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APRIL PROGRAM NOTES

By Andrea Moore

Johann Sebastian Bach

This program opens with individual arias from three different Bach cantatas, written at different stages of Bach’s career and for quite different purposes.

“Sende, Herr, den Segen ein”, from Cantata BWV 193

BWV 193, “Ye Gates of Zion,” is one of several cantatas written for the inauguration of the Leipzig town council, and it survives only in part. Surviving parts for the opening chorus include upper strings and two oboes, along with the soprano and alto choruses. It is likely that the original would also have included brass, timpani, and additional woodwinds; in the conductor Ton Koopman’s reconstruction, he has added both trumpets and timpani, along with male choruses, resulting in an appropriately celebratory tone for the text: “Gates of Zion, rejoice!” The continuo parts are missing altogether and must be reconstructed for each movement. This aria, “Send down your blessing, Lord,” for voice, oboe d’amore, and continuo needs only the continuo part reconstructed, as the other parts survive. The oboe writing is elaborate and ornamental throughout. When the voice enters, it is rhythmically offset from the extended runs of the oboe introduction, but the text setting quickly settles into similar runs and fleeting unisons with the oboe. The words “wachsen” (grow) and “erhalten” (sustain) come in for special treatment in their first two iterations, with a short melisma on the first and a much longer one on the second; the third time the short text is repeated, “wachsen” is straightforward, while “erhalten” (the phrase, loosely, is “may they grow and be sustained”) is daringly extended, a complex duet with the oboe over three and a half measures.

“Kreuz und Krone sind verbunden”, from Cantata BWV 12

BWV 12, “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” is an Easter cantata, written in 1714, much earlier than the other two and part of Bach’s first complete liturgical cantata cycle. It is also one of the earliest cantatas Bach set to a text by Salomo Franck, who was a poet at the Weimar court where Bach worked at the time. The cantata opens with an instrumental sinfonia, and the first chorus is built on tropes of lamenting and sighing: lots of small, falling intervals, a descending ground bass (that is, a repeated bass line), a slow tempo, and a minor key. The opening text repeats the title words—weeping, lamenting, worry, despair—and while the middle section is in a major key and takes a faster tempo with tighter choral writing, the movement (an unusual choral da capo) ends in a state of lament. All of this is in keeping with the theology of Easter, and this cantata is especially concerned with depicting suffering at the Easter season. 

This is Bach’s first extended oboe solo in an aria, and these arias for voice and oboe obliggato form their own small subset of his works (with three examples on this program). Among the most famous, perhaps, is “Ich habe genug” from the cantata of the same name (BWV 82). This is a da capo aria, and in the B section, the relationship between the words and music is especially nuanced, as the harmonies move rapidly in and out of major, as the text alternates rapidly between the aria’s conjoined themes: pain and consolation, the cross and the crown, struggle and triumph. 

“Gott ist unsre Sonn und Schild!”, from Cantata BWV 79

BWV 79 was written in 1725, a few years into Bach’s tenure in Leipzig. The texts for this Cantata come from a variety of sources: the first movement from Psalm 84, movements 3 and 6 by different writers, and this movement—God is our sun and our shield—by an unknown author. The Cantata was written for Reformation Day, which commemorates Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the beginning of the Reformation. Given this, it is not surprising that the piece begins with a thundering opening chorus, “God, the Lord, is sun and shield,” which uses trumpets and timpani to create a military or martial sound. Both the instrumental introduction and the choral sections are heavily contrapuntal, and the overall effect is quite spectacular. This aria has the task of following the opening, and here Bach takes the opposite approach, reducing the instrumentation to oboe (or flute) obliggato with continuo. The aria is straightforward—as it isn’t a da capo aria (i.e., there is no return to the beginning), there are no vocal elaborations, and the closest thing to dramatic tension is a bit of dissonance around the lines “whether the enemies sharpen their arrows, or the hound of hell howls.”  

Edmund Rubbra, Sonata in C for Oboe & Piano, Op. 100

The British composer Edmund Rubbra was born in 1901. Although his family were of limited means, they were music lovers, and his uncle owned a music shop. Upon leaving home, Rubbra studied with Gustav Holst, among others, and had some lessons with Ralph Vaughn Williams, as well, all of which steeped him in the English pastoral style. He was best known during his lifetime as a composer of symphonies (he wrote 11), but he also has a significant chamber and choral output. Particularly after 1948, when he converted to Catholicism, Rubbra wrote numerous works with religious themes.

This Sonata, from 1958, is in the traditional three movements. The first is not a sonata form, but a more ambiguous A-B-A, with the lyrical opening giving way to a slightly more urgent tone. The second movement is titled Elegy (although the first is perhaps more elegiac) and opens with a plaintive statement from the oboe alone, echoed by the piano. For a fleeting moment in the middle of the movement, both players break into a dance, before returning to the opening mood and material. The last movement opens in the remote key of F Minor. Here the pastoral mood is especially strong, and although much of the piece tends toward C Minor, it concludes with an unequivocal C Major chord. The piece was written for and premiered by the oboist Evelyn Rothwell, whose husband was the conductor Sir John Barbirolli.

Hamilton Harty, Three Miniatures for Oboe & Piano

Born in County Down in 1879, Harty was a composer, conductor, and pianist, and began playing organ and conducting local church choirs professionally by age 9. Upon moving to London in his early 20s, he gained a reputation as a composer with some early chamber works, and especially with his Comedy Overture. But he also became sought after as a conductor, leading the London Symphony and Hallé Orchestra as a guest, and given a permanent post with the latter in 1920. His influence there helped put the orchestra on the map as, in one scholar’s estimation, “probably the best orchestra in England [during Harty’s tenure].” He also led the English premieres of a number of important modern symphonies, including Mahler 9 and Shostakovich 1. Later he returned to London and made multiple recordings with orchestras there.

Closest to his heart were the works of Mozart and Berlioz. He declared the latter “one of the gods of my idolatry” in a 1920 interview, where he also said, “In Berlioz, as in Mozart, you are always coming upon a beautiful, fresh-sprung melodic line such as no amount of head-work could have suggested.” His own music is highly melodic and perhaps deceptively simple.  Oboist Evelyn Rothwell, also the dedicatee of the Rubbra, wrote program notes for this piece, which are excerpted here:

“Since Harty was such a fine accompanist, it is not surprising to find that the piano parts are particularly well written. “Orientale” is perhaps the most exacting of the three pieces. It gives the oboe player a chance to play freely, with rubato, and includes two ad lib passages (mini cadenzas). The Vivace and Scherzando sections are effective, needing brilliant, pointed, 'springy' playing, but they are not technically difficult. The slightly oriental feeling of this piece suits the oboe very well. “Chansonette” is flowing and lyric. The gentle movement of the piano writing complements the simple melodic line of the oboe part. There is an attractive change of mood in the middle, where the key alters. “A La Campagne” is lively, and needs good rhythmic vitality. It has a dance-like feeling almost of a cheerful folk tune. The music at the change of key is rather more agile than the grazioso theme of the opening, to which it returns before ending with an expressive Poco lento ma non troppo.

The three pieces should be a useful addition to the oboist's repertory. The soloist might use them in the second half of a Music Club recital for example, and they should certainly be valuable for students and for set pieces at Music Festivals.”

Emma-Ruth Richards, Dark Radiance for solo cello

Emma-Ruth Richards was introduced to Camerata Pacifica audiences last season. She has been commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, oboist Nicholas Daniel, the Britten Sinfonia, and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, among many others. Her work has been supported by residencies with the MiNensemble Norway, the Royal Opera House London, and the Aldeburgh Festival, and her chamber opera, Traffick, was co-commissioned by the Nordland Teater, Norway, and the Royal Opera House. She has studied with composers including Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Judith Weir, and holds a PhD from the Royal Northern College of Music.

A recording of Dark Radiance is scheduled for release in 2019. Of this piece, the composer writes:

“In much of my writing I am constantly drawn to playing with the contrast between light and dark and Dark Radiance is a continuation of these attempts. Historically, light, rather than darkness, has been attributed to the trumpet, with angels having bird-like wings on their back, halos, trumpets and various other forms of glowing light. In Greek philosophical writings light is regarded as a metaphor for Truth and, in the   Renaissance era, Fire and Light correlate to vision. These attractive comparisons are partly why I am drawn to the sonority of the clarino register of the trumpet and often try to emulate it in my writing for other instruments.

In this piece for solo cello I have drawn on the trumpet’s associations with light as a creative tool in my writing to explore the full register of the instrument; at times this ‘light’ is muted and almost intangible, whilst other passages, in the highest register, create piercing and powerfully penetrating ‘shards’ of radiance. The fantastical narrative of Dark Radiance is embodied by a journey between these abstracted forms of light and requires the cellist to play with varying degrees of bow pressure throughout; textured yet ethereal, dark yet radiant, organic yet artificial, evocative yet impenetrable.”

John Harbison, Mirabai Songs

John Harbison grew up playing jazz and listening to Bach, before studying composition with Walter Piston at Harvard. Harbison is well known for his operas—The Great Gatsby was performed at the Met in 2013—and perhaps among Camerata audiences for his String Trio, which was commissioned and recorded by the group. He has written large-scale orchestral and choral works, as well as an abundance of chamber music, including three string quartets, and the often-performed Piano Quintet. But he has always shown a special affinity for the voice, and because of this, has written a number of song cycles. His cycle Mottetti di Montale, from 1980, can be performed by mezzo-soprano with piano or with ensemble, and the same is true for Mirabai Songs.

The poet Mirabai, 1498-1546, was one of the Hindu saints of India, and a devotee of Krishna. She refused to play the roles designated by her class and caste; as Harbison writes, “Instead, she left her family compound, wrote her poems to Krishna, the Dark One, and sang and danced them in the streets.” Unlike some of the female subjects of earlier song cycles—for example, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben—Mirabai is the protagonist of her own song cycle. A deeply religious person, she did not want to be married at all, saying she was already married to Krishna. Her husband’s family apparently attempted to murder her more than once, and she attributed her seemingly miraculous survival to Krishna. She also refused to die on her husband’s funeral pyre. Her refusal of expectations informed her writings: as she sings in the third movement (“Why Mira Can’t Go Back to Her Old House“), “Approve me or disapprove me, I praise the mountain energy and light energy…I don’t steal money, I don’t hit anyone, what will you charge me with?...and now you want me to climb on a jackass—try to be serious!”

Harbison sets Mirabai’s texts in translations by the poet Robert Bly.