Kontrabande's Founder

With over 40 recordings to his name, it is his sensitive and intelligent performances of Baroque repertoire that have stood out. He has a private voice studio in the Washington DC area and is in demand as a visiting professor in many universities throughout the United States.

It is impossible to grasp the significance of J.S. Bach's musical achievements without coming to terms with his Lutheran world view. Bach's personal library was filled with theological works and Bible commentaries and his copious margin notes demonstrate a determination to come to terms with all of it. Lutheranism encouraged Bach to see himself in harness with the other ministers of the church not only as a worship-leader and teacher but also as a prophet, connecting him to a tradition looking back to King David dancing and singing before the Ark of the Covenant, which empowered him to fill his music with limitless meanings and inferences. The proper role of the complete church musician was to lead his listeners to a right view of God and also, through God's eyes, to a truthful assessment of the human condition. God's perfect world has suffered corruption through sin and part of Bach's mission was to unmask that false world order. The two cantatas presented here, replete with Good News and bad, show how far Bach was willing to exercise his art and bend musical conventions in order to communicate his convictions.

The Sinfonia to Cantata 49, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen (I go and seek with longing), originally formed the finale of a three-movement concerto, possibly from Bach's Cöthen period. Later, in Leipzig, this became the model for the first movement of the familiar Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1053. Alfred Dürr notes that the inclusion of a virtuoso concerto movement for organ in a sacred cantata was perhaps compensation for the absence of a chorus and it also contributes to the celebratory wedding character of this cantata, a dialogue between Christ, the Groom, and the Church, his Bride.

Cantata 170, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) was first performed on the 28th of July, 1726, the Sixth Sunday after Trinity. Bach's task was to illuminate the prescribed readings of the day: Romans 6.3-11 (Through Christ's death the believer is dead to sin) and Matthew 5.20-26 (Righteousness comes through faith rather than observance of the Law). The libretto, by George Christian Lehms, addresses these themes through the reflections of a single, troubled believer and, appropriately, the personal nature of the message is conveyed through the voice of a single alto soloist. After a pastoral aria which contrasts the enduring pleasures of Godliness with the fleeting gratifications of sin, a recitative contemplates how far man has strayed from God's perfect plan. To illustrate his point, the second aria presents a vivid demonstration of musical organizational depravity: unison violins and violas are enlisted to deliver the somber bass line while the organ, its mighty pedals silenced, provides two drooping, chromatic obbligato lines as the alto intones forlornly with no continuo support. For Bach and his fellow congregants, this was the world turned upside down! After a recitative in which the soloist considers an early exit from a world of wickedness, the final aria rescues the beleaguered Christian as he flies up into the comforting arms of Jesus. His joy is tempered somewhat by the prominent tritone (the dreaded diabolus in musica) that initiates the main tune, illustrating God's power to turn even the discord of Hell into the concord of Heaven.

The Concerto for Oboe d'amore, Strings and Continuo in A major, BWV 1055 is a reconstruction from the Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings and Continuo in A major, BWV 1050. It is interesting to note that of all Bach's concertos for harpsichord, only the 5th Brandenburg was originally conceived for that instrument. It is fortunate indeed that the composer saw fit to arrange so many of those now-lost works for his coffee house concerts in Leipzig since otherwise not a single concerto for oboe or oboe d'amore would have come down to us. In common with so many of these reconstructions, the present concerto demonstrates the advantage of assigning the harpsichord's right hand to a sustaining instrument so that every note can be given the full value and expression that Bach originally intended.

Cantata 54, Widerstehe doch der Sunde (Resist sin, indeed) was possibly from 1713, also with a text by Lehms, who assigned it to the Third Sunday in Lent. The readings for that day include Paul's appeal to lead a pure life (Ephesians 5.1-9) and a warning from Jesus to keep it pure at all costs (Luke 11.14-28) but, in common with most Weimar cantatas, it was suitable for any day of the liturgical year. Bach nails the message in the very first bar: he characterizes sin by striking the dominant seventh over a tonic pedal, an unwholesome and unprepared dissonant effect. Painfully, through many wickedly attractive suspensions, the music struggles into more consonant territory, thus representing the earnest effort of the believer to separate himself from the Devil and strive toward Godliness. The ensuing recitative is notable for the lurid harmonies describing the "empty shadow and whited sepulcher" of sin's deception, segueing into an arioso in which the rapid continuo line pictures the "sharp sword" of sin piercing body and soul. The final aria further describes the menace of sin by employing a four-part fugue with a subject that descends chromatically; but a swiftly running countersubject shows the Devil beating a hasty retreat in the face of the devoted believer.

The Sinfonia from Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekummernis (I had much grief in my heart), for the Third Sunday after Trinity, sets the somber mood for a grim dialogue between Jesus and a soul burdened with doubts. The exact origin of the work is obscure, but the evidence shows that Bach adapted it for many performances, including, possibly, as part of an application for an organist position in Hamburg.

The brief Sinfonia that begins the second half of Cantata 76, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (The heavens are telling the glory of God), is scored for oboe d'amore, viola da gamba and continuo. It sounds very much like a part of a typical sonata da chiesa whose other movements have been lost, unless those "lost" movements are not in fact part of Bach's Organ Trio Sonata, BWV 528, which opens with this very movement, scored for two manuals and pedal.

The lovely aria Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde, BWV 53 (Strike then thou, O blessed hour) is now thought to have been composed by Georg Melchior Hoffmann (c. 1679-1715) who studied law in Leipzig, played keyboard in the Collegium Musicum under Georg Philipp Telemann, and assumed the leadership of that ensemble when Telemann left. (J.S. Bach also directed this ensemble from 1729-1739). Although only a fraction of his music has survived, Hoffman was a greatly respected organist and composer and, in addition to BWV 53, two other of his works were mistakenly attributed to J.S. Bach: BWV 189 and Anh. 21. An interesting feature of the present aria is the use of handbells, instruments never specified in any of J.S. Bach's extant works.

© 2014 Steve Mullany

Steve Mullany is a flutist, recorder player, composer, arranger, co-founder of the Columbia Recorder Quartet and, for over forty years, an arranger, performer, and admirer of the music of J.S. Bach.

Go back to info page