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Basilica Concert



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ROBERT PORCO conductor
JAMES BAGWELL conductor
MAY FESTIVAL YOUTH CHORUS James Bagwell, director
MAY FESTIVAL CHAMBER CHOIR Robert Porco, director
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair

PALESTRINA
(1525-1594)

Regina Coeli

MENDELSSOHN
(1872–1958)

Verleih’ uns Frieden gnädiglich

HANDL
(1550-1591)

En ego campana

VIADANA
(1560-1627)

Exsultate, Justi, in Domino 

MENDELSSOHN
(1770–1827)

Psalm 43, Op. 78, Richte mich, Gott
Psalm 100, Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt
Heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth

BRAHMS
(1833-1897)

Drei Gesänge, Op. 42

Abendständchen
Vineta
Darthulas Grabesgesang

BACH
(1685-1750)

Cantata No. 106, Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106

(all notes for this concert by Dr. Richard E. Rodda)

   

 

(1525-1594)

Regina Coeli

Composed in 1911. Premiered on October 23, 1913 in Leipzig, conducted by Artur Nikisch.

“The very first musician in the world…the prince and father of music…the celebrated light of music” he was called, the “savior of church music” and the “real king of sacred music.” Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina enjoys a reputation almost unmatched in the history of music. Born in 1525 or 1526 in the hill town of Palestrina, east of Rome (by whose name he became universally known), he was trained in music and sang as a choirboy at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and returned home to Palestrina in 1544 to play the organ at the cathedral and teach music. He married a local girl, fathered three musically talented sons, and began to compose before being taken back to Rome by the Bishop of Palestrina, who was elected Pope Julius III in 1550. Despite being married, Palestrina was appointed by Julius first as choirmaster of the Cappella Giulia and later of the Cappella Sistina, the most important arms of the musical establishment at St. Peter’s. In 1555, Julius died and Palestrina lost his patron. The rules on celibacy were thereafter more strictly enforced, and Palestrina was dismissed from Papal service. For the next 16 years, he held posts in Rome at St. John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore while establishing himself as the leading composer of sacred music of his day—the publications of his works were prized throughout the Roman Catholic world. So great was his renown by 1571 that he was welcomed back to the Cappella Giulia at St. Peter’s, a post he held until his death in 1594. Palestrina’s vast output—104 Masses (i.e., the same precisely prescribed text set in 104 different ways!), nearly 300 motets, 68 offertories, 65 hymns, 35 Magnificats, Lamentations, litanies, Psalms and more than 140 early madrigals (for whose secularism Palestrina apologized late in his life)—was held to be the most perfect musical embodiment of the purity, spirituality and universality of the Counter-Reformation. Indeed, his Pope Marcellus Mass of 1567, with its elevated style and clear enunciation of the sacred texts, is said to have prevented the Council of Trent from prohibiting the use of polyphonic music in the Church’s services. His compositional language, codified and streamlined by later theorists, has served for the last four centuries as the model for both the most pure of all sacred musical styles and for the study of Renaissance counterpoint.

The serene four-part motet Regina Coeli (“Queen of Heaven”), published in Venice in 1584, is based on the Marian antiphon included in the Roman Catholic minor services (i.e, non-Mass) from Holy Saturday until the Saturday after Pentecost (which begins 50 days after Easter).

Dr. Richard E. Rodda

 

(1809-1847)

Verleih’ uns Frieden gnädiglich (“Grant Us Merciful Peace”)

Composed in 1831.

