Did you know that Bach spent a month in jail during his tenure as Court Organist and Concertmaster to the Duke of Weimar. Turns out that, in 1717, Bach was offered and accepted a new position as Kappelmeister at the court of Cöthen. Bach appealed to the Duke for his release from the Weimar position, however the Duke refused and threw him in jail instead of allowing him to leave. Bach, of course, used this time productively and composed the “Orgelbüchlein,” a cycle of organ chorale preludes for the entire church year. The Duke finally came to his senses and Bach was allowed to take on his new position.
Join William Trafka, St. Bart’s Director of Music and Organist and the Artistic Director of MMPAF, as he leads a tour of the towns and cities where Bach thrived as a performer and composer. Hear the great organ works of Bach in the very buildings for which they were composed. Marvel at the charming towns such as Eisenach, Arnstadt and Mühlhausen in the luscious Thüringen region of Germany. Join, Co-Tour Director and German scholar, William Fulton as he brings puts these historic places into perspective with 18th century German culture. Discover the rich and varied life of one of history’s greatest composers as you walk in The Footsteps of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Haydn’s Oratorio ‘Die Schöpfung’ at St. Bartholomew’s Church
Truth be told, the “Representation of Chaos” that opens Haydn’s 1798 oratorio “Die Schöpfung” (“The Creation”), sounds oddly decorous to modern ears. Granted, it begins with a short burst of brassy dissonance, and altered versions of that gesture return during the slow, dark-hued overture that pours forth before the angel Raphael’s serene narration of the familiar scene from Genesis: the formlessness of the earth, the darkness on the face of the waters. And when a second angel, Uriel, announces the creation of light, Haydn provides a magnificent explosion of C major orchestral timbre.
Yet the salient musical features of this depiction are graceful melody and tonal harmony. To experience it as the primordial chaos Haydn intended, you need to imagine hearing it with 18th-century ears.
The Japanese early-music specialist Masaaki Suzuki offered technical support, in the form of a period-instrument account, for listeners inclined to make that imaginative leap — and a beautifully shaped performance for those who simply wanted to hear Haydn’s richly painterly score — on Monday evening at St. Bartholomew’s Church. His forces were the Yale Schola Cantorum, a superb chorus, and an orchestra of 41 players drawn largely from the Yale Baroque Ensemble and Juilliard415, the student ensemble of the Juilliard School’s historical performance program.
It was the end of March and the Great Music series concert featuring Bach’s Magnificat and Easter Oratorio was just a few weeks down the road. My hope and dream for this concert was to capture the spirit and eloquence of this extraordinary music in a way that honors its historic importance but also resonates for the modern listener. But, I was concerned how I would properly prepare myself to conduct these works from a different era in a busy, noisy, distracting and at times overwhelming environment.
My first thought was that music never occurs in a vacuum; to try to remove oneself from the present in order to represent art from an earlier time is folly and essentially impossible. The first steps toward an historically informed performance had already been taken by inviting singers and instrumentalists who know, love and understand this style to participate in the performance. Also, the instruments to be used were copies of Baroque instruments which play at A=415 hz., exactly one-half step lower than A=440hz, the pitch used by modern orchestras.
I decided that I needed solitude and quiet to study and to open up myself to the musical possibilities of these two masterpieces. Through a friend, for three days I was given permission to use the choir room at St. Peter’s Methodist Church in Ocean City, NJ, a bustling summer resort on the Jersey shore but a very quiet place during early April. It was there that I discovered the wealth of musical imagery and nuance that Bach used in these works and how each movement becomes a separate painting in an art gallery depicting rich landscapes. I worked hard to hear individual lines and how they might be sung or played in a way to be clearly heard and shaped but fitting into the entire canvas. Most of all, I rediscovered the indisputable genius of Bach with his lucid sense of structure, unparalleled musical invention and heartfelt expressivity. I came away with a deeper sense of his great role in the history of Western civilization.
Did my stay by the ocean in this peaceful place affect the actual outcome of the performance? It certainly opened my mind and heart to the infinite ways of interpreting what Bach has written and allowed me time and focus to explore its many possibilities. I wouldn’t have spent those three days in any other way.