Bach's Advent Masterpiece, on a Legendary Pipe Organ
On The Bach Hour, Gerhard Weinberger performs the composer's Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch" on an instrument Bach himself tested when it was new.
On the program:
Sleepers Wake!, from Cantata BWV 140 - Empire Brass; Douglas Major, organ (National Cathedral)
Cantata BWV 132 Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (translation) - Brigitte Geller, soprano; Michael Chance, countertenor; Jan Kobow, tenor; Dietrich Henschel, bass; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her, BWV 769a - Gerhard Weinberger, organ (Zacharias Hildebrandt Organ at St. Wenceslas [St Wenzel] Church, Naumburg, Germany)
Concerto in C minor for Violin and Oboe after BWV 1060 - Jeanne Lamon, violin and director; John Abberger, oboe; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
cropped photo of the Hildebrandt organ at St. Wenceslas used with permission
Brian McCreath (BM): Pipe organs of the Baroque era were just about the most complex engineering feats of their time…with hundreds of moving parts, ornate woodwork, and precision-crafted metal pipes.
But they’re also more than just machines. Behind that amazingly intricate design and construction is the dedication of builders and craftsmen, as well as the musicians who take their place at the keyboard to enable and direct the movement of air through tubes to create a miraculous sonic presence.
Many of the best of these instruments have, over the centuries, survived the twists and turns of history, cared for and restored to allow us to hear the almost infinite varieties of color and texture that J.S. Bach himself heard when they were new. And you’ll hear one of those instruments in music for Advent, coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, and welcome to The Bach Hour, from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. I’m Brian McCreath, and along with organ music from St. Wenceslaus Church in Naumburg, Germany, you’ll hear a sacred vocal work for Advent, the Cantata No. 132, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!, or “Prepare the paths, prepare the road!” As always, you’ll find a translation of the text for that piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this and past programs on demand. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.
The theme of watchful anticipation is at the heart of the Cantata 132, and here is another piece built on that theme. This is Empire Brass and organist Douglas Major with a beautiful chorale from the Cantata No. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, or “Awake, calls the voice to us.”
BM: That’s Empire Brass and organist Douglas Major at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with, I think, one of the most mesmerizing pieces Bach ever wrote. It’s a chorale movement from the Cantata No. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, or “Awake, calls the voice to us.”
Joyful anticipation is behind Wachet auf, and it also inspired Bach’s Cantata No. 132, which the composer wrote for the Advent season early on in his career, when he was working in Weimar. Beyond anticipation, though, this cantata pivots off a specific story in the Bible, in which John the Baptist tells the priests that he’s not the Messiah, and, in fact, they should, quote, “make straight the way of the Lord.”
You might recognize that quote from Handel’s Messiah, and for this cantata, it’s re-cast as “Prepare the paths, prepare the road,” words that inspired Bach to write a melody that depicts a winding road in the music itself:
BM: And that melody straightens out when the soloist sings, “…make the flagstones in faith and life completely level…”:
BM: Later, Bach turns that story from the Bible around, taking the question the priests ask John the Baptist – “Who are you?” – and redirecting it as a question Jesus asks the believer, who turns out to be “a child of wrath in Satan's trap.”
But the alto soloist offers hope in the form of baptism, with the words “Through the spring of blood and water your garments will become bright.” Once again, Bach brings across the idea musically with a solo violin accompaniment to symbolize the falling waters of baptism:
BM: It’s a quiet, meditative, and humble aria, reflecting the penitential aspect of the Advent season as it was experienced in Bach’s time.
If you’d like to see for yourself how the music Bach wrote reflects the words of this cantata, you can do so by starting at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you can find the complete translation from Boston’s Emmanuel Music.
Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 132, “Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!”, or “Prepare the paths, prepare the road!” with soprano Brigitte Geller, alto Michael Chance, tenor Jan Kobow, and bass Dietrich Henschel. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists here on The Bach Hour.
BM: Bach’s Cantata No. 132 is a piece for the Advent season, but it’s also one that reinforces, largely through the composer’s musical depiction of the words, the idea that baptism is at the heart of the Christian experience. Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!, or “Prepare the paths, prepare the road!”, was performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, led by John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists included soprano Brigitte Geller, alto Michael Chance, tenor Jan Kobow, and bass Dietrich Henschel.
When it came to pipe organs, Bach was one of the most respected authorities of his time. Yes, he was a virtuoso performer, and his compositions brought out the infinite possibilities of the instrument. And when a new instrument was constructed, word was often sent to Leipzig, with a request that Bach come and give it a test run. The builders knew that Bach would not only explore every corner of the instrument’s capability, but also have suggestions to tweak the equipment for the best possible results.
In 1746, Bach made just such a trip to the town of Naumburg, about 30 miles to the southwest as the crow flies. He was there to test a newly rebuilt organ at St. Wenceslaus Church. The instrument’s history went all the way back to 1540, and Zacharias Hildebrandt had rebuilt it from the inside out before Bach tried it out.
Bach’s own son-in-law, Johann Christoph Altnickol, became the organist at St. Wenceslaus shortly afterward, and over the ensuing centuries, the organ went through several modifications. But it was restored to Hildebrandt’s original specifications in the 1990s and is now considered one of the gold-standard instruments of Bach’s time.
Here is organist Gerhard Weinberger at the Hildebrandt organ at St. Wenceslaus, with Bach’s Canonic Variations on the Advent hymn Vom himmel hoch, da komm ich her, or “From heaven above to earth I come.”
BM: It was within a few months of the time that Bach visited and played the organ you just heard, in 1746, that he also wrote a set of Canonic Variations on the Advent hymn Vom himmel hoch, da komm ich her. Gerhard Weinberger performed those variations at the Hildebrandt organ at St. Wenceslaus Church in Naumburg, Germany.
The origin of some pieces by Bach, like the one you just heard, is documented extremely well. But there is also a lot of Bach’s music that remains shrouded in mystery. Like this: Here is the Canadian early music ensemble Tafelmusik,, playing a reconstruction of a Concerto in C minor for oboe and violin. John Abberger is the oboe soloist and the violinist is Tafelmusik director Jeanne Lamon.
BM: That’s a piece by Bach that’s survived the centuries in the form of a concerto for two harpsichords. But most scholars are pretty certain that the harpsichord piece is really a later version of what you just heard. This reconstruction of the concerto in C minor featured oboist John Abberger and violinist Jeanne Lamon, who also conducted the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.
Remember, you can always find more of The Bach Hour online at Classical WCRB dot org. Our programs are available on-demand, and you can explore a rich set of resources to learn more about Bach.
Again, that’s all 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, on The Bach Hour.