Franz Hauser, born near Prague in 1794, was among the leading baritones of his day, appearing in the most important German and Austrian opera houses to praise for his singing of roles by Mozart, Rossini, Spohr, Weber and others. In 1846, after retiring from the stage, he was named director of the new Munich Conservatory; Jenny Lind was his most famous pupil. Hauser was an important collector of the manuscripts and letters of J.S. Bach, and he became friendly with Felix Mendelssohn when that ambitious 20-year-old composer-conductor-scholar revived the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829. The following year, while Mendelssohn was touring in Italy, Hauser sent him a copy of the Lutheran hymnal (Lutherisches Liedbüchlein), whose words and tunes inspired from him four chorale cantatas, three motets for women’s voices, and a setting for chorus and orchestra (or organ) of Luther’s German adaptation (Verleih uns Frieden) of the closing phrase of the Roman Catholic Mass (Dona nobis pacem). The music, original with Mendelssohn, uses as its theme a melody introduced by basses alone and then taken up by the altos and sopranos in different settings. The Latin text that was the source of Luther’s verse was added to the music in the collected edition of Mendelssohn’s works prepared for publication by Julius Rietz in the 1870s.

TEXT AND TRANSLATION

Verleih’ uns Frieden gnädiglich,
Herr Gott, zu unsern Zeiten.
Es ist doch ja kein Andrer nicht,
Der für uns könnte streiten,
Denn du, unser Gott alleine.

Grant us merciful peace,
Lord God, for all time.
There is certainly no other
Who can fight for us,
For you are our only God.

 

(1550-1591)

En ego campana (“Behold, I Am a Bell”)

This composer is known, somewhat confusingly, by two names, neither of which belonged to his parents. He was born in 1550 in the Slovenian town of Ribnica, near Ljubljana, to a family named Petelin, which means “cockerel.” He apparently translated his surname into both German and Latin forms—Handl and Gallus—about the time he left home for Austria in 1564. After a stay at the monastery at Melk, he turned up four years later in Vienna, where he became attached to the imperial chapel of Maximilian II as a singer. From 1579 until 1585, he served as choirmaster for Jan Pavlovsky, the Bishop of Olmütz, and then became cantor at the church of St. Jan in Vado in Prague. As was required by his life-long service in the Catholic Church, the music of Gallus (the name under which he preferred to publish), an imposing collection of Masses and motets, is almost entirely in Latin; even some secular pieces appeared in that language. His works show a fullness of harmony and a strong tonal tendency that mark him as a progressive composer, yet carry on the carefully woven textures and sensitive text settings that characterize the practices of the waning Renaissance era.

En ego campana is from the three volumes of Harmoniae Morales that Gallus composed late in his life, Latin-texted pieces of which he wrote, “This rather gay kind of song, a substitute for Madrigalia, I entitle Moralia, and it is my wish that they may henceforth be so called, as the choicest manners in them are not in the least wanton, and they shun even the shadow of indecency.”

TEXT AND TRANSLATION

En ego campana, 
nunquam denuntio vana:    
laudo Deum verum, tintinabulo clango, 
plebem voco, tintinabulo clango, 
congrego clerum, tintinabulo clango, 
funera plango, tintinabulo clango, 
fulgura frango, tintinabulo clango, 
sabbatha pango, tintinabulo clango, 
excito lentos, tintinabulo clango, 
dissipo ventos, tintinabulo clango,
paco cruentos, tintinabulo clango. 

Behold, I am a bell,
I never sound to no purpose:
I praise the true God, I ring out,
I call the people, I ring out,
I assemble the clergy, I ring out,
I lament the burial, I ring out,
I break the lightning-strokes, I ring out,
I mark the Sabbath, I ring out,
I rouse the idle, I ring out,
I calm the winds, I ring out,
I quiet the cruel, I ring out.

 

(1560-1627)

Exsultate, justi, in Domino (“Rejoice in the Lord, O Ye Righteous”)

Published in 1602.

