Most – or all – of Bach’s motets were written as memorials to the recently departed, but the radiant, brilliant, almost celebratory quality of many of them seems to belie anything funereal. The Lutheran idea of death as a release from the pains and difficulties of life’s suffering is more easily understood when we examine the lives of those in times, places, or situations other than our own. The 18th-century perspective on death must surely have been affected by the frequency with which it was confronted. Bach himself buried more than ten of his children.
Conventions of the time likely would have called for instrumental doubling of all the choral parts. While perhaps in some ways supportive, the doubling can obscure the text and constrain the flexibility of the singers. Our choice is for continuo accompaniment alone (violoncello, bass and chamber organ).
Some of the motets, like Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229, are more obviously funereal - at least by modern standards. The words are taken from an eleven-verse sacred song by Johann Shelle, former Thomaskantor, with text by Paul Thymich. A striking biblical reference ends the first stanza, John 14:6 – 'I am the way, the truth and the life' – affirming Jesus as the gateway to God. By far, the largest portion of the motet is devoted to these two lines of text: The listener is cradled in a seemingly endless string of gorgeous suspensions underpinned by lilting eighth notes in six-eight time. The effect is hypnotic, all the more surprising given the brevity with which the earlier text is dispatched – one doesn't want it to end. The motet opens with a pleading, almost stuttering, 'Come, come, come', gaining in confidence as the two choirs trade the phrases. 'Der saure Weg' [the sour path] is musically depicted by a half step followed by a plummeting diminished seventh - introduced contrapuntally beginning with the basses of the second choir. The second stanza is set in simple chorale style. Even so, there is some beautiful text painting: the sustained chord on 'bleibt' [remains] and the two-bar melisma on 'Weg' [path] - Bach's way, perhaps, of reminding us of the thematic importance of these last two lines of text. Craig Smith felt that this was “a melancholy, rather than a sad work.” While the motets have their inward-looking moments, taken as a whole, Komm, Jesu, komm is surely the most personal.
The two A major settings of “Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier” are found in the Orgelbüchlein, a collection which contains chorale preludes for many seasons of the liturgical year. Bach shows himself to be a master at his craft, for the melody lines in both are composed as canons at the fifth, not an easy accomplishment. Both works are ornamented melody settings in five voices (two for the melody in the right hand, and three as the accompaniment in the left hand and pedal). The first setting is somewhat more ornate than the second, but both have a restful and soothing aura, and go well together. Craig Smith counted these two gems among his favorites in the organ repertoire.
Bach's double-chorus setting of Fürchte dich nicht, BWV 228, has a curious shape and is perhaps the least accessible. The chosen texts, two extractions from the book of Isaiah, seek to reassure, though the rather obsessive repetitions throughout the piece suggest that the listener may need some convincing. From the start, there is quick interplay between choruses, often overlapping and reversing directions. The third line of text 'Ich stärke Dich' [I strengthen you] awes rather than comforts with flamboyant solo outbursts surrounded by massive diminished chords from both choruses. The double fugue that follows is almost ungainly in scale. It takes the form of a chorale-prelude (with the chorale tune in the sopranos) and the decision to set two verses of the chorale partially explains its length. The obsessive chromaticism of the lower three parts becomes almost dizzying; the fragmented chorale tune seems hard-pressed to maintain its integrity. The piece ends abruptly with just a few bars of the opening material - again, in sharp contrast to the grandeur of what precedes it - all in all, somewhat unsettling.
The words of the first part of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226, come from the longest of the Pauline Epistles, Romans. One of Paul’s themes stresses the insignificance of worldly suffering when contrasted with salvation though faith in Christ. The motet was hastily composed in October of 1729. There is evidence that parts of the piece may have been adapted from previous material. More surprising is the suggestion that the motet may have been conceived as purely biblical - the closing chorale (with a text by Luther) intended for a different part of the burial service. Whatever the case, this chorale seems to have been lifted from another piece – perhaps a lost cantata – and transposed (from its usual key of G major) up a third to B-flat major. It is impossible to imagine this piece without its closing chorale. It is one of Bach’s most ravishing harmonizations and fits the tone of the motet perfectly. Of all the motets Der Geist hilft is the lightest and most gracious. The piece opens with feathery cascades of sixteenth notes on the word ‘Geist’[Spirit] that seem intended to surround the listener with the comfort and aid of the ‘Spirit’. Written for double choir, Bach exploits the antiphonal possibilities to both dramatic and virtuosic effect. The tentative and insecure quality of the second line of text, ‘For we do not know what we should pray,’ is beautifully captured in the staggered entrances of each choir. As the text becomes more confident and affirming, the two choirs become less independent. In the final fugue, Bach dispenses with the double choir idea altogether, bringing the piece solidly down to earth for the first time.
