CD “Christ lag in Todesbanden”


1 Heinrich bach: Ich danke dir, Gott

2. Dietrich Buxtehude: passacaglia in d moll

3. Johann Christoph Bach: Die Furcht des Herren

4 Johann Christian Bach: Lieber Herr Gott,wekke uns auf

5. Georg Bohm – Christ lag in Todesbanden

6. Johann Sebastian Bach – Christ lag in Todes Banden

Sopranos: Amaryllis Dieltiens (solo), Kristien Nijs (Soprano 2 solo H. Bach + J.C. Bach), Elisabeth Hermans, Sarah Van Mol (only H. Bach)

Altos Clint Van Der Linde (solo), Kerlijne Van Nevel

Tenors Sean Clayton (solo), Michiel Haspeslagh

Basses Tiemo Wang (solo), Arnout Malfliet

Violin 1 Lidewij Van Der Voort

Violin 2 Elise Van Der Wel

Viola 1 Kaat De Cock, Marc Claes

Viola 2 Benoit Douchy

Cello Bernard Woltèche

Contrabas Elise Christiaens

Trombone Simen Van Mechelen, Fabien Moulaert, Gunter Carlier

Cornetto Anna Schall

Organo Dimos de Beun

Conductor Bart Naessens

By Stefan Grondelaers

Bach’s undying love for a dying art

Our fetishist regard for Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) as the sole pinnacle of Western art music should not make us blind to the fact that his talent was spawned by at least three generations of immensely gifted ancestors. Phrased somewhat more provocatively: if Johann Sebastian (whom we will call “Sebastian”, as was customary in his days) had not been born, we would have cherished a number of pre-Sebastian Bachs – and most certainly Johann Christoph (1642-1703) – as exciting and innovative geniuses in their own right. In actual music history, these forbears have been relegated to a role of meritorious predecessors of their famous descendant. This recording makes up for this negligence by exploring the family archive commonly known as the Alt-Bachisches Archiv, a collection of mostly sacred vocal works composed by Sebastian’s ancestors. 

Before we elaborate, some Bach genealogy is in order for transparency’s sake. The founding father of the Bach dynasty was one Veit Bach (ca. 1550-1619), a Hungary-born baker and miller who accompanied his mill’s motions with his cittern, and who fled his native country to evade Catholic  persecution, settling in Protestant Thuringia. Veit’s son Johann (ca. 1580-1626), who was dubbed “Der Spielmann” in view of his profession as a town piper in Gotha, himself had three sons, the oldest of whom (Christoph) would later become the grandfather of our Sebastian, while his younger son Heinrich Bach (1615-1692) sired the composers Johann Christoph Bach (of whom we have heard already) and Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694), the father of Sebastian’s first wife Maria Barbara. Heinrich, Johann Christoph, and possible also Johann Michael feature prominently on this record.

Sebastian himself was well aware that his ancestry featured an unparalleled number of brilliant musicians. The fact that we know anything at all about these forbears is for the most part due to Sebastian’s own archival zeal. In the last decades of his life, he embarked on two projects which suggest that he wanted to entrench his own legacy in the heritage of his honoured ancestors. In 1735, he immortalized his clan pride in writing when he compiled a detailed genealogy entitled Ursprung der musicalisch-Bachischen Familie.

Around the same time, Sebastian became interested in the corpus of manuscripts known as the Alt-Bachisches Archiv since the end of the 18th century, and lovingly groomed it: he fashioned new covers for some of the manuscripts, corrected errors, and even completed texts. After his death, the collection passed on to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, and eventually ended up in the possession of the Berlin Sing-Akademie. In 1943, prior to the November 23 air raid which completely destroyed the Akademie-building, the Archiv was moved to Poland from where it went missing for more than 50 years. In 1999, it was rediscovered by Harvard Bach eminence Christoph Wolff in the Ukraine State Archives, and subsequently returned to Berlin. This tale of loss and rediscovery greatly adds to the mystery and allure of the collection.

