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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Bach at Easter

In the general western mindset, "Easter" is a term which takes in the long weekend spanning Good Friday to Easter Monday, and maybe even the days before and after that. But liturgically, in the the Christian calendar, Easter Day is a specific day: the Sunday of the Easter weekend, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus.

In his various church appointments, and especially in Leipzig where he spent the last 27 years of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach was required to write music which reflected the church calendar, and which guided his congregations through the church's teachings appropriate to the days on that calendar. Every Sunday had a name, a set of Bible readings, and a focus for the sermon; and not just Sundays. There were other special days which drew attention to doctrine and observance, and these all required music.

Bach's cantatas and oratorios all reflect the rotation of the church calendar. The St John and St Matthew Passions were intended for performance on Good Friday; the Christmas Oratorio is made up of six cantatas, each of which is for performance on a different day of the Christmas season. But these three works, which are huge in their scale and their musical resources, are Bach's largest liturgical works. For Easter - that is, Easter Day - there is nothing on quite the same scale.

However over the course of his life, Bach did write three works - two cantatas and a short oratorio - which were intended for performance during services on Easter Day, the day which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. In this article we'll look at these three remarkable works.

Mantegna: The Resurrection (1459)

Bach was of course a Lutheran, and central to the life and worship of Lutherans in Bach's day was that particularly Lutheran form of hymn known as the chorale. Many chorales were derived from melodies and texts written by Luther himself in the 16th century, and they were integral to Lutheran worship and life.

Bach based a huge proportion of his church music, and not just the cantatas, on Lutheran chorales. One of his earliest - perhaps the earliest - of his cantatas is one written for Easter Day while he was organist at the church of St Blasius in Mühlhausen (sometimes called Divi Blasii). Bach held this position for less than a year in 1707-08 and it was a small establishment with a good choir but not a large pool of instrumentalists to draw on regularly.

St Blasius, Mühlhausen

It's thought that Bach wrote his first Easter cantata for Mühlhausen, although no definite record of a performance exists. The cantata, BWV4, is based on one of Luther's chorales, Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in the bonds of death). [listen]

In Bach's cantata there are eight movements, each of which is based on the chorale melody. After an opening sinfonia for the instruments alone, the remaining seven movements set the words of each verse of the hymn, but with a stunning variety of musical treatment.

The cantata is on a chamber scale; it requires only two violins, two violas and continuo (bass instruments and organ). The upper violin line of the introductory sinfonia reminds the congregation of the chorale melody which is the basis for all that follows. The mood is restrained and serious, suggesting perhaps the bonds of death in which Christ lay, rather than the glory of his resurrection to follow. (Start at 0’00 in this link.)

The first verse of the hymn is then set in a complex chorus. The soprano line sings the hymn tune while the other three parts - alto, tenor, and bass - provide a web of counterpoint which is itself based on fragments of the hymn tune. At the end of the movement the tempo speeds up and all four parts indulge in an exuberant setting of the word "Hallelujah" which ends every verse of the chorale. One can't help but suspect the young, 22 year old cantor of St Blasius was out to impress... (Start at 1’21 in this link.)

All manner of musical forms and voice combinations follow; Bach treats every verse of the chorale in a different manner. The next verse is a soprano and alto duet, then there's a tenor aria with a virtuosic violin part. Then a four part chorus in which the hymn tune is in the alto voice, not the soprano. The bass aria which follows verges on the bizarre in the demands it makes on the soloist, accompanied by all the instruments. Each new line of the hymn is begun with the voice singing a fragment of the chorale melody, after which the music continues in a free aria setting. The combination of old and new is extraordinary, as are the leaps to the very top and the very bottom of the singer's range near the end. Over the last two bars of the voice part the singer spans two octaves. (Start at 14’05 in this link.)

A duet for soprano and tenor with continuo accompaniment follows this, with the final verse being sung, as was to be Bach's usual practice in the chorale-based cantatas, in the straight four-part hymn version, doubled by the instruments. (Start at 18’57 in this link.)

When Bach left Mühlhausen he went to work at the ducal court in Weimar, a post which required him to write and direct both secular and sacred music. In Weimar, on Easter Day, 21 April 1715, Bach performed a new Easter cantata in the church of St Peter and St Paul. This piece, BWV31, is a very different work to what we just heard. In Weimar there were much greater resources, and this cantata is exuberant and lavish.

St Peter and St Paul, Weimar

The title of the cantata gives us a hint of what to expect: Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret (The heavens laugh, the earth rejoices). It mocks death and exults in Jesus's resurrection. Like the earlier work, though, it opens with an instrumental movement, but here the palette is much more colourful with trumpets, timpani, oboes, bassoon, strings and organ. The festive chorus which follows sets the opening line of Salomo Franck's text in which the heavens and the earth laugh and rejoice at the grave being unable to hold Jesus within its grasp. Bach quite deliberately paints the word "lacht" (laugh) in such a way as to suggest actual laughter. (Listen to 21’50-27’32 in this link.)

BWV31 is only about 20 minutes long, but its nine movements traverse a wide range of emotional and spiritual territory. The 30-year old Bach is absolutely in control of this journey, a skill which is so deftly and assuredly handled in the cantatas (not to mention the later Passions) that it makes me regret he never wrote a fully-fledged opera.

A recitative for the bass announces the resurrection, and this is full of tempo changes - sometimes strict, sometimes free - designed to perfectly match the words. The regal-sounding continuo aria for the bass which follows strikes a heroic tone.

The next two movements are for the tenor. The recit focuses on the believer rising to new life because of Jesus's victory over death, while the aria - accompanied by all the strings - contrasts the old man of sin with the new man who has risen to new life. (Listen to 31’47-34’41 in this link.)

