It's April 1, 1725- Easter Sunday in Leipzig. Butchers, brewers and purveyors of fleshly temptation give a sigh of relief. At last we're through the austere trudge of Lent! And at St Thomas's Church, Bach meets Easter with music on the grandest scale. In the opening bars he marshals trilling trumpets, horns, kettle-drums and a host of other instruments to make the congregation sit up and listen.
But rather than plunging into an energetic chorus, the music lets us know that something rather different is on the menu from an ordinary cantata. Instead, that sumptuous introduction leads into a more intimate, instrumental “B” section, before returning in all its glory. All the instruments are heard in multiple combinations, bringing out unexpected sonorities; it's a little concerto for the whole orchestra, two hundred years before Bartók. Our attention is grabbed from every direction; musical interest springs at us from the top, bottom and middle of the texture- sometimes it's the jazzy cool bassoons, at other times the oboes and the trumpets get an unexpected little duet . It's always unpredictable, but never wayward. Even the dutiful continuo organ part gets a little moment in the sun (at least in Andrew Parrott's fine recording), when the other instruments take a step back to reveal its lovely little upward scale.
The first movement draws to its close- and surely it's time for the usual mixture of sublime song and slightly hard-to-digest didactic theology? Not at all. We've got a whole slow instrumental movement now. It's a lovely adagio; a simple long-breathed melody played on flute (or oboe) above a stately bass. In fact, the singers only open their mouths once we're well into the third movement and the initial themes return, exultant and brassy.
What is going on? Some people have suggested that this is a whole lost secular concerto that Bach has recycled into a liturgical work- a long-lost, neglected cousin of the Brandenburg Concertos. So is this the musical equivalent of the youngest son of a eighteenth-century family unwillingly being sent into the Church after his cleverer or more aggressive elder brothers managed to grab the family estate, the law and the army?
The question is even more pertinent because we know that this whole piece had already been performed with secular words a month or so previously for the forty-third birthday of one of the local princelings- Christian, Duke of Saxe-Weißenfels. It seems that Bach may have written the music for that gig first, then got his favourite librettist, Picander, to write a new set of words for Easter to more or less the same music. This practice- the technical term is a contrafactum- seems to have a bad reputation, smacking of cheating. That's despite the fact that one earlier great masterpiece, Tallis' Spem in Alium, (beloved of Classic FM ever since it was mentioned in Fifty Shades of Grey) only survived because of a later contrafactum arrangement.
So it might seem that the whole piece is actually a bit of splendidly pragmatic bodging-together of second and third-hand music, cramming words into a second hand cantata which itself had swallowed up a large chunk of a pre-owned concerto. It's not as if many of the good middle-class burghers of Leipzig would have heard the music at Duke Christian's birthday bash the month before. Google Maps helpfully states that to walk the 34.6 kilometres from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig to the Schloss Neu Augustusburg, Duke Christian's pad in Weißenfels, would take 7 hours and 8 minutes. Oddly enough, there isn't a “horse and carriage” option on Google Maps; but it's fair to say that on eighteenth-century roads, it still would have taken a fair while.
But I think there's more to it than getting away with it. Bach knew what he was doing in his choice of previous material- the B Minor Mass proves that, which is packed full of carefully selected earlier material, reworked and perfectly suited for the context. So in these first two movements, I'd argue that the Bach is priming and tantalising our emotions wordlessly, sensitising us to the themes of the whole work. It's like the dumb-show in Act 2 of Hamlet: as Ophelia says, “Belike this show imports the argument of the play.” First, we have a rush of exultation; then we have a calmer, cooler atmosphere before a return to excitement.
And this fits perfectly with the message of the words once they start. Firstly, we run: “Kommt, eilet und laufet, ihr flüchtigen Füße” - “come, hurry and run, you speedy feet!”. Almost immediately, we have to deal with a slight infelicity of the hastily re-worked words- we're being summoned to the cave “die Jesum bedeckt” - “which hides Jesus”- but he isn't there any more. It doesn't quite make sense, but the music is so hummable and irresistible that we're swept up in it.
