Friday, June 1, 2007

Bach in Leipzig

On this day in 1723, J.S. Bach was introduced to his new students at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig. His first official day was May 30, the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday, and one of Bach’s cantatas was sung in the service. At the time Bach took up his post as cantor, the St. Thomas Choir already had a Protestant tradition spanning a hundred and seventy years. Bach’s position was a combination of school teacher and church musician and he remained in this post until his death in 1750.

Bach first few years in Leipzig were marked by a prodigious outpouring of music for the service of the church. In a period of about thirty months, Bach wrote almost one hundred and fifty church cantatas. At the very least, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions were products of his first four years. Other music written during these years included motets, choral movements from the Mass, and the Easter Oratorio.

As Robin Leaver explains, the texts of the cantatas were closely associated with the hymn of the day, the Gospel of the day, the exposition of the Gospel in the sermon and the confession of faith in Luther’s creedal hymn. The texts themselves consisted of Bible verses and passages, stanzas from hymns, and religious poetry, all designed to highlight and illustrate a theme from Scripture.

Bach wrote the music of the cantatas to reflect the various texts and to provide a musical illustration of the theological content of the words. These were intended as musical sermons to edify the congregation and to bring glory to God through the proclamation of truth. The text generally opens with a passage from the prescribed Gospel lesson as a point for departure and is sung by the full choir. Explanations of the passage in the form of other scripture references, doctrinal statements, or elements of the original text are conveyed through recitative (short, declamatory sections) and aria (lyrical movements for solo or duet). As Bach scholar Christoph Wolff wrote. the “considerations of the consequences to be drawn from the lesson and the admonition to conduct a true Christian life” is also expressed through recitative and aria. The cantata concludes with the use of a hymn stanza which acts as a corporate prayer with the congregation joining in with the singing.


Austin Bob said...

Great timing ... I suppose you know about the Bach festival in Leipzig over the next two weeks or so? I hope you reply smuggly that you are there!

Evan said...

Bach cantatas, oratorios, etc. were obviously religious, but what isn't so obvious is that Bach plumbed spiritual themes even in his instrumental music. "Bach and the Dance of God" by the late English musicologist Wilfred Mellers examines his cello suite #1 and another piece and demonstrates the themes Bach communicated with clear intention. His educated listeners of the day heard the unspoken message and understood.
The theory behind this is too thick for me to wrap my fingers around, but I learned that Bach communicated the gospel in instrumental music deliberately and with clarity.