The Alt-Bachisches Archiv continues to be veiled in mysteries. To begin with, there is considerable disagreement about its provenance. Contrary to legend, Sebastian probably did not acquire the Archiv from the estate of his father Ambrosius, neither had it come to him through Maria Barbara – his first wife and daughter of Johann Michael, who is well-represented in the corpus. In 1998, musicologist Peter Wollny was able to proffer a plausible hypothesis on the genesis of the collection by unveiling its principal copyists. The main hand appears to have been of Ernst Dietrich Heindorff, cantor in Arnstadt: the materials in the Archiv that were written out by him represented his performing repertoire in Arnstadt. Other identifiable copyists include Heindorff’s predecessor Jonas de Fletin (a student of Schütz in Dresden) and Heinrich Bach. At some point, the materials collected by these three copyists were complemented with pieces with a clear biographical significance (being related to a wedding or funeral) which were maintained elsewhere in the Bach-family. The most plausible candidate to have extracted the present Alt-Bachisches Archiv from this corpus of materials is Johann Ernst Bach (1683-1739) who was the only Bach representative still active in Arnstadt at the time of Heindorff’s death (though it cannot be excluded, according to Wollny, that Sebastian himself may have ordered Johann Ernst to make the selection).

The bulk of the music in the Archiv is written in a style that had gone out of fashion by the time Sebastian got hold of it, though the tension between the older polyphonic motet idiom and the innovations of Italian baroque is palpable in all the works on this record. This need not surprise us, as it is a distinctive feature of the music of Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), to which nearly all the pieces in the Archiv are indebted. 

In order to appreciate the crucial role of Schütz for the introduction of Italian sparkle in the austerity of German Protestant music, we have to go back in time somewhat. Around 1600, secular polyphonic music was brimming with passion: madrigalists like Gesualdo and Marenzio were translating the emotional inner life of refined poetry as vividly as possible into music, which lead to exceptionally intense polyphonic compositions. In the work of Claudio Monteverdi, this increasingly expressive style ultimately boiled over in monodic textures with only one solo singer, who could do more justice to the individuality of emotional expression than a group of singers performing competing melodies. It is this reduction that would eventually lead to the baroque era in music. Monteverdi, however, did not only prompt a revolution in the realm of worldly music. Already in 1610 he had demonstrated (in his Vespro della Beata Vergine) that the merits of the new monody – viz. emotion, expression, theatre – could also serve to assert the love of God and the Virgin Mary. 

While it is unsurprising, therefore, that the musical revolution of the North-Italian innovators made it to the Catholic countries on the other side of the Alps, it may seem somewhat more bizarre that this mundane splendour could also germinate in the Protestant provinces of Germany. Still, Monteverdi’s bag of tricks was of great service to the ambitions of the Reformation. Martin Luther strove to abolish the ecclesiastical hierarchy which hampered direct contact between the believer and God, and German Protestant music represents a vivid embodiment of this arduous desire for direct interaction with a being which is at once loving and fear-inspiring: it sounds demure, intense, with occasional outbursts of mystical and morbid ecstasy. 

Heinrich Schütz acquired the Italian toolbox during his internship with Giovanni Gabrieli, and at least one visit to Monteverdi. Gabrieli and Monteverdi taught Schütz how to treat the solo voice as the implementation of the “speaking through singing” ideal in a vocal line which organically matched the inflections of German, and which painted as vividly as possible the emotional content of the text. From Monteverdi, Schütz learned to write in the concertato-style with (duelling) solo voices on a basso continuo-foundation.

