This program in celebration of Bach’s birthday (21 March) presents the four major aspects of Bach’s relatively long career. There were basically four options for an organist/harpsichordist in 17th- and 18th-century Lutheran Germany. He could work for either a princely court (of which there were hundreds, since there was no single political entity as “Germany,” not until 1871, and the country was a patchwork of tiny kingdoms, principalities, duchies, counties, and Imperial Free Cities) or for a municipality (there was no separation of church and state in the modern sense, and in working for a church one was employed by the city). And he could focus on either sacred music for use in worship, or on secular music for the pleasure of an audience.
Bach at one time or another was active in all four of these spheres. From 1703 through 1707 he was organist for municipal churches in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, and again from 1723 until his death in 1750 he was again employed by a city, Leipzig, as the Director of Music for all four principal congregations in the city. For a second major phase of his career, from 1708-1717, he worked as a church-musician, but in a ducal chapel—in the town of Weimar—rather than in a municipal church. But he was also active in the sphere of secular music. His very first job was as a violinist at the ducal court of Weimar (where later he became chapel organist), but that was only for part of the year 1703. But from 1718 to 1723 he was the “Capellmeister” for Duke Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, where he was responsible for composing and directing chamber-music for the Duke; since the Duke was a Calvinist rather than a Lutheran, instrumental music was not permitted in worship in the ducal chapel, and therefore Bach had no responsibility for church-music during this five-year period. And lastly, from 1730 through the mid-1740’s Bach was “moonlighting” as the director of the Collegium Musicum, which presented public concerts in Zimmermann’s coffee-house in Leipzig (this organization, having undergone many transformations since then, still exists as the Leipzig Gewandhous Orchestra, one of Germany’s major symphony orchestras).
The oldest work on the program, the Overture in C major, was probably composed for the entertainment of Duke Leopold in Anhalt-Cöthen. It consists of a large opening movement in the form of a French overture, which gives its name to the entire piece. This opening movement is in three sections, slow-fast- slow, with the outer sections having a proud and majestic rhythmic character, and the fast inner section being imitative. In this overture, the quick inner section features solo passages for the oboes and bassoon. The first movement is followed by a series of French-style dances.
The other instrumental piece, the Concerto for Two Violins, comes from the time of Bach’s activity with the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. Rather than being rooted in French style like the Overture, it is based on Italian models, particularly the three-movement concerto-form (fast–slow–fast) popularized by Vivaldi. In the two outer movements the large ensemble states musical ideas which are then developed and extended by the two solo-violins; the slow middle movement, one of Bach’s most beautiful compositions, is an extended duet for the two solo-parts.
Just as the two instrumental compositions are examples of Bach’s secular work for princely courts (the Overture) and public concerts (the Concerto), so also the two cantatas represent Bach’s vocal compositions for Church (no. 58 “Ach, wie manches Herzeleid”) and for Court (no. 173a “Durchlauch’ster Leopold”).
Cantata 58 is a “dialogue-cantata”—that is, it presents two contrasting facets of the Christian life, in the form of a dialogue between soprano and bass soloists. The soprano voice represents the pain and sorrow that is experienced in this life, while the bass sings of the consolation and redemption offered by God through Jesus. In the first and last movements the soprano sings verses from the Lutheran hymn “O God, how many a heart-ache” while the the bass exhorts the soul to rejoice in salvation.
Cantata 173a, on the other hand, was composed for the birthday celebration of Duke Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, probably in 1722. Its catalog-number includes the “a” because a few years later Bach transformed it into a church-cantata (no. 173). It was common practice to re-cycle music in this fashion. Bach did so frequently: in fact, large portions of some of his best-known choral music–the Christmas Oratorio, many cantatas, even the B-minor Mass and the other “short” Masses—are derived from secular arias and choruses, and even from concerto-movements. To Bach, as to many people in that time, all the world was God’s, and therefore there was no real distinction between secular and sacred. We can get a glimpse of Bach’s world-view in the fact that although Bach frequently adapted secular music for sacred use, he never worked in the opposite direction: a piece of music once composed or adapted to use in worship was not then turned to secular use.
The cantata for Duke Leopold’s birthday is a joyful work (the five years which Bach spent in his employ were perhaps the happiest of his life), and uses dance-like rhythms throughout. The first aria (the second movement) is in the rhythm of an Allemande. The fourth movement (the first duet for the two singers) is in the style of a Menuet; it is unique among Bach’s works in that with each stage of the piece (the bass solo, the soprano solo, and then the duet) it changes key, rising through the circle of fifths at the same time that the instrumental accompaniment accelerates through faster and faster note-values. The sixth movement, a solo for the soprano, is in the beat of a Bourée (compare it to the sixth movement of the Overture), and the closing duet is like a Passepied (again, compare to the corresponding movement of the Overture.)
© 2010 Daniel Pyle