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By Mozart, After Bach

musicians of Academy for Ancient Music Berlin standing in a room together
courtesy of the artists
Academy for Ancient Music Berlin

The Academy for Ancient Music Berlin illuminates a magical fusion of two iconic composers, and John Eliot Gardiner conducts the "Actus Tragicus" on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Trio Sonata in G, BWV 1039 - Ensemble Il Quadrifoglio

Cantata BWV 106 Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus) (translation) - Hannah Morrison, soprano; Meg Bragle, alto; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, BWV 616 - Simon Preston, organ (Sorø Abbey, Denmark)

Prelude & Fugue in D minor, K. 405/4 (after BWV 877); Prelude & Fugue in D, K. 405/5 (after BWV 874); Prelude & Fugue in E, K. 405/3 (after BWV 878), attr. Mozart - Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

Transcript:

[MUSIC]

In 1789, St. Thomas Church in Leipzig welcomed a visitor from the south. Mozart was in town, on his way to Berlin, and he stopped in to hear music performed in Bach’s adopted hometown. As the story goes, when he heard the choir perform Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn, the famously hard to impress Mozart was astonished. But that wasn’t the first time he had encountered Bach’s music. He had already arranged some of Bach’s keyboard works, pieces you’ll hear, coming up on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC]

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour, from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. While it’s true that Bach’s music wasn’t always fashionable in the decades after his death in 1750, there were always other composers who recognized its genius. As Mozart went about writing operas, concertos, and symphonies in Vienna, he explored that genius by transcribing fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The Academy for Ancient Music Berlin will take us through some of those works later on.

Also on the program today is one of the most serene and moving of Bach’s cantatas. It’s the Cantata No. 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, or “God's time is the best of all times,” also known as the Actus tragicus. You can find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical W C R B dot org, where you can also hear this program on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical W C R B dot org.

For now, here is a Trio Sonata by Bach, performed by the Ensemble Il Quadrifoglio, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC: BWV 1039]

That’s a trio sonata Bach originally wrote for two flutes and harpsichord, and later reworked as a sonata for viola da gamba. This performance using violin and oboe for the solo parts comes to us from Ensemble Il Quadrifoglio.

I’m Brian McCreath with The Bach Hour from WCRB in Boston.

When Bach was 22 years old, he took a job as the organist for a church in a small town called Mühlhausen. He only stayed for about a year, but it turned out be a significant time. It’s where he married Maria Barbara. And it’s also where he wrote his Cantata No. 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, or “God's time is the best of all times,” also known as the Actus tragicus. It’s a piece that was written for a funeral, but we don’t know whose funeral it was. And like Bach’s later works that confront the inevitability of death, it expresses a remarkable combination of serenity, sadness, and celebration.

It opens with a spare, transparent instrumental sinfonia, establishing a quiet, meditative atmosphere. The chorus enters with the words of the title, “God's time is the best of all times,” launching us into what’s really a two-part piece. The first part expresses that part of Bach’s belief system built on the laws of the Bible’s Old Testament. And the second part expresses the possibilities for a believer in following the words of Jesus from the New Testament.

To do this, Bach sets up a sort of mirror, the solos and textures from the first part having counterparts in the second. So, for instance, in the first part the bass soloist sings works from Isaiah: “Put your house in order, for you will die and not remain alive.”

[MUSIC]

And in the second part, the bass returns with Jesus’s words from the Gospel of Luke: “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” along with the choir singing a chorale tune that translates as “With peace and joy I depart.”

[MUSIC]

The turning point between those two parts is especially striking. At the exact halfway point of the piece, the soprano sings, “Yes, come Lord Jesus,” as the instruments drop out, one by one. Everything stops for a long pause Bach wrote into the score. It’s disorienting at first, but as the piece then continues, we hear that silence as a powerful turning point towards the beginning of transcendence.

Remember, you can find a translation of this piece at our web site, Classical W C R B dot org.

Here is a performance of Bach’s Cantata No. 106, the Actus tragicus, with soprano Hannah Morrison, alto Meg Bragle, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, and bass Peter Harvey. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC: BWV 106]

J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 106, the Actus tragicus, in a performance by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, led by conductor John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists included soprano Hannah Morrison, alto Meg Bragle, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, and bass Peter Harvey.

During the final bass solo of that cantata, the choir sang the first verse of the chorale “With peace and joy I depart.” And here is an prelude Bach wrote on that same chorale tune, with organist Simon Preston.

[MUSIC: BWV 616]

Organist Simon Preston, with a prelude Bach wrote on the chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, or “With peace and joy I depart.”

The Academy for Ancient Music Berlin has just released a recording of Bach’s music, as filtered through Mozart’s world. During the 1780’s a prominent aristocrat by the name of Baron Gottfried van Swieten held gatherings in Vienna to explore music by Handel and Bach. Mozart became a regular at these gatherings, eventually contributing his own transcriptions of fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to the proceedings. He only had music for the fugues, though, so he wrote his own preludes, as did others who participated in van Swieten’s gatherings. Here is the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin with their own take on three of what you might call hybrid works, with the elegance of the Classical world of Mozart in the preludes, and the fascinating complexity of Bach in the fugues.

[MUSIC: K405/4, 5, 3]

With fugues taken from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and preludes by Mozart and his contemporaries, you just heard three selections from a recording by the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin that explores Mozart’s transcriptions of Bach’s music.

You can hear the echo of Mozart work on these transcriptions when you listen to works like the finale of “Jupiter” Symphony, or the Kyrie section of the Requiem, both of which are built on fugues Mozart crafted after studying Bach’s scores.

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 next week, on The Bach Hour.