Sunday, April 24, 2011

Und singen Halleluja!

As I mentioned way back on Good Friday, Bach's Cantata No. 4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden"  is really an Easter cantata, though it is much more grim in tone that the typical Easter fare. But, it is truly joyful music, even if the joy is not always bubbling over on the surface. Leonard Bernstein says of Bach, in this 1950's TV  show:
There are great beauties hidden in this music, only they're not so immediate as we expect them to be. They lie beneath the surface, so to speak, but because they do, they don't rub off so easily; they last and last.
Bernstein spends the remainder of that program (with the "help" of an absurdly dressed choir) highlighting some of those hidden beauties. There's more skepticism in our current culture about this sort of directed listening approach; for some, being told what to listen for can apparently take the joy out of the listening experience, making it seem more like an exam than something pleasurable. All I can say is that reading Bernstein's The Joy of Music (which includes the tele-script for that Bach program) more than two decades ago was ridiculously exciting for me.

So, my new little annotated listening guides for Christ lag in Todesbanden are designed with the idea that there's real joy in the search for subtlety - in the case of this cantata, those subtleties include not only intricate musical details about counterpoint and the like, but also the composer's extraordinary sensitivity to intricate details of theology. Just as Bernstein suggests that the joy of Bach's music isn't always readily apparent, Bach understood that the joy of Easter is bound up with some pretty serious stuff.

This is evident right away in the Verse 1 movement which begins almost as a funeral march, putting the emphasis squarely on Death and sin ("Christ lay in Death's bands, given over for our sins."). The basses keep heading straight to the basement of their ranges and the counterpoint is filled with thorny, twisting chromaticism (using notes outside of the main key). However, beginning with the third phrase ("Er ist wieder erstanden" [He has risen again]), the tenors introduce a rising countersubject that starts the music on its journey to the light. The fifth phrase calls us to be joyful ("fröhlich"), and the counterpoint starts to dance in response. When the seventh and final phrase calls for "singing Hallelujah," the Hallelujahs enter tentatively at first, but they start to multiply and grow in confidence until, finally, the music explodes into a thrilling, double-time "Hallelujah chorus." The entire movement, then, is a slow unfolding of Easter joy, like a cloudy sunrise service that ends in cold, but brilliant light.

Verse 1 Hallelujahs

But that's just a start. One of my favorite features of the cantata is the widely different ways in which Bach treats the singing of "Hallelujah," which appears at the end of each verse of Luther's hymn and each movement of the cantata. The second movement is just about the saddest music I know, funereal in tone throughout, with soprano and alto lamenting above a steadily processing cello; so it's almost stunning to have these words end with "Hallelujah." [Translation from Emmanuel Music.]
No one could defeat death
among all humanity,
this was all because of our sins,
no innocence was to be found.
Therefore death came so soon
and took power over us,
held us captive in his kingdom.
Bach responds to this challenge with three achingly drawn-out sets of "Hallelujahs": the first is little more than two overlapping, descending scales, intensified by constant suspensions as the alto lags a step behind the soprano. In the second set, the soprano starts up higher (an outburst of weeping?) on the unstable seventh scale degree, and now lags behind the alto; the mood is one of quiet desperation. The third set brings the two voices back towards each other, with the alto now rising up to meet the soprano; this leads to a fourth and final "Hallelujah" which is shorter and unified at last. These Hallelujahs remind us that there is power in word and truth, even in the darkest hour.

Verse 2 Hallelujahs

In the defiant third verse, Bach provides a melodramatic image of Death losing its power; the violins are in constant motion throughout the movement until we're told that "there remains nothing but Death's form," at which point there is a chilling silence and the accompaniment goes cold as we see (hear) Death's own ghost float by. The Hallelujahs that follow invite the tenors to taunt death ("its sting is lost forever") with virtuosic unison flourishes - the joy of victory.

Verse 3 Hallelujahs

The fifth verse is the most intensely personal in tone, as Bach responds to the Passover imagery of the Easter lamb, roasted high on the cross, marking the door and keeping us safe from Death. There are numerous symbolic references to the cross, both in melodic shapes and in the use of the crossed sharp sign (#) itself. (See Listening Guide for details.) The most dramatic moment occurs when the bass drops to a long, low E# on the word "Tod" (Death). There follows a resolute proclamation that the "Strangler" can no longer do harm - you can hear Death's power fading away as the word "nicht" is repeated.

Although the first movement has the most thrilling set of "Hallelujahs," this fifth movement features the most dramatic emotional progression. Following on that realization that Death has lost its power, it's almost as if the bass voice is trying "Hallelujahs" on for size, tentatively at first. The interval of a rising 4th becomes prominent, and in the listening guide you can see that the violins seem to be urging the singers on, with the rising 4ths rising ever higher and coming more quickly. The final melodic gesture spans a full two octaves.

This is a joy grounded in Faith and a firm resolve.

Verse 5 Hallelujahs

I haven't yet prepared listening guides for Verses 4 (a vivid battle scene) and 6 (a dancing celebration), but the examples provided above are evidence enough of how vividly and with what variety Bach can respond to a musical/textual challenge. Alleluias are traditionally silenced throughout Lent*, but they make a stirring comeback in this magnificent Easter work.

* Yes, this argues against my idea that this is an appropriate Good Friday piece.

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