All the composers represented on this recording pay homage to Schütz by fusing the prima prattica of archaic polyphony with ever more daring Italian seconda prattica experiments. The oldest work on this record was written by Sebastian’s great-uncle Heinrich Bach. Like many other Bachs, Heinrich became organist at an astonishingly tender age (at 14, in the St. Johannis in Schweinfurt). In 1641 he was appointed organist at Arnstadt’s Liebfrauenkirche, where he would remain until his death 51 years later. Although little of his output survives, he was a highly gifted musician – eulogized as “an organist who touched the heart” – as well as a respected composer of organ pieces, chamber works, and cantatas. Heinrich’s only surviving vocal work is the intensely moving “concerto vocale” Ich danke dir, Gott. The text, verse 14 of psalm 139, is treated in quickly alternating tutti and short solos in diverse combinations. It is scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass with a five-part string ensemble. While the stile concertato style of the duets reminds us of Schütz, the occasional harmonic audacity of the instrumental writing and some solo vocal episodes have a distinctly forward-looking aspect.

The fact that Eisenach town organist Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) is represented with the largest number of compositions in the Archiv reflects his importance as a composer: prior to Sebastian, he was undoubtedly the most respected musician in the Bach lineage. Sebastian dubbed Johann Christoph “der profunde Onkel”, and continued to perform his works throughout his life. Carl Philipp Emanuel, the keeper of the Archiv after his father’s death, attested that Johann Christoph “was capable of composing in styles both galant and singing, as well as remarkably polyphonic” and that he “was strong both in the invention of beautiful ideas and in the expression of the meaning of words”. 

It is unfortunate that Johann Christoph’s much-acclaimed talent was matched with a reputedly unpleasant personality. This cantankerousness sprang from his perpetual dire straits, and from the recurrent run-ins with his employer – the Eisenach town council – who refused to provide decent housing for its organist and sometimes even forced him to live in houses just vacated by families succumbed to plague. While Johann Christoph may well have been the “Querulant und halsstarriges Subject” the town council called him, his unpleasantness was offset by a remarkably selfless zeal to restore the organ he was responsible for: the organ fund Johann Christoph keenly managed contained much more money than the repairs required, and certainly much more money than he could ever hope to possess. If anything, Johann Christoph must have been an upright and devoted composer with a strong sense of self-esteem which was bound to clash with the practically-minded business sense of the local administrators. 

Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf is a short advent motet from 1672, based on a pre-Reformation prayer translated by Martin Luther around 1533. It is written for double choir, in a style Schütz had acquired from Gabrieli in Venice. The alternations between double and triple metre and the vocalises on the word Freuden lend the piece a strangely dance-like, “gaillarde” character. This marvel of Protestant restraint with its glowingly devotional inside was of special significance to Sebastian, who performed it on several occasions, and probably arranged it for his own funeral. One of the major findings associated with the recovery of the Alt-Bachisches Archiv in Kiev is Sebastian’s instrumental arrangement of this motet: he seems to have sketched the instrumental parts at some point in the spring of 1750, a few months prior to his death; the shaky and feeble hand of a man who is nearly blind and obviously in great pain, is probably the last specimen we have of his music notation. Wolff claims that Sebastian’s arrangement of the motet is a deliberate attempt to put his estate in order (in this case, the funeral arrangements part), but also to entrench himself in the lineage of his clan by selecting a work by his most distinguished ancestor, on a traditional prayer text whose words anticipated life after death.

The most peculiar work on this recording is the cantata Die Furcht des Herren written for the election of the Arnstadt town council. It is still not completely clear who its composer was, Johann Christoph – who was in any case the copyist of the unattributed score – or his younger brother Johann Michael (whom Peter Wollny regards as the more likely author). This cantata is laid out as an interaction between the allegorical figure Wisdom (cantus 1) and several town officials. Interestingly, both the departing chamberlain (tenor solo), the elected chamberlain (cantus 2), the departing mayor (bass solo) and the elected mayor (alto) feature in the interaction, as does the town clerk (“bassus continuus”) and the complete town council which is represented by a four-part choir. Wisdom takes off with an introductory solo which extols the fear of God as the foundation of all reason; the other protagonists burst out in prayers of thanksgiving and implore God to assist them in their duties, periodically interrupted by Wisdom who reasserts itself as the provider of good advice and understanding. The sunny splendour of this setting with its occasionally risky chromaticism and feisty concertato interaction, sometimes anticipates much more modern baroque music, albeit with the lack of exhibitionism characteristic of its Northern German guise.

