Summary for the Busy Executive: Glorious.
We owe most of Bach's motets to commissions. As one of his cantorial duties, he had to provide music for funerals. Most of the time, he could rely on a standard collection of funeral motets. However, an important or even wealthy family could ask for (and pay for) something new. At least five families did and received masterpieces. Scholars, however, have cast doubt on the authenticity of Lobet dem Herren. The earliest known edition dates from 1821, well after the composer's death, and the autograph (if there ever was one) is lost. Compared to the other five, it's a bit lightweight. On the other hand, I know of no composer at the time who rose to even this level of choral writing other than Bach, except his son C. P. E. Now Handel is, of course, a great choral writer, but his style differs from Bach, particularly the consistency of the counterpoint. If it turns out that somebody not Bach wrote it, this unknown very likely had some contact with Bach.
I've sung four of the motets – all but Jesu, meine Freude and Fürchte dich nicht. They represent by far the hardest choral pieces I've ever performed, and I've sung Schoenberg, Ives, Webern, Ligeti, Hindemith, and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. At the time I sung them, almost forty years ago, generally performers did them a cappella. This increases the difficulty by a lot. Now, however, scholars believe that Bach doubled the voices with instruments. On the one hand, it leads to more secure performances. On the other, nothing else approaches the excitement of these works a cappella. Their main difficulty (still there with instruments, by the way) lies in their contrapuntal complexity – bringing out the main line and keeping the rest of the texture present but clear. The texture can become quite complex, particularly in the motets for double choir: Singet dem Herren, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, Komm, Jesu, komm, and Fürchte dich nicht. Textural clarity requires rhythmic precision, knowing the important line at any point in the score, dead-on intonation, and the ability to sing lightly and incisively at the same time. Very few choirs operate at such a level. My (very good) college choir worked on Singet dem Herren for an entire school year, six days a week, two to three hours a day. Most performances we still didn't nail it, but when we did, we soared.
Jesu, meine Freude ("Jesus, my joy") is by the far the longest of the motets. Scholars also believe it the earliest. The structure resembles the early cantatas, like #4 (Christ lag in Todesbanden): movements symmetrical around a point and nearly all variations on a chorale tune – in this case (no surprise), "Jesu meine Freude." The motet dates from roughly 1723. Bach puts into it a tremendous variety of mood, texture, and choral "orchestration," as a list of the movements amply demonstrates.
As in most of Bach's choral music, the words drive not only the music's rhythm, but also its mood. Bach highlights dramatically individual words as well – notably, the repetitions of the word "nichts" (nothing) in the second movement. These are heavy, broad blows of single chords, to remind you how final "nothing" really is.
Singet dem Herren ein neues Lied ("Sing to the Lord a new song") I find the most elaborate of the series. It sets two choirs against one another. In the first movement, one choir lightly sets the beat in quarters, with an exhortation to sing ("singet"). Against this, the other choir begins, a voice at a time, a florid line, ecstatically doing just that. The music moves with a stride as grand as Bach's own cantata #50 Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft ("Now is the glory and the power"), with the same radiant dancing figures about the beat, until at one point the beat disappears and the dancing figures take off, as if flung into space, while both choirs join in the command to praise God with dance, timbrel, and harp. The second movement, most directly connected with a funeral, pits the second choir, singing a chorale on the fragility of human life, against a florid commentary on God's mercy. The two choirs proceed in antiphonal fashion, a kind of call and response, but the really interesting thing is the music is completely independent. You could sing all one choir or all the other with nary a bump. The finale returns to the antiphonal praise of God, moving very much like the Magnificat's "Sicut locutus est." Unlike that chorus, however, it's not a fugue, but a lead into one, on the words "Alles was Odem hat, lobet dem Herren" ("let everything that has breath praise the Lord") – another example of Bach's (in this case, literally) breathtaking word-painting. At the announcement of fugal subject, the choirs join. Bach writes the subject in one huge, melismatic (many notes per syllable) arc, and you're not supposed to break the line by gulping in air. By the way, this is a problem with one-to-a-part Bach. Not many singers have the wind to make it all the way to the end. The fugue moves in dancing triple-time to an ending that caps off everything that's gone on before.