Lodovico Viadana was noted for what the esteemed Italian musicologist and music librarian Federico Mompellio called “the freshness, fluency and notably expressive quality of his music” as well as being the first composer to include a mandatory instrumental part—the accompanying basso continuo that was a catalyst of the Baroque Age—in his sacred vocal works. (His Missa Dominicalis for one voice and basso continuo, from the Concerti Ecclesiastici of 1607, was apparently the first to introduce monody [i.e., accompanied solo singing] into the principal rite of Catholic worship.) He was born as Lodovico Grossi around 1560 in Viadana, 20 miles north of Parma, and took the name of his birthplace when he entered holy orders in 1588. Little else is known about Viadana’s training and early life until he turns up as maestro di cappella at Mantua Cathedral in 1594. He went to Rome in 1597, and for the next 25 years followed an almost peripatetic existence with significant church posts in Padua, Cremona, Concordia, Fano, Bologna, Viadana and Busseto, career moves perhaps precipitated by what Mompellio said was “the enmity of some of his religious associates.” Sometime shortly before his death, in 1627, Viadana retired to the abbey of Santa Andrea in Gualtieri, ten miles from where he was born. In addition to Masses, motets, Psalms and service music with and without accompaniment, Viadana’s legacy includes several instrumental canzonette and sinfonie. The motet Exsultate, justi, in Domino (“Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous”), published in 1602, is based on the joyous verses that open Psalm 33.

 

Psalm 43, Richte mich, Gott (“Judge Me, O God”), Op. 78, No. 2

Composed in 1844.

Felix Mendelssohn was born a Jew, indeed, born into one of the most prominent Jewish families in northern Europe—his grandfather, Moses, was a celebrated philosopher who advocated the assimilation of Jews into the culture of their country and made German adaptations of the Pentateuch, Song of Songs and a number of Psalms—but his father, Abraham, had him baptized into Christianity in 1816, and then added the Christian surname Bartholdy to his ancestral one to indicate the change of faith. (Abraham himself, however, waited six more years before becoming a Lutheran.) Felix was certainly proud of his ancestry (he did not care for the appended Bartholdy, and chose not to use it whenever he thought his father would not object) and he was himself occasionally the subject of mild anti-Semitism (which he fended off by pretending that it was just a joke), but he had little interest in any organized religion, not attending services or praying or extolling one faith above another. The most important result of Mendelssohn’s conversion was the ease with which it allowed him to become immersed in the music of the Christian church, especially the incomparable choral and instrumental masterworks of Johann Sebastian Bach: his revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 brought him to international prominence; many of his sacred compositions—motets, oratorios, psalms, hymns, anthems, organ works—found their inspiration and models in Bach’s music; he incorporated the contrapuntal techniques he learned from Bach in works throughout his life. Mendelssohn composed more than 60 works to sacred texts for accompanied and a cappella chorus, a dozen of them settings of Psalms, as well as two oratorios (a third, Christus, was left incomplete at his death), numerous pieces for organ and a symphony (No. 5, “Reformation”) that was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of Melanchthon’s “Augsburg Confession,” one of the seminal documents of German Lutheranism.

In 1841, Mendelssohn accepted the position as Royal Kapellmeister to Friedrich Wilhelm IV in Berlin, where his duties included administering the music section of the newly instituted Royal Academy of Arts, composing for the Royal Theater, directing the Royal Orchestra, and conducting the Cathedral Choir. Such a hectic schedule allowed him little time for composition, and the only large works he undertook before he resigned from the post in 1844 were the Variations sérieuses for piano and the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which he had written an Overture a decade-and-a-half before. During the last year of his tenure, Mendelssohn wrote for the Cathedral Choir three unaccompanied Psalms (Nos. 2, 43 and 22, published together as Op. 78), which are counted among the best of his sacred compositions.

TEXT AND TRANSLATION

Richte mich, Gott, und führe meine Sache
wider das unheilige Volk,
und errette mich von den falschen
und bösen Leuten. and unjust man.
Denn du bist der Gott meiner Stärke;
warum verstössest du mich?
Warum lässest du mich so traurig geh’n,
wenn mein Feind mich drängt?
Sende dein Licht und deine Wahrheit,
dass sie mich leiten zu deinem heiligen Berge,
und zu deiner Wohnung. and to thy tabernacles.
Dass ich hinein gehe zum Altar Gottes,
Zu dem Gott der meine Freude und Wonne ist,
und dir, Gott, auf der Harfe danke.
Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele,
und bist so unruhig in mir?
Harre auf Gott!
denn ich werde ihm noch danken,
dass er meines Angesichts Hilfe,
und mein Gott ist.