By 1720, the old polyphonic motet style which Sebastian’s ancestors had been innovating from within, was in decline. The cross-fertilization of spiritual madrigal and concertato-motet had spawned the cantata-form, which enabled religious composers to toy with the Italian innovations of the baroque by implementing an almost opera-like programme containing recitatives and arias in their church music. Sebastian himself was experimenting with this new style by 1714, and his major church output since then represents ever more audacious implementations of it.

Still, Sebastian did not abandon or disown the old ways: long after 1714, and at least up to 1729, he would write six so-called Kantoren-Motette which revisited mid-17th century models by Johann Hermann Schein and Heinrich Schütz. Fusing archaic polyphony with (some) concertato-elements, these motets are nowadays considered as the crowning glory of Western polyphonic music. The most famous one, Singet dem Hernn ein neues Lied, so delighted Mozart in 1789 that he interrupted a performance by the Thomaner choirboys and demanded the score – which did not exist, as a consequence of which Mozart is reputed to have sat down and to have pieced the motet together from the performing parts.

Even better proof of Bach’s regard for the old ways was his frequent reuse of his forbears’ old style cantatas, but also of his own early attempts at the genre. A pivotal case in point included on this recording, is Sebastian’s early church cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4), which was written in 1708 (as part of his application for a post in Mühlhausen), and reused in 1724 and 1725. The title refers to the most important Lutheran Easter hymn, the seven stanzas of which represent the cantata’s seven movements (preceded by an introductory Sinfonia). The hymn tune is present in all of the seven movements (as a cantus firmus), which are all in the key of E Minor, and structured cyclically according to the scheme “chorus–duet–solo–chorus–solo–duet–chorus”, with the focus on the central fourth stanza about the battle between Life and Death. The original 1708 scoring  – 2 violins, 2 viola’s and basso continuo – was old-fashioned by 1708 because it represents 17th century practice (as a result of which it is conveniently suited to the earlier works on this recording).      

Crucially, Sebastian revisited Christ lag in Todes Banden for Easter 1724, his first Easter in Leipzig, a place where he had not been wholeheartedly employed, and undoubtedly had something to prove. The fact that he reprogrammed the cantata for Easter 1725 is a sure sign that it must have gone down well the previous year. There are no extant reviews of these Easter performances, but Sebastian’s first Easter cantata is universally acclaimed as a masterpiece. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner calls Bach’s setting of Luther’s hymn “a bold piece of musical drama”, observing “his total identification with the spirit and letter of Luther’s fiery, dramatic hymn”.

For the 1725 performance, even more crucially, Sebastian revised the cantata’s instrumentation, though not in an attempt to modernize it: in order to double the choral parts, he added three sackbuts and a cornetto, wind instruments which had become extremely “vintage” by 1720, even by conservative Leipzig’s standards.

It has repeatedly been suggested that Sebastian’s regard for the music and the style of his forebears was caused by a wish to have a diachronic reference point for his own historical and artistic status and development: he measured his skills against that of his ancestors, and relished the prospect that his own output would once belong to their joint heritage, for they were all representatives of a lineage “that seems to have received a love and aptitude for music as a gift of Nature to all its members in common” (as his obituary notice of 1754 states). To be sure, Sebastian did not postpone the engagement with his ancestors until his maturity. The Alt-Bachisches Archiv features a motet – Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich den – which has long been attributed to Sebastian’s uncle Johann Christoph, but is now ascribed to a (very) young Sebastian himself. It is interesting to note that Sebastian did not limit himself to simply imitating his esteemed forefathers, for the music in Ich lasse dich nicht is astoundingly innovative: the rocking, almost dance-like rhythm, and the modern cut of the melodic writing clearly herald the new era