Tracks 1, 14: from "Das musikalische Opfer" BWV 1079/5
Track 2: String Quartet (1905)
Recorded January 2001
Himmelfahrtskirche Sendling, Munchen
About BWV 1079 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
About BWV 4 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
The conceit that informs this disc is that Bach and Webern's meditations of life, death, and eternity are essentially complementary, that Bach's Lutheran faith and Baroque aesthetic and Webern's Catholic faith and Modernist aesthetic speak of a shared belief in the luminous and the numinous. Indeed, so pervasive is the conceit that complementary performances of Webern's orchestration of Bach's Ricercata in six voices from The Musical Offering opens and closes the disc. And so successful is the conceit that this otherwise tired trick is incredibly effective. The credit for this success must go to conductor Christoph Poppen, whose conceit it is that informs the disc. From the first notes of the ethereal Ricercata through the spirituality of Webern's string quartet (1905), the dreadful mystery of Bach's Cantata No. 4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden," the sublime transcendence of Webern's Satze (5) fur Streichquartett, and back to the ethereal Ricercata, Poppen's interpretation makes a whole aesthetic experience of these seemingly disparate pieces. The singing of the Hilliard Ensemble is powerfully affecting in the cantata and the playing of the Kammerorchester Munchen is superb throughout. ECM's sound is first rate. This is a great spiritual experience and a very great recording.
J. S. Bach's cantata "Christ lag in Todesbanden" provided a context for "Morimur", the celebrated Christoph Poppen/Hilliard performance of Bach's "Ciaconna" which reveraled "hidden chorales." The cantata is now at the centre of a new recording focussed on connections between Bach and Anton Webern. Christoph Poppen is the "spiritus rector" of the project, directing the Munich Chamber Orchestra and contributing his own, remarkable orchestration of Webern's revelatory String Quartet 1905.
========= from the cover ==========
Shadows of Death, Signs of Life by Herbert Glossner
"Early work" is, first and foremost, a chronological category. Even so, it is usually used as an evaluative one: the early work as a time of seeking, of the "not yet" on its way to maturity, until the "late work" comes to crown a creative life. Like any pigeonhole, this may serve as a handy organizational aid. Yet, just as clearly as the compositions of the final phase in the life of Jo-hann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven allow themselves to be read as a kind of last will and testament, the cantatas of the young Bach are advanced and rich in existential insights.
Two of the earliest of his well-known vocal works confront the theme of death, or more precisely: of dying and living. Like"Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit" (God's time is the best time of all), BWV 106, also known as "Actus tragicus", from the Muhlhausen period, that is, 1707/08, "Christ lag in Todesbanden" (Chist lay in the bonds of death), BWV4, also belongs to this period according to recent research on Bach. It is thus an early work whose musical forms very clearly make use of preexisting models, while the confrontation of death and life reveals a high degree of theological and intellectual reflection in its compositional realization.
In the oeuvre of Anton Webern, whose relation to Johann Sebastian Bach is made clear by the present recording, it seems easy to distinguish his early work and its further development. He himself designated his Passacaglia for Orchestra of 1908 his opus one; the compositions that preceded it (and several later ones) were taken from his posthumous papers as "works without opus numbers". Does the String Quartet of 1905 then belong to the"early work" of Webern, who was at that time, like Bach in Muhlhausen, barely twenty-two? Does the "Five Movements for String Quartet", Op. 5, of 1909 belong to Webern's middle period and the 1935 arrangement of Bach's six-part ricercar from " Das musikalische Opfer" (The musical offering), BWV 1079, to his "late work"? The pieces should speak for themselves. That Christoph Poppen, with "Christ lag in Todesbanden", has turned once again to a chorale cantata that occupied a momentous place in the analytical interpretation of the Ciaccona from Bach's Partita in D Minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1004, certainly has to do with Webern as well. The recording of the Ciaccona by Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble is titled "Morimur" (ECM New Series 1765), Latin for"we are dying". Life - dying - life: that is the issue.