Judge me, O God, and plead my cause
against an ungodly nation:
O deliver me from the deceitful
For thou art the God of my strength:
why dost thou cast me off?
why go I mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?
O send out thy light and thy truth:
let them lead me unto the holy hill
Then will I go unto the altar of God,
unto God my exceeding joy,
yea, upon my harp will I praise thee, O God.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul,
and why art thou disquieted within me?
Hope in God!
for I shall yet praise him
who is the health of my countenance,
and my God.

Psalm 100: Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt (“Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord, All Ye Lands”)

Composed in 1844.

In December of 1843, Mendelssohn was asked by the Neue Templeverein (“New Temple Society”), a liberal synagogue in Hamburg, to compose a Psalm setting for the dedication of their new temple. Dr. Fraenkel, director of the Temple wrote:

Let us especially suggest the 24th, 84th and 100th Psalms, which we desire to be composed by a master. Our new building will be dedicated at Pentecost of this year, and the above-named Psalms seem to us admirably suited to this occasion.... I must indicate that the accompaniment must be without orchestra and for the organ alone.

Mendelssohn chose Psalm 100, Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt (“Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord, All Ye Lands”), to fulfill the Temple’s request, and he sent the new piece to Hamburg from Berlin in April of 1844, just before leaving to conduct a series of concerts with the London Philharmonic. The score was published without opus number by Bote & Bock in an anthology titled Musica Sacra.

TEXT AND TRANSLATION

Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt!
Dienet dem Herrn mit Freuden,
kommt vor sein Angesicht mit Frohlocken.
Erkennet, dass der Herr Gott ist.
Er hat uns gemacht, und nicht wir selbst
zu seinem Volk
und zu Schaafen seiner Weide.
Gehet zu seinen Thoren ein mit Danken,
zu seinen Vorhöfen mit Loben,
lobet seinen Namen.
Denn der Herr ist freundlich
und seiner Gnade währet ewig,
und seine Wahrheit für und für.

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands!
Serve the Lord with gladness:
come before His presence with singing.
Know ye that the Lord He is God:
it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves;
we are His people,
and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
and into His courts with praise,
and bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His mercy is everlasting,
and His truth endureth for all generations.

Heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts”)

Composed in 1844.

In 1841, Mendelssohn accepted the position of Royal Kapellmeister to Friedrich Wilhelm IV in Berlin, where his duties included administering the music section of the newly instituted Royal Academy of Arts, composing for the Royal Theater (most notably the incidental music complementing his dazzling Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1826), directing the Royal Orchestra and conducting the Cathedral Choir. Included in King Frederick William’s high-minded agenda for his Academy was the establishment of a new musical chapel at court—30 singers and an orchestra drawn from Berlin’s finest musicians—that would serve as a standard for sacred music throughout his realm. Mendelssohn was charged with conducting and occasionally composing for the concerts and services of the chapel, and in 1846 Wilhelm commissioned him to make musical settings for several items from the Deutsche Liturgie, the standard Prussian Protestant order of worship. In addition to six brief responses and Amens, Mendelssohn wrote four more substantial items, including a sonorous setting for unaccompanied double choir of the German equivalent of the old Latin Sanctus: Heilig, heilig, heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth—Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.

TEXT AND TRANSLATION

Heilig, heilig, heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth!
Alle Lände sind seiner Ehre voll
Hosianna in der Höh!
Gelobt sei der da kommt im Namen des Herrn!
Hosianna in der Höh!

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts!
Heaven and Earth are full of thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!

(1833-1897)

Drei Gesänge (“Three Songs”) for Chorus, Op. 42

Composed in 1844.

