American conductor Steven Fox makes his H&H debut in a holiday exploration of works from around the world. Bach’s prolific output included many works written for the season, including his Cantata 133 and Cantata V from his Christmas Oratorio.
Media Partner: The Boston Globe
- J.S. Bach: Cantata 133 (In Thee do I Rejoice)
- J.S. Bach: Cantata V from Christmas Oratorio
- Manuel de Zumaya: Celebren, Publiquen
- Anon. (Bolivian): Sonata Chiquitanas
- Bortniansky: Tebe Boga Xvalim
- Anon.: The Shepherd’s Star
- Ingalls: The Apple Tree
One hour before the start of each performance from the stage at Jordan Hall.
Orchestra & Chorus
Krista Buckland Reisner
Sonja DuToit Tengblad
Before the Age of Exploration, mapmakers did not know what lay beyond the borders of their continent and one used the phrase “here are dragons” to denote that lack of knowledge. With the discovery of new lands and cultures to the west, as well as the settlement those lands, Europeans began a centuries-long fascination with the New World. Russia, to the east, had a long-standing interest in Western Europe that continued with the policies of Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762–1796. In today’s concert, we hear a diverse array of compositions that are associated with Western Europe and its influence.
Leipzig in the time of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was a hub for commerce and music, and at Christmas many of those activities centered on church services. Christmas was celebrated from the Feast of the Nativity (December 25) to the Epiphany (January 6). As part of his duties as a church composer, Bach wrote cantatas for Christmas Day plus the following two days, New Year’s Day, Epiphany, and the Sunday that falls between these feast days.
Cantata No. 133, Ich freue mich in dir (I Rejoice in Thee) was sung on the third day of Christmas in 1724. This cantata is based on a hymn tune, which Bach incorporates into the first and last movements. In the first movement, the sopranos sing the hymn tune as part of a four-part harmonization. Each phrase of the hymn is separated by an orchestral ritornello. This pattern is interrupted at the phrase Ach, wie ein süßer Ton! (Oh, how sweet a sound!). Here the sopranos hold the sweet tone as the other voices repeat this text with a new rhythm. With the final phrase, der große Gottessohn! (the almighty son of God), Bach creates a similar but heightened effect.
The opening of the first aria is exquisite with its rising flourishes in the alto and oboes. The next section of text, Ich habe Gott (I have God), explains the reason for this exclamation so that the return of the opening music sounds all the more joyous. Bach achieves the same effect in the soprano aria, which proclaims Jesus’ birth almost like a love aria in an opera. The central section of this aria, marked Largo, clarifies the choice of a minor key: it decries those who do not believe. Similar to the alto aria but again expanded and magnified, Bach uses this contrasting section to return to the opening sentiment with deepened understanding. The cantata closes with a four-part setting of the hymn tune, which the congregation may have joined in singing.
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a set of six cantatas composed for the Christmas season in 1734. Part V of the Christmas Oratorio would have been sung on the first Sunday after New Year’s. The story of the Wise Men arriving at Herod’s court is told beginning with an exuberant chorus announcing that the birth of Jesus was for the whole world. The blending of the Biblical story with the response of the believer provides a continually fresh viewpoint in the text and Bach seizes the opportunity to explicate this musically. For example, in the arias, melismas (many notes to one syllable of text) on words like brightness and life relate the enlightenment of the wise men back to the believer.
Bach expresses Herod’s fear of the child in two recitatives, the first for the Evangelist and the second for alto. The Evangelist simply narrates, but the alto recitative asks pointed questions, addressed both to Herod and the believer in an examination of conscience. The terzet for soprano, tenor, and alto; the final recitative; and chorus confirm this message of the light of belief dispelling the dark.
A contemporary of Bach, Manuel de Zumaya (c. 1678–1755) was one of the greatest composers in the important musical center of Mexico City. Spain colonized Central and South America beginning in the 15th century. With priests as part of the early settlers in these areas, missions and churches were quickly established, along with schools that included music as part of the curriculum. These musical practices also reflected European traditions with chapel choirs led by a master of the chapel who was responsible for every aspect of musical life (composing, teaching, the care of instruments, and the like). And as in Europe, many of these churches became important musical centers.
Manuel de Zumaya began his career as a choirboy in Mexico City, where he studied composition and organ. He may have traveled to Italy before becoming the master of the chapel at the Mexico City cathedral in 1710, a post he held for some 24 years. He is thought to be one of the first American composers to combine voices and instruments in his sacred music. Celebren, Publiquen is a villancico, a sacred composition of stanzas and a refrain setting a text in the vernacular. Zumaya’s writing features a combination of musical lines, both delicate and bold, to underscore and heighten this text to the Virgin Mary. The opening of Celebren, Publiquen sets the tone of joyous celebration through the instrumentation and tempo.
Although rooted in European compositional techniques, Zumaya’s compositions and that of the anonymous Bolivian composer of Sonata Chiquitanas sound fresh; their richness lies in the unique blending of diverse musical traditions. The rhythmic variety in Sonata XVIII in G major propels the music forward while harmonic excursions, particularly in the first movement, provide a delightful contrast to the surrounding sections.
Unlike the Spanish missions and settlements that used music to acculturate indigenous populations to Western traditions, in New England there was an almost self-conscious effort to be different from Europe. Music was a part of everyday social life, and the European model of church and court patronage did not find fertile ground. Compositions such as the anonymous hymn The Shepherd’s Star may have sounded unsophisticated to the musician trained in Europe, but it is precisely this uncultivated quality that continues to make hymns like these so appealing.
Jeremiah Ingalls (1764–1838) was one prominent member of the New England style of composition. Ingalls was born in Andover, Massachusetts, and became known for The Christian Harmony, or Songster’s Companion. Unique in its day because it printed all of the hymn verses with the tune, Ingalls’ collection included 137 selections. Of these, 23 were taken from other hymnbooks and the remaining tunes were either composed by Ingalls or adapted from well-known tunes of the day. The tune for The Apple Tree comes from a Quick March in the Pantomime of Oscar and Malvina. The poem Jesus Christ the Apple Tree may have come from England in the mid-18th century; in the United States, the poem was published in Joshua Smith’s Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs: for the use of Religious Assemblies and Private Christians of 1784.
During the reign of Catherine the Great, the Italian composer Baldassare Galuppi (1706–1785) was master of the imperial court chapel in St. Petersburg where Dmitry Stepanovich Bortniansky (1751–1825) sang as a young boy. Galuppi retuned to Italy in 1768, and one year later Bortniansky received permission to travel to Italy to study, where he stayed for 10 years; he probably studied with Galuppi in addition to composing operas and sacred music. After returning to St. Petersburg, he held several positions in the Russian imperial chapel choir. The rich homophonic texture of his setting of the Te Deum, Tebe Boga Hvalim (We Praise Thee, O God), one of his many sacred pieces from this time, is interspersed with polyphony and shifts in meter and tempo.
All of these works celebrate the season with a stunning diversity of musical language that shares common roots in the musical traditions of Western Europe. These traditions were, and are, continually broadened by the imaginations of composers who perpetuate, challenge, and expand our own musical borders.
Program notes prepared by Teresa M. Neff, PhD
2011–2012 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.