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The Simplicity and Power of Four Notes by Bach

statue of J.S. Bach in Leipzig
Max Pixel, CC0 1.0
statue of J.S. Bach in Leipzig

In his Cantata No. 156, the composer infuses a particular sequence with the meaning of words of devotion to create a sonic symbol, part of a performance directed by Masaaki Suzuki on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F, BWV 1046 - Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, conductor

Cantata BWV 156 Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe! (translation) - Robin Blaze, counter-tenor; Gerd Türk, tenor; Peter Kooy, bass; Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Gut, BWV 957 - Hans Fagius, organ (1728 Cahman organ at Leufsta Bruk, Sweden)

Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056 - Ramin Bahrami, piano; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, conductor

Italian Concerto, BWV 971: I.  Allegro spiritoso e con brio (arr. Crespo) - German Brass

Transcript:

[MUSIC]

One of the rewards of great art is finding meaning below the surface. Like a melody catchy enough to whistle, but with a message built into its very notes, something to remember and carry with us, like a talisman that triggers an idea, an emotion, and a signature. In essence, what the composer really wanted to say.

[MUSIC]

The first four notes in the melody of this aria are designed not just to sound nice – though they do – but also to carry a message. It’s music that enters our consciousness on multiple levels – simultaneously – in an example of one of the most extraordinary characteristics of Bach’s music, as you’ll hear in the Cantata 156, coming up on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC]

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. Bach’s Cantata No. 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, or “I am standing with one foot in the grave,” has a title that may come across as a bit ghoulish to our modern ears, but its use of musical syntax to draw emotional power out of words on a page is remarkable, enough so that that title actually becomes something pretty intriguing. You can find those words, in a translation of the Cantata 156 from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. That’s also where you can hear this and past programs on-demand. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

Also on the program today is a piece that borrows some of the emotional power of that cantata to create a brand new experience as a concerto.

First, though, here is the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Chailly in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1046]

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 by Bach, performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Chailly.

It’s hard to hear the title of Bach’s Cantata No. 156 without flinching just a bit: Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe translates as “I am standing with one foot in the grave.” The words were by a poet who went by the name Picander, who based the libretto on Jesus’s healing of a leper to send a message of faith in the will of the divine the divine.

And as in so many cases, Bach takes imagery that’s tough to swallow and leavens it, first by starting the cantata with a beautiful, meditative sinfonia. Then he goes further in the following aria. As the tenor soloist sings, “I am standing with one foot in the grave / Soon my ailing body will fall in,” a chorus of sopranos sings, “Do with me, God, according to Your goodness … Everything is good, when the end is good.”

[MUSIC]

The effect is haunting and consoling at the same time. But that confidence in the will of the divine is cast in more joyful terms later. After a recitative in which the bass soloist explicitly places the believer’s fate in the hands of God, the counter-tenor sings, “Lord, what you will shall be my pleasure, since your counsel is worth the most.”

[MUSIC]

The words reflect the leper’s response to Jesus in the Biblical story. And by setting them to that particular arrangement of four notes, and then repeating that phrase over and over, Bach reinforces the belief he’s expressing, even when the words aren’t being sung.

You can find a translation of the text for this piece at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

This performance of the Cantata No. 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, or “I am standing with one foot in the grave,” features counter-tenor Robin Blaze, tenor Gerd Türk, and bass Peter Kooy. Masaaki Suzuki conducts Bach Collegium Japan, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 156]

The Cantata No. 156 by Bach, in a performance by Bach Collegium Japan and conductor Massaki Suzuki. The soloists included counter-tenor Robin Blaze, tenor Gerd Türk, and bass Peter Kooy.

The chorale embedded in the second movement of the Cantata 156, the one sung by the sopranos, is also one Bach used in an organ prelude. Here is Hans Fagius, with the prelude on Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Gut, or “Do with me, God, according to your goodness.”

[MUSIC – BWV 957]

Bach’s prelude on the chorale Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Gut, performed by organist Hans Fagius.

Leipzig, where Bach spent the bulk of his career, has always been one of the musical centers of Germany. And part of that identity is fulfilled these days by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Along with a transparent, elegant sonic signature in any music it plays, the orchestra maintains a deep ongoing, relationship with Bach’s music. Musicians from the orchestra perform each week at St. Thomas Church, and, with conductor Riccardo Chailly, they’ve made several recordings that strike a balance between the bright sheen of modern instruments and the interpretive insights of the early music movement. That balance comes through in a set of concertos recorded by the orchestra, including one with a connection to the cantata we just heard. The beautiful opening of the Cantata 156 also turned out to be, for Bach, a perfect middle movement of his Keyboard Concerto No. 5, performed here by pianist Rahmin Bahrami, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and conductor Riccardo Chailly.

[MUSIC – BWV 1056]

The Keyboard Concerto No. 5 by Bach, with pianist Rahmin Bahrami, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and conductor Riccardo Chailly.

Earlier, in the Cantata 156, a set of four notes gave us a musical sign of meaning. And those same four notes turn up in another piece, originally for harpsichord. There’s no way to know if Bach had the cantata somewhere in his mind when he wrote it, but the connection is pretty intriguing. Here is German Brass, with a transcription of the opening of Bach’s Italian Concerto, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – Italian Concerto – I.]

That’s the opening movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto performed by the 10-piece ensemble made up of players from orchestras around Germany, and called German Brass.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.