Born into a family of renowned Québécois musicians, Geneviève Soly was eight years old when she realised that she was going to be a performer. This revelation came while she was listening to an LP [...]
They spoke about it
“His profound understanding of all the elements of musical science and particularly his grasp of sacred music, a field in which he was unequalled, ensure that his reputation will remain immortal, just as his great qualities of heart are such that all those who knew him will never forget him.”
From Graupner’s obituary in the Hamburger Relations-Courier, May 29, 1760.
THE SEVEN LAST WORDS OF CHRIST
CHRISTOPH GRAUPNER (1683-1760)
It is with great emotion and pride that Les Idées heureuses presents the recording of this cycle, composed and performed in 1743. It would seem that this music was never heard again until we performed it in March 2005 in Montreal. We hope that listeners will approach it with a sensitive ear, in the spirit of discovery. In order to enjoy it and appreciate its rightful value, we must first relinquish the expectation that we are about to hear something resembling one of Bach’s Passions.
The two Passions by the Cantor of Leipzig are dramatic retellings of the final hours of the life of Jesus, with a host of characters appearing throughout the Evangelist’s animated continuous narrative. In contrast, Graupner’s cantata cycles are a series of discrete meditations on themes evoked by the last words spoken by the crucified Christ.
The available resources and the context of performance were also vastly different. Bach was writing for the large congregation of the principal church of a major city and had at his disposal a considerable number of instrumentalists, vocal soloists and choristers. In his organ loft at the chapel of the castle of Darmstadt, Graupner would gather approximately twenty instrumentalists and a few singers who were often the soloists. The modestly sized chapel held an audience of about 130 people.
It must be emphasized that the musical universes of these two masters were quite distinct. Even though Graupner (1683 – 1760) and Bach (1685 – 1750) were contemporaries, they were very different composers. Graupner was well known in his day as a highly skilled contrapuntalist, but the cantatas which we will hear do not make use of this technique, whereas many movements of Bach’s cantatas are contrapuntal. Bach marks the culmination of the baroque style, while Graupner is already engaged, at 60 years of age, on the path which leads to Empfindsamkeit, the “sensitive style” of the late 18th century.
So we must not expect monumental architectural structures, but rather lend an ear to an extremely original, spontaneous and subtle language, where art conceals art, which can touch us even more deeply because it seems to renounce science and artifice in order to do so.
The Cantata in Graupner’s Works
Christoph Graupner’s church music, which represents nearly three quarters of his total output, is a monumental corpus of 1418 cantatas. The autograph manuscripts, which fortunately survived bombing in 1944, are still today preserved at the castle of Darmstadt in the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt (university and regional library). Among these cantatas, there are two cycles for Passiontide: the 1741 cycle of ten cantatas, and the cycle recorded here, dating from 1743, of seven cantatas based on the Seven Last Words of Christ.
Graupner’s cantatas are in a form prevalent in the 18th century, a form which we know from the cantatas of Bach, from which they differ, however, as they very rarely include choral movements. This form, which had evolved over time, combines various elements from earlier periods. The musical setting of biblical verses, or dictum, has its origins in the Middle Ages. The orders of service which were developed by Luther give pride of place to the chorale, a hymn whose words and music were familiar to the assembled worshippers. Luther believed that “He who sings, prays twice.” At the beginning of the 18th century, the poet Erdmann Neumeister created sacred cantata texts inspired by opera and secular cantatas, in which there is an alternation of recitatives and arias. The recitative narrates and comments on the events, whereas the aria conveys a state of the soul or a conflict of the affects. These various elements – dictum, aria, recitative, and chorale are all combined in a prescribed order in the cantatas on the Seven Last Words of Christ.
The Seven Last Words and the Liturgical Calendar
The Passion of Jesus and the liturgy of Holy Week have inspired many composers from the Renaissance onwards. Numerous masterpieces were written for this time of the church year, particularly in Germany: Passions, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Leçons des ténèbres, The Seven Wounds of Christ, The Seven Last Words of Christ. The central place accorded by Lutherans to the mystery of the Cross fostered composition in these genres, creating a tradition practiced by Schütz, Buxtehude, Sebastiani, J.S. Bach, Telemann and Graun, to name just a few composers.
The biblical Evangelists recorded seven words spoken by the crucified Jesus just before his death. Each cantata of the present cycle is a meditation on one of these words. The author of the poems, Johann Conrad Lichtenberg, and Graupner, who incidentally was his brother-in-law, had the six Sundays in Lent as well as Good Friday to perform each of the seven cantatas. For some unknown reason they did not perform a cantata on Palm Sunday, perhaps because it was customary to present the Passion on that day. Instead, they performed the sixth cantata on Maundy Thursday.
Even though they were to be sung over a period of six weeks, the cantatas constitute an organic unit, which is particularly evident by their structural similarity. Each contains six movements in a set order: three recitative/aria alternations, with the final aria being replaced by the chorale. The first recitative states the dictum, the Biblical text with its envelope. The relevant word of Christ is presented, with an introduction or a commentary, and on occasion a short fragment of dialogue. Musically this movement is a recitativo accompagnato, or accompanied recitative, where the voice is not only supported by the continuo section (as in the recitative secco), but also accompanied by melodic instruments. When the aria is attributed to the tenor voice, it can sometimes take the form of a tenor/alto duet. The cantata structure is as follows: dictum – aria – recitative – aria (sometimes as a duet) – recitative – chorale.
With the chorale, the poet and composer explicitly grounded themselves in church tradition, making use of words and melodies which the Lutheran faithful had sung for generations.
Graupner harmonized the chorale melodies in a transparent style for three or four sung voices and superimposed an independent, frequently virtuosic, violin part. The very last chorale is beautifully crafted: a passionate arioso sung by the alto soloist precedes each phrase of the traditional hymn harmonized for four voices.
The attribution of the arias to the various solo voices is the same in the first five cantatas: after the dictum comes the tenor aria(or tenor/alto duet), then a recitative and aria for bass, and then a tenor recitative before the chorale. The seventh cantata differs only in that the first aria is given to the soprano. The sixth cantata is particular in that the roles of the tenor and bass are reversed.
The musical sources for the Seven Last Words are the autograph score and a set of separate parts for each musician. The parts were written out by professional copyists at the time the work was composed. The title of each cantata, (that is, in common practice, its incipit) is written in Graupner’s hand, in meticulous calligraphy on the paper envelope of the manuscripts. Graupner always took care to add various details:
– Its place in the liturgical calendar
– In the present case, the words “First [or Second, or Third, etc. ] Word” and a description of the theme of the cantata. This “argument” was doubtless formulated by the theologian-poet himself, and it is provided in the booklet under the title of each cantata.
– The letters I.N.I. (In nomine Iesu) and the date, which for the cantatas of this cycle would have been February, March or April 1743.
© Geneviève Soly, 9 janvier 2012 & Raymond Joly, 2005 and 2006
Translation: Ariane Dind