The work that Johann Sebastian Bach had engraved,"most humbly", to Friedrich II, King of Prussia, as a "Musicalisches Opfer" (Musical offering) is chamber music in small settings: a trio sonata that was at the height of the period in stylistic terms, a more playful three-part ricercar, ten canons, and a six-part ricercar - all celebrating the venerable art of counterpoint. The occasion was Bach's visit to Potsdam two months earlier, where the king had given him a theme that was, however, not suited to improvisation in six parts. In good time Bach made up for it compositionally. The old-fashioned designation "ricercar" - from the Italian word ricercare (to seek, to research) - in lieu of "fugue", then in more common use, was a deliberate choice on Bach's part, and not only for the recourse to strict form. From the letters in RICERCAR he formed the acrostic "Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Reso-luta" (The theme and the remainder resolved in the canonic art at the king's request), and thus shone a brilliant light on the king and on his own skill in equal measure.
The theme jumps with five lapidary semitones from the ascending triad C-E-flat-G to the diminished seventh A-flat-B, adds a chromatic descent from the G to B, and finally, after two leaps of a fourth, returns stepwise to the fundamental. Two sequences of notes, which despite unusual interval arpeggiations are affirmative in the archaic style, frame the semitone movement, which is traditionally understood as a figure of lament or suffering (passus duriusculus, pathopoeia). In a letter to the conductor Hermann Scherchen in 1938, Webern divided the theme into four times five notes, by parsing the chromatic descent into two times five notes (counting the tied E-flat twice) and by not including the final note. He perceived this "4+1 and 1+4... as if it were two times five notes... as the centerpieces of this structure, so to speak, as quite different in character from the beginning and the end". Dynamically, it means "making a very clear distinction between the pp of the first five notes and the p of the middle ones! And in the last five notes with molto dim. (>) returning to pp."He reads the note E-flat as the"point of incision", and he accentuates it in his orchestral version by adding the harp, whereas the theme that first enters in the third part is distributed among trombone, horn, and trumpet in alternation. Webern colors the other thematic entries with similarly differentiated wind parts, giving the strings contrapuntal lines, having the players use mutes and play pizzicato, working out fragmented themes, inversions, and diminution, adding dynamic contrasts and - at pedal points, for example -timpani rolls. Webern is orchestrating motiv-ically; he exposes structures and contexts by segregating them; he wants to make Bach's music "accessible", "the way I feel it". Only in the last eight measures before the final chord do the bass clarinet, the bassoon, the cello, and the contrabass intonate the theme again in unison in a largo ritardando. "Yes", he wrote Scherchen,"isn't the point to awaken what is still sleeping in the secrecy of Bach's abstract rendering, which makes it all but nonexistent for nearly everyone, or at least completely incomprehensible? Incomprehensible as music!" Taking this instrumentation as his example Gerd Zacher has analyzed Bach's"Ricercar a 6" and Webern's understanding of Bach. Zacher does a great deal more than reveal astonishing mathematical and numerological discoveries. Proceeding from Webern's experience with the six-part ricercar at the piano, Zacher notes: "The orchestration floats above it; it is a spiritual event." Zacher puts these words in We-bern's mouth: "...out of the ricercar was thou taken, and unto the ricercar shalt thou return", and then concludes his essay with "Although perhaps the ricercar of the goal will be different after this event than the ricercar of the beginning (just as the dust out of which I am born is different from that which I will become after I die). Mere circulation would be ahistorical." This theological analogy, which cites the Christian burial rite, builds a bridge to Webern's String Quartet of 1905, which Christoph Poppen has arranged for chamber orchestra.
