Dickens: Bleak House
A Note on Bleak House Editions

Bach: Christ Lag in Todesbanden

I've never ventured very far into the Bach cantatas, having heard mostly the "greatest hits," such as BWV 140, "Wachet Auf" (which my mental ear insists on hearing as "Watch Out!"). There are just so many of them, and--I hope you will excuse me if this sounds blasphemous or at least disrespectful--there seems to be a fair amount of music in them that is less than great. I mean, for instance, chorales that don't seem particularly distinctive. 

But thanks to an article by Ken Myers in the most recent issue of Touchstone (the article is not available to non-subscribers), I sought out a recording of this one: "Christ Lay In the Bonds of Death," based on a hymn by Luther. I recognized the title but am not sure I'd ever heard it before. It seems to me a standout. I'm posting it as the one acknowledgement of Holy Week that I plan to make here--I won't be online very much for the next week or so. I would say that I hope you enjoy this but I feel fairly confident in saying that you will enjoy it, if you listen to it and you don't have an aversion to classical music, or classical choral music. 

From Myers's article, here's an interesting bit of musical analysis that even I can grasp:

And the musical device Bach introduces here—a succinct motif that pervades the entire work—is the simplest of melodic gestures: a descending half step. Play an A on a keyboard, followed by a G-sharp. It’s the tightest of intervals possible in Western music, but that short descending sigh becomes, in Bach’s development of Luther’s hymn, an emblem of death.

In the melody of Luther’s hymn, the first two notes are a descending whole step, from A down to G. That’s how generations of Lutherans had heard and sung the opening notes of this hymn. It’s the interval borrowed from the chant on which the melody is based, and then heard in dozens of compositions for choir and for organ based on this tune. Bach had the musical-theological shrewdness to recognize in this slight (but radical) alteration in the melody a musical resource that would enable him to more powerfully convey both Passion and Resurrection.

As the BWV number suggests, this is thought to be an early work, written around 1707, when Bach was in his early twenties. You can read a great deal about it on the Wikipedia page. But you'd be better off listening to it first. The performance is by those baroque workhorses, Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Monteverdi Choir.

I don't as a rule especially like watching musicians up close, or for that matter at all, when they're performing, but I did enjoy watching these. 


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Happy Easter, Mac!

I did enjoy this. It fit well with several pieces on Christ between burial and resurrection that popped up in my Lenten reading this year.

And happy Easter to you, and everyone.

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