Bach’s Legacy Series: Bach and His Motets

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

2014.04.08 Der Geist manuscript

Bach’s manuscript of “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” – Click to enlarge.

Bach’s motets form an important part of his artistic legacy. These extraordinarily beautiful and powerful works hold a beloved place in the Baroque repertory and—in spite of their difficulty and the demands they place upon performers—are regularly performed. The motets have exerted a strong influence on composers of vocal music through the ages and for some, Mozart for example, they provided the point of entry for discovering Johann Sebastian Bach. Two of Bach’s motets—Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229) and Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226)—and the motet-like movement Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV-Anhang 231) will be performed by ABS and the American Bach Choir under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas at ABS’s “Bach’s Legacy” concerts (April 25-28). Vocal works by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Sandström, and Nystedt will round out this program, specially curated by Maestro Thomas, which connects the world of Bach to our own by way of a shining and vibrant musical thread.

For all of their brilliance and centrality to the repertory, Bach’s motets present a host of authentication, identification, and performance practice challenges. For example, we can only be relatively sure about the occasion and date of the composition of one of the traditional six attributed to him, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. Outside the six, there are motet-like works—O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118) and Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV 231)—whose status as motets is debatable, and there are works like the motet Ich lasse dich nicht of which Bach’s authorship has only recently been established.

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“ABS’s performances of Bach’s motets have been featured events both on our own Subscription Series and, in two separate years, at the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition. They seem to be such a perfect fit for our wonderful artists, both vocalists and instrumentalists. In all of my travels, I have never worked elsewhere with musicians whose careful and thorough attention to the details of texts even remotely approaches the meticulousness and thoughtfulness of performances by our artists. I am always grateful for their mastery, but I am especially so in the compositions by Bach (the cantatas, motets, and passions) that are tremendously dependent on subtleties of text and rhetoric”

– Jeffrey Thomas

Provenance is admittedly sketchy and incomplete for this rewarding body of work, and the more basic matter of definition provides little in the way of sure grounding for inquiry. The simple question of “What is a motet?” does not have a simple answer as this particular realm of musical terminology has a history of imprecision and liquidity. “Motet” has been used variously to describe liturgical music in Latin, sacred music in the vernacular, secular polyphonic music during the late Middle Ages, a cappella works, or vocal polyphony with instruments. For Bach, his motets are fairly consistent with regard to a few important features. They are polyphonic vocal works for one or two choirs, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment, often (though not always) based on biblical texts. They were presumably performed as prayers for recently deceased dignitaries.

Perhaps the least contentious in terms of date of composition, instrumentation, and occasion for which it was written is Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. The common assumption about Bach’s motets is that they were composed as funeral music, though Der Geist hilft is the only one bearing an autograph dedication; it was performed in October of 1727 at the memorial service of Johann Heinrich Ernesti, rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. Debates about instrumental accompaniment of motets can be laid to rest for this one, as instrumental parts—strings paired with Choir I and winds paired with Choir II—exist in Bach’s hand. The only mystery is whether Bach intended the concluding chorale, “Du heilige Brunst,” to be played by the instrumentalists since Bach wrote music for the chorale into the vocal parts, but not for the instrumentalists. Should we surmise that this last portion was sung a cappella at the gravesite where the orchestra, especially the organ, would not have accompanied? The text of the chorale is a poetic benediction for the departed:

Heavenly fire, sweet consolation, help us now, so that joyfully and confidently we may faithfully serve thee and not be deflected by sadness. Oh Lord, prepare us through thy power and strengthen the reluctant flesh, so that we shall fight valiantly and pass through death and life to thee. Hallelujah!

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Bach: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226
La Chapelle Royale ~ Collegium Vocale ~ Philippe Herreweghe ~ 1985

For “Bach’s Legacy,” Jeffrey Thomas has selected a sampling of Bach’s vocal music that will showcase the singular excellence of the American Bach Choir and instrumentalists of ABS. The works by Bach include the motets Komm, Jesu, komm and Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, the chorale Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich, the motet-like movement Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren, the early cantata Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, and the sacred song Komm, süßer Tod. These compositions profoundly affected later composers such as Mendelssohn, Brahms, Sandström, and Nystedt. Works by this great quartet of composers will also be also performed to demonstrate the depth of Bach’s influence. See you there!

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014