Saturday, August 25, 4:00 P.M.
Sunday, August 26, 4:00 P.M.
Works of J.S. Bach and James Primosch
ProgramCantata BWV 158: Der Friede sei mit dir (1713-17/1727) Johann Sebastian Bach Three Chorale Preludes (arr. strings): BWV 659a, 671, 681 Bach Holy the Firm (excerpts): James Primosch III. The Ladder of Divine Ascent IV. Cinder From Psalm 116 (1995) Primosch A Catskill Eagle (2018) Primosch Two Cantata Arias: BWV 57 & BWV 73 (1724-25) Bach Cantata BWV 58: Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid II (1727/1733-34) Bach
Writings about Bach have often discussed Bach’s reasons for devoting so much of his compositional time to writing cantatas. Especially in our secular age it is often said that it was his job, and certainly in his first positions (1703-1714, Arnstadt and Mülhausen) and his last (1723-1750, Leipzig) it was a formal part of his duties. But we notice that in both those periods he went very far beyond what was required ‐ producing so much more music, unprecedented in scale and variety, so much more engaged therein than any of his predecessors or contemporaries ‐ that we conclude that it was above all an opportunity, a chance to engage all his skills. He finds place there for hymn harmonizations, symphonic hymn-based fantasies (chorale preludes), fugues, inventions, puzzle pieces, concerti for voice or instrument, opera-like arias, speech-like narrative segments (recitative and arioso), and all manner of tropes from the instrumental world. There is no formal or fantastical musical idea that Bach cannot use in his cantata vocabulary and, to his probable satisfaction, the texts are high stakes. Bach needed to deal with the large sacred subjects: sin and redemption, doubt and belief, life’s pleasures and temptations, and the mystery of the afterlife. Taking advantage of the likelihood that the only stories his audience truly knew involved the central Biblical narratives, he could start in the story, move immediately to the crucial points, tell and retell the birth and death of the Savior from every angle, and expect that the listeners shared with him at least a starting point, available in their weekly Bible readings in church, in the paintings on the walls, in the hymns they sang, and then heard transformed and embedded in the music Bach wrote.
Critics lament that Bach never wrote an opera. Where would he have found subjects impenetrable, intractable enough for his ambitions? Bach was a composer of the news from the four Gospel writers and, less often, the letters of St. Paul. Unlike Handel, who found the sweep and the tone for many of the giant epics from the Hebrew Scripture, Bach needed to hew to his central subject: the drama, uncertainty, yearning, and hope within the human soul.
It is not surprising to find him creating cantata opportunities for himself within his earliest jobs. His uncles, cantata composers, led the way, but could they ever have imagined where he was going with their lead? Bach had the great fortune to know about, and eventually know, the only composer of the previous generation who could show him the highest path, challenge him, as a young man, with the most elevated artistic ideals. It is a channeling of Dietrich Buxtehude that produces the miracle of Bach’s Actus Tragicus, BWV106, in 1706, so far beyond anything he had produced at the time in any medium, remaining so for a number of years. It was in that piece that Bach envisioned a new role for the signifying chorale, invading an aria with its verbal meaning, sung or not. It is in that piece that he discovered an uncanny way of prolonging a unifying rhythmic pulse disguised by many foreground figurations ‐ surface variety over a hidden heartbeat.
Our opening concert begins with a piece whose origin is widely disputed, often described, since it comes down to us from a number of sources, as a group of assembled scraps. Since many have had at it, I will offer my own guesses. It seems to me be the last half of a cantata. From whatever origins it is very lucidly assembled, and every moment is at Bach’s best level. The last line of the bass aria (a chorale prelude with texted soprano) sounds exactly like the poetic voice of Bach’s Weimar poet Salamo Franck, and the aria itself resembles some of the florid organ preludes of Bach’s years in Weimar. The two recitatives quote bits of the G major aria, which itself feels a constant gravitational pull, often at surprising moments, toward E minor, the key of the final chorale. The cantata presents an extremely unified eleven minutes, and it has the mysterious glow of the pieces of the Weimar sojourn ‐ infrequent but highly distinctive cantatas each with their own character.
In this piece and in the final cantata on the program, BWV 58, we notice a quality most often associated with Mozart, the presence of two simultaneous emotional colors, often described as a bitter-sweet moment, more precisely an undermining or questioning of the predominant affect. Bach is attracted to texts that afford such opportunities, and in 58, a cantata for the Flight into Egypt story, he and his librettist arrange for the post-Christmas glow, the consolation of the miracle birth, to be constantly darkened by the situation of the Holy Family. They are homeless, Herod has killed all the first-born males to snuff out any possible rival, and the family is on the run, hiding out. And so we hear twice the voice of Mary singing a lament-chorale, against the insistent upbeat interjections of the bass (Joseph, or an angelic supporter or a future mature Jesus?). But in the middle of these two shining C major chorale preludes is placed the most expressive of all of Bach’s violin arias, in which Mary, knowing she should at least be grateful for her momentary escape, says she must be satisfied in her sufferings, claiming nothing can shake her resolve, but still undermined and rendered fragile by every phrase she and the violin sing. Only in her brief seraphic vision after her aria is there a release into the continuation of her voyage.
Cantata arias without their context are dangerously misleading, and nothing but an account of all that surrounds them can help repair the situation, but it is worth remarking that the Cantata 57 soprano aria is for the second day of Christmas: it is one of the most soul-searching, self-examining of cantatas, typical of Bach’s characteristic tendency to approach the big church holidays from a slant. In the bass aria from BWV 73, the compassionate, inevitable accepting of God’s will hardly dissipates the fierceness of the cantata’s first chorus, stern and frightening ‐ God’s will as a force triumphant.
James Primosch is a composer of vocal music of every kind: lieder, cantata, motet, and large-scale oratorio. Like the best vocal composers, he finds the texts that will stretch and challenge him, hence his long and fruitful association with Susan Stewart, a major poet who has on occasion written texts especially for his setting, and whose very concise and vivid poems match in every way the composer’s vocal imagination. All composers of vocal music know when they have words which take them to the right places, and Primosch’s compositional journey has found, over and over, the right partners. Our program includes two of his pieces already widely performed by many of our finest singers, as well as more recent work.