Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Verdi’s Operas in 2021: Oberto

As I wrote in my November 26, 2020 post, I like to use this blog as a record of year-long “projects,” often beginning on the first Sunday of Advent. A composer about whom I’ve always felt curious is Verdi. When I began in parish ministry in the early 1980s, in a very rural area of southeastern Illinois, I liked to listen to classical music and opera at my lonesome little parsonage. Anytime I listen to an opera, something in me connects back to that time when I was starting out in ministry. 

So I decided to purchase the 2013 75-CD set of Verdi’s operas (and additional music), which I’ll listen to during the upcoming year. For reference I’ll study Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York: Knopf, 1979). 

I listened to Verdi’s first opera a few weeks ago. Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio premiered at La Scala in November 1839, when Verdi was 26. It was well enough received that the Scala impresario placed Verdi under contract for three additional operas. Set in 1228 in Northern Italy, the story concerns Count Oberto, who has lost a battle with the Salinguerra, led by Ezzelino da Romano. Consequently, Oberto is in retreat in Mantua. Meanwhile, Oberto’s daughter Leonora has been seduced and abandoned by the Count of Salinguerra, Riccardo, who is anyway about to marry the sister of Ezzelino, Cuniza. Leonora aimed to contront Riccardo on his wedding day. , led by Ezzelino da Romano. Oberto has lost and has retreated to Mantua. Meanwhile, his daughter Leonora has been seduced and abandoned by Riccardo, Count of Salinguerra, and Riccardo is about to marry Cuniza, Ezzelino's sister. Leonora makes her way to Bassano on Riccardo's wedding day, intent on confronting him. The two-act story ends with Oberto killed by Riccardo, who in remorse flees Italy but bequeaths his property to the sorrowful Leonora.  

I enjoyed listening to it! Osborne comments that although it is certainly not among Verdi’s great operas, it is a good beginning to the composer’s long career. Even with an unsatisfactory libretto, Verdi had excellent instincts from the start: how to set a story with economy and memorable music. 

Osborne notes that Verdi wrote a previous opera, Rocester. That opera was completed in 1836 but was never performed and apparently no longer exists. Rocester is not the character in the novel Jane Eyre, which wasn’t published until 1847, but details about the opera are now few. Verdi may have used some of its music in Oberto. 


Losing the Lord: Bach's Cantatas for the First Sunday After Epiphany

I've spent this past week getting ready for the new school year and (like everyone else) processing the events last week in D.C. 

This past weekend I listed to Bach’s cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany, which is CD 4 in the box set of Bach's sacred cantatas. These three cantatas are: “Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren” (BWV 154, “My dearest Jesus is lost”), “Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht,” (124, “I shall not forsake my Jesus”), and “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (32, “Beloved Jesus, my desire”). The lessons for this Sunday are Romans 12:1-6 and Luke 2:41-52.

All three cantatas surround the Luke passage wherein Jesus was accidentally left behind at the temple, and his family backtracks to find him. In these cantatas, the distressed believer speaks for the family: I am a sinner, I am in distress and grief and pain, and I need to be with Jesus. But Jesus is lost!  

As Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach’s skill makes his cantatas more dramatic than operas of his time; for instance, “in the bass recitative (No. 4) Bach forms a chain of seven successive notes of the chromatic scale in the continue line to emphasize the question, ‘Will not my sore-offended breast become a wilderness and den of suffering for the cruellest loss of Jesus?’” In contrast, though, the subsequent soprano-alto duet is “constructed as a gigue with a joyful abandon... that celerates release from all things worldly.”

When I feel “meh” or lost, I tend to go to the psalms, several of which express anxiety when God seems missing. Most of these psalms proceed into thanks and praise as the psalmist recovers a sense of closeness to God. The Luke story is also a wonderful scripture when one feels spiritually lost and distressed.

Have you ever felt spiritually panicked? The Luke story (and Bach’s cantatas) reminds you of a spiritual feeling that you might also sense in the psalms: that feeling of agitated distress and disorientation at losing God, as Jesus’ family panicked when they couldn’t find him. 

Jesus was not really lost, of course. God is really never far away at all.  But at our own spiritual and emotional levels, we may have little or no sense of God. It might take us some time to feel close to God again. What a good reminder of the happiness that await us when we get to that place.