The Op. 42 Drei Gesänge (“Three Songs”) for unaccompanied mixed chorus were composed between 1859 and 1861, when Brahms was conducting a choral society in Hamburg. The opening Abendständchen (“Evening Serenade”) sets a halcyon poem by Clemens Brentano (1778–1842), who is most familiar in musical contexts as the co-author (with Achim von Arnim) of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), which played a pivotal role in the creative life of Gustav Mahler. In the text for the second song of Op. 42, Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827), whose poems provided the inspiration for Schubert’s incomparable song cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, evoked the vision of Vineta, a mythical lost city said by legend to have been on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. Ossian was a warrior-poet of Irish antiquity who chronicled the 3rd-century exploits of his father, Finn MacCumhail, and Finn’s war band, the Fianna Éireann. In 1762, the Scottish poet James Macpherson published an epic titled Fingal, which he had “discovered” to be the work of Ossian and rendered into modern form. These “Ossianic” poems, with their mix of history, legend and heroism, found enormous favor across northern Europe, most intensely in Germany. By the time Brahms chose an excerpt from Fingal rendered into German by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) to round out his Op. 42 Songs, however, the authenticity of the epic had been called into question (Fingal was eventually shown to be a forgery, written entirely by Macpherson himself), but that uncertainty did nothing to diminish his touching lament for the maiden Darthula.

TEXTS AND TRANSLATIONS

Abendständchen (“Evening Serenade”), Op. 42, No. 1
text: Clemens Brentano

Hör es klagt die Flöte wieder
Und die kühlen Brunnen rauschen,
Golden wehn die Töne nieder;
Stille, stille, lass und lauschen.
Holdes Bitten mild Verlangen
Wie es süss zum Herzen spricht!
Durch die Nacht die mich umfangen,
Blick zu mir der Töne licht.

Hark, the flute is singing sadly,
and the cooling springs are rustling,
golden sounds are wafting downwards,
softly, softly let us listen!
Tender pleading, gentle yearning
sweetly speaks unto the heart!
Through the night which holds me captive,
lights from music look at me.


Vineta, Op. 42, No. 2
text: Wilhelm Müller

Aus des Meeres tiefem, tiefem Grunde
klingen Abendglocken dumpf und matt,
uns zu geben wunderbare Kunde
von der schönen, alten Wunderstadt.
In der Fluten Schoss hinab gesunken,
blieben unten ihre Trümmer stehn;
ihre Zinnen lassen goldne Funken
widerscheinend auf dem Spiegel sehn.
Und der Schiffer, der den Zauberschimmer
einmal sah im hellen Abendrot,
nach derselben Stelle schifft er immer,
ob auch rings umher die Klippe droht.
Aus des Herzens tiefem, tiefem Grunde
klingt es mir wie Glocken dumpf und matt.
Ach, sie geben wunderbare Kunde
von der Liebe, die geliebt es hat.
Eine schöne Welt ist da versunken,
ihre Trümmer blieben unten stehn;
lassen sich als goldne Himmelsfunken
oft im Spiegel meiner Träume sehn.
Und dann möcht ich tauchen in die Tiefen,
mich versenken in den Wunderschein,
und mir ist, als ob mich Engel riefen
in die alte Wunderstadt herein.

From the very bottom of the sea
muffled bells are peeling sadly,
telling us the strangest story
of a lovely old enchanted city.
Deep submerged within the water’s womb
broken fragments still are left behind;
on the water’s surface are reflected
golden flashes glistening from the ramparts.
And the boatman who had once beheld
in bright sunset sky the magic glow,
many a time returns there with his craft,
though fierce rocks are threatening all around.
From the very bottom of my heart
I can hear the sound of muffled bells,
telling me a wonderful, sad story
of the love which once this heart had felt.
What a lovely world has been submerged there,
broken fragments still are left behind;
glistening like the golden sparks of heaven
they are oft reflected in my dreams.
Then I long to dive within the depths,
to submerge myself in wondrous glow,
and I feel as though the angels called me
down into the old enchanted city.

