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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Favourite Arias and Choruses (Muller-Bruhl)
Johann Sebastian Bach was an absolute master of all the musical forms of his time except opera, which he never had the opportunity to compose. Yet in his sacred vocal and choral music he fully assimilated the expressive potential of secular Baroque vocal music with his abiding respect for the music, both sacred and profane, of his predecessors. This disc, a representative selection of his sacred music, will appeal both to the experienced music lover and to those just beginning to discover Bach’s immortal music.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Favourite Arias and Choruses
Born in 1685 into a family of musicians, Johann Sebastian Bach was orphaned at a relatively early age,so that his education and training as a musician, which had started at his native Eisenach, fell, from 1695, to an older brother, Johann Christoph, organist at the Michaeliskirche in Ohrdruf. At the age of fifteen he moved to Lüneburg, perhaps on the recommendation of his master at the Klosterschule that he had attended in Ohrdruf. By the age of eighteen he had embarked on his professional career, first and briefly as a court musician in Weimar, before his appointment in August 1703 as organist at the Neuekirche in Arnstadt. In 1707 he took up the position of organist at Mühlhausen and married his first wife. The following year found him as organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar, elevated in 1714 to the position of concertmaster. In 1717, now with a growing reputation as an organist and as an expert on the instrument,matched by the size of his growing family, he moved, inspite of his employer’s active opposition, to the position of Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. This happy period, the social summit of Bach’s career, ended in 1723. The prince’s marriage to a woman who did not share her husband’s musical enthusiasm had led Bach to seek a position elsewhere,and this he found in his appointment as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. There, as an employee of the city council, he had responsibility for the music of the principal churches of the city, coupled with teaching duties in the choir school where he and his family had their quarters.He retained his place in Leipzig for the rest of his life,by 1730 able to find an additional field of musical activity in his work with the semi-professional university Collegium Musicum, an ensemble that was called on to provide music for a variety of occasions.The first years in Leipzig, however, brought the need to provide a regular supply of music for the church, and this he met by the composition of five annual cycles of cantatas for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran church year. The quantity of such compositions may seem unusual, until compared with that of other composers under a similar obligation.
The cantata, an Italian title seldom used by Bach himself, had come to play an important part in services of Sundays and feast days, performed before the lengthy sermon and usually related to the gospel of the day in its text in a service that would generally last some four hours. Bach’s earlier cantatas had been written at Weimar and in connection with his employment at Mühlhausen, but the greater part of the nearly two hundred surviving sacred cantatas belong to the first few years of Bach’s work in Leipzig. He embarked on his first cycle of cantatas in 1723, soon after his arrival in Leipzig, where he needed to make a good impression before employers with whom his relations were not always easy, in spite of his widely acknowledged musical distinction.
 The cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!, BWV 51, (Praise God in all lands!), written for the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, was probably performed in Leipzig on 17 September 1730 and is scored for soprano,trumpet, strings and basso continuo. Since in 1726 the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity had coincided with the Feast of St Michael, for which a special cantata had been written, there remained a gap in the third annual cycle,which the new cantata filled. The additional words Et in ogni tempo added by Bach to the subtitle of the work indicate its suitability, as a cantata in praise of God, for any season in the church year. It opens with the present C major aria, to which the trumpet adds further brilliance.
The Latin Mass had continued in use in the larger Lutheran churches of Germany, at least where Pietist changes had not taken root. By the time of Bach it was principally the Kyrie and Gloria that were retained. The Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B minor were written in1733, making some use of earlier material, and dedicated to the new Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II, when Bach visited Dresden, presenting at the same time a petition for a court title that might serve to protect him in Leipzig from some of the insults that he claimed he suffered in differences with the civic authorities. His request was not granted until 1736, after the death of a lesser patron, Duke Christian of Weissenfels, whom Bach had served as Kapellmeister von Haus aus, as he had from 1723 Prince Leopold. It is possible that the Kyrie and Gloria were performed in Dresden at the Sophienkirche, where Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s eldest son, had been appointed organist in 1733, or perhaps in Leipzig at the Thomaskirche to celebrate the accession of the new monarch. The remaining movements of the B minor Mass, the Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei,make considerable use of earlier works and were added to the original score of the Mass in the last years of the composer’s life, between 1747 and 1749.
 An atmosphere of mourning had been suggested in the Kyrie and this is dispelled by the celebratory Gloria in D major, with an instrumental ensemble that includes three trumpets and timpani and five-part choir,its source possibly a lost concerto.  It leads to an appropriately gentle setting of Et in terra pax (And on earth), initially without trumpets or timpani.  Qui sedes ad dextram Patris (Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father) is an alto aria, with oboe d’amore obbligato.
