Edward McCue (EM) Rick Erickson has shared extensive details about the chorale tradition and Bach’s cantatas, but you’re in the midst of preparing one of Bach’s motets for performance by the Festival Chorus on 3 March 2012. Tell us about Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden (BWV 230).
Gregg Cannady (GC) For some time there was a debate about whether this motet was really by Bach, but the general consensus today is that it was an early work that might have been commissioned for a special occasion, such as a memorial service. While it is based on the first two verses of Psalm 117 and is written for a single, four-voiced choir with basso continuo accompaniment, Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all gentiles) doesn’t tell a Gospel story or resemble the much simpler entrance motets found at the beginnings of the Lutheran Sunday Service in the eighteenth century, so the thought is that it might have been originally performed somewhere other than in a church. Since the manuscript includes an independent continuo part that could have been played on a portative organ, with other instruments supporting the voices, it’s possible that the motet could even have been first performed out-of-doors.
Lobet den Herrn is quite virtuosic in its writing for the voices and would have served as a spectacular celebration of the life of any individual. The first line of text begins with ascending arpeggios, and for twenty-four measures the choir weaves in and out of a fugal theme before finally coming together on a cadence. Then a second fugue appears with a new line of text, and each entrance of the second subject is increasingly pronounced and energetic. The setting becomes quite exciting when the voices sing “preiset” (“extol”) again and again in different ranges, and it reminds me a lot of a gospel choir singing their praises.
But suddenly the mood changes, and the Chamber Choir, a subset of singers from within the Festival Chorus, softly sings the third section of the motet. Homophonic, sustained and beautiful, the text “Denn seine Gnade und Wahrheit” (“For his mercy and truth”) demands a drastically different treatment than the two previous songs of praise, and the text leads us into a more polyphonic section where the word “Ewigkeit” (“eternity”) is painted beautifully by Bach. Each of the parts takes its turn sustaining the first syllable of the word for couple of measures, and slowly and surely the polyphonic writing builds up to another cadence. At that point, everybody comes in, and the full Festival Chorus begins to sing “Alleluia.”
It’s really fun to sing the Alleluia section in a very fast three, and Rick may even decide to conduct it in one. When you first look at this section you just see this one word, “Alleluia,” and you think “No Big Deal,” but you can never predict on which beat that one word will make an entrance, and, as a result, this short Alleluia section presents more than just a few challenges. In fact, the entire motet is a challenge to sing, and everybody has to be very accurate in their rhythms and flexible in their articulation of long lines of rapid notes.
EM This season the Boulder Bach Festival instrumentalists are working hard to improve their Baroque performance practice. What’s the Festival Chorus up to?
GC Well, there was a time in our choral history when the esthetic was to perform everything with a big, Romantic sound, even the early works. In the past, singers would approach every note with gusto and even weight, but if you sing each note with equal weight and a lot of force, you can’t see past the dense texture to the musical gestures that Bach selected to deliver the text.
So we’re going out of our way to make sure that we don’t weight every note equally. We’re using warmup exercises based on cantata texts to practice Bach’s gestures, and we’re paying close attention to the rise and fall of the line and the musical stress and, more importantly, unstress of the text. It’s really quite refreshing to perform Bach while carefully listening to each other and to working together to bring out the essence of each line of text. It’s a huge goal of ours to bring the beauty and genius of this music to everyone, not just to people who are already hooked on Bach.
EM Your synopsis of this motet makes me want to become familiar with the text before hearing it performed live during the Festival, yet I look forward to seeing how close you can come to making the motet truly accessible to audience members who are hearing the text for the first time.
GC Just last night, at a rehearsal of the Chamber Choir, we were talking about how we really want to make sure that the text is coming across. So rather than burying our noses in the music and looking and sounding like stern musicians who take themselves much too seriously, we’ve decided to memorize parts of the motet so that at times our voices can dance with joy or, alternatively, admit our longing for something that’s missing in our lives. Our hope is that, by opening up to the text, we will help people who don’t have an extensive background in music to instantly identify with what we’re singing about.
EM This must have something to do with universality of Bach’s music. Even though the words of this motet have sprung from a particular faith tradition, the contrasting emotions portrayed in Bach’s music aren’t limited to any particular place or time.
GC That’s absolutely right. Bach wrote this music for all people and for all times, and every year it’s our duty to present it to the Boulder community to the best of our ability.