Komm, Jesu, komm ("Come, Jesus, come") strikes me as the most influential of the set, since one can hear very clearly what Brahms stole for his choral motets. The text talks about the weariness of life and the soul's rest in Jesus. The music begins somber and stately, as the two choirs toss the music back and forth. "Grieving" semitonal dissonances and a highly chromatic harmonic environment convey the instability of life. The first section breaks up into highly contrasting mini-sections. Bach also works a radiant pastoral vein Brahms also revisited, particularly in his Ach Heiland, rei&szed; die Himmel auf ("O Savior, rip open the heavens"). The motet ends with the two choirs united in a floridly elaborated chorale.
Der Geist hilf unser Schwachheit auf ("The Holy Spirit helps our weakness"), again for double choir, begins antiphonally, again like an instrumental ripieno, moves to two fugal movements – the first for double choir (wow!), the second for the choirs combined – and ends with a straight chorale. The textures become very thick indeed, and yet the music, inspired by the text, implies lightness almost throughout. It's awfully hard not to tromp through this one.
For me, Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir ("Fear not, I am with you") shows the greatest formal freedom of the set, and that's saying something. Again, it breaks into mini-sections, with dramatic exclamations which upset the overall flow of the music, and allow Bach to turn to new thoughts. But the transitions and the exclamations are always appropriate to the spiritual drama laid out by the text. Eventually, we get to a fugue decorating a chorale tune – the same general sort of thing as one finds in Art of the Fugue with the "kingly theme." The subject is almost all semitones, this time expressing yearning and anticipation, rather than sorrow. The tension generated by this kind of corkscrew subject finally dissipates in a final declamatory affirmation from God that the soul is his.
Now, it takes a choir that doesn't suck just to get through these pieces. It takes a great choir to do them badly. It takes an even better, even luckier choir than that to convey the wonder and drama of the music. I'll say right now that my favorite performance was from the Aeolian Singers, I assume a pick-up group of the top British ensemble singers of the Sixties. Naturally, British Decca has never transferred it to CD. It's a cappella and an heroic achievement. Everything moves, everything's clear, the dances dance, the laments grieve. Furthermore, they do it with what sounds to me like a fairly full vocal tone. The style is more Romantic than what one usually hears these days, but the drama comes through like gangbusters. As far as I know, there is no a cappella recording currently available.
That said, I would consider the following at least acceptable: Harry Christophers and The Sixteen on Hyperion; John Eliot Gardiner on Erato, Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi, and Harnoncourt. I don't care for Rilling's Bach at all. He manages to kill most of the music's life. Kurt Thomas is simply too heavy. Eric Ericson, a choral legend, has a recording I haven't heard, so I can't comment on. Nobody current slam-dunks all six motets. In all these recordings, different motets come off better than others. The Sixteen sing with a fuller tone, though still not noticeably robust, than the others. They keep the clarity. But, unusual for this group, they often don't seem to know what they're singing about (Jesu, meine Freude is a notable exception). Gardiner's and Harnoncourt's groups do much better, but even they catch fire only in fits and starts. Harnoncourt does fine in very complex, rapid movements. His precision serves him well and the choir sounds as if they're having fun, as they should, even though they're probably working like dogs. I prefer Gardiner's sound to Harnoncourt's, which for some reason goes dead in the more straightforward movements. It's as if someone's yanked the plug on life support. Still, there are tremendous performances here – Singet dem Herren and Lobet den Herren especially – and a Harnoncourt fan might very likely find what struck me as dead spots as elegance. Similarly, one might think of Rilling as honest and sturdy, even though I find him incredibly monochromatic and wooden. One's Bach is like one's religion. It's extremely personal and, past a certain point, should not be argued over.
Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz