Bach: Motet BWV 225, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied”

My God This Is Amazing!

Video post by @giobrach.

Source: Bach: Motet BWV 225, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied”

A to Z: L is for Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 This is day 12 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665 – 1729).

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre came from a family of musicians who happened to live in the very heart of Paris on the Ile St. Louis, which is right behind the Ile de la Cite, on which Notre Dame Cathedral sits. A prodigy on the harpsichord (taught by her father) she captured the attention of Louis XIV when she played before him. She was accepted into the French court and studied under the King’s mistress. She’s notable for composing in the then new forms cantata and sonata which came from Italy. Also, she was the first French woman to write an opera. La Guerre wrote in almost every form and became very well known. Today’s piece is a cantata about the parting and crossing of the Red Sea from book one of her Cantates françoises sur des sujets tirez de l’Ecriture, French Cantatas on subjects taken from Scripture (Paris, 1708).

Cantate le passage de la mer Rouge

The composer’s Wikipedia page Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre

Johann Sebastian Bach: Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (Naturally Bach)

Bach’s birthday is March 31.  He’ll be 331 years old.  In his honor, here’s a striking video I saw last year on a blog.  It’s quite pleasing.  Below it are a number of other arrangements.  Tell me which you prefer. Poll at bottom of this post.

Jesu is actually the last movement of Bach’s Cantata BWV 147–Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life). Written in his first year in Leipzig for the Mass that celebrates the Visitation of Mary by the angel announcing she’d be giving birth to the Messiah.

The German title for this piece is Jesus bleibet meine Freude which means “Jesus shall remain my gladness.” The more accepted English title comes from a piano transcription by Dame Myra Hess:


Here is a version for orchestra and chorus, which you might find a bit bombastic:

Orchestra with Chorus (Auf Deutsch)

I kind of like this version, which is simpler, using just four instruments:

String Quartet

Probably the nicest is the original scoring for 4 soloists, a 4 part chorus, and according to Wikipedia, “a festive trumpet, two oboes (oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia), two violins, viola and basso continuo including bassoon.”

So which do you prefer?

An interesting chronology of Bach’s life can be found here.

Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky

The fall of 1976 was a heady time for me as I started hanging around two geniuses in my college town. (See story below today’s piece.) One of them introduced me to today’s piece by Prokofiev.

The early days of Soviet Russia before World War Two, must have been a heady time for the arts. Artists like Kandinsky, Archipenko, Eisenstein, Gorky, and Prokofiev were trying to reinvent their art forms according to the liberation of humankind from the shackles of the bourgeois mentality. The new medium of moving pictures revolutionized story telling and allowed artists (and propagandist, of course) to telegraph emotions and ideas in a more visceral and emotional way, especially to the “uneducated” masses. Eisenstein invented a technique that the French called montage which involved creative editing to juxtapose strong visual images with emotional ones to deliver a greater psychological impact.

An example of the blending of the arts can be seen in Eisenstein’s film, Alexander Nevsky. Eisenstein asked Prokofiev to compose the music for the film of a Russian hero, who had routed a Swedish invasion in 1240 and two years later defeated Teutonic Knights in a famous battle on a frozen lake. Prokofiev and Eisenstein worked closely together throughout the shooting of the film. Sometimes Eisenstein would do a short episode and give it to Prokofiev to set to music and other times the composer would write a piece and Eisenstein would change the rhythm of the film’s action to suit the music.

From the music he composed for the soundtrack, Prokofiev created a cantata in seven movement, one for each major section of the film. The choral parts have strong Russian melodies sung by those deep Russian basses and contralto. They depict Russia under the yoke of the Mongols, the hypocritical Teutonic Crusaders, a call to arms designed to rouse the ethnic pride of the people, the battle on the ice, the ravages of war, and Nevsky’s triumphs. Considering that it was written on the verge of World War Two, the movie and music was obviously meant to rally the Russians once again to fight the Germans.

I especially like the battle on the ice. It starts with a low rumbling of the chorus that depicts the troops riding toward each other. The Russian and Teutonic hymns are played again to represent the opposing forces. The pace quickens to a gallop and then to a cacophonous clash of cymbals, horns, and drums that conjure up the chaos of a medieval battle. This matching of sound to action has made “art music” accessible to the masses and it also establish the use of music as an important part of creating a blockbuster hit. Imagine a Star Wars movie with someone playing a tinny piano or wheezing organ at the edge of the stage!


Kurt Gets Cooking

During the fall of 1976, my girlfriend, Lacy, traveled to England, leaving to me a hovel that she had occupied the summer before. In turn for free rent, I had to serve as janitor, living in the bowels of a sprawling apartment building, sandwiched between the laundry and the boiler room. I escaped as much as possible-to bars, coffee shops, the local vegetarian restaurant, and the houses of friends.

Coincidentally, a number of people who had orbited around the French house had moved, as I had done to the West side of campus to a nice neighborhood of small bungalows just which bordered old town Bloomington. The other day I wrote about how the house of Thom Klem became a kind of refuge where I started to seriously study cooking and expanded my interest of music into international folk and classical music.

Nearby lived David T*, another interesting character whom I have already described. He had moved in with an eccentric genius inventor named Peter. Peter had studied bassoon and one day while playing in a symphony orchestra, he conceived of the idea for four channel, or quadraphonic, sound. Not knowing anything about electronics, he gave up playing to devote all his time studying electrical engineering. He came up with a prototype which he then took to a large stereo company. They could not decide whether the time was right for this product. It would have entailed abandoning the current two-channel LPs and there was another system that a rival company had developed which they were evaluating. To keep Peter happy while they evaluated his idea and conducted test marketing, they would send him a check for $75,000 every so often.

Peter had expensive tastes and had used some of the money to go to a French cooking school. To keep his hand in electronics, he also repaired stereos at the local audiophile store. Visiting Dave and Peter’s was always an interesting adventure for me, who also was a bit of a tinkerer and loved to cook. The living room had a huge Sony Triniton television and on a table in the middle of the room was what looked like a disassembled stereo receiver. I soon learned that this was Peter’s research unit and from time to time he would go over, switch it on, switch a few wires around and ask “How does it sound now?”

The kitchen had every gadget a professional chef would need. On a wall hung valuable thick French copper sauce pans. A magnetic bar behind the stove held a dizzying array of cleavers, skewers, ladles, spatulas, tenderizers, saws and Sabatier knives. Atop a table sat a coffee grinder and a range of coffee makers–Melita drip funnels, espresso machines, French presses, and Turkish coffee boilers. Suspended from the ceiling hung a set of black anodized cook ware.

Once when I visited, Peter was busy making a pate. He lined a pate pan with bacon and filled it with ground veal, mixed with Cognac. This he covered and put in a bain marie in the oven to cook slowly for about 6 hours.

Peter liked living on the edge of strong tastes. At the local coffee house, “Two Bit Rush” they used to have an espresso happy hour where you could get a demitasse for 25 cents from four to six. Peter used to buy the dark Italian espresso bean, grind them, and then make himself huge cups of drip coffee out of it. This would keep him awake so he could work into the wee hours. Another time I visited, they offered me a Martini. They kept their Beefeater’s Gin in the freezer, and when they poured it, it was viscous and caused the glass to instantly frost. And it was there that I learned that you create an infinite variety of dishes with the myriad types of pasta.

One of their favorite dishes was made with orichietti. These are small dimpled disks of pasta that the Italians have named because they resemble little ears. While these boiled away on the stove, Peter would squeeze several cloves of garlic through a little piston press into a bowl. Next he added about a quarter of a cup of olive oil and about a cup of parmesan, which of course he had just freshly grated. For seasoning, he would add freshly ground pepper and nutmeg. For a variation he might add sliced black olives. When the orichietti were al dente he would quickly strain them and dump them piping hot on top of the cheese and garlic mixture and toss vigorously. The heady aroma of this dish was staggering.

David seemed to fit in well with the odd hours and intellectual stimulation at Peter’s. His own father had taught him the rudiments of electronics and he had all kinds of phones, short wave radios and electronic equipment. He had started out studying German and Comparative literature, but over the previous two years taught himself Russian. Peter had a top of the line IBM Selectric typewriter with interchangeable font balls. David had bought a Russian font set and had hit upon the scheme of typing term papers for Russian graduate students. He proudly showed me how he had mastered the remapped keyboard.

As I have mentioned before, David was an avid fan of 20th century music. Loving all things Russian as well, it was quite common to visit his house and find him reading Dostoyevsky in the original or listening to something by Prokofiev or Shostakovich. I believe one time they had a Sergei Eisenstein film festival on campus, and a number of us went along to see The Battleship Potemkin, Ivan the Terrible, and Alexander Nevsky.


Peter Schickele: Cantata, Iphegenia In Brooklyn

I mentioned before that my friend Kerry Wade had been a fan of Peter Schickele, who’d parodied baroque music under the nom de plume of P.D.Q Bach. Around the time of Switched-On Bach, Schickele released a comedy album, whose premise was a small classical public radio station (W.O.O.F.) at the “University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople.”

Between farm commodity reports, the announcer ran a contest called “What’s My Melodic Line?” Listeners were invited to send in the name of a piece by a baroque composer, which a panel of experts musicians then had to try to play off the top of their head. Should the listener succeed, they would be entered in a yearly competition. The grand prize was the complete works of Antonio Vivaldi recorded on “convenient 45 rpm records,” which would be sent to the winner one a week “over the next 35 years.” The composer of the day was described as ” the prolific and least known of all the prolific and little known composers of the baroque period.”

One of my favorite types of humor has always been parody, so Schickele’s poking fun at baroque music really resonated with me. Serious musicians, however, tended to look down their nose at Schickele. I’m not sure why. That someone told jokes about music didn’t stop me from listening to music.

Maybe Schickele was actually making fun of serious musicians and composers of his own day. Only a fraction of Vivaldi’s music, I recently heard, has ever been recorded. And he was prolific. Perhaps Schickele was saying, “how come today, there aren’t any composers around like that?” Or perhaps, he was criticizing how people just keep going back and recording over and over again the same old familiar stuff. Every time I turn on the radio and hear Barber’s Adiagio for Strings or Pachelbel’s Canon for the umpteenth time, I want to throw something at it.

Finally, maybe he was making fun of the bubbly baroque style. Sometimes it is just too upbeat and gets on your nerves. Also, because of its conventions, it seems too “happy” to convey serious themes. For example, Handel wrote an oratorio called Israel in Egypt. In one chorus, the text recounts how Moses called down the plagues on Egypt. It goes something like:

“He spake the work and all manner of flies and lice descended.”

I still laugh whenever I think of that line. Schickele clearly had Handel in mind when he wrote : “Cantata, Iphegenia In Brooklyn.” Here is the complete text:

“ARIA: As Hyperion across the flaming sky his chariot did ride, Iphegenia herself in Brooklyn found.

RECITATIVE: And lo, she found herself within a market, and all around her fish were dying; and yet their stench did live on.

GROUND: Dying, and yet in death alive.

RECITATIVE: And in a vision Iphegenia saw her brother Orestes, who was being chased by the Amenities; and he cried out in anguish: “Oh ye gods, who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running knows.”

ARIA: Running knows.”

Schickele scored the piece for double reeds. Normally that means oboes and English horns, but he had the musician just use the reeds, not the instruments. The result was a kind of musical Bronx cheer. In addition, the lead voice is a counter tenor, a part that requires a man with a bass voice to sing in falsetto, which imitates the castratto or male soprano which was popular back then. See what I mean by the conventions being kind of incongruous with the subject?

Obviously, the baroque era produced sublime works as well. Eventually, I will get around to discussing them. But, I want to reiterate that Schickele and the other popularization of the classics that took place in the 60s (such as “Switched-On Bach”) probably did more to help the cause of classical music than it did harm. And I will love to the day I die that horrible pun of that last aria in the Cantata, Iphegenia In Brooklyn.

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