The work begins "somberly and ponderously". Three notes mark the beginning, a descending minor second C-sharp - C, then the major third upward to E. A motif that will be heard again and again, the chromatic (sighing or lamenting) step in many variations permeates the one-movement quartet almost everywhere, often followed by a lucid ascent. In its chromatically intensified trenchancy it gives a sense of the works of the older Webern, composed using twelve-tone and serial technique and distilled to utmost brevity and concentration. Here, though, sixteenth notes, rhythmized into groups of five (quintuplets), initially drive the movement forward; after thirty measures (2'40" of playing time) a citation of the musical theme B-A-C-H [the German nomenclature for B-flat-A-C-B; trans] appears in the dense imitation of the three upper parts. This will not be the only occurrence; in the middle section, for example, this formula can be heard distinctly in the bass (on G-flat) in an emphasized passage immediately before a passionate unison passage that introduces the section's conclusion. A new theme is prepared in an interlude; from here to the end of this third section all of the dynamic markings are either ppp or pp. The last twenty measures determine the three initial notes; the delicate theme floats above them; the falling second is the last movement before the resounding final chord in E-major. The hints of late romanticism cannot be missed in this highly expressive work of great beauty, but neither can the influence of Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Webern studied in Vienna from 1904 to 1908. Nevertheless, we are persuaded when Heinz-Klaus Metzger says of Webern's String Quartet of 1905, which was discovered among Webern's posthumous papers and premiered in 1962, that "it was clear immediately that music history had to be rewritten". It was the very first atonal composition, even before Schoenberg himself, as Metzger concludes from the lack of any reference to a fundamental until the E-major chord just mentioned. It is precisely the interpenetration of such contrasting structures which elucidates the motto from the mystic Jakob Bohme that Webern wrote on the reverse of the quartet's title page in 1905:
What sort of triumph in the spirit it was, I can neither write nor say; nor can it be compared with anything other than with that in which life is born in the middle of death, and it is comparable to the resurrection of the dead.
In this light my spirit immediately saw through everything, and through all creatures, even the green herb and the grass; God saw who he was and how he was, and what his will was.
Webern's personal piety, informed by Catholicism and nature philosophy, can be heard speaking here: his love of nature, of the mountains, and his view of the connectedness of all living things - also with death. In 1912 he confessed in a letter to Alban Berg that nearly all of his compositions from the Passacaglia, Op. 1 onward were related to the death of his mother in 1906. In his vocal oeuvre he set nature lyrics as well as religious songs and songs of death. During the composition of the String Quartet of 1905 an important influence was a triptych by the Austrian-Swiss painter Giovanni Segantini. Three canvases depict, against the backdrop of the Engadin mountains, the themes of the triad "Becoming - Being - Dying" (also "Life - Nature - Death"), from the joy of spring by way of the calm of summer to the snow-covered burial scene in winter light. For Webern, and not only for him, music belonged to the unity of all creation. In that same year, 1905, he wrote in his diary what Gustav Mahler had said of counterpoint:
.. .Just as [in nature] the whole developed from the primordial cell... so should in music a large tonal shape develop from a single motif from a single motif that contains the seed of everything that will be.
