Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 18: Remarks by Daniel R. Melamed and The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity (New York City)
J. S. Bach's festive Easter Oratorio opens with not just one, but with two instrumental movements. Now it's pretty ordinary for an oratorio or a cantata to begin with an instrumental sinfonia, but the presence of two movements at the opening of the Easter Oratorio is striking. Bach is up to something specific here, and understanding that gives us a new way to listen to the opening of this work, and to understand the relationship of voices and instruments that Bach establishes in it, in a work whose defining feature is the combination of voices and instruments.
Opening sinfonias typically borrow from established instrumental types: from sonatas, small-scale pieces, or from concertos, typically in larger scoring. Now, there's no missing that the opening movement here is a concerto. It calls for a full ensemble of trumpets and drums, oboes and strings, together with basso continuo, and its musical organization is characteristic. It begins with a statement from the whole ensemble. It's a closed musical unit that will reappear at the end and in various guises and in various parts throughout the movement. This is the so-called "ritornello," a little thing that returns, and in a concerto, the ritornello alternates with solo material—the soloist and their material is embedded in recurring statements of the ritornello. Now the opening sinfonia of this oratorio is a special kind of concerto. Instead of singling out one instrument as the soloist, it uses the whole ensemble in segments as the "soloist." Here violins and pairs of oboes take turns in presenting soloistic material. Trumpets and drums are not so well-suited to this, so they don't take on this role in the movement. This kind of concerto, in which the entire ensemble or almost all of it also functions as the soloist, is called a ripieno concerto, meaning a concerto for the full group.
The second movement here, marked Adagio, is a slow piece, and that's typical for the convention of a three-movement, early-eighteenth-century concerto. This is a solo oboe concerto movement. Its ritornello is just rhythmic and harmonic; there's no real melodic interest to it. And that ritornello with its rhythm and its harmony becomes the accompaniment figure to the solo oboe throughout. Almost every strong beat in this movement lands on an unstable harmony, with dissonance and tension, and even the last note of the solo instrument lands a little bit too low and slides up to resolve. The closing ritornello of this movement also is open-ended harmonically. It sets up and invites a third concerto movement.
But the next movement of the Easter oratorio includes voices. It's a da capo aria for chorus--that is, it's a piece that sets a poetic text for a voice or voices, and it's set to music in the organization ABA, with a first section, a somewhat contrasting second section, and then a literal return of the A section to end the movement. Now it seems as though the expectation of the usual third movement in a concerto is foiled when we get to this third movement, the first vocal movement of the Easter Oratorio. We would expect an instrumental piece, but we get a vocal movement instead. But arias and concertos are actually put together in the same way: both kinds are organized around a ritornello. And here in this third movement, the first one that introduces voices, we have a fast movement in the key of the first movement; we have a movement with the full instrumentation used in that first movement; and we have a movement constructed around a ritornello. This first chorus of the Easter Oratorio, then, functions as the expected third movement in an eighteenth-century concerto. The Easter Oratorio thus opens with a full concerto: fast, slow, and fast movements, each in ritornello form, here drawing on three different soloists: the ripieno group (everybody as soloist), and then a solo oboe, and then voices as soloist.
This gives us a way to listen to this third movement as a concerto. But it also offers new things to listen for in the first two purely instrumental movements. They have some very vocal gestures. The first movement, the opening sinfonia, is structured just like an ABA (that is, da capo) vocal aria. And there's a moment about two-thirds of the way through that movement where the entire ensemble closes together—it reaches a close together—and there's a brief silence from everybody. But this close and this group stop is not in the home key. The piece then makes a fresh start. And that's just like what happens at the end of the B section and the return of A in a da capo aria (that's the ABA aria type). And in the second movement there is no missing that the solo oboe writing imitates singing. So here the instrumental movement invokes the voice and the vocal movement refers to the instrumental concerto. So here, then, in a splendid performance at the Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity is the three-movement concerto that opens Bach's Easter Oratorio.
3. Kommt, eilet und laufet, ihr flüchtigen Füsse,
Erreichet die Höhle, die Jesum bedeckt!
Lachen und Scherzen
Begleitet die Herzen,
Denn unser Heil ist auferweckt.
3. Come, hurry and run, you fleet feet,
Reach the [burial] cave that enshrouded Jesus.
Laughing and sporting
Accompanies our hearts,
For our salvation is risen [from the dead].
|Transl. M. Marissen and D.R. Melamed|
Tiny Bach Concerts is sponsored by the Ruth and Noel Monte Fund. Ruth and Noel Monte were deeply devoted to Bach and his music, sensing its great impact on the human brain and culture throughout the world. To them, Bach represents a bright planet appearing in the sky only once, requiring centuries for the human mind to observe and fully comprehend. The Monte Fund has the goal of supporting and promoting this living musical treasure for present and future generations.