Program Notes

November 8th, 2014
Jordan Hall at NEC; David Hoose, conductor

Program:

J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 77, "Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben"
Elena Ruehr: Eve - World Premiere
J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 195, "Dem gerechten muss das Licht immer wieder aufgehen"

Notes by David Hoose and Elena Ruehr

Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata BWV 77, “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben”
Bach composed his cantata “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben” in 1723 during what is now referred to as his first Leipzig cycle. The cantata’s dimensions are unexceptional: an opening chorus, pairs of recitatives (bass and tenor) and arias (soprano and alto), and a chorale. The orchestra, too, is not unusual; two oboes, strings and a continuo group. Only the addition of a trumpet, probably a slide trumpet that was a kind of small trombone, is unusual.

Although Cantata 77’s large design is modest, there is nothing ordinary in its inventiveness and power, especially in the first chorus. Here Bach’s musical response to the text, Jesus’s answer to the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” shows him at the peak of his musical-theological imagination.

Jesus’s answer (Mark 10:27), “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself,” is set to patiently rising and overlapping lines, as if the teacher were calmly opening his arms and inviting all to listen. At first the music unfolds weightlessly, absent any bass foundation. The trumpet joins, intoning a Martin Luther chorale tune that Bach’s congregation would have easily recognized, “Die sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot” (These are the ten holy commandments). Almost immediately, the vocal basses enter, and before the other voices can join, the bass instruments appear in extremely long note values. The foundation moves so slowly that it takes a while to recognize that it is in canon (at the interval of the perfect fifth) with the trumpet chorale.

As the voices enter, the strings fold into them, but when the movement begins to open up, the violins rise above and free themselves from the voices, lifting our attention higher and higher. Although their wave-like material is not identical to the wordless chorale tune, it is intimately connected to its shapes, the relationship between the two mirroring the bond between Jesus’s answer and the original commandments that are the source of his reply.

Eventually, the trumpet emerges from the chorus and strings, ascending well above them, and we hear the two wordless chorale melodies—one high and bright, the other low and somber—not only as an acoustical frame that embraces the vulnerable voice lines, but also as the limits of heaven and earth. The canon (the word means “rule” or “law”) also reminds us of the background of Jesus’s answer. The trumpet appears nine times before, in the last measures, it repeats the complete chorale melody. With this tenth phrase, the numerological link to the commandments is confirmed.

I know of few pieces of music more difficult to evoke in words than this chorus. Eric Chafe’s thoughtful book, Analyzing Bach Cantatas, devotes a full sixty of its 250 pages to this one cantata, describing in considerable detail its theology, history and musical ideas. But nothing can approach the gleam of this complex music that, paradoxically, sounds quite clear and simple, or can adequately describe the overwhelming effect that the interweaving of the human and the eternal, the free and the strict, and the modern and the ancient has when we are in its midst.

The endearing soprano aria focuses on the connection between knowledge of God’s law and love for Him, as two oboes warble like a pair of lovebirds in graceful dance with the singer. An alto aria, with obbligato trumpet, turns to the frailty and imperfection of our humanness, the almost perversely difficult trumpet an exemplar of the impossibility of fully accomplishing God’s commandments. A simple chorale concludes. But its final phrase hangs richly in the air, incomplete, as if the reward of our effort reaches far beyond earth and toward eternal life.

—David Hoose

Elena Ruehr, Eve
Elena Ruehr composed Eve in 2014, on commission from Cantata Singers. A setting of verses from Genesis, this single-movement cantata includes solo soprano (the title role, though unnamed in the score), solo baritone (the serpent), chorus, and an orchestra mirroring that of Cantata BWV 195 that appears on the second half of this program: two flutes, two oboes, bassoon, three trumpets, organ, and strings. Only Bach’s timpani are absent.

When David Hoose asked me if I would be interested in writing a new work for Cantata Singers, I was deeply honored to be commissioned by a group that I so highly respected. Although it wasn’t a requirement, David suggested working with a spiritual or religious text. I decided that perhaps a cantata about Eve (from Genesis) would be a good idea, since her story had interested me since I was a teenager. And, after a little research, as far as I could tell, no famous cantatas had ever been composed about her. So I went back to the source—pulled out my King James, and re-read Genesis 3. What I found was an amazing cantata just waiting to be written.

For me, the most important part of the cantata’s text was where to stop. And, I chose to stop with the phrase—“and the eyes of them both were opened...”—before Eve is cast out of Eden. In this reading, the emphasis is on Eve’s choice to embrace knowledge even though God forbids it. In a sense she is choosing light over darkness, sight over blindness. It’s an astonishing idea.

In my cantata, I try to tell Eve’s story in a straightforward manner. References to older cantatas are abundant. For example, the use of soloists and chorus in counterpoint and the way the final line is developed in extended canonic treatment, makes reference to such great works as the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah, or any choral work that dwells on an idea or lesson.