All We Have in Life: Bach’s Cantatas for Sunday After New Year and for Epiphany

I’m listening to Disc 3 of the 56-CD set, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, of all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas. This CD (featuring a photo of a Kabul man with frost in his hair, eyebrows and eye lashes and beard) features two cantatas for each day. Disc 4 will be cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany.

The first two, for the Sunday after New Year, are “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” (BWV 153, “Behold, dear God, how mine enemies”) and “Ach, Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 58, “Ah God, what deep affliction”). “Schau, lieber Gott” begins and continues through several anguished pleas for help. By the second choral piece, "Und ob gleich alle Teufel", with familiar tune “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the piece lyrically turns to hope: “even though all the evils were to oppose you, there would be no question of God retreating.” Like several of the biblical psalms, the first half of the piece is all anguish and pain while the second half affirms God’s faithful care even in very difficult circumstances. 

“Ach, God,” a dialogue between the soprano and bass, is a dialogue between a troubled and beleaguered soul and an assuring angel. By the end, the soul (the soprano) declares assurance in an upbeat final aria: “Be consoled, consoled, Oh hearts, to reach Thee in heaven’s paradice... the joy of that day for which Thou hast shed Thy blood outweighs all pain.”

Then the next two cantatas on this disc are those for Epiphany: “Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen” (BWV 65, “All they from Sheba shall come”), and “Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen” (BWV 123, “Dearest Emmanuel, Lord of the righteous”). As Gardiner indicates in his notes, the first cantata opens with a sense of procession, antiquity, and Near Eastern ambiance to depict the arrival, not of the Queen of Sheba, but of the Magi who brings the Christ child gifts. A theme familiar to this holiday--what gifts can we figuratively bring the Christ?---is answered: “Jesus would have your heart. Officer this, O Christian throng, to Jesus at the New Year!” Christ, in turn, gives to us more precious gifts than the Magi’s: Christ gives us the gift of himself, and with him the “wealth” of promised Heaven.

“Liebster Immanuel” has dance-like rhythms as it, at first, urges Jesus to return quickly, for Jesus is the believer’s delight and most dear gift through life’s “bitter nourishment of tears.” Gardinar comments that the bass aria “Lass, o Welt,” is one of Bach’s most lonely pieces, as the singer declares, “Leae me, O scornful world, to sadness and loneliness!  Jesus...shall stay with me for all my days.” Yet, in one of Bach’s many wonderful techniques, lets a solo flute accompany the lonely singer with more assuring music, as if the flute were the singer’s consoling angel.

I'm struck by the sorrowfulness of some of the pieces. I don't know if people in Bach's time made "New Year's resolutions," but now that the new year has gotten started, people are back into the difficulties and challenges of life.

But the cantatas are psalm-like in their honesty of pain, loneliness, and people's scorn, contrasted with the promise of God's unfailing love, power, and eternal promises. Something I want to keep thinking about this coming year, is the theme of several cantatas so far: God in Christ is, really, all we have in life, the only permanent reality, the only sure promise. All other things, both good and bad, are ephemeral. It can be challenging to "feel" that promise as one goes about daily life. 


English translations by Richard Stokes


Saturday, January 2, 2021

New Year Hope: Bach's Cantatas for New Year's Day

Continuing my listening to Bach's sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … This weekend I listened to the Christmas Season cantatas for New Years Day (disc 2 in this 56-CD set). The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach's music) is of a child in Amdo, Tibet, wearing an appropriately warm-looking hat. 

All these cantatas contrast the year's ending and the new year's start: we praise God for the protection and blessings of the past, and we trust in God's care amid life's uncertainties and the devil's traps. The first cantata, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 143, “Praise the Lord, O my soul”) is (according to Gardiner, in his commentary notes) of questionable authenticity; it may be a much earlier piece of Bach’s own reused at a later date, or a student’s work composed under Bach’s direction. The piece has an aria that considers grace amid life’s troubles:

Thousandfold misfortune, terror,

sadness, fear and sudden death,

enemies littering the land,

cares and even more distress

are what other countries see---

we, instead, a year of grace.

But the believer still must trust in Jesus as “our refuge in the future, that this year may bring us good fortune.” The believer knows to remain watchful everywhere for the Lord’s guidance. The music itself, composed (as Gardiner writes) when horrors of war and death pale in comparison to the 20th century’s, inspire in us a universal longing for blessing and care amid the particular distresses of our times and places.

