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JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750)
Motet No. 1, "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" ("Sing Unto the Lord a New Song"), BWV 225 (1726–27)
"This is really something from which one can learn a great deal!" So exclaimed Mozart upon hearing Johann Sebastian Bach's exuberant first motet "Sing Unto the Lord a New Song" during a visit to Leipzig in 1789. We don't know exactly how many motets Bach composed, but we have six surviving ones that are recognized as authentic. The first of these — generally considered the greatest — is featured at these concerts. Most motets of the time were set to Latin texts and sung a capella, while Bach's were set to German texts with an instrumental accompaniment that doubled the voices. "Singet dem Herrn" is scored for double 4–part choir and is divided into three contrasting parts, almost like a "vocal concerto." The first and last movements are settings of texts from the Psalms; the middle movement is drawn from a chorale composed by Johann Gramann (1487–1581), a former rector of St. Thomas School, plus a new text for the aria by an unknown author. With Bach's genius on full display in the first movement, the two choruses engage in virtuosic antiphonal singing, tossing phrases back and forth in stunning, echoing cascades of notes. Things are calmer in the second, with one choir singing the chorale, and the other interweaving the lovely aria. In the final movement, Bach pulls out all the proverbial stops and ends the motet with a lightning–fast unison fugue for both choirs singing "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. Alleluja!" A bit of mystery still surrounds the function of Bach's motets. Five of the six were probably memorial pieces, but given its joyful subject, "Singet dem Herrn" may have celebrated New Year's or a royal birthday. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has put forth a different theory, namely that the motet served a didactic purpose, i.e., for use at St. Thomas School, where Bach wanted to teach the finer points of choral study and singing to the boys choir he directed.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809–1847)
Magnificat in D Major (1822)
Incredible as it may be, Felix Mendelssohn was just 13 years old when he composed his Magnificat, a setting of the Marian Canticle, his first major work for soloists, chorus, and full orchestra. The text is part of the core Christian liturgy and tells of Mary's joyous response when greeted by her cousin Elizabeth (carrying the future John the Baptist), for she too will bear a child in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. It was intended for performance at the home of the sophisticated Mendelssohn family at their Sunday musicales for the cultural elite of Berlin. Mendelssohn was already acquainted with Bach's music by virtue of being a member of the Berlin Singakademie choir, directed by Carl Friedrich Zelter, that included a good deal of Bach in its repertoire. Zelter was also Mendelssohn's composition teacher and curator of the school's library, where the young composer could study Bach scores and manuscripts, like the Magnificat. So it no surprise that Mendelssohn's work has a definite Bachian sound and feel. Like the Baroque master's Magnificat that opens this concert, Mendelssohn also uses the key of D Major, has solo passages alternate with choral ones, and, of course, sets the same Latin text: the Gospel of Luke 1: 46-55. The joy expressed in the opening chorus, "My Soul doth Magnify the Lord," is Baroque in conception and similar in scale to Bach's Magnificat. But Mendelssohn's music shows other influences as well, and foreshadows the early Romantic period in mellifluous verses like "For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden," scored for solo soprano, where a gorgeous melody floats sublimely above chorus and orchestra. These concerts offer a rare opportunity to hear a little–known gem by the teenage Mendelssohn, future creator of the revered oratorios St. Paul and Elijah.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Christus, Op. 97 (1847)
Felix Mendelssohn died far too young; he was just 38 when he succumbed to a series of strokes. One might rightly wonder what could have been, considering that while the former child prodigy was just a teen he had already composed 12 string symphonies, his sparkling Octet, and the Overture to A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Born into a prominent, intellectual Jewish family, his grandfather was the renowned philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, his father was the banker Abraham Mendelssohn, and their home regularly hosted the cultural, scientific, or otherwise-notable Who's Who of Europe. Yet in 1816, Felix and his siblings were baptized in the Lutheran faith. Mendelssohn was drawn to the music of J.S. Bach — a great Lutheran composer — and was responsible for bringing one of the master's iconic religious works, the St. Matthew Passion, back from oblivion. So it is no surprise that Mendelssohn himself intended to compose an oratorio trilogy. He completed St. Paul in 1836 and Elijah in 1846, but left unfinished at the time of his death, the final part of the triptych, Christus. The composer's brother Paul named the work Christus and published it posthumously in 1852, the year of its premiere. The fragments of the unfinished work, with a libretto compiled by J.F. von Bunsen and scored for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, tell the story of Christ's birth and passion. The first section begins with a serene tenor solo about the Nativity and the Wise Men from the East that merges into the chorus "There Shall a Star Arise Out of Jacob" and the hymn "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star." Only a series of recitatives alternating with powerful choral numbers (narrating the exchanges between Pontius Pilate and the people of Jerusalem) comprise Christ's Passion. And again we wonder what might have been, had Mendelssohn lived to complete this nascent masterpiece.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750)
Magnificat ("My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord") in D Major, BWV 243 (1732)
Johann Sebastian Bach moved to Leipzig in early 1723 to become cantor of St. Thomas School and Church, where his duties included directing a boys choir and musical activities at the local university, being music director of Leipzig's four main churches, playing organ, and composing music throughout the church year. This demanding position would be Bach's last. Determined to make his mark, he set himself an exceptionally ambitious goal: a new cantata for every Sunday and feast day of the ecclesiastical year (he finished at least three sets), plus other works. The sheer number of masterpieces he produced during his stellar Leipzig tenure is staggering, including the epic St. Matthew and St. John passions, the Christmas Oratorio, and the splendid Mass in B Minor, plus around 300 church cantatas for use at services. In 1723 he also created the Magnificat in E-flat (BWV 243a) for a Christmas performance, interpolating seasonal hymns in the traditional liturgical text, based on Luke 1:46-55. Ten years later, he reworked it for use at non-Christmas festive occasions of the ecclesiastical year, scoring it downward to D Major, where it lay more naturally for the trumpets of Bach's time and created a brighter sound, the present Magnificat, BWV 243. A "magnificat" is a canticle or hymn expressing Mary's joyous response when greeted by her cousin Elizabeth (the expectant mother of John the Baptist), for she too will bear a child in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. BWV 243 is scored on a grand scale for 5 soloists (2 sopranos, alto, tenor and bass), a 5-part mixed choir, and orchestra. Its 12 movements are divided into three sections: an opening chorus (the jubilant first word of the text, "Magnificat"), a glorious closing chorus ("Gloria Patri"), and ten internal movements. Bach employs solo arias, duets, trios, choruses, and orchestral forces from the smallest continuo grouping to majestic tutti forces to convey the text of this ecstatic, joyous work.