The musical line for the final text “and the eyes of them both were opened” was written first and forms the basis of the harmonic material for the whole work (sung in moveable “Do” as “Sol-Ti-Do-Re-Mi,” the melody has notes of both the tonic and dominant harmonies). This five-note melody, which can fit squarely into a traditional harmonic minor scale, is used to imply the past, through standard melodic and harmonic usage. It is also used to generate harmonies that are more open than triadic harmony, as in the open perfect fifths contained in the root harmony forming the basis of the opening sound, or more complex and contemporary, as in the final chords that are based on the full five-note set. For instance, this main five-note set occurs as a kind of row when the serpent speaks for the second time. It also creates a simpler Eve when used as a group of two triads, and a more complex Eve when used as a five-note harmony, thus evoking the multiple interpretations of her character and actions.

My cantata opens with simplicity and stability, and it ends with a series of questions: are we better off out of the garden? Are we still experiencing the fall? Sometimes I think that the fall is still in progress, and that our own consciousness and knowledge are the true agents of our being cast out of the garden of earth. But my ending question might be the most relevant now: can we also be the agents of our own salvation? I sincerely hope so.

—Elena Ruehr

Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata BWV 195 “Dem Gerechten muß das Licht”
The first version of Bach’s wedding cantata “Dem Gerechten muß das Licht” dates from between 1727 and 1731, and is lost. Two later versions from over a decade later exist, although they are missing the cantata’s second half, music that would have followed the matrimonial ceremony.

The first half of Cantata 195 opens with a thrillingly elaborate chorus for vocal quartet, chorus, pairs of flutes and oboes, three trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo. A detailed recitative and a peasant-like aria, both for bass, follow. A sparkling recitative for soprano, flutes, oboes d’amore, and continuo then leads into a grand chorus that employs the same forces as the opening movement and closes the first part.

Instead of a typical multi-movement second half, we have only a single movement, a chorale that uses horns (not heard in the first half) and no trumpets (quite prominent in the first half). This is music that seems to have been taken from another source as a makeshift response to Bach’s impossible deadlines. However, there is evidence that an alto aria and a chorus from Cantata BWV 30, outfitted with different texts, made up the second half of the first version. All that is needed to complete the cantata is music for the text that would have been a recitative, likely for tenor, since the other voice parts have their own solo movements. The recitative in this performance of the full, two-part cantata, is therefore not by Bach, but by this music director, a fact that may be all too apparent.)

There are few choruses in all of Bach more involved, intricate and—at the same time—thrilling than the music that begins “Dem Gerechten muß das Licht.” The orchestra begins at a high pitch, and their exultation is met by excited exclamations of the chorus. They clear quickly, and a fugue is launched by the solo soprano. The chorus and orchestra quickly cut in again, and then the second fugal voice appears, now in the solo alto. This call and response between ensemble and soloists continues as the fugal entrances pass down through the solo quartet, soprano-alto-tenor-bass. Then, voice by voice, the full vocal ensemble joins the fray, their own statement of the fugue passing upward, bass-tenor-alto-soprano, and gradually enveloping the solo quartet. The clamor mounts and spills full tilt into a dancing, second fugue. Solo voices again lead, though their order is changed: first the tenor, then alto, soprano, and finally bass. Over the last voice’s statement, the solo trumpet pipes in, and then the chorus begins to join again, now rolling from the top voices to the bottom, soprano-alto-tenor-bass. The singers collect themselves for three unanimous shouts of thanks, each higher than the last, the orchestra scurries on, and the dance closes in joyous exhaustion.

The two recitatives in the first half of the cantata are unusually involved, the first with an undulating instrumental bass line (instead of the usual long-note harmonic foundation), and the second shot with fiery scales in the flutes. The aria between, for bass, oboes d’amore, strings (with flutes doubling the violins), and continuo, dances in a modern galant style, though Bach could never give in and write music as obvious as what was coming into vogue. Irregular phrase lengths, finely detailed interplay between the inner voices, and a scotch ‘snap’ of the rhythm all emphasize the “reger Freude” (lively joy) of the new union’s bliss.

Like the cantata’s opening music, the chorus closing Part One includes the full instrumental ensemble and separates the singers into quartet and ripieni. But the two movements could not be more different. Here, sweeping lines, crystalline textures, and vivid harmonic motion shine perfectly, never suggesting that Bach had imported the music from an earlier cantata and attached this text to it.

Part Two begins with one of Bach’s miracles, a sublime aria for alto, flute and muted first violins, often playing in unison, and steady pizzicati in the lower strings. Craig Smith wrote that “one can hardly think of another Bach aria that so profoundly illustrates a state of grace. The gentle dance rhythms are celestial and heavenly in their inexorable progress.” Smith is talking about the aria as it appears in Cantata BWV 30, but the magical spirit in this gentle gavotte remains intact, even though Bach fitted a new text to the music. One can imagine that this gently seductive music might have led to knowing smiles among the listeners. The final chorus, whose music is also borrowed from BWV 30, overflows with an infectious elation that equals and—perhaps—outshines the joy of the other choruses.

—David Hoose