Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Bach

I've been teaching Bach's Easter Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, in as many classes as possible for years now. I know it's one of his earlier works and doesn't display all the sophistication of some of the later more elegant, Italianate cantatas, but it's my single favorite choral work of Bach or anyone else. Of course, the St. Matthew Passion is a more obvious Good Friday choice, and I have been teaching that more and more as well, but it's so monumental that I'm still a bit intimidated by it. (Actually, one of my problems with the St. Matthew Passion is that I find the orchestral opening so perfect, that even the magnificent choral writing that follows feels like a slight letdown.)

Anyway, one of the odd things about Christ lag in Todesbanden is that, though it is a celebratory Easter piece, it is full of dark, grim imagery - just as Christians see Good Friday as something hopeful in the face of sorrow, Luther's hymn text takes an "already and the not yet" approach to Easter; throughout the hymn, we feel the anguish of living in a world where sin and Death are still present, even if the victory has been won. The relentless E minor tonality, the funereal tread of the Sinfonia and Verses 1 and 2, the fierce battle of Verse 4, and the impassioned lament of Verse 5 all evoke a mood far different from the typically exuberant Easter anthem. Even the giddy Hallelujahs that end Verse 1 are almost manic in their contrapuntal density. It feels almost as appropriate to Good Friday as it does to Easter.

This past week, I've been teaching the cantata as part of a big, general arts lecture class. It is ambitious material to expose to the musically uninitiated, but I can't help but want to try. (I take comfort in the fact that Leonard Bernstein says much the same thing in his Bach chapter in The Joy of Music*.) In past years, I've had online audio of the music available with some captioned listening pointers, and of course I've done my best in class lectures to walk students through various high points in the score. Still, it occurred to me that students listening on their own could use more help, so I decided to create videos with scores. As I've written before, this kind of online score can work well for someone who doesn't read music because the pages turn automatically, so you can't get lost for long - plus, in a vocal work like this, there are words to follow.

But the really new thing for me is using YouTube's built-in annotation feature to point specifically to all sorts of wondrous Bachian details. Having spent countless hours the past few days getting these annotations to work just so, I can't say for sure that I'd recommend it. There are much easier ways to insert text/highlights/etc in other video-editing programs that would provide a lot more flexibility; but the YouTube captions have two big advantages: 1) I can constantly edit and update them without having to recreate/reupload the video; 2) the annotations can easily be turned on and off by the viewer on the fly. (A downside is that I don't know of any easy way to transport these annotations out of YouTube, so they're kind of stuck there; but it's such a widely used platform, I can live with that.)

So, what we have here are densely packed listening guides for 5 of the 8 movements from the cantata. I may do the other 3 at some point, but 5 movements is enough for my class, and this makes me feel slightly less guilty about blatantly using copyrighted audio. I'm not quite sure what to say about this copyright question. I will certainly remove these videos if asked to do so by the copyright holders, but the truth is that, for reasons I don't fully understand, YouTube is packed with copyrighted material. In the case of these fantastic recordings by John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir, I'd certainly encourage anyone who likes them to purchase the CD, which is clearly linked on all the videos.

At least I've added real value to the recordings from an educational perspective. In fact, there's so much information at some points that it will probably be intimidating for students, but I'd stress that there's no need to take everything in at once - indeed, there are countless details that are still left unannotated, but I'd hope that even one or two little insights per movement could be catalysts for deeper, more engaged listening.

Although I originally intended to do little more than add text comments, I ended up getting addicted to the possibility of highlighting important musical lines. (This is what became so time-consuming, getting all the highlights to happen in real time.) The most satisfying results of this are some of the faster moments where the highlight boxes seem to dance across the score, especially in the Hallelujahs that conclude Verses 1 and 5. As someone who loves sightreading, I hope these listening guides give some sense of the kind of joy I get from watching notes dart across a page.

All the videos can be found on a single page here, a page which also contains some background information on the work, links to translations, a recording of the chorale tune alone, etc. I'd highly recommend heading over there. But, you can also sample the new videos below. My favorite annotations include the Hallelujahs at the ends of Verse 1 (Go to 3:30) and Verse 5 (3:45) and all the suspensions in Verse 2. If you don't know this music, it is well worth knowing.

Verse 1

Verse 2

Verse 3

Verse 5

Verse 7

* Speaking of Bernstein's The Joy of Music, I've actually been using that as a textbook for my arts class, mainly because reading it as a teenager impacted me about as much as anything I've ever read. Anchoring this unusual book are seven tele-scripts from live lectures Bernstein gave on the Omnibus arts program back in the '50s. Imagine my delight when I discovered that all of these lectures, which I'd never seen before, are now available on DVD and, yes, YouTube.

Except, I'm not sure I like the lectures as much in their TV versions. Amazing as it is that Bernstein could pull this kind of thing off on live network TV, his talking actually comes across as too scripted for my taste. This is a curious paradox because what I've always loved about reading the scripts is that they sound so naturally conversational, but I imagine the pressure of delivering the words on live TV (and coordinating so much musical activity) makes them come off as canned. The pace is often slow, and some of the banter sounds anything but spontaneous. Indeed, poor Bernstein looks pretty stressed at some points - I especially love his hair at the 4:15 mark of this video. (But again, let me stress, these lectures were performed live - I get stressed out talking to 75 students at once and hoping my PowerPoint and iPod won't let me down.)

The other problem is that the musical performances (with the exception of Bernstein's keyboard playing) often sound just awful, especially the choral examples from the St. Matthew Passion - and, my goodness, who dressed this choir? It's fascinating to listen to Bernstein feeling that he has to make a case (9:19 mark) for Bach; these videos are a good reminder that this music was less widely loved and understood than it is now, and we've certainly come a long way in learning how to sing this music. Still, I can't recommend Bernstein-on-Bach highly enough - and if you have to watch the videos instead, both Lenny and Johann are still pretty compelling.

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