Komm, heiliger Geist is the first chorale prelude in the Leipzig Chorales, another of the great chorale prelude collections. Unlike the Orgelbüchlein or the Clavierübung collections, the Leipzig chorales do not follow a particular liturgical order, but are collections of one, two or three settings of different chorales. This setting of Komm, heiliger Geist is written for organo pleno (full organ) and is in the form of a chorale fantasia, with the melody appearing in long notes in the pedals. The manuals show almost constant sixteenth note motion, with arpeggiated motives heard throughout the work. There are two settings of this great chorale in this collection. The second is a rather sedate setting; this first is a rush of wind and fire.
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225, is one of the most ambitious of the motets. Constructed like a three-movement concerto for double chorus, it demands 'instrumental' virtuosity of the singers. The outer movements are settings of familiar psalm texts; the middle movement is an ingenious synthesis of a chorale and freely set contrasting text. The first movement unfolds on an exceptionally grand scale. Countless repetitions of the word 'Singet' [sing!] in one choir are embellished with playful motives by the other in quick succession. The effect is of an endless joyous echo - regardless of the acoustic! Bach then clears the texture, allowing each chorus to stand alone for the second line of text. The enormous fugue central to the movement has an interesting form: It begins with the sopranos of chorus I and works its way down to the basses [SATB]. The basses of chorus II join their colleagues and the fugue works its way back up [BTAS] gathering the singers of chorus I along with it. One more downward sequence follows with decorative melismas on the word 'Reihen' [dance]. After such dazzling counterpoint, the relative simplicity of the second movement is welcome. The beautifully harmonized chorale (‘Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren’, verse 3) sung by chorus II seems almost childlike. Each phrase of the chorale is interspersed between contrasting texts sung by the first chorus (today, a quartet of soloists). The last movement – in two parts – opens with a robust declamation of the text 'Lobet den Herrn' [Praise the Lord]. The writing for the two choruses is purely antiphonal and much less integrated and complex then that of the first movement. The way is cleared for a brilliant four-voiced fugue on the last two lines of text to conclude the motet. Here again, Bach dispenses with the double chorus altogether and both choirs sing as one.
Lobet dem Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230, is perhaps the most mysterious in terms of its date and occasion of composition. It is certainly good enough to have been composed by Bach which makes the argument against its authenticity less compelling. The text comes from Psalm 117:1-2. It is the only motet set for four voice parts and an independent continuo line. Typically, each line of text is treated in a unique and colorful way (though perhaps less strikingly than in some of the other motets). The opening text is trumpeted out in an impressive fugue starting with the sopranos and working its way down to the basses. Billowing roulades on the word 'preiset ihn' (praise Him) soften up the edges a bit and one has to listen carefully for the sneaky reappearance of the opening line of text buried in the lower three voices. For the third and fourth line of text, Bach chooses first to set them as supple homophony, giving way to a gracious fugal writing. An infectious, dancing Alleluia concludes the motet.
The fantasia on the chorale “Jesu, meine Freude” is for manuals alone, and is in two sections, corresponding to the two parts of the text – “Jesu, my joy” and the gentler “Lamb of God, my bridegroom.” The first section feels like a three part invention, with the chorale melody tucked in with the counterpoint. The melody does not appear consistently in any one voice, but moves from the soprano to the tenor, bass, tenor, bass, and back to the soprano to end the first section. At this point there is a meter change from a lively common time to a gentler, more pastoral 3/8. Interestingly, the second half of the chorale melody does not appear in this section, but it is left to the “Geist” of the music to portray the shift in mood of the text.
The textual design of Bach’s longest and most complex motet, Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, is impressive and unusual in its own right. All six verses of the chorale text are set, interspersed by several verses from Romans (forming an eleven movement set of chorale variations). It is the transformative quality of these verses that seem best to explain Bach’s structural framework of the piece which is virtually palindromic: the second movement of the motet speaks of those who are ‘in Christ’, whereas the next to last movement turns the idea around referring to the Spirit of Christ dwelling ‘in you’. Much of the same musical material is utilized in both verses. Other mirror images abound. The work opens and closes with a simple four-part setting of the chorale. The fourth movement is a trio for high voices, the fourth to last, a trio for low voices. The centerpiece is a fugue of exquisite tenderness and lyricism. It is an exhaustive exploration of this particular chorale tune, the reason, Craig Smith suggested, for his never returning to that tune again – as if there was no more to say.
It has been almost a year and a half since Craig Smith made his way down to Emmanuel Church for his last Saturday morning rehearsal. The piece was Jesu meine Freude and he was too weak to conduct the next morning's performance which was led by John Harbison. Craig died a few days later on November 14, 2007. He loved these pieces but performed them infrequently out of a healthy respect for their difficulty. It seemed just right to conclude a season dedicated to his legacy with Jesu, meine Freude. Craig is on our minds constantly as we stay closely connected to the music he loved. With this concert we say lovingly – and I must credit choir member Jaylyn Olivo's beautiful tribute to Craig – Gute Nacht.
-Michael Beattie and Nancy Granert