The fourth movement is a genuine dramatic dialogue; each of the soloists, alto, soprano, tenor and bass, enter as as biblical characters: Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, Peter and John respectively. (Interestingly, this is a shift from the voice parts in the Passions, where Peter is a bass and the voice of John the evangelist is a tenor). They squabble a little. The men are rather slow on the uptake and prefer to wallow in their grief, cutting across the women's major-key joy with a discordant “Ach!” rather than listening to the message that Jesus is no longer in the tomb. This sort of thing is relatively rare in cantatas- but we see it in the Passions, and the Christmas Oratorio. Perhaps this- along with the complete lack of chorales- is a reason why Bach renamed the 1725 cantata the Oster-Oratorium- Easter Oratorio- on its revival in 1735.
The slightly fraught journey to the tomb leads into an aria for Mary the mother of James, who sings “O Soul, your spices shall no longer be myrrh, but only crowning with a laurel wreath (Lorbeerkranze) will still your anxious longings”. The first part makes perfect sense; the women were going to anoint Jesus's body with myrrh, a bitter funerary ointment which “breathes a life of gathering gloom” if you remember your Christmas carols. Now they don't need it any more as the body is gone, arisen. But what's this about a laurel wreath? Again, it's a sign of slightly flawed writing. The original text for Duke Christian's birthday mentioned triumphant crownings with laurel wreath, and the reference has been carried over in exactly the same place. The classical Roman metaphor of the laurel-crowned victorious general sits a bit uneasily with the biblical narrative, to say the least. But again, the music works so well, with a quality of calm yet growing joy. With another lovely flute obbligato to resonate back with the second movement, it gives me that quality of bittersweetness that I felt was slightly lacking in last week's Palm Sunday cantata.
We return to the dialogue. Peter and John finally get the message with the help of Mary Magdalen spelling it out: “Er ist vom Tode auferweckt!” “He is risen from the dead!”. The larger range of instruments in the orchestra allows Bach to give us a whole range of sonorities, including the flowing lower woodwinds which accompany Peter's meditation on the shroud that remains left behind in the tomb. It's almost a self-lullaby; Peter quiets his fears with the thought of that veil, and with that sign of life, we can refresh ourselves when passing through the veil of death. Again, it's that calm eighteenth-century Lutheran embrace of death that sends a few shivers down twenty-first century spines.
And there is very little real drama left in the narrative. After a brief S/A recitative duet, the alto as Mary Magdalen sings a further “searching” aria asking where she might find Jesus. But the text misses the opportunity to show what I find the most touching and radiant moment of the Gospel story: when Mary Magdalen's begs a man she thinks is the gardener what he has done with the body- and He replies “Mary”. Instead, the structure of the oratorio text, with both women certain of Jesus's resurrection from the outset, drains any possibility of exploring Mary Magdalen's grief here. She's already certain that she'll find Jesus somewhere- and so this aria is joyful and lively, but utterly lacking pathos. It's a missed opportunity, but not Bach's fault. Similarly, the bouncy recitative which follows for the bass is simple and authentically exultant, but strangely matter-of-fact. “Wir sind erfreut daß unser Jesus wieder lebt”- we are overjoyed that Jesus lives again. And a brass fanfare ushers in a final chorus, when the bass leads the other singers in calling for “Preis und Dank”- praise and thanks. Lovely oboe flourishes cut across the singers' declamatory block chords , and a brilliant upward sprint from the bassoon and bass leads us into the very last fugue. “Der Löwe von Juda kommt siegend gezogen!”- the Lion of Judah approaches us in triumph!
And, just as we are expecting to see the figure of Jesus himself, the entire work comes to an abrupt halt. Of course, Bach had as much music as he had already written, and the abruptness is for sound practical reasons. But the absence of the central figure makes the drama strangely hollow. It's not great opera- in fact, it felt to me like the sort of courtly masques written for noble conspicuous consumption. The pleasant purling woodwinds, the brief moment of angst immediately resolved in a joyful chorus, the small cast who don't really do a great deal in terms of action but who sing the the most sublime music- it reminds me of Handel's Acis and Galatea, written for the pleasure of the Duke of Chandos a few years previously. There are no chorales to give a voice to the worshipping community, none of the complex interplay between times and perspectives, or even many moments of didactism (which some people might find a relief). Ultimately the spirit is a long way from the feel of the other cantatas. Perhaps that's why Bach renamed it an oratorio; and the music itself needs no such apologies. Bach recycled it again for another secular party, and performed the church version at least three more times until 1749. So all in all, we've got some decent value from the music which started out at the birthday party for a long forgotten German princeling. Happy birthday, Duke Christian; and happy Easter!