Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bach Vespers

This month of Clef Notes we are looking at all things Bach in honor of his upcoming birthday on March 21. Last time we looked at the Baroque period of music, the time during which Bach lived and worked. Did you know that Collegium Cincinnati is holding their second annual Bach Festival this month? Check out their website for exciting opportunities to experience some of Bach’s masterpieces around town. 

This Sunday, March 8, Carlton Monroe and the Cincinnati Bach Ensemble will present Bach’s motet Jesu, Meine Freude BWV 227 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church at 5:00pm. Do you plan on going to this event? This motet was written by Bach shortly following his arrival at Leipzig where he took up the position of Kantor at the Thomaskirche. It is said that the piece was composed for the funeral service of the postmaster’s widow, Johanna Maria Keese. It was typical at that time for composers to write for functions rather than to write art simply for the sake of art. Throughout his life, Bach often wrote works that played important roles in his various careers. For instance, when he worked at churches, he typically wrote pieces for the service (as in this case). When working for the court, he would write pieces for court entertainment.

What is a motet? This musical term changes meaning depending on what era you refer to however during Bach’s day, it typically meant a sacred vocal composition used for liturgical purposes. The Jesu, Meine Freude BWV 227 has eleven movements and is a setting on Johann Franck’s German hymn from the 1650s. Most likely the Thomaskirche choir that Bach directed would have sang this motet and others like it during their services.

Can’t wait until Sunday to hear this work performed live? You can check out a video here:

Monday, March 2, 2015

What is Baroque?

Last March we spent the month counting down to Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday on March 21. After thinking about what to write this month, I thought, “why not focus on Bach again?” There’s always more to talk about when it comes to this infamous composer. Before we dive into different topics connected to Bach however, I wanted to talk briefly about the time period during which he lived and worked.

Have you heard the term “Baroque”? This word is a French term that comes from the Portuguese barroco and means a misshapen pearl or something abnormal, or exaggerated. It originally referred to ornate architecture but was later used by 18th-century critics when discussing the musical time period lasting from 1600–1750. While critics of the late 18th century may have looked down on such a style as they looked to new and simple forms, the 19th century favored the ornate and looked positively upon the Baroque era. Did you know that some scholars say that the Baroque period ended when Bach died (1750)? That illustrates the impact he had in music history.

With the Baroque period came a rebellion from the Renaissance era in the prior century. Renaissance music often used what we call polyphony (music that contains multiple independent voices) while Baroque composers tended to compose a melody line and a bass accompaniment, leaving it up to the performers to fill in the harmonies. Many performers would add ornamented notes, sticking with the standard style of the time. You may compare this performance practice to modern-day jazz in which musicians will improvise or take up a solo based on a given harmony. 

Baroque music often contained forward motion and contrasts, whether it be between loud and soft dynamics, fast or slow tempos, or between a soloist and ensemble in performance. These characteristics also map themselves onto visual art of the time. Early art often portrayed people or objects in still life. Baroque, on the other hand, often showed motion (like the music!) Art also exhibited contrasts such as light verses dark in coloring. A great example of Baroque art is on display in Cincinnati’s very own Taft Museum of Art: Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair.

Notice the contrasts between light and dark. Also note that the man is rising from his chair. Rembrandt shows motion in his painting.

If you would like to hear me chat with Sunday Baroque host Suzanne Bona on the topic of “Baroque,” you can listen to our discussion on 91.7 WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition from January 23, 2015. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Two Diva Rivals Sing Puccini's "Un bel di vedremo"

Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi: two twentieth-century opera stars who struggled with the competitive nature of their careers. Both divas held different artistic viewpoints that may have contributed to their rivalry. While Callas believed that singing was about reflecting the soul of a character, Tebaldi thought it was more important to create a beautiful vocal line. Below are two clips of “Un bel di vedremo” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The first is performed by Callas and the second, Tebaldi. Do you find that you prefer one over the other?

Maria Callas:

Renata Tabaldi: