Yale Schola Cantorum (NYC) | Reformation Concert

Event time: 
Saturday, October 14, 2017 - 7:00pm to 8:30pm
St. Michael's Church See map
225 West 99th Street
New York, NY 10025
Event description: 

Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

with Juilliard415

J.S. Bach: Cantatas for Reformation Day


Gott der Herr ist Sonn und SchildBWV 79

     Emilia Donato  soprano

     Bradley Sharpe  countertenor

     William Doreza  baritone


Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80

     Addy Sterrett  soprano

     Ashley Mulcahy  mezzo-soprano

     Haitham Haidar  tenor

     Edward Vogel  baritone


Mass in G major, BWV 236

    Addy Sterrett soprano

    Bradley Sharpe  countertenor

    James Reese  tenor

    William Doreza  baritone


Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, BWV 79

In accepting the prestigious post of municipal music director for Leipzig and cantor of St. Thomas School in 1723, Bach pledged “to preserve the good order” in the city’s four major churches and to “so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.” The thirty-eight-year-old composer forthwith threw himself into the life of a hard-working church musician, turning out a prodigious quantity of cantatas, passions, motets, and other sacred music to satisfy the relentless demands of the Lutheran church calendar. He produced his first Leipzig cantata, Die Elenden sollen essenBWV 75, for the first Sunday after Trinity on May 30, 1723, barely two weeks after reporting for work. By the end of his first year in Leipzig, he had compiled his first liturgical cycle of some sixty cantatas (though he cut corners by including a number of works he had written previously in Weimar and Cöthen), as well as the St. John Passion.

Unlike Telemann, who had turned down the Leipzig post a few months earlier, Bach had never shown any interest in opera. Nonetheless, much of his sacred music contains a strong theatrical element, and his choice of cantata texts may have been inspired as much by their dramatic qualities as by their power to “incite the listeners to devotion.” (Tellingly, the Bach scholar Martin Geck points out that the seating arrangements in Leipzig churches resembled theaters with private boxes.) Such is arguably the case with Cantata No. 79, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (God, the Lord, is sun and shield), written for the Feast of the Reformation on October 31, 1725. As the official commemoration of Martin Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 1517, the occasion called for special treatment, and Bach responded with one of his most colorful and extroverted cantatas.

A festive panoply of instruments is deployed in the opening chorus, with horns, oboes, timpani, and flutes (the last added sometime after the first performance) reinforcing the strings and continuo in a brilliant, fanfare-like introduction in G major. The textual allusion to sun and shield, drawn from Psalm 84, is captured in Bach’s combination of sparkling orchestral counterpoint and slower-moving vocal lines. The same verbal imagery is embedded in the second-movement aria, this time in a softer, more intimate setting for solo alto and florid obbligato oboe. In the ensuing chorale, Bach brings the horns and timpani back for a pared-down reprise of the first movement, while the chorus gives thanks to God in a simplified syllabic style. A short, declamatory bass recitative leads to a confidently striding duet in B minor for soprano and bass with string accompaniment, imploring God not to forsake his flock, and the cantata closes with a stirring G-major chorale in clear-cut four-bar phrases.  

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80

The Reformation theme stands out still more forcefully in Cantata No. 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God). Composed for a Feast of the Reformation sometime between 1727 and 1731, and revised at least once thereafter, this magisterial choral masterpiece is a reworking of a chamber cantata that Bach wrote for the ducal court at Weimar in 1716, in a very different liturgical context. In expanding his original six movements to eight and tightening the focus on Luther’s iconic Protestant hymn, Bach produced a powerfully devotional work that is altogether grander in both scale and conception, yet still fits comfortably within the half-hour time slot traditionally allotted for the cantata in the Lutheran service.

In its final version, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott dates from the last decade of the composer’s life, a period when he was summing up his contrapuntal technique in such monumental works as the Art of Fugue, the Goldberg Variations, and the Musical Offering. The elaborately contrapuntal chorus that opens the cantata is one of Bach’s most complex and majestic creations in the form. Luther’s invigorating hymn tune serves as an instrumental cantus firmus, providing a subliminal framework that buttresses the voices’ intricately intertwining lines both above and below. Unfolding over a span of 228 bars, this spacious introduction sets the stage for a musical enactment of the epic struggle between the forces of righteousness and “der alte böse Feind” (the old evil enemy), in the words of librettist Salomo Franck, a Weimar poet and court official who supplied texts for many of Bach’s cantatas.

The rhetoric of battle permeates BWV 80. It lies at the core of the cantata’s two richly dramatic duets, the first for soprano and bass, the second for alto and tenor. But while the crisp, martial rhythms of “Alles, was von Gott geboren” bespeak a call to arms, the limpid melodic lines of “Wie selig sind doch die,” paired with the dulcet warbling of oboe da caccia and violin, offer reassurance that God’s happy warriors will ultimately prevail. Bach drives these twin messages home in the sweetly introspective aria “Komm in mein Herzenshaus,” for soprano and continuo, and the resoundingly affirmative chorus “Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär,” in which unison voices interpose phrases of “Ein feste Burg” amid the orchestra’s tempestuous passagework. The fourth verse of Luther’s hymn, in Bach’s classic four-part setting, reminds us in parting that God’s gifts can never be taken away.        

