Unlike the agony and ecstasy in his famous Passion settings, Bach composed joyous music for Easter and the Feast of the Ascension. Boasting full compliments of wind instruments, percussion, vocal soloists, and choruses, all uniting in exaltation, his oratorios for these celebrations have their fair share of excitement and jubilation. Along with the “Christmas Oratorio,” these three compositions are the only ones from his career that Bach called oratorios. Many of you heard ABS perform the “Christmas Oratorio” in December. We hope you will join us again from April 22-25 as ABS completes the trifecta of Bach Oratorios with performances of his magnificent works for Easter and the Feast of the Ascension.
St. Thomas Church, Leipzig
While Bach’s “Easter Oratorio” is easy to appreciate without advanced preparation, there are several aspects of the work where close listening and study will open up new riches to the hearer. First of all, in this oratorio Bach assigns dramatic roles to the vocal soloists–Mary Jacobi (soprano), Mary Magdalene (alto), Simon Peter (tenor), and John the Apostle (bass). The characters first appear as mournful believers approaching the cave where Jesus is buried. Their discovery of the empty tomb and evidence of his rising lead to a glorious series of recitatives, arias, and a grand chorus at the end. The BWV number for the “Easter Oratorio” is 249, placing it in the sequence with the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244, St. John Passion BWV 245, and “Christmas Oratorio” BWV 248 (the “in-between” numbers – BWV 246 & 247 – were reserved for Bach’s other Passions which have not survived, though many have tried to reconstruct a Mark Passion). Unlike the Passions or the “Christmas Oratorio,” BWV 249 does not employ an Evangelist, but rather allows the four soloists to interact within a dramatic scenario without a narrator. The work was first performed in Leipzig on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1725.
A westward look view of the Thomaskirche interior featuring the choir loft and Sauer organ, built from 1885–89. Photo: Derek Chester
The “Easter Oratorio” opens with an exuberant Sinfonia that begins allegro, or at a fairly rapid tempo. Scored for trumpets, timpani, oboes, flute, strings, and basso continuo, this orchestral opening is like a concerto grosso with several instruments enjoying exposed, solo lines within the overall ensemble. The opening movement is followed by an adagio (slow) instrumental section where the flute is the primary soloist. This section is succeeded by another rapid, triple meter movement wherein the chorus joins the orchestra. This three-part opening of the “Easter Oratorio” is essentially an instrumental concerto (Allegro, Adagio, Allegro) with the choir added to provide a little something different (not to mention providing some serious “lift”!) in the final movement.
Recitatives and Arias
As there is no Evangelist in this oratorio, the recitative sections are shared by the soloists in the four roles. Interestingly, many of the recits involve the whole quartet rather than a single singer. Mary Magdalene opens the first recitative with “O kalter Männer Sinn! Wo ist die Liebe hin, die ihr hem Heiland schuldig seid?” (“O cold mind of men! Where is the love you owe our Redeemer?”). She is quickly joined by “the other” Mary, Peter, and John who comment and mourn along with her. The vocal soloists then engage in a fascinating device called double-recitative, where two soloists sing the same text to different melodic lines. Each of these melodic lines is in harmony with the basso continuo, and heard together they create a complex and active texture.
Three soloists gets their own aria in the “Easter Oratorio” and each of them is a gem. The first is for the soprano singing the part of Mary Jacobi (mother of James), that third woman in depictions of the crucifixion, along with Jesus’s mother and Mary Magdalene. Her aria has a very open, almost delicate texture of only the solo voice with flute and basso continuo. Though the rhythm resembles a minuet, the mood is melancholy as the group has yet to discover the empty tomb.
The tenor aria, “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” (“Gentle shall my sorrow be just a slumber”) comes next, communicating Peter’s relief and comfort at the miraculous resurrection. For this aria, the two oboe players put down their instruments and take up recorders and, along with support from the strings and basso continuo, accompany the tenor in this beautifully tender aria.
Restless and excited, Mary Magdalene’s aria opens with the words: “Saget, saget mir geschwinde, Saget, wo ich Jesum finde” (‘Tell me, tell me quickly, tell me where I can find Jesus”). Accompanied by oboe obbligato, strings, and basso continuo, this aria marks a dramatic shift in the overall tone of the oratorio–from mourning, to relief, to excitement–and it is played to the dance rhythm of a gavotte.
The bass soloist does not sing an aria, but provides a conclusion to the narrative by declaring that we all shall overcome sorrow and sing songs of joy. The chorus and full orchestra then launch into an exuberant chorus giving thanks and praise in an energetic gigue.
First of all, you might ask, what is Ascension? The Feast of the Ascension is one of the three most significant celebrations in the liturgical year (along with Christmas and Easter), which memorializes the moment when Christ ascends to the heavens. Traditionally held 40 days after Easter, the equally joyous celebration inspired four great works by Bach:
Wer da gläubet und getauft wird, BWV 37 (1724)
Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein, BWV 128 (1725)
Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen, BWV 43 (1726)
Himmelfahrts-Oratorium: Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11 (1735)
Of these works for Feast of the Ascension Sunday, the last is the most sumptuous, glorious, and recent. Completed in 1735, only a few months after the premiere of his six-part “Christmas Oratorio,” Bach crowned the work with a special title: Himmelfahrts-Oratorium, or “Ascension Oratorio.”
Recitatives and Arias
As with the “Christmas Oratorio” and Passion settings, Bach utilizes a tenor soloist as Evangelist in the “Ascension Oratorio.” Along with the Evangelist’s solo narrations, there is also a fascinating contrapuntal recitative between the Evangelist and bass soloist, and also accompanied recitatives for the alto and bass soloists, each singing the text along with the accompaniment of a pair of flutes.
If you are familiar with Bach’s Mass in B Minor, then the first aria in the “Ascension Oratorio” will likely sound very familiar: Bach reset it years later as the “Agnus Dei” for his epic Mass in B Minor compilation. After the joyous opening chorus, this alto aria might seem like a radical change of pace, but the text, “Ach ja! So komme bald zurück” (“Ah, yes! Then come back soon”) captures the melancholy mood of the disciples who are left behind after the divine ascent. The soprano aria, “Jesu, deine gnadenblicke” (“Jesus, your merciful gaze”), develops this sentiment into a more proactive stance: even if we are left behind, we can use our remaining time on the earth to refresh ourselves spiritually. Accompanied by two flutes, oboe, and strings, this aria is full of diverse colors and has a constantly shifting texture. Just as the oratorio opens with a jubilant chorus, it also closes with considerable energy in a chorus for the entire ensemble of singers and instrumentalists.
Along with these extraordinary works by J.S. Bach, ABS will also perform works for Easter & Ascension by Bach’s Leipzig predecessor Johann Kuhnau and important stylistic influence Dieterich Buxtehude. Don’t miss Easter & Ascension Oratorios! Jeffrey Thomas leads four performances around the Bay Area and in Davis between April 22-25 with a fantastic quartet of soloists: soprano Clara Rottsolk, countertenor Eric Jurenas, tenor Zachary Wilder, and bass Joshua Copeland. Do you have your tickets yet?
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