PROGRAM NOTES – Bach and His Predecessors

Upon learning that Bach was influenced by the music of Vivaldi, the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright exclaimed that to his relief, Bach had climbed upon the shoulders of giants, whereas his own genius had been completely original, coming out of nothing.  Dubious though the second half of that that sentence may be, it is clear that Bach drew heavily from a wide variety of inspirations.  The clearest evidence that remains of Bach’s early education are two handwritten books of music by German composers such as Pachelbel and foreigners such as Lully that Bach’s eldest brother and first teacher had compiled. Later on in his life, Bach found his own models, copying collections by the renowned 17th century Roman composer, Girolamo Frescobaldi and arranging string concertos by Vivaldi for the organ.

The Germany of Bach’s time was at the time a variety of small states rules by princes, dukes and bishops in a web of alliances and under the influences of mettling empires.  This geographic and political maze erupted into warfare for most of the first half of the century.  In contrast to the marauding armies that marched across Europe, once the peace treaties had been signed, it was musicians who continued to traverse the continent, bringing with them new ideas from foreign lands.  The two most common destinations were France and Italy. German composers were sent to study with such masters as Claudio Monteverdi and Frescobaldi, and Italian musicians were imported into German courts bringing back with them the new developments in music drama.  Later on, it was the court of Louis the 14th that exerted a powerful influence, while not as militarily successful as the king might have wished, France dominated the musical style of Europe at the turn of the 18th century through the elegant dance music of composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully.

One of the earliest major figures to bring the modern theatrical style of Italy above the Alps was Heinrich Schütz, having been sent on several occasions to Venice in order to study with Giovanni Gabrieli and Monteverdi.  His opera, Dafne, is considered as the first German work of its’ kind, though unfortunately it is now lost.  Es steh Gott auf is in fact a reworking of two of Monteverdi’s madrigals, to which Schütz added a pair of violin parts and substituted sacred text rather than the original love poetry.

Georg Muffat truly embodied the cosmopolitan nature of his time.  He was born in the Kingdom of Savoy (now a part of France bordering Italy and Switzerland) to Scottish descendants.  He traveled to Paris to study with Lully, the reigning figure in French music, also spent time in Rome alongside Arcangelo Corelli and eventually settled in Vienna and Salzburg.  The result of the time that Muffat spent abroad can be seen in the division of his works into either French style suites made up of the fashionable dance such as the gavotte, bourée and passacaglia or Italian concerti grossi and keyboard toccatas.  The Ciaconna on this program shows both influences, the recurring main theme and elegantly lilting figures providing a French accent, while virtuoso runs recalling Italian violin music.  A singularly inspired moment occurs halfway through the piece as Muffat combines the syncopated rhythms of the Italian Ciaconna with the Rondeau theme of the French Chaconne.

Among the variety of anecdotes and myths surrounding the persona of Bach, there is the famous story that Bach took an extended leave from his first organist position in the small town of Arnstadt in order to visit the celebrated organist Dietrich Buxtehude, a few hundred miles away in Lübeck.  Buxtehude was also famous for the music program at the town’s main church, having expanded the Abendmusik, one of the first of a growing number of public concert series for the bourgeoning middle class. Bach himself would head such an endeavor, the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig many years later.  A basic feature of Buxtehude’s Abendmusik concerts was the creation of large-scale pieces similar to what we now call oratorios.  The music for these works no longer exists and we are left with only the libretto to gain a glimpse into how they may have sounded.  Among the slightly more than one hundred vocal works that do survive, there is one large cycle – Membra Jesu Nostri, a collection of seven cantatas based on medieval Latin poetry, each of which is a meditation on a separate part of the body of Jesus.  The visceral aspect of the text and the fact that much of the work incorporates sections from the biblical Song of Songs makes the entire cycle a very sensual work that blurs the lines between what we might now expect from religious music and love songs.

The two works by Bach included in this concert show his indebtedness to earlier repertoire.  Lobet den Herrn is one of a small number of Bach’s motets, vocal works that unlike the cantatas include no independent instrumental parts.  These highly contrapuntal pieces are very much like those composed by the numerous other members of the Bach clan of musicians.  Cantata 150 is perhaps his earliest surviving vocal work, probably written when he was about 22 years old.  It is unusual in that it is written for only two violins and bass without a viola or any high wind instruments such as oboes or flutes.  Unlike his later cantatas, but in the tradition of 17th century vocal works, it is composed of smaller sections rather than large distinct divisions of chorus, aria, recitative and chorale.  It shows a fascination with text painting, as earlier madrigals had done, using musical figures to vividly portray aspects of the text such as the running figures of the cello in the fifth section acting as the wind against the cedar trees.  The last section is a Ciaconna that is reminiscent of the style of Buxtehude, adding ever more complex figurations above a repeating bass line.  This section captured the imagination of Johannes Brahms a century later and would serve as the basis for the last movement of his Fourth Symphony.

- Avi Stein