Advent Calendar Day 25 – Schlafe Mein Liebster (JS Bach)

Oh, you didn’t think we were going to get to Christmas with more Bach, now did you?  Of course we weren’t.  This is a rather gorgeous alto aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which is basically a lullaby for the baby Jesus.  The words translate to ‘Sleep, my beloved, enjoy Your rest, and awaken after this so that all may thrive!  Comfort the breast, feel the joy with which we make glad our hearts.’  Because this is Bach, it takes quite a long time for the soloist to say all of this.  (Or perhaps the baby just doesn’t want to sleep?  Bach did have quite a lot of children, so he was probably familiar with the whole ‘hey you just stopped rocking me and singing to me, this is no good, I’m going to start screaming’ phenomenon.  Hmmm… the more I think about this theory, the more I am convinced by it…)

The Christmas Oratorio is actually an oratorio intended to be performed over six days during the Christmas season, and this particular aria, from the Adoration of the Shepherds, falls on the second day.  A sneak peek at the various arias over all the six days show me that the alto gets an aria on each of the first three days and a lot of recitative on the fifth day, but is conspicuously absent on New Years Day and the feast of the Epiphany, presumably because she was a party girl who had better things to do on these days (unlike the goody-two-shoes soprano who is present and accounted for on both these days).*

This particular recording is by Ingeborg Danz and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, and it’s just gorgeous, so I’m going to stop providing random commentary and leave you to enjoy it.

* This is probably not true.  Or at least, the bit about who was singing on which days is true, but I have no evidence to suggest that the alto soloist wasn’t perfectly well-behaved.  I just like to think that she got to go off duty and have a bit of fun on those traditional party days/nights.


Advent Calendar Day 14 – O Little One Sweet (J.S. Bach)

Did I mention that I’m really, really into Bach at the moment?  The fact that this is the second bit of Bach you are getting in this Advent Calendar might be a clue (and it’s not the last, either – I’m not going to let you get to Christmas without at least a little peek at the Christmas Oratorio).

I loved this carol well before I knew it was Bach’s arrangement because of the utterly gorgeous – and in places totally counterintuitive – alto line.  As an alto, I am always delighted when a composer gives me something more interesting than a row of Fs (which is one reason I am all over both polyphony and Baroque music). Actually, the weirdness of the opening bar should have alerted me to its composer, now I think about it.  No other 17th century composer would do that to their alto section (20th century composers have no mercy on anyone, of course, but the results are rarely so beautiful). This is such a beautiful thing to sing, and I love the way the harmonies cross over.

I listened to a few versions of this, but eventually had to choose this performance by The King’s Singers.  One of the reasons Bach can be difficult to sing (aside from his counterintuitive key changes) is that he didn’t really write for the human voice as an instrument – he wrote music that happened to use voices as a medium.  (This is not hyperbole on my part – unlike composers such as Handel or Purcell, Bach didn’t really care what voices could or couldn’t do, he cared about what the music was supposed to do, and his singers just had to put up with that.  Later in life, he wrote several pieces for no instrument at all – just pure music.)

So it seems fitting to reflect the purity of Bach’s musical vision with The King’s Singers, who sing everything with a clear tone that is as close to pure music as anything I’ve heard.

(And really, make sure you listen to that alto line.  It’s being sung by the second chap from the left and he is really enjoying it, as well he should.  You should, too.)


Advent Calendar Day 11: Wachet Auf, ruft uns di Stimme (J.S. Bach)

I know, I know, we had Bach just a few days ago, but this week’s schedule of Advent music is full of dreamy 19th and 20th century music, and I thought a bit of up-beat Baroque was just what we needed for contrast.

Besides, this is a seriously cool piece of music, and this choir and orchestra perform it just impeccably (and I love the way the violinists are, without exception bobbing on the first beat of each bar. It’s like a little minuet for violinists!).  Also, hearken to the alto joy at 4:01!  We sang this maybe seven years ago in choir, and I can still do that bit from memory – it’s the only way one can possibly get one’s voice around the notes, because nobody can sight read that fast.

What to else say about this?  Well, it’s one of the classic Advent texts – I’m pretty sure I heard it at the service last Sunday, though it must be confessed that all my Advent services are beginning to blur together.  I’ve certainly sung the hymnified version in the last week, and also heard the organ solo version.  After a while, one starts suspecting that Bach spent a large portion of his career writing variations on Wachet Auf, actually.  But I digress.

The text is generally translated ‘Zion hears the watchmen’s voices’, but it’s closer to ‘Wake up, the voices call us – it is the watchmen on the roofs’, and it is all about the Bridegroom coming (with digressions about Wise Virgins, who presumably have lamps, but Bach figured we knew all about that, and left the lamps out).  It tends to be played a lot especially in early Advent, because it is all about preparing for the arrival of Christ.  Though I think the implication is more Second Coming than mangers and oxen and Bethlehem.

I do love this rendition of it – it’s lively and strongly sung and definitely wakes one up of a morning.

Monday Music: Erbarme Dich – in Arabic (J.S. Bach)

Here’s something a little bit different for your Monday amusement.  Erbarme Dich is probably the most famous contralto aria from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion.  It’s sung after Peter has denied Jesus three times, and, sung well, is an absolutely compelling portrayal of grief and guilt.  It’s also very firmly part of  theWestern musical canon.

So here it is, translated into Arabic.  And when I say translated, I’m not just talking about the lyrics – the style both of singing and playing has a decidedly middle-Eastern feel.  And it’s rather amazing.  The solo violin in this piece, as was pointed out to me recently, has a sound rather similar to Jewish liturgical Eastern European Jewish violin music, and this Eastern influence is brought very much to the fore here.

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Advent Calendar Day 9: Wachet! Betet! (J.S. Bach)

A few months ago, when I was preparing for my exam, I sent the Bach alto aria I was learning to my German theologian friend, Anna, to check that my translation wasn’t too wildly wrong.  She sent back the translation with her comments, and also mentioned that in Bach, the alto soloist is usually the voice of the believing soul.  I thought that sounded gorgeous, and set out today to find some advent-suitable soulfulness to share with you.

And I found some.  But this isn’t it, because what I also found in my travels was that Bach, being the excellent church musician that he was, had actually written a cantata for the second Sunday in Advent – which is today.  I am not an excellent church musician, but I am a conscientious one, and having found beautiful music that was actually written for this precise day in the church year, I am incapable of choosing something else.

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Monday Music: Ei, wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse (Oh, how sweet coffee tastes) (J.S. Bach)

Bach is not a composer known for his lively sense of humour (unless you like obscure mathematical jokes involving making codes out of people’s names and setting them to music, in which case you’ll probably find him an absolute scream).  Indeed, the first allegedly humourous piece of his that I heard was an obscure cantata using Greek myth to express the fact that he was a much better musician than one of his rivals, who pretty much had donkey’s ears.  This sort of thing is extremely amusing, when your name is Johann Sebastian…

But he was, apparently, capable of more generally intelligible light moments, and he wrote, as it happens, an entire cantata about coffee.  What could be more appropriate for a Monday morning?

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