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Heartbreak, Consolation, and Bach's Secret Codes in "Morimur"

Marco Borggreve
Hilliard Ensemble

On The Bach Hour, the Hilliard Ensemble and soloist Christoph Poppen bring the composer's Violin Partita No. 2 together with his settings of Lutheran chorales to render a sonic picture of anguish, grief, and transcendence.

On the program:

Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 871, from Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier - Edward Aldwell, piano

"Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir!" from Cantata BWV 19 (translation) - James Gilchrist, tenor;  English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Morimur - Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, with selected chorale harmonizations - Christoph Poppen, violin;  The Hilliard Ensemble

"Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit," Sinfonia from Actus tragicus, BWV 106 (arr. Kurtag) - György and Marta Kurtág, piano



J.S. Bach’s music has a magnetic power for those seeking spiritual transcendence in the face of pain and adversity.


That magnetism is especially powerful in relation to September 11th, a date which, for generations of Americans, will always be associated with one of the most traumatic events of our time.


Each person who lived through that day has grappled with darkness in a process that might find resonance in Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2. At turns spare, searing, and sublime, a lone soloist confronts a musical darkness before ultimately embracing musical light, in a sort of roadmap towards transcendence.


We don’t know what it was that enabled Bach to crystallize such an emotionally harrowing experience. But one musicologist had some radical – and compelling - ideas about that a decade and a half ago. You’ll hear the result of those ideas in a unique performance of the Partita No. 2 called Morimur, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH.

Lutheran chorales form the backbone of Bach’s musical language. Short, strong and basic, they pack an enormous emotional power, partly because of how they reflect particular words. So when we hear hints of chorales in Bach’s music, we can just about always be sure there’s another layer of meaning to the message we hear on the surface.

You'll hear how those chorales infuse several works by Bach, bringing them extra layers of meaning, like messages in a bottle, in this program.

The second book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier includes just such a hint. The Prelude and Fugue in C minor from that set appears – at first – to be another purely abstract example of the composer’s unparalleled craft: Different voices weave themselves together to create a certain soulful darkness. But in the last half-minute of the piece, Bach embeds a theme from a chorale entitled “Out of deep anguish I call to you.”

Here is pianist Edward Aldwell with this Prelude and Fugue in C minor from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 871]

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor, from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, contains within it an almost hidden message, as the chorale “Out of deep anguish I call to you” quietly emerges towards the end, as you heard in this performance by pianist Edward Aldwell.

Traumatic events like those of Sept. 11, 2001, can, for many people, evoke a hope for angels. For those enduring the trauma, there’s a hope for the protection of guardian angels. And survivors cling to the hope that angels are with those lost in the event as they transcend earthly life.

In 1726 Bach wrote an aria for his Cantata No. 19 that captured both of those hopes simultaneously, once again through the meaning of an embedded chorale.

The tenor soloist sings a prayer for earthly protection, the text translating as, “Stay, you angels, stay with me! Lead me on both sides, so that my foot does not slip!” But as that prayer comes to us explicitly, Bach also implies a prayer simultaneously through a chorale melody, not sung, but played by a solo trumpet. The unsung text translates as, “Lord, let your dear little angel … take my soul to Abraham’s bosom. Let my body … without any anguish or pain, rest until the last day! At that day, wake me from death, so that my eyes may see you in all joy…”

It’s haunting and heartbreaking as a picture emerges of a believer who both wants earthly protection and an escape from the pain of earthly existence.

Here is tenor James Gilchrist, with the English Baroque Soloists and conductor John Eliot Gardiner, with this aria from Bach’s Cantata No. 19, here on The Bach Hour.


A heart-wrenching prayer to angels for guidance and comfort, from Bach’s Cantata No. 19. James Gilchrist was the soloist, with the English Baroque Soloists and conductor John Eliot Gardiner.

We can be pretty sure that Bach could not have imagined the level of destruction that took place in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. But even if airplanes and skyscrapers – and the devastation we saw that day – were still centuries away, senseless, seemingly random destruction and meaningless loss were perhaps closer to Bach’s experience than to ours.

The early 18th century of Bach’s time was an era of political upheaval, with armies marching across the various Germanic lands, occupying towns and depriving the population of resources. And while the Thirty Years War – a comprehensively devastating period that set back European civilization by decades – wasn’t an event of Bach’s lifetime, it was a real presence in the collective memory of his society – much like the spectre of the First and Second World Wars hang over the early 21st century.

On a more day-to-day level in Bach’s time, disease was a constant, with even the most minor medical problems of our day capable of causing lasting damage or death. It’s unclear what kind of condition took the life of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara. What we do know, however, is that Bach was traveling when she died. Only when he returned from his travels did he learn that she had been buried a week before.

Even in the context of a difficult period of history, this must have been absolutely devastating. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has proposed that a particular work Bach composed soon after is really meant to be an expression of mourning for his lost wife.

Thoene identified within the Partita No. 2 for solo violin musical material the piece has in common with several chorales. And not just any chorales, but specific themes that simultaneously express grief and hope for resurrection and eternal life.

Bach himself would never have performed the Partita and the chorales at the same time, but for our modern ears, their combination offers a connection to the emotional reality of loss that’s particularly resonant in remembering September 11th, 2001.

Violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble combined forces to bring Thoene’s theory to life in a piece entitled Morimur. Chorales alternate with movements of the partita, coming together in the heart-wrenching Chaconne in a powerful combination. These are selections from Morimur, here on The Bach Hour.


Morimur is the name given to this combination of J.S. Bach’s chorales and the Violin Partita No. 2, performed here by the Hilliard Ensemble with violinist Christoph Poppen.

The sense of eternity that performance embodies can also be found on a more intimate scale in Bach’s chorale preludes. And one composer of our time who channels that sense most effectively is Gyorgy Kurtag. Here is his arrangement of “God’s Time is the Best Time,” performed by Kurtag with his wife, Marta, here on The Bach Hour.


“God’s Time is the Best Time” is the name of that chorale prelude by Bach, arranged here by composer Gyorgy Kurtag and performed by him with his wife, Marta.

In the New Yorker, Alex Ross quotes Kurtag as saying that “I am certainly an atheist but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. … His music never stops praying. … My brain rejects it all. But my brain isn’t worth much.”

Alex Ross also wrote, after hearing the Kurtags perform that prelude in concert, that it was simply one of the most beautiful things he had ever heard.

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.