Thursday, 21 February 2013

Situation vacant- genius need not apply. Jesus nahm sich die Zwölfe- Cantata for the Sunday before Lent

It's Sunday, February 7, 1723 in Leipzig, and Bach has written a new cantata for the choir of St Thomas' Church. Just like hundreds of other Sundays, you might say. But this Sunday is like no other. Today, Bach is on trial. He's come to Leipzig hoping to get the job of Cantor; and he's been instructed to write and direct a new piece to show off his musical abilities to the town council. This isn't Bach the confident Kantor of Leipzig. Today, we hear from Bach the third choice interviewee, as he struggled to change the minds of his reluctant possible employers.

Because it's certain that the Leipzig town council didn't really want Bach. The first man they offered the job to was Telemann, renowned for his work at Hamburg. Even when the council agreed to let him carry on composing operas and let him off the work of teaching the choir school boys Latin, he still turned them down, tempted by a pay rise from the Hamburg council. Choice number two was Christoph Graupner, an old boy from St Thomas's choir. He must have wowed the judges a few weeks earlier on 17 January with his Magnificat: they offered him the job outright without hearing Bach at all. But Graupner was contractually tied to his own post as court chapel music director at Hesse-Darmstadt and had to reluctantly turn them down too. Possibly he wasn't as reluctant as all that; the offer from Leipzig enabled Graupner to claim a pay rise from his courtly employer too. Finally the Leipzigers looked to Bach.

So what did he give them? The first movement plunges into a dark, harmonically unstable world. But it's far more than just a polished bit of abstract music; this is liturgical drama, with all the richness of opera. It's could almost a deleted scene from an unwritten Passion. Jesus and the disciples are preparing to go to Jerusalem- for the very last time before the Crucifixion. Naturally, the wonderfully slow-on-the-uptake disciples don't realise this. The tenor tells the story, and then the bass takes up the role of Christ himself, telling the disciples “Behold! We go up to Jerusalem”. Where a lesser composer might have set these quotations from the Gospel in strict dry-recitative form, with just chords played on a keyboard to underpin it, Bach makes the lower strings of the orchestra into a dark, foreboding halo around Jesus's words. And the response from the disciples is equally vivid. Bach bends the meaning of the Gospel text slightly. Strictly speaking, the text is third person narration: “They understood nothing and did not know what had been said.”. But Bach turns it into a turba (crowd) chorus, making “Was? Was?” (“What? What?”) stand out in the choral texture by repeatedly giving it to the three lower parts simultaneously. It's as if the disciples were a load of elderly relatives with dodgy hearing aids.

And to follow, we have the faithful soul's emotional response to the events distilled into an aria- again, just as in the Passion. The soul wants to be drawn to Jesus, just like the disciples were drawn in the first line of the whole cantata. But in the easy-listening serenity, there's some trade-mark word-painting; a harmonic twinge on the word “Leid” pain. The meditation is followed by the bass's recitative. The libretto at this point is dense and full of allusions, to the point of being indigestible at first hearing. There's a reference to “Tabors Berge”- Mount Tabor: that was another example of the disciples getting the wrong end of the stick, where St Peter's response to a heavenly vision of Moses and Elijah was to ask if they'd like some tents. Yes, it's didactic; but to me it seems that Bach is making a theological point- that serene emotional contemplation and more learned teaching go hand in hand. And at the end of the brief sermon from the bass, we end with a flourish- time to dance!

And the dance continues all the way through the tenor aria; a swinging triple-time courtly dance, with flourishes from the upper strings. All that's left is for Bach to reiterate his connection to the two hundred years of Lutheran music again, with the final chorale setting of words by Elizabeth Kreuziger. She was one of Luther's own associates in the 1520s and helped to forge the Lutheran chorale as a literary genre. Here, it's strangely bittersweet; the lively eighteenth-century orchestral accompaniment contrasts with the downbeat sixteenth-century melody. But this just gets the point of the paradoxical words of the hymn: Ertöt uns durch dein Güte, Erweck uns durch dein Gnad; Den alten Menschen kränke, Daß der neu' leben mag” : “Slay us in your goodness, wake us with your grace; sicken the old man, that the new may live”.

So this morning Bach has given the Leipzigers a mini-Passion; then meditation; then a quick sermon; a courtly ball; and finally tied it back to the roots of Lutheranism. He's shown them that he can write opera as well as their first choice, Telemann; and that as a writer of courtly dances, he can match choice number two, Graupner. And it's all steeped in a learned theology that is uniquely his own. Surely the Leipzig councillors will welcome him with open arms? We must leave the last words with one Councillor Abraham Plaz. His comment of April 9, 1723 at a Council meeting to confirm Bach's appointment is recorded and has become immortal:

Da man nun die Besten nicht bekommen könne, so müße man mittlere nehmen”
“Since the best man could not be obtained, we'll have to take mediocre ones.”

Sadly, this sums up the attitude of the Council to Bach- one that would last another twenty-seven years.

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