheran" masses because they include only the Kyrie and Gloria. A very large number of the movements in the extant four are parody movements—reworking of earlier music, usually cantata movements—and there has been a tendency to dismiss the short masses as minor works. But the realization that much of his Mass in B minor is also based on older music has led to a re-evaluation of these works, and they are recognized as marvelous works in their own right. The Mass in A major is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, four-part chorus, strings, basso continuo, and two flutes that—absent the sharper sounding oboes—give the music its unusual color.
All but the Kyrie and Domine Deus of the A Major Mass can be traced to earlier sources, and even the latter is likely to have its origin in another work. Some details that were tied to the original German texts are softened in Bach's Latin re-workings, but this endearing Mass is filled with detail, joy, and delight.
The Qui tollis, at the heart of the Mass, is one of the most amazing transformations of earlier material. The original is from Cantata BWV 179, Seihe zu, daB deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (See to it that thy fear of God be not hypocrisy, and do not serve God with a double heart!), a soprano aria with dark oboes da caccia and basso continuo, gorgeously burnished music that is intimately tied to its weary text. In the A major Mass, this music remains a soprano aria, but the is raised from A minor to B minor, details in the vocal line are reshaped for the new text, the bass line is replaced by unison violas and violins, the keyboard is eliminated altogether, and the dark oboes become two flutes in a higher register. The cantata's sinuous aria had pulled the soprano toward earth; the Qui tollis, with its flutes and bass line perched high, lifts the soprano upward, as if the soul were already free of its earthly bonds.
The opening Kyrie dances with a gently stylized elegance, reminiscent of a minuet from his French suites. In the Christe, an unusual ensemble recitative, the solo voices, capped by the flutes, enter one by one in florid imitation. Their warbling gathers and launches into the second Kyrie, a rushing choral fugue in which the voices enter in the same ascending order as in the Christe: bass, tenor, alto, soprano, flute. The fugue quickly runs into a wall, and the first part of the Mass closes in austere formality.
The beginning of the Gloria is a schizophrenic marvel, switching abruptly between giddy exclamations of the entire ensemble and contemplative music for solo voices and flutes. Each tutti section has a slightly different manic character: bracing, virtuosic, stern and, finally, laughing. The slower tempo of the solo sections returns at the end, but now the entire ensemble fills out the music with Purcell-like radiance. A comparison of this music with its source, the bass aria from Cantata BWV 67, "Halt im Gedachtnis Jesum Christ, der auferstanden ist von den Toten" (Remember that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead), makes vivid Bach's endless musical-theological imagination.
The Domine Deus, for bass, violin and basso continuo, has a soft virtuosity, its falling gestures lending the extroverted music a thoughtful warmth. At the center of the Gloria rests the quietly hovering Qui tolls. The Quoniam, music drawn from Cantata BWV 79, dances gently, and it is worlds away from the regal setting of the same text in the B minor Mass. After a declamatory introduction, the Cum Sancto Spiritu, a reworking of the first movement of Cantata BWV 136, swings with captivating light-footedness, and it gracefully twitters to the end.