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To people so oppressed, music simultaneously brought comfort, indispensable earthly pleasure, and the spiritual elevation to which they aspired.
Gilles Cantagrel

It was primarily thanks to music that the German-speaking countries were able to recover from the ordeal of the Thirty Years’ War. When this conflict finally ended, in 1648, their numbers had been cut in half. Continuing intimate contact with death and disaster gave more weight than ever to the Christian message: renounce life with all its vicissitudes, and hope for eternal happiness in the beyond. The art that most benefitted from this development was music; and because of the importance Luther accorded to the art of sound, this was particularly so amongst the Lutherans. Thus Johann Sebastian Bach arose as the heir to a rich tradition involving music and the concept of death as deliverance.

During the 17th century, Lutheran musicians produced a magnificent repertoire of sacred music. To do so, they borrowed forms developed and constantly refreshed by Italians, the first masters of Baroque music. German composers, however, adapted what they borrowed to their own language and outlook, carefully giving their works quite unique qualities of harmony, contrapuntal density, variety of form, and expressive power. Apart from a few rare Latin texts, the librettos of these works are in German. They are drawn, very freely, from the Bible, or from paraphrases or poetic commentaries written by pastors or theologians. Their subjects, sometimes illustrated by ingenious musical images, are: the confusion of the soul in a state of sin; the confident assurance of encountering Jesus in death, often associated with sleep; and the discord between this ‘vale of tears’ and eternal bliss praising and giving thanks to God.

Though the term ‘cantata’ seems normal to us, the German masters of the time, including Bach, rarely used it to designate their sacred vocal compositions. Only from 1710 on did church musicians adopt the model of the Italian secular cantata, with its succession of recitatives and da capo arias. Depending on the texts they were setting to music or their compositional techniques, they used names such as concerto, motetto, aria, dialogo, or Kirchenmusik to designate their works. Among these compositional techniques we find, sometimes in the same work, distinctive choral polyphony of the motet, accompanied monody, arioso, strophic air with ritornello, and ensembles of instruments and voices arranged in the most ingenious concertant style.

As well as the basso continuo, the accompaniment to these works was often for five voices: that is, for one or two violins with two or three inner voices assigned to violas or viols. Such a distribution gave to the works a dark coloration in keeping with their subjects. When instruments were called for they played essential roles, engaging in dialogue with the singers, commenting or amplifying their melodic motives, suggestively illustrating in musical terms certain words of the text, and clearly marking the end of sections of the work with ritornellos.

The new expressive role played by instruments in this period is particularly clear in a piece attributed to Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and entitled Harmonia a 5. It is scored for a solo violin accompanied, in very harmonic fashion and with surprising chromaticisms, by a second violin, two violas, and the basso continuo. This work is, in fact, a real instrumental aria; the soloist unfurls a melody that is quite vocal in nature, but with, in places, very rapid, violinistic passages, and thus anticipates, by a few decades, the concerto.

Dietrich Buxtehude, who spent his entire life as organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, left a major body of sacred works. His Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (Jesus, life of my life), a stropic aria for four voices, is a setting of a text by Ernst Christoph Hombourg that was included in the hymnal Geistliche Lieder  (Sacred Songs), published in 1659. The aria is built on a ground bass; it is as if the inexorably repeated motif is intended to hammer home in the believer’s mind its message: meditate on the sufferings of Christ and on what they mean, on atonement for sin and attainment of eternal life. After a short instrumental introduction, the voices combine freely, and each of the verses ends with the same expression of gratitude.

The most illustrious of Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical ancestors was his father’s cousin, Johann Christoph Bach. His strophic aria Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben (Now my life is ended), a setting of a text whose author remains unknown, is written for four voices. By using very spare melodies and refined harmonies, he created, in this work, a profound feeling of peace. Of particular note is the soprano’s leap of a ninth on the words Welt, gute Nacht  (Good Night, World) at the end of each verse, illustrating the farewell to which the believer aspires.

Though it is almost impossible to date most of this repertoire, we are fairly sure that Johann Kuhnau wrote his cantata Gott, sei mir gnädig nach diener Güte (God, be gracious to me in your goodness) in 1705. A setting of several verses of Psalm 50 (Miserere), the work is conceived as a cantata divided into separate sections. For the sake of contrast, choruses — sometimes syllabic, sometimes fugal — follow each other in rapid succession, along with airs that have little development — they are often close to ariosos in form — while the orchestra repeats the motifs of the vocal parts.

Nicolaus Bruhns, Buxtehude’s most gifted student, died at the age of 32. His cantata Ich liege und schlafe mit Frieden (I am laying and sleeping in peace) also evokes the desire for death and for deliverance from earthly suffering. It begins with a verse from Psalm 4, and then uses a funerary text written by Georg Werner and published in 1639. After a Sinfonia and a first chorus, both very similar to those of Bach’s Cantata BWV 21 and in the same key of C minor, the succession of voices, from the soprano to the bass, suggests the descent into the tomb. Blending assertive turns of rhythm with expressive silences and counterpoint, the work also includes several madrigalisms, such as the ornaments on fröhlich (joyous) and Freud (joy) in the duo for alto and tenor.

These works, like many others, are the product of profoundly religious thought. Today, however, whether we are believers or not, we can appreciate them for their inherent qualities. Bach’s predecessors created music that was totally original, sophisticated, as free in form as it was varied, and powerfully expressive.

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Theatre of Early Music
AN 2 9143
AN 2 9143
AN 2 9143

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