The next two movements are for the soprano, again a pairing of a recit and an aria. The mood becomes darker and the believer is reminded of the responsibility of suffering with Christ as well as enjoying his victory. The soprano's aria speaks of the believer's death, and the promise of seeing Jesus at the final hour. Bach sets it radiantly, with an oboe solo over a delicate, pizzicato bassline. After a few moments, the violins and violas unexpectedly enter, playing a triple-time version of a chorale melody the congregation would have immediately recognised: Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist (When my last hour is at hand). The effect on the congregation would have been profound. (Listen to 35’27-39’17 in this link.)

Bach's 1715 Easter cantata ends with the regular version of the same chorale which the upper strings played in that aria, bringing what started out as an exuberant, almost theatrical piece to a radiant and thoughtful close.

Two years later, in 1717, Bach left Weimar and took up a purely secular musical post at Cöthen. Then, in 1723, he began the major and final musical post of his life, Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. This position saw Bach as virtual music director for the entire city, and not least at the four main Lutheran churches, of which St Thomas's was but one.

St Thomas church and school, Leipzig (1723 engraving)

Cantatas were required at the rate of about sixty a year, for performance on alternate Sundays at St Thomas and St Nicholas, and for a few years Bach worked at a level of intensity which beggars belief. After these years of intense cantata production though, he had two or three cantatas at least for every Sunday and other major feast day, and he could rotate his cantatas throughout the year, writing the odd new one as required.

For his first Easter Day in Leipzig, 9 April 1724, Bach performed both of his earlier Easter cantatas, BWV4 and BWV31, presumably one before and one after the sermon.

Then the following Easter, 1 April 1725, Bach composed a new work for the Easter Day service. 1725 was the year in which he performed the St John Passion on Good Friday, and the new work for Easter - which he called the Easter Oratorio - was designed to be its companion piece, performed two days later. The early cantata, BWV4, was also performed in the same service, the last known occasion on which Bach performed it.

At around 40 minutes in length, the Easter Oratorio is about twice as long as your average Bach cantata, but it's nowhere near the length of his Passion settings, and only about a third as long as the Christmas Oratorio which he compiled the following decade. It's scored for even more instruments than BWV31, as on special occasions Bach could call upon university students and freelance professionals to augment his usual band of players (who were mostly university students anyway). The Easter Oratorio calls for trumpets and timpani, flute, recorders, oboes, strings and organ, and again, the festive mood is set right at the start with a lavish orchestral sinfonia. No-one wrote music of rejoicing quite like JS Bach... (Start at 0’07 in this link.)

An exquisite movement follows, originally for oboe and strings but in the later versions of the piece (and this recording is of Bach's final version), the oboe was replaced with a flute. This dark movement seems to paint the dark before the dawn of Easter morning, the trepidation of the women approaching the tomb... (Start at 4’08 in this link.)

The chorus then return us to the mood of the sinfonia, urging us to hasten to the grave of Jesus, which is now empty. Bach reworked this movement several times as he re-used the oratorio over his years in Leipzig. It was originally a duet for tenor and bass followed by the chorus. (Start at 7’31 in this link.)

St Thomas, Leipzig

There are four solo parts in the Easter Oratorio, for soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and in the earlier versions of the work these four voice parts played actual character roles in the story: Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, St Peter and St John respectively. (It's the narrative aspect of this work which qualifies it for the title "oratorio" rather than "cantata", something also evident in the later Christmas Oratorio.) In the later versions Bach removed these names and made the singers anonymous participants in the story.

Unknown to Bach's congregation in April 1725, most of the music for the Easter Oratorio was recycled from a secular cantata Bach had written only a few months before to celebrate the birthday of the Duke of Sachsen-Weißenfels. All Bach did was replace the original text, a pastoral drama involving shepherds and shepherdesses, with the anonymous religious text celebrating Jesus's resurrection. Bach did this often - most of the Christmas Oratorio and much of the Mass in B minor can boast a similar pedigree - but the resulting work for Easter is still a stunner, regardless.

After this chorus the soloists come to the fore. Three recit-aria couplings follow but the recitatives are very operatic (as would have been required in the secular cantata). The opening recit, for example, uses all four soloists, lamenting the death of Jesus and speaking of their grief. (Start at 12’26 in this link.)

This is followed by a soprano aria featuring solo flute contrasting the myrrh which embalms the dead with the laurel wreath which crowns the victorious. In the next recit the soloists arrive at the grave and find it empty. The tenor's subsequent aria features the recorders in an evocation of the sleep of death, which for the believer is made comfortable by Jesus's burial cloths. (Start at 23’43 in this link.)

After a recitative for the soprano and alto, in which the faithful women express their desire to see the risen Jesus, the alto's joyful aria which follows features a sprightly solo for the oboe d'amore (a larger, alto version of the oboe which Bach often used).

The Easter Oratorio ends with a bass recitative expressing the joy of the believer in the knowledge of Jesus's resurrection, and the concluding chorus praises Jesus and exhorts heaven to opens its gates to let him in. (Start at 38’25 in this link.)

Bach went on to revise and re-perform both BWV31 and the Easter Oratorio during his time in Leipzig. BWV31 was heard again at Easter 1731, and the Easter Oratorio was performed again three more times, all in slightly different versions, with the last being in 1749, the year before Bach's death. All three of these works show Bach as the supreme master of the Lutheran cantata, whose skill went far beyond the merely technical to being able to write music which touched and moved his listeners then as much as it does today.

Statue of JS Bach (1908) outide St Thomas, Leipzig

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2012.

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