 The Benedictus opens as a tenor aria, with flute obbligato, its ritornello passages in a contrasted triple rhythm.  The Osanna, heard before with the Sanctus,is then repeated. It calls for a double chorus and is derived from Cantata BWV 215, Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen (Praise Thy Good Fortune, Blessed Saxony), a work written for the first anniversary of the election of Friedrich August II as August III, King of Poland, in 1734. This was an apt choice of music originally in praise of a secular monarch for praise of the King of Heaven, involving a full instrumental ensemble in which flutes are now included.
 The cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56, (I will willingly bear the cross), was written in1729 for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity. The opening bass aria is accompanied by two oboes, taille (tenor oboe), strings and continuo, with the melody of the bass soloist anticipated in the opening ritornello.
 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170, (Happy rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) was written in1726 for the sixth Sunday after Trinity. In the second and third arias in the cantata Bach uses the organ as an obbligato instrument, independent of the continuo group, but in the first, included here, the alto soloist is accompanied by oboe d’amore, strings and continuo.
Various forms of sung Passion were taken over by Martin Luther, from earlier Catholic practice and by the beginning of the eighteenth century German Lutherans had elaborated these earlier types of Passion. The form used by Bach was that of the oratorio Passion, as developed in North Germany in the middle of the seventeenth century. Here the biblical text is interrupted by meditative episodes, occasional instrumental passages and newly harmonized chorales.
Bach composed five Passion settings, of which those based on the Gospels of St Matthew and of St John survive. The St Matthew Passion in its full surviving version was first performed, according to then current Lutheran custom, on Good Friday, either in 1727 or in1729, and repeated with various revisions in 1736 and in1740. It is scored for two choirs and two orchestras, a division physically possible in the Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, where performances were first given. The final version of the work calls for flutes, oboes, oboe d’amore, cor anglais, bassoon, a string section including a viola da gamba, and organ continuo for both of the instrumental ensembles. The text is taken, in the first place, from the Gospel of St Matthew in the translation of Martin Luther. The narrative is sung by the Evangelist, a tenor, with the words of Christ, Peter,Judas and others allocated to different singers. In addition to the Biblical text there are recitatives and arias that offer reflection on the events of the Passion and chorales that allow the chorus to add its own more familiar meditation. The additional texts newly written for Bach are by Picander, the pseudonym of the Leipzig poet and civil servant Christian Friedrich Henrici. The whole work is in two parts, the first of these taking the narrative from the events leading up to the Last Supper,to Gethsemane and the betrayal of Christ. The second part, after a contralto aria, opens with Christ before the High Priest and goes on to St Peter’s denial of Christ, the attempt of Judas to repent and Christ before Pilate, his condemnation, scourging and crucifixion, ending as Pilate orders a watch to be kept on the sepulchre.
 The St Matthew Passion opens with a massive chorus, Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen (Come,you daughters, help me mourn), scored for double choir and double orchestra, with flutes, oboes, strings and continuo, and including the soprano or treble singing of O Lamm Gottes (O Lamb of God), heard above the whole.  The soprano da capo aria Ich will dir mein Herze schenken (I will give you my heart) is accompanied by two oboes d’amore and continuo, a meditation on the Last Supper and the words of Christ.  The chorus O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (Oman, lament your great sin), accompanied by flutes,oboes d’amore, strings and continuo, ends the first part of the work, following the description of the betrayal of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and the desertion of his disciples.  The alto aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott! (Have mercy, my God!) is scored for strings and continuo, with an obbligato solo violin, and follows St Peter’s denial of Christ.  The familiar hymn O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O sacred head sore wounded)follows the Evangelist’s description of the mocking of Christ by the soldiers.  The bass aria Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder (Give me my Jesus again), with strings,continuo and solo violin, is taken from slightly earlier in the narrative, after the suicide of Judas.  Flutes, oboes,strings and continuo, with double orchestra and chorus,are employed in the final chorus, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (We sit in tears).
The aria Ich habe genug, (I have enough), scored for solo bass voice, oboe, strings and continuo, opens the cantata of the same name, written for the Feast of the Purification in 1727, and later arranged alternatively for mezzo-soprano. It echoes the words of Simeon, holding in his arms the Christ child in the Temple, and now ready to leave the world.
The Agnus Dei of the Mass in B minor goes on to setting of Dona nobis pacem for four-part choir and full instrumental forces, using again music heard in the Gloria, a conclusion that some have found unsatisfactory, although the words on both occasions seem equally appropriate. This, one of the greatest of choral works, ends with both thanks to God and a prayer for peace.
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BACH, J.S.: Favourite Arias and Choruses (Muller-B...