The String Quartet of 1905 is the essence of this view in musical form. And Bach? The Cantata BWV4 reveals such a "primordial cell" of composition two hundred years earlier in a single semitone motif: the first two tones of the chorale melody. Originally the cantata began, like the chorale "Christ ist erstanden" (Christ has risen), from which Martin Luther and his cantor Johann Walther formed the new melody, with a whole-tone step upward, corresponding to the Dorian church mode. In Bach's time it had grown closer to E minor, as in the cantata, with the fourth degree A-sharp altered to the dominant B.The brief Sinfonia enters with a semitone step, in order to draw out the formula B-A-sharp monophonically in the third and fourth measures, which is then followed by a slight variation of the first chorale line. The tone that even Death adopts is sounded for the following seven strophes. Bach wrote it out word for word, without any other addition. First, in Versus 1, the soprano presents the chorale in a largo cantus firmus, ornamenting it in rapid motion. From the third line onward the lower parts anticipate the cantus firmus in imitative diminution; at the word "frohlich" (joyful) lively sixteenth-note figures enter; with the "Halleluja" that concludes the strophe, the writing dispenses with the cantus firmus principle and breaks out into an Easter exultation that lasts thirty-six measures. The contrast to Versus 2 could not be stronger. Supported only by an ostina-to continuo, the soprano solo now takes up the semitone motif, which the alto solo repeats an augmented second lower - an extremely tense relationship that shines a harsh spotlight on the line " Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt" (Nobody could overcome Death). Other dissonant intensifications follow constantly, as if caught in an inexorably advancing flow that does not even spare the "Halleluja". After " Death" and "power", the sense of being "captive" is made vivid in obstinately repeated dark tones at intervals of a second. Versus 3 provides more life, with a running sixteenth-note figuration of the solo violin that begins with the semitone motif, and braced by the tenor solo presents the cantus firmus nearly unchanged in the confessional text"Jesus Christus,Gottes Sohn" (Jesus Christ, the Son of God). That Death has been stripped of his "power" is announced by clenching double stops in the -violins and sixteenth-note sequences that appear in the basso continuo for the first time. When death becomes a mere schema -"da blei-bet nichts denn Tods Gestalt" (there remains nought but Death's form) - a pause ("nichts") and an adagio paraphrase of the chorale melody ("denn Tod's") proclaim the turning point. The tenor too now sings the "Halleluja" in sequences of sixteenths. The cantus firmus in the alto and agitated anticipatory imitation in the other parts, now accompanied by the continuo, tell of "ein wunderlicher Krieg" (a wondrous war) in Versus 4, the cantata's center. The powerful image of Luther's "wie ein Tod den andern fraes" (how one Death consumed the other) is set by Bach in parts that are closely intertwined canonically, thus seeming to "devour" one another. Bach expresses the "Spott" (mockery) in quickly tossed-out eighth notes and gives a surprising accent to the "Halleluja" with a diatonic motion of sevenths in the soprano. In an almost celebratory tone, though using the chromatic motion of fourths from the passion motif, the basso continuo praises "das rechte Osterlamm" (the true Passover lamb) in Versus 5, which the solo bass follows with the cantus firmus on the fundamental E, and only then do the strings answer with the usual B- C-sharp opening. The word "hoch" (high) is prepared by the first violins with the (isolated) highest tone of the whole movement, but at the phrase "hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm" (high upon the Cross's shaft), as dogmatic as it is momentous, the structure breaks open as well. An image that today is more likely to be perceived as wry - the Passover lamb, "an des Kreuzes Stamm in heiser Lieb gebraten" (roasted in ardent love on the Cross's shaft), whose"Blutzeichnet unser Tur" (blood marks our doors), referring to Exodus 12:7 and 12:13 - was typically graphic poetic imagery at the time, and Bach took the opportunity to repeat it and reinforce its significance. Thus when the word "Tode" (Death) repeats, the bass plunges downward eleven notes, a diminished twelfth, and remains in this low range through more than two measures. A triumphant gesture, that"der Wurger" (the Strangler) has been stripped of his power, holds the note for almost four measures; the "nicht" (not) that follows is emphasized with pauses; the "Halleluja", with a brief postlude, is joyful and relaxed. A dotted, dancing basso continuo introduces Versus 6, which the soprano and tenor sing in rapid succession and closely intertwined in a duet, with festive and cheerful triplets of eights on words like"Won-ne" (delight) and "Sonne" (sun). The cantata ends with simple four-part vocal and instrumental writing.
Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, of 1909 was orchestrated by Anton Webern himself in 1930 - one of the reasons Christoph Poppen chose to orchestrate the String Quartet of 1905 as well. The intensification of the sonority and the possibility to switch between solo and tutti justify these versions. It is thus incumbent upon the ensemble to perform all the dynamic nuances, from triple forte and triple sforzati to quadruple piano in keeping with the composer's intentions. There is not a single measure in Five Movements for String Quartet that does not have multiple markings for dynamics and articulation, including crescendo and decrescendo, ligatures, staccato, and accents. To these are added frequently changing indications of tempo and expression, and calls for double stops (or divided parts), tremolos, harmonics, mutes, and all kinds of bowing imaginable. In its filigree texture and its motifs like ephemeral aphorisms, this relatively early work in Webern's oeuvre is like a premonition of his later method of the most rigorous conciseness to the point of silence.