Darthulas Grabesgesang (“Darthula’s Funeral Dirge”), Op. 42, No. 3
text: Johann Gottfried Herder, after Ossian (James Macpherson)

Mädchen von Kola, du schläfst!
Um dich schweigen die blauen Ströme Selmas!
Sie trauren um dich, um dich!
Sie trauren um dich, den letzten Zweig,
den letzten Zweig von Thruthils Stamm!
Wann erstehst du wieder in deiner Schöne?
Schönste der Schönen in Erin! Thou,
Du schläfst im Grabe langen Schlaf,
dein Morgenrot ist ferne! the sunrise is far!
O nimmer kommt dir die Sonne
weckend an deine Ruhestätte:
Wach auf, wach auf,
Frühling ist draussen!
Die lauen Lüfte säuseln, auf grünen Hügeln,
holdselig, holdseliges Mädchen,
weben die Blumen!
Im Hain wallt spriessendes Laub!
Auf immer, so weiche denn, Sonne!
Weiche, Sonne, dem Mädchen von Kola,
sie schläft!
Nie ersteht sie wieder in ihrer Schöne!
Nie siehst du sie lieblich wandeln mehr,
Mädchen von Kola, sie schläft!


Maiden of Kola, thou sleepest!
Selma’s blue streams around thee are silent!
They mourn for thee, for thee!
They mourn for thee, the last branch,
the last branch of Truthil’s race!
When wilt thou arise again in thy beauty?
the fairest of Erin’s maids!
Thy sleep in the grave is long,
O never shall the sun come to thee
to wake thee from thy bed:
Darthula! Awake, awake, Darthula!
The Spring is abroad!
The gentle winds rustle on green hills,
sweetly, sweet maiden,
the flowers are growing!
Foliage is waving in the grove!
Retreat, sun, forever!
Retreat, sun, from the maiden of Kola,
she sleepeth!
Never again will she go forth in her beauty,
never again will you see her in the steps
of her beauty,
the maiden of Kola, she sleepeth!

(1685-1750)

Cantata No. 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (“God’s Time is the Very Best Time”), BWV 106

Composed in 1707.

Johann Sebastian Bach, ambitious, feisty and only recently turned 20, got his first appointment in August 1703, as organist of the New Church at Arnstadt, a small town 70 miles southwest of Leipzig. Those few records that survive of Bach’s Arnstadt tenure concern mainly his continuing tiffs with the town council, who demanded explanations when he refused to accompany the church school’s choir on grounds of its musical incompetence, or when he came to blows over an insult to a student (whom he accused of being a “nanny-goat bassoonist”), or when his improvising was judged “too curious” and “too confused” and “too long” for the good of the congregation, or when he invited a “young female stranger” (perhaps his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, whom he was to marry in 1708) into the organ loft—with the pastor’s permission, he contended—for the purpose of a little informal music-making. Bach’s prickly relationship with his municipal employers came to a head early in 1706, after he overstayed, by three months(!), the leave he had been granted to hear the concerts of the renowned Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck, some 200 miles away. Bach promised an explanation in writing, but there is no record that he ever offered one. Cushioned by an extraordinary skill as an organist that was bringing him notoriety and job offers, a vast family deeply imbedded in the musical and political life of northern Germany, and a quickly maturing genius for composition, Bach bided his time.

In spring 1707, the organist’s job opened at St. Blasius’ Church in the Free Imperial City of Mühlhausen, 30 miles northwest of Arnstadt. Bach auditioned on Easter Sunday 1707 (April 24); no other applicants were heard. He was formally awarded the post a month later, at a salary 20 percent higher than that of his predecessor, and he felt secure enough to undertake a marriage with his cousin Maria Barbara in October. In addition to playing at St. Blasius and one of the city’s minor churches, Bach composed several organ works and a few occasional vocal pieces at Mühlhausen. His work there was respected—his specifications for the rebuilding of the organ at St. Blasius were enthusiastically adopted and the council financed the publication of two of his compositions—but he again ran afoul of controversy when his pastor began espousing the Pietist doctrine that admitted only the most austere music into the service, which allowed no place for Bach’s grand musical designs. In June 1708, only a year after arriving in Mühlhausen, Bach was off again, this time to become organist, violinist and “Chief Chamber Musician” to the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst at Weimar, where he solidified his reputation as one of the day’s most gifted musicians.