Mass in G Major, BWV 236

Despite Luther’s emphasis on making the core texts of Christianity available to the common people in the vernacular, the Latin liturgy continued to hold a place in Lutheran worship after the Protestant Reformation. Bach composed Latin polyphonic music alongside his German cantatas throughout his long tenure in Leipzig, including the Mass in G Major, BWV 236, and three other short Latin masses he wrote in the late 1730s. Notable for their concision and directness of expression, these four works may represent Bach’s response to criticism that the eminent music theorist and critic Johann Adolph Scheibe leveled against him in 1737, calling his music bombastic and overwrought. Some scholars further speculate that Bach sought to prolong the life of his church cantatas by detaching the music from the original liturgical contexts of the German libretti and setting it to Latin texts.     

The Mass in G Major merits a place in today’s Reformation concert by virtue of Bach’s reuse of material from Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild. The Gloria is essentially a free adaptation of the cantata’s exultant opening chorus, with some instrumental lines reallocated to voices and adjusted to accommodate the Latin words of praise. Despite the elimination of horns and timpani, the music retains its original splendor and brilliance, as well as its bright G-major tonality. The Domine Deus, based loosely on the cantata’s soprano-bass aria “Gott, ach Gott, verlaß die Deinen nimmermehr,” is recast as a duet for soprano and alto. In smoothing out the violins’ vigorous athletic leaps, Bach renders the music more expressive of a restrained plea for mercy addressed to the Lamb of God.

The other four sections of the Mass are likewise adaptations, or so-called parodies, of existing works, starting with a massive fugal Kyrie for chorus with orchestral doublings. (This solemn prayer is the only movement of the Mass in which the instruments do not play an independent role.) After the G-major Gloria comes the Gratias, a joyous, bravura aria of thanksgiving in D major for coloratura bass and strings. This leads, by way of the Domine Deus in A minor, to the E-minor plangency of the Quoniam, another highly ornate solo aria, this time for tenor with oboe obbligato. Bach rounds out the tonal scheme by returning to G major for the Cum Sancto Spiritu, marshaling all his forces in a gloriously contrapuntal paean to God the Father.                  

Notes © by Harry Haskell     

A former music editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.

Since founding Bach Collegium Japan in 1990, Masaaki Suzuki has established himself as a leading authority on the works of Bach. He has remained their Music Director ever since, taking them regularly to major venues and festivals in Europe and the USA and building up an outstanding reputation for the expressive refinement and truth of his performances.

In addition to working with renowned period ensembles Suzuki is invited to conduct repertoire as diverse as Britten, Fauré, Mahler and Stravinsky, with orchestras including the Danish National Radio Symphony, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. This season he makes return visits to the Bergen Philharmonic and the Montreal and Sydney symphony orchestras.

Suzuki’s impressive discography on the BIS label, featuring all Bach’s major choral works as well as complete works for harpsichord, has brought him many critical plaudits. 2014 marked the triumphant conclusion of Bach Collegium Japan’s epic recording of the complete Church Cantatas initiated in 1995 and comprising fifty-five volumes. The ensemble has now embarked upon extending their repertoire with recent discs of Mozart’s Requiem and Mass in C minor and a future release of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

Suzuki continues as an active organist and harpsichordist. Founder and head of the early music department at the Tokyo University of the Arts, he was also on the choral conducting faculty at the Yale School of Music where he remains affiliated as principal guest conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum.

Since its founding in 2009, Juilliard415, the school’s principal period-instrument ensemble, has made significant contributions to musical life in New York and beyond, bringing major figures in the field of early music to lead performances of both rare and canonical works of the 17th and 18th centuries. The many distinguished guests who have led Juilliard415 include Harry Bicket, William Christie, the late Christopher Hogwood, Monica Huggett, Ton Koopman, Nicholas McGegan, Lars Ulrik Mortensen, Jordi Savall, and Masaaki Suzuki. Juilliard415 tours extensively in the U.S. and abroad, with notable appearances at the Boston Early Music Festival, Leipzig Bachfest, and Utrecht Early Music Festival (where Juilliard was the first-ever conservatory in residence). With its frequent musical collaborator, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, the ensemble has played throughout Italy, Japan, Southeast Asia, the U.K., India, and New Zealand. Juilliard415 has performed major oratorios and fully staged Baroque operas every year since its founding. Recent performances include Handel’s Agrippina and Radamisto, Bach’s Matthew and John Passions, Cavalli’s La Calisto, Charpentier’s Actéon with William Christie, and performances in the U.S. and Holland of Bach’s Mass in B Minor conducted by Ton Koopman (a collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague). The ensemble’s most recent international engagement was a 10-concert tour throughout New Zealand with Bach specialist Masaaki Suzuki. The 2017-18 season is notable for the Juilliard debuts of the rising conductor Jonathan Cohen and the Belgian vocal ensemble Vox Luminis, a side-by-side collaboration with Philharmonia Baroque in San Francisco, as well as return visits by Rachel Podger in a program of Telemann, William Christie leading Monteverdi’s Il Ballo delle Ingrate, a concert of music from Handel’s London under the direction of Robert Mealy, an all-Bach concert for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with Maestro Suzuki, and the rare opportunity to see a fully-staged production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie with Stephen Stubbs conducting.

Open to: 
General Public