Advent Calendar Day 22: Jauchzet! Frohlocket! – JS Bach

From quiet joy to drums and drama!  And yes, I’m just taking you on a tour of my favourite composers now.  But if that isn’t something you like, what on earth are you doing here?  This piece is a total contrast to yesterday’s anthem – where Orlando Gibbons has angels praising God and singing, Bach has a company of angels who are very firmly telling you that it is time to rejoice now.  Gibbons’ angels may be pastoral, but Bach’s angels sound a bit more like the kind who bring good news in the morning, before heading off to fight Lucifer and his demons in the afternoon.

This is the opening chorus to the first part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which gets sung sung on Christmas morning and Bach clearly wanted to make sure the congregation was wide awake and paying attention.  I love the drama and excitement of the drums at the start (not least because they make me think of small children getting up at 4am to open their presents and then running around the house playing with them.  Who gave the small children drums?  Probably their bad influence Auntie Catherine…) (I have not given my niece a drum for Christmas.  I am the worst Auntie.  But probably not the worst sister.), and I just love the way this sounds like such good fun to sing.

(I am still trying to work out when I have sung this, because I know just enough of the alto line to be sure that I have sung this music at some point, but I can’t think when – and it can’t have been for a big concert, because I don’t know the line well enough for that…)

The lyrics in English are:

Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day, praise what today the highest has done! Abandon hesitation, banish lamentation,
begin to sing with rejoicing and exaltation! Serve the highest with glorious choirs, let us honour the name of our ruler!

So really, the loud excitement is appropriate.  And this particular performance is by the choir of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach worked for most of his career, and where he is now buried – one would imagine that they know how to sing Bach as he should be sung!

(And if not, they had better beware, because I would think that this performance just about could wake the dead, and he’s *right there*, with fresh flowers still on his grave and everything, so…)



Advent Calendar Day 19: O Little One Sweet *and* Schlafe, mein Liebster – JS Bach

I knew I wanted some Bach in this bracket, but I couldn’t decide whether to go with O Little One Sweet, which is a standalone carol, or Schlafe, Mein Liebster, the lullaby from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  But then I realised that it’s not actually possible to have too much Bach, and anyway, this is my Advent Calendar, so I can play by whatever rules I like.  So today you are getting two Bach lullabies for the price of one…

‘O Little One Sweet’, (O Jesulein Süß) is just a lovely carol with some scary harmonies in the alto line.  The scary harmonies are entirely Johann Sebastian’s fault, I might add – I gather this piece started off as a perfectly sensible chorale called ‘Komm, heilger Geist’ (come holy ghost) in a hymnbook, and then Bach got hold of it, with beautiful (if tricky) results.  It’s very much good hymnbook theology, though, not a medieval reimagining of the manger scene – you can find the full lyrics and translation here, though the English versions usually only do two verses.

This is another old favourite of mine, performed impeccably here by the King’s singers.

Schlafe, mein Liebster is from the second part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which was originally sung on Boxing Day (the Oratorio is in six parts, which were originally performed on the days between Christmas and Epiphany – their performance dates are, the 25th, 26th and 27th of December, and the 1st, 2nd and 6th of January).  This piece comes just after the bit in Luke where we are told that the shepherds will find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, and the lyrics translate to:

Sleep, my dearest, enjoy thy rest, Awaken after this so that all may thrive! Comfort the breast, feel the pleasure where our hearts are made glad.

(And thank you to Google Translate for suggesting that the phrase I was looking for was ‘chew the breast, feel the desire’.  Dearie me.)

The singer in this performance is Anne Sofie von Otter, and I love the warmth of her voice, and her delicacy in the coloratura sections.  Also, I do enjoy trying to read Bach’s manuscript – though I probably wouldn’t enjoy doing so if I had to perform from it.

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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