The half-dozen cantatas that have survived from Bach’s Arnstadt and Mühlhausen tenures are all occasional pieces, composed for weddings, funerals and city council installations; one, the Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ Lay in Death’s Grim Prison,” BWV 4), seems to have been Bach’s audition piece for Mühlhausen. Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (BWV 106) was apparently written for the funeral of Bach’s maternal uncle Tobias Lämmerhirt, who died at Erfurt on August 10, 1707; Bach subtitled the work “Actus Tragicus.” Their relationship was close enough that Tobias bequeathed his nephew the considerable legacy of 50 gulden; Bach used the inheritance to facilitate his marriage to Maria Barbara in October. Following an old north German custom for such works, Bach assembled the text from the Old and New Testaments (Psalms 90:12 and 31:5, Isaiah 38:1, Ecclesiastes 14:17, Acts 17:28, Revelation 22:20 and Luke 23:42) and from church hymns by Luther and Reusner, and wove from these fragments a potent statement of belief, which Ulrich Leisinger of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig summarized: “Each individual part of the text stands on its own, but as a whole the texts are arranged in such a way as to form a theological unity: our life, like our death, is in God’s hands. The old covenant that God made with Moses states that every human being is mortal. But the covenant renewed by Christ through the sacrifice of His death fulfills the promise of eternal life.” The original scoring is among the most somber and burnished that Bach ever chose: two recorders, two violas da gamba, cello, bass and organ; violins and violas are absent. The work opens with an instrumental Sonatina (a “little sonata,” i.e., brief and with just a single movement) that W. Gillies Whittaker, in his study of Bach’s cantatas, called “one of the loveliest elegies ever penned.” The three large multi-sectional movements that follow progress smoothly from chorus to soloists and back. Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit is both one of Bach’s earliest examples of the genre that he brought to its formal and expressive apogee and one of his finest and most deeply moving. Whittaker closed his discussion of the cantata with a question: “Has any other composer ever compressed so much varied and exquisite beauty into such a short span?”

TEXT and TRANSLATION

Sonatina

Chor—Arioso—Arioso—Chor—Arioso
Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.
In ihm leben, weben und sind wir, solange er will.
In ihm sterben wir zur rechten Zeit, wenn er will.
Ach, Herr, lehre uns bedenken, dass wir sterben
müssen, auf dass wir klug werden.
Bestelle dein Haus; denn du wirst sterben
und nicht lebendig bleiben!
Es ist der alte Bund: Mensch, du musst sterben!
Ja, komm, Herr Jesu, komm!

God’s time is the very best time.
In him living, moving, we exist, as long as he wills.
In him shall we die at the right time, when he wills.
Ah, Lord, teach us to remember that our death
is certain, that we might gain wisdom.
Set ready thine house; for thou shalt perish
and not continue living!
This is the ancient law: man, thou must perish!
Yes, come, Lord Jesus, come!

Arie—Arioso—Choral
In deine Hände befehl ich meinen Geist; du hast
mich erlöset, Herr, du getreuer Gott. thou hast
Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein.
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
In Gottes Willen,
Getrost ist mir mein Herz und Sinn,
Sanft und stille.
Wie Gott mir verheissen hat;
Der Tod ist mein Schlaf worden.

Into thine hands now do I commit my soul; for
redeemed me, Lord, thou my faithful God.
This day shalt thou with me in paradise be.
In peace and joy do I depart,
as God doth will it;
Consoled am I in heart and mind,
calm and quiet.
As God me his promise gave:
My death is changed to slumber.

Chorale
Glorie, Lob, Ehr und Herrlichkeit!
Sei dir, Gott, Vater und Sohn bereit,
Dem Heilgen Geist mit Namen!
Die göttlich Kraft
Macht uns sieghaft
Durch Jesum Christum. Amen.

Glory, laud, praise and majesty
To thee, God, Father, and Son, be giv’n,
The Holy Ghost, with these names!
May godly strength
Make us triumph
Through Jesus Christ. Amen.