The cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80) was created for use at the Feast of the Reformation, which Lutherans traditionally celebrate on October 31 as one of the lesser festivals. The version of the cantata we hear tonight represents an accretion of compositional layers, thus complicating an easy, clear understanding of the cantata’s genesis, provenance, and final shape. The earliest known version (known as BWV 80a) dates to 1715 in Weimar, only the text of which survives, based on a text by Salomo Franck (1659–1725). Shortly after Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723 to assume duties as Kantor of the Thomasschule of the Thomaskirche, which included music instruction, a new setting of Franck’s text was made. Scholarly opinion differs as to when. This version (minus the opening chorus) was likely the one heard at a performance in 1730. The opening chorus “Ein feste Burg” was not added until 1734 or 1735. Otherwise, the loss of sources prevents us from learning much regarding the method by which the other movements were borrowed or parodied, compositional practices that were wide spread in the early eighteenth century.
The cantata consists of six movements and two short recitatives. Bach organizes each movement around Martin Luther’s chorale melody Ein feste Burg (1527-1529). Easily one of the most recognizable chorales in German Lutheranism, Luther may have sung it as he entered the Diet of Worms on April 16, 1521. The cantata opens with a majestic polyphonic motet-chorus. The oboes carry the original hymn tune. The continuo echoes this line in canon. Within this framework, Bach inserts a complex polyphonic chorus in four parts, often with fugal imitation of the main contours of Luther’s chorale. The second movement features a bass aria, which we can date back to Bach’s second period in Weimar (1708-1717), featuring the soprano soloist, who offers a highly decorated version of the hymn in counterpoint to the Bass. In the subsequent aria, the soprano soloist, underpinned by continuo alone, brings a sense of sudden calm and intimacy to the text “Come into the house of my heart.” By contrast, the chorale in the following movement returns us to the theme of victory over the devil, sung in unison by the choir. Strings, oboe, and two oboes d’amore offer an intricate, frenetic counterpoint underneath. The next two segments refer back to the earlier Weimar cantata, on which most of the present work is based. In the recitative-arioso, the tenor receives some highly florid passagework on the text “your Savior will remain your shield.” Following the arioso is the lovely duet for tenor, alto, oboe d’amore, strings, and continuo, whose text illustrates a state of grace. The cantata ends with a Bach’s harmonization of Luther’s Chorale, likely sung by Bach’s congregation in Leipzig.
Although audiences think “oratorio” when the name George Frideric Handel comes up, the driving force behind his whole career was opera, and specifically opera in the Italian style. To be sure, the oratorios for which Handel is known – Messiah, Israel in Egypt, Saul, and many others – were in many ways distinct from the operas, but they were an evolution from them, born of the same impulse to compose dramas in music.
At the age of 18, Handel (set free by his father’s death from his filial obligation to study law) left his native city of Halle and traveled 200 miles to Hamburg, the center of operatic life in Germany. He was hired as a violinist and harpsichordist for the Hamburg Opera, and there he composed his first two operas. While working in Hamburg he also met the last Medici Duke of Florence, who invited Handel to move to Italy. There he spent time in Florence and Venice, where he composed and produced some operas, but lived primarily in Rome, where performances of opera were forbidden.
In Rome, in 1707 he composed his highly dramatic setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, for a Vespers service at the church of Santa Maria in Montesanto. The Psalm has seven verses, which Handel set in nine movements. Verse 4 is divided into two movements, and the concluding movement is “Glory to the Father…” which is traditionally appended to each Psalm in a Vesper service. The chorus plays a significant, even dominant, role in the composition, unlike the operas of the time. This characteristic reappeared thirty years later when Handel re-invented himself as a composer of oratorios.
The musical idiom of Dixit Dominus contains many moments that foreshadow the more familiar idiom of Messiah, particularly the figures that are used for the word “Hallelujah” in the later work. Much of the rest of the Dixit, including the vocal lines, resemble the instrumental music of Corelli (Handel’s friend while he was in Rome, and probably the concertmaster for the first performance of Dixit Dominus). There are also moments in the first, fourth, and sixth movements that resemble the instrumental and choral writing of Vivaldi, who was music director for the Ospedale della pieta? in Venice at the time that Handel was there producing his opera Agrippina.
Although we regard Handel today as one of the great exponents of German and English music, his standing in London society at the time he composed Messiah in 1741 burgeoned en passe?. Born in Halle, Germany, Handel, a brilliant organist and violinist, moved to Italy in his early twenties to study composition, particularly Italian opera. He achieved major success there in vocal music but especially with the Venetian opera Agrippina (1707). These early triumphs in Italy resulted in a commission for a new Italian opera for London, his entre?e to the British Isles. Handel’s Rinaldo (1711) resulted, which is arguably the first Italian serious opera for the London stage. Previous attempts at Italian opera (often in the form of a pasticcio wherein arias by different composers would be interpolated into a preexisting operatic subject) had largely been unsuccessful. Rinaldo triumphed, and yielded further commissions and collaborations, including Teseo, Amadigi, Giulio Cesare, Radamisto, and Alcina. By 1727 Parliament naturalized Handel as a British citizen. Throughout the late 1730s, however, Handel’s popularity, and indeed the popularity of Italian serious opera, began to wane. The premiere in 1728 of Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, an English-language ballad opera, renewed interest in exploring the possibilities of English-language vocal music and popular culture, whereas previously Italian opera had reigned supreme.
Handel focused on the oratorio form from the late 1730s on. Oratorios were primarily Lenten sacred dramas whose narratives derive from the Old and New Testaments. They were often performed without costume. Unlike the Italian oratorio whose form emphasized the succession of arias and recitatives, the English oratorio cultivated primarily by Handel included arias, recitatives, choruses (sometimes for double choir, as in Solomon), and occasional instrumental interludes (the Funeral March from Saul). With a string of important works including Saul and Israel in Egypt (1739), Handel’s new musical venture proved for the moment a brilliant choice.
By 1741, however, Handel’s career appeared once again in trouble, as London audiences began turning to newer composers and fads. His finances dwindled to dangerous levels, and he was reportedly ill. The same year the Duke of Devonshire, the Lord Lieutenant of Dublin, visited him to request a new work, which would aid several charities in Dublin. Handel drew on scriptural texts chosen by Charles Jennings from the King James Bible and the Book of Psalms as printed in the Book of Common Prayer. Jennings wrote of this new libretto, which he called Messiah, “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.” Handel finished the commission in just twenty-four days, a speed which, though impressive, was not uncommon.
Handel sailed to Dublin in November 1741 for the premiere. His presence there created such a buzz that the Dublin Journal announced that at the premiere “The Stewards of the Charitable Musical Society request the Favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops [i.e., hoop skirts] this Day to the Musick-Hall in Fishamble Street. The Gentlemen are desired to come without their Swords, as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making Room for more company.” Messiah opened on April 13, 1742, causing a great stir among Dublin audiences. The Dublin Journal reported, “It gave universal Satisfaction to all present; and was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard.”
Jennings and Handel organized Messiah in three parts. Each one represents a series of commentaries on the three periods of Jesus’ life: Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection. “Worthy is the Lamb,” which we hear tonight, concludes Part III. Scored for chorus, two trumpets, drums, oboes, strings, and continuo, “Worthy is the Lamb” is a musical triptych on the glorification of the messianic victim. The opening largo, complemented by the full orchestra and chorus, declare “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” In the middle section the choir sings “Blessing and honour, glory and pow’r be unto him” in fugal style. A second, more complex fugue, initiated in the bass line, concludes with “Amen.”