A more mature work (according to Gardiner) than 143, the next cantata, “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” (BWV 41, “Jesus, now be praised”) seeks the same favors from Christ: that Christ’s goodness that has kept us safe through the outgoing year may keep us protected in the new year, since “the foe both day and night lies awake to harm us.” 

“Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (BWV 16, “Lord God, we give Thee praise”) is (as Gardiner puts it) ebullient and concise compared to the more expansive 41. As the previous cantata had beseeched Christ’s care in both “town and country” (Stadt und Land), this cantata request blessing for both “church and school” (Kirch und Schule), because Satan’s wickedness lies in wait there, too. 

"Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm" (BWV 171, “According to thy Name, O God, so is Thy praise") asks the believer to complete the year in praise of God, with the name of Jesus being the new year’s first word and the believer’s final word. 

Probably many people wonder, as do I, what a new year will bring. Think of how differently the world looked at the beginning of 2001 than it did at year’s end. 1914 is another year of that sort. Think of years in your own experience when some event changed the character of the whole year and beyond. 1999 and 2012, when my parents died, are personal examples. I also think of a Facebook friend who lost a loved one on January 1; this friend’s year changed dramatically on the very first day.

Now, we're beginning 2021, after what is often called a "dumpster fire" of a year 2020. Bach’s cantatas give us lovely experiences of hope. We are human and recognize the perils and capricious qualities of life, but we place our trust and hope in God to guide us through. For Bach and his lyricists, God is really the sole source for confidence and happiness. In today's cantatas, Christ’s is the overarching name that begins a calendar year, ends it, begins the next.... and finally closes our lives as we are ushered into everlasting life. 

English translations by Richard Stokes


Thursday, December 31, 2020

Former Sodas

I have a small collection of antique advertisements for brands of soda. Coca-Cola is a favorite, but I also have Pepsi, Orange Crush, 76, Norka, Dr. Pepper, Grapette, Cheer-Up, and a few others. 

I was looking on eBay and saw an advertisement for Quiky soda, which I'd never heard of. But looking it up online, I found this neat article about more recent sodas which have been discontinued. I hadn't realized some of these kinds of defunct. Memories of enjoying the day with a soda (or soda pop, or pop, or sodie, or whatever your favorite term is!). 

https://gunaxin.com/a-tribute-to-fallen-dead-discontinued-sodas 


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Cling to Christ: Bach Cantatas for the Early Christmas Season

Continuing my re-listening to Bach's sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … I've been listening three CDs for the Christmas season. They were recorded in 2000 at St. Bartholomew's Church, a favorite stop whenever we visit Manhattan. Although I'm beginning my year-long "journey" with the First Sunday of Advent, these three CDs are actually the last ones in the original pilgrimage.

CD 54 contain the cantatas "Gelobet seist du, Jesus Christ” (BWV 91, "All Praise to you, Jesus Christ") and “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (110, "Let our mouth be full of laughter") for Christmas Day, and then “Christum wir sollen loben schon” (121, "To Christ we should sing praises") and “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes” (40, "For this purpose the Son of God") for Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas. On the CD's cover is photograph of a child in Amdo, Tibet. According to the notes, “Gelobet, seist du” is full of expectation and danceable-rhythms, with its emphasis on praise of God’s work in Christ---the small way in which the creator of the universe appeared for our benefit.

"Christum wir sollen" is based on a 5th century Latin hymn is similar in its content: “God, who was so boundless, took on servile form and poverty.” "Dazu its erschienen" has several contrasts of darkness and light---and the admonition that we should not be anxious and fearful for the “ancient serpent,” for Christ has conquered Satan. “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens" is, for Gardiner, the “most festive and prilliant” of these four with an “irresistible swagger” “Let your mouth be full of laughter and our tongue of singing. For the Lord has done great things for us.”

CD 55 contain the cantatas for the third day of Christmas, also recorded at St. Barth's: “Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget” (BWV 64, "Behold, what manner of love"), "Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt" (151, "Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes"), "Selig ist der Mann" (57, "Blessed is the man"), and a cantata for the second day of Christmas, "Ich freue mich in dir" (133, "I rejoice in thee"). The cover is photo of a baby in Zigaze Tibet.

Gardiner calls attention to the trombone choir in "Sehet, welch eine Liebe", which I look forward to hearing. He notes that this cantata connects thematically to the theme of Christus victor in the previous day's cantata “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes”, as well as the Christmas cantata "Sehet, welch eine Liebe." Gardiner writes that Bach uses the trombone to depict the “vertical and horizontal” dimensions of faith: Christ’s descent to the world to save us and our eventual ascent to heaven to gain the full divine promises. 

"Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt" is an “intimate and beguiling” cantata has, among other things the use of oboes and violins “in praise of the spiritual riches to be found in Jesus’ spiritual poverty.”

His wretched state reveals to me

naught but salvation and well-being,

yea, His wondrous hand

will weave me naught but garlands of blessing.

In "Selig ist der Mann," we find a kind of dialogue between Christ and the soul, and thus a connection of Christ’s love with the soul of the suffering believer. In the arias and recitatives, Jesus promises his heart to the believer---and his hand to strike the believer's enemies and accusers. Meanwhile, the believer declares that he/she has nothing to count on but Jesus.

Finally, "Ich freue mich in dir" is an exhilarating cantata which connects to the believer’s need for Christ seen in "Selig ist der Mann" and the other cantatas.

…. I shall,

O Jesus, cling to Thee,

even if the world

were to shatter in a thousand pieces.

The last CD of pre-New Year Christmas music is the actual last CD of the entire set, also recorded at St. Bartholomew's. The cover photo is a child from Sarif, Afghanistan.These cantatas are for the Sunday after Christmas: the motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (225, "Sing unto the Lord a new song"), "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn" (152, "Tread the path of faith"), "Das neugeborne Kindelein (122, "The newborn infant child"), "Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende" (28, "Praise God! The year now draws to a close"), and "
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (190, "Sing unto the Lord a new song").

Gardiner notes that the BWV 225 "Singet dem Herrn" “distances itself from the mode of the incarnation and anticipates Christ’s coming Passion, crucifixion and death” with a small ensemble, a soprano and basis and six instruments). He also notes that the motet invites believers to the path of faith, as does "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn," which is “as close as [Bach] ever got to the traditional Christmas carol-like image of the infant Jesus.” "Gottlob!" takes us into the area of the end of the year’s journey, while the BWV 190 "Singet dem Herrn" reminds us continually of Jesus (in this case, the lesson is his circumcision and naming). Gardiner notes that the cantata begins and ends in D major, creating a little circle with the journey of the past year and the new one to begin.

All good interrelated themes to ponder in our hearts: the weakness and poverty of the circumstances of Jesus' birth, contrasted with the strength of Christ's grace on which the believer relies. That strength, in turn, is that which we must turn to again and again through the journeys of our years---and the upcoming journey of the new year.   

English translations by Richard Stokes

(A post from 2013) 


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Etch this day in metal and marble: Bach's Cantatas for Christmas Day

Continuing my "journey" through Bach's sacred cantatas, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. I'm listening to CD 1 in the 56-CD set, the cantatas for Christmas Day. The cover photograph is of a child in Hardiwar, India.

The first CD is “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (BWV 63), “Christians, etch this day in metal and marble.” Gardiner’s notes that this was first concert of the year-long pilgrimage. This concert happened in Weimar, a city of notable cultural history. But eight kilometers away, lies the notorious place Buchenwald. For Gardiner, this contrast reminds us, among other things, that “Bach’s music is overwhelming testimony to the strength and resilience of the human spirit,” with its need to find meaning and its endurance through life's horrors.

It makes me think, too, of the sometimes jarring contrast each Christmas when we sing "peace on earth" in a world that has never known lasting peace. And yet the day is etched permanently in human experience. One thinks of the famous, unofficial "Christmas truces" that happened along the Western Front in 1914, mocking the supposed need for nations to go to war.

This BWV 63 cantata has a symetrical form and contrasting moods, for instance Bach’s transition from E minor to A major when moving to Jesus’ birth. Among the several numbers, the singers declare, “O blessed day! O wondrous day on which the Saviour of the world, the Shiloh promised by God in paradise to the human race.”  “Call and implore heaven, come, ye Christians, come to the dance, you should rejoice at God’s deeds today!”

The other cantata is “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (BWV 191), the words and song of the angels which, in Bach's hands becomes (as Gardiner puts it) "a celebration of dance as well as song.”

Are we dancing with joy at the Good News of Christ? I don't want to become chiding about our Christian experience----as if we all "should" be dancing with joy at the Savior, and if we're not we're substandard Christians. But sometimes we do feel so positive about the Good News that, even if we don't dance, we can't sit still.

(A post from 2013)