The Angels Around Us: Bach at Noon, April 10th

The first time I heard the full accompaniment to Cantata No. 130 was in the rehearsal before a Bach at Noon.  The work is based on the hymn tune, Old 100th¸ which most listeners will recognize as the doxology from many Protestant liturgies, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  The tune comes from John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter, whose metrical psalmody (or metered hymn settings of the psalms) worked its way to Bach’s liturgical neighborhood, and, thus, we have another example of the omnivorous nature of Bach’s musical appetite.  Back to that Bach at Noon:  Greg and the orchestra were running the first movement as the choir was arriving, and, I have to confess, I thought, “Oh dear, he’s going much too fast.”  I’d heard Tom Goeman burn through the piano reduction, which simplifies the many lines of counterpoint, but this was the first time I’d heard all of the orchestral parts, in all of their synchronicity.  This music is both dense, in a textual sense, and extremely fleet of foot.  But, that fast?

Yes, actually.  About halfway through, I was able to exhale as I noticed our orchestral colleagues tearing it up on their respective parts.  The accompaniment is, among other things, a perpetuum mobile –there are extremely zippy sixteenth notes flowing for its duration.  On top of this, there are white-knuckle dialogs and echoes between the winds, the trumpets, and the strings.  The whole thing is a churning, swirling musical contraption, much like the wheels of a clock that has been wound perhaps a little too tightly, and I hope you won’t think it hyperbolic for me to suggest that the whole thing could easily go spinning out of control (it won’t, though).  Did I mention that, at this point, I’m only talking about the instrumental parts?  The soprano section is the first of the vocal parts to enter the fun, blazing away on the melody as the lower three voices latch on to different parts of the counterpoint with melismas that occasionally double the instrumental writing, and sometimes fling off on their own.  After each line of the hymn, there are instrumental interpolations of varying lengths to flesh out the movement.  There’s a sort of rapture to this movement that seems almost Mozartean in its ecstatic joy, but it’s also recognizably Bach at the helm.

The liturgical occasion for which it was written is the Feast of St. Michael, the archangel, and the imaginative texts abound in angels.  In the first movement, described above, the singers thank God for the blessing of angels.  The second movement, a recitative for alto, reflects on the presence of angels as protectors of the faithful.  Next, and elaborate aria for bass, trumpets, and timpani, evokes, according to the late, great Craig Smith (of Emmanuel Music in Boston), “the wagging of the dragon’s tail,” in a battle with St. Michael.  A duet in recitative style for tenor and alto again praises the assistance of angels in the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, as well as in our daily life and work.  This is followed by a gallant tenor aria that requests a journey on Elijah’s chariot for the faithful on their return to heaven.   A beautiful, characteristically elegant harmonization of the tune concludes the piece with continued praise for the intercession of angels, and a request for their protection.  In contrast to the overflowing exuberance of the first movement, Bach adds descants of trumpets and timpani at the end of each of the phrases, a sturdy and noble way to conclude a most ebullient cantata.

Join us on April 10th, at the Central Moravian Church, in downtown Bethlehem for a concert of angelic and rhapsodic music, a perfect way to continue the joy of Easter Sunday, which will precede our Tuesday offering.  Also on offer is a sonata for cello and piano, by Beethoven, which will be performed by Greg Funfgeld and Loretta O’Sullivan.  The two are peerless in their Bach interpretations, and, last year, we heard their mastery of Beethoven’s music.  It’s going to be fantastic.  The doors open at 11:30, and the concert starts just after noon.

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