Savall and Bach's Offering
On The Bach Hour, when a king throws a vexing musical challenge at the composer, it sparks a dazzling response in "The Musical Offering," and an equally dazzling interpretation by Jordi Savall and The Concert of Nations.
On the program:
Adagio, from Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C, BWV 564 (arr. Stokowski) - Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, José Serebrier, conductor
Cantata BWV 157 Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn (translation) - James Gilchrist, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, Ton Koopman, conductor
selections from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079 - Les Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall, director
It began as a challenge, almost a party trick, really. J.S. Bach, traveling to a far away palace to visit his son, was presented with a musical theme and asked to improvise on it.
All well and good in the moment. But later, when the composer reflected on the experience back at his home in Leipzig, that apparently light-hearted moment at a party was transformed into one of Bach’s greatest masterpieces.
The Musical Offering - and its fascinating origin story - is coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. There is so much of Bach’s music that emerged from circumstances obscured by the passage of time, like, say, the Cello Suites. The collection of works Bach called The Musical Offering, by contrast, is rooted in a very specific and well-documented set of events. The music itself is as engaging as anything the composer wrote. But the story behind its creation also reveals a lot about who Bach was. You’ll hear selections from The Musical Offering later in the hour.
Also on the program is the Cantata 157, Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, or “I will not let you go, therefore, bless me.” And you’ll find a translation of the text of that piece, from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, when you start at Classical WCRB dot org.
First, though, here is one of the lavish arrangements of Bach’s music by Leopold Stowkowski. This is the middle part of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C. Jose Serebrier leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 564-2]
Leopold Stokowski, known for, among many other things, establishing the luxurious sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra, first encountered Bach’s music when he was still a choirboy learning the organ in England. His love of the composer’s music eventually led to an amazing collection of orchestral transcriptions, including this one, the middle part of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C. Jose Serebrier, a protege of Stokowski, led the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
Every once in a while, Bach was asked to write cantatas for specific occasions, outside of the normal Lutheran liturgical schedule. One such piece is the Cantata 157, Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, or “I will not let you go, therefore, bless me,” composed for the funeral of a nobleman from just outside Leipzig. Given its theme, though - the embrace of the Divine, and especially Jesus, in the passage to the afterlife - the piece was, after that 1726 funeral, added to Bach’s catalog for the Feast of the Purification, or, as it’s also known today, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, on February 2nd.
It begins with a duet on words from Genesis, when Jacob says to the Angel, “I will not let you go, therefore, bless me,” which also expresses the believer’s relationship to Jesus.
An aria for the tenor soloist takes that sentiment further, the words, “I hold my Jesus tightly” expressed with long note “holds”...
… and something of a rollercoaster for the soloist on the words, “my faith forcefully grasps his countenance full of blessing.”
And the believer’s forceful grasp on Jesus through the turmoil of earthly life is rewarded, as the bass soloist sings, “Yes, yes, I will hold Jesus tightly, therefore I will also enter into heaven.”
Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece when you start at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.
Here is a performance of the Cantata 157, with tenor James Gilchrist and bass Klaus Mertens. Ton Koopman leads the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 157]
Bach’s Cantata No. 157, Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, or “I will not let you go, therefore, bless me,” in a performance by the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra, led by their founder and conductor, Ton Koopman, with tenor James Gilchrist and bass Klaus Mertens.
Coming up, Bach’s reputation precedes him, a friendly challenge is placed before him, and a masterpiece is born.
You’re listening to The Bach Hour from WCRB, online at Classical WCRB dot org.
Welcome back to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston; I’m Brian McCreath.
Late in Bach’s life, as his music was fading in the face of the Age of Enlightenment and a whole new set of ideals around music, his own son, Carl Philip Emanuel, was at the vanguard of the newest styles and aesthetics. He was employed at the court of the King of Prussia, a k a Frederick the Great. And in 1747, when Johann Sebastian, visited his son at Frederick’s palace, he was brought to the king - almost immediately after arriving - in the midst of an evening of chamber music for the court. It was a meeting between the extravagant embodiment of Enlightenment ideals, philosophies, and power, and an observant Protestant musician who dedicated his life’s work to the glory of God. Frederick issued a more or less friendly challenge: to improvise a three-part fugue on a theme the king presented him.
Bach took this knotty, jagged musical line and dazzled the king and his audience. Frederick then upped the ante, asking for an improvised six-part fugue on the same theme. That was more than even Bach could handle. But Bach didn’t let the challenge go. Back in Leipzig, he worked out that six-part fugue, put it together with his original three-part fugue, and wrote another 10 canons and a four-movement trio sonata in the most up to date musical fashion, all based on that original theme. The flute - the king’s instrument - was at the center of it all. “The Musical Offering” was sent to Frederick with an elaborate dedication, and, maybe, an unspoken assertion of who the greatest composer of the time truly was. With selections from “The Musical Offering,” here is Jordi Savall and his Concert of Nations, beginning with the original theme Bach heard in the palace of the king.
[MUSIC – BWV 1079]
Ending with an ensemble arrangement of the six-part fugue Bach crafted to meet a challenge posed by Frederick the Great, Jordi Savall led his ensemble The Concert of Nations, in selections from Bach’s Musical Offering.
Remember, you’ll find more of The Bach Hour online at Classical WCRB dot org.
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.