The first movement begins like a scream. The upward leap into the augmented octave of the cello and the second violin is followed by the major seventh in the viola and first violin. Again and again, the pitch space of the opening intervals (essentially minor seconds pulled apart) is traversed, sometimes in inversion. Following a dominant bass figure, the three upper parts move, occasionally in a calmer tempo, "very delicately" towards a falling semitone step in the first violin, until a fermata concludes the thirteen measures that serve as a kind of exposition. Out of the increasingly agitated middle section, an expressive phrase in the viola jumps out, to which the second violin will later reply. Somewhat calmer at first, a third section drives toward an excessive juxtaposition of the augmented octave interval and into the conclusion of a pizzicato ppp eight-note chord. "Very slowly" - everything played with mute as ppp, pp, or p - the bass in the second movement provides an extremely delicate melodic arc as a ground, which then wanders from the viola to the first and then the second violin. The augmented octave is heard here too, as it is in all the movements, though sometimes only vertically or connected by an intervening note; here the first violin says its farewell with it in its final note. The whole movement is a touching elegy, until a pulsing cello ostinato on great C-sharp introduces the third movement. In the central movement of the Five Movements, several melodic correspondences can be found that are difficult to hear because of the rapid tempo. For example, a scurrying figure composed of six eighths in measure 4 (in the first violin) recurs pizzicato in measures 12-13 (in the second violin), now an augmented octave lower. Another phrase composed of nine notes in measures 9-10 (in the first violin) reproduces exactly, though transposed, the sequence of intervals of the rapid fff unison conclusion. In the architecture of Opus 5, the fourth movement (once again with mutes, pp, and ppp) represents the counterpart to the second movement, but in contrast to the more rushed first and third movements the fifth movement is a peaceful "Abgesang" (B section in bar form) "in delicate motion", with mutes throughout, and then"fadingout"attheend.Asifstuckinplace, the cellos repeat nine times a minor third step down to great C-sharp; a quiet motif appears twice. In the penultimate measure the sighing figure of the descending semitone B-B-flat (first violin) recurs, ultimately finding its resting placing in B.
Surely it does no injustice to the Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, to recall Webern's remarks about composing after the death of his mother and interpret the work as an enigmatic image of his emotions. For example, the first movement could be seen as reflecting a storm of flaring feelings; the second movement as lamenting mourning; the third movement, in the middle, as posing again tormenting, penetrating questions. In the fourth movement a gradually calming lament is heard again slowly, which then joins the fifth movement in its development toward sympathetic composure. The symmetrical structure can also be seen in the temporal course of the movements: the first and second movements last more than five minutes, approximately as long as the fourth and fifth movements (something over six minutes); at less than a minute, the third movement is by far the shortest. It has been discovered that the sum of the number of bars produces a harmonic numerical relationship: the 104 measures of the first, third, and fifth movements relate to the 2 x 13 = 26 of the second and fourth movements in a ratio of four to one - this was surely no coincidence in the work of the later of these masters of mathematically thought-out constructions.
Anton Webern, life, and death - it is a bitterly incomprehensible fact that he died on 15 September 1945 as a result of an error, shot by an American soldier of the occupying forces.
The cyclical element that is evident in Webern's opus 5 and the String Quartet of 1905 just as much as in BWV4 is mirrored in the present recording. The cantata stands at the center; the six-part ricercar provides the cornerstones. It will be heard differently now, after everything that has come before it.
Translation: Steven Lindberg
Alfred Durr, Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach, vols. 1 and 2 (Kassel 1985)
Anton Webern, die reihe, no. 2 (Vienna 1956)
Musik-Konzepte, special edition Anton Webern I and II (Munich 1983/84)