h1

How brightly gleams the morning star

October 16, 2018

Wie schön leuchtet Morgenstern

BWV 1

A friend who helped to edit the prologue to this project told me that I lost, and bored, her with my attempt at trying to explain the Bach catalogue system; the BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichis or Bach-Works-Catalogue) numbers. I told her that there was a reason for the tedium of my prose.

The first cantata, BWV 1, is nowhere near the first cantata that Bach wrote. BWV 1 was first perform on March 25, 1725 for the feast day of the Annunciation and in that year also Palm Sunday. Bach was born in 1685 and died in 1750. He wrote his first cantata around 1707. BWV 1 is the last cantata of the Year II or second cycle, of three cycles of cantatas. I will get into more detail of system as this project proceed. But writing about the cantatas, and works of art, starting with BWV 1 seemed has a good a system as any.

You might think that I would match only realistic religious art to Bach’s religious music and I will do a fair amount of that, as I do like religious art, but I plan to match paintings of all kinds to his cantatas. I am limiting my matches to only paintings because I like painting, it is my project, and I might as well enjoy myself. The only limit is that I am picking only paintings that I have actually seen. This is a project about recall. I have been collecting this music for nearly sixty years and I have been looking at art for even longer. This is an exercise in using my brain while it still works and an attempt to keep it working. It is all being done from my home office in Sackville, New Brunswick.

Back to Bach and the Annunciation. I have multiple versions of many Bach cantatas. I have three versions of Wie schön leuchtet Morgenstern, BWV 1. They are conducted by Nicolaus Harnoncourt (1972), Helmuth Rilling (1980), and Masaaki Suzuki (2006). I have nearly complete sets of the cantatas by Harnoncourt and Suzuki. Friends of mine have often asked why I have several versions of the same classical works in my music collection. That is because the interpretations are quite different. In this case the timing of BWV 1 goes from 25’ 12” (25 minutes 12 seconds) to 22’ 55” to 22’ 23” and, in this case, in the same order that they were recorded from 1972 to 2006. The timing became faster over over the thirty-four years between three versions of the work. Tempo is not everything. There are other major difference between the three versions.

Harnoncourt attempts to record the music in the style that he thought how the work originally was performed. He uses actual instruments from the period; he conducts from the first chair, playing either violin or violoncello; it is small baroque orchestra, the Concentus Musicus Wien and; finally he uses only mens and boys voices for all vocal parts. The Harnoncourt set I own is on vinyl while the Suzuki set is on CD as is Rilling’s recording of BWV 1. I will go into detail about Suzuki’s and Rilling’s interpretations of Bach’s works in later posts, but briefly they use more modern instruments and both male and female voices.

I find it difficult to pick favourite versions of the cantatas that I have in multiple recordings. I do like Harnoncourt’s use boys choirs and men and boys soloists. It gives the music a strange quality that is hard to describe. I have a separate Teldec CD Voices of Angels from 1993 that is all boys voices of selections of Bach’s coral music conduced by Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt that, if you can find a copy, will knock your socks off. (An aside, because of copyright restrictions I cannot include music in my postings. You can find Bach’s cantatas on YouTube, but not necessarily in the versions that I am writing about. They will, however, give you an idea of the music.)

BWV 1 opens with a chorus followed by a recitative, aria, recitative, aria, and finally a chorale. The first line of the chorus is, “How beautifully shines the morning star,…”; that supplies the title of the cantata, a pattern that is common to all of his cantatas. In this cantata the vocals, outside the chorus and the chorale, are sung by individual voices: tenor, soprano, bass, and tenor again respectively. Of course, the text relates to the Annunciation and to both the old (Isaiah) and new (Luke) Testaments. This is a beautiful calm work that washes over me. I have played it repeatedly to go to sleep to. I keep a stack of CDs in my bedroom that play as I try to fall asleep. Bach is a wonderful elixir for all ills.

Let me bring up another date, almost three centuries before, May 6th, 1432, that is the date that Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was completed. The first time I saw this work was in 1973 and I have revisited it many times since. It has since its inception been housed in St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. (Except the times it has been carted away by different conquerors as spoils of war, but that is another story for another time.) It is considered as Belgium’s most treasured art work. I was lucky enough to have seen it in its original location in the cathedral before it was moved and placed in a humidity controlled glass box. The first few times I saw the work an old man would come out and opened the altarpiece and then, after a half hour or so, close it again. Of course, the absence of glass was a big thing, but what was more important was that the work was where it belonged and the lighting in the painting aped the natural light in the chapel where it was housed. I will come back to this work I am sure over the duration of this project. It is an art work that has the ability to move me tears.

One part of this truly magnificence polyptych is a portrayal of the Annunciation. It is in the centre of the second story of the closed altarpiece. The scene covers four panels. On the far left is the Archangel Gabriel and, the far right, Mary. The centre panels offer a view, through windowed archways, of a 15th century city, likely Ghent, as seen from above. What is common to 14th to 17th century Flemish religious painting are hidden levels of meaning that if you understand Christian iconography are made clear and there is no shortage of hidden meaning in this image of the the Annunciation. It can be complex, but it is fun, to try and figure it some of it out. Here Gabriel holds white lilies that are symbol of the Virgin’s purity.
In the next panel, the view of a town, the marble column that separates the two windows signifies the column that Christ was tied to and flogged prior to the Crucifixion. In the third panel there is a white towel hanging from a rod with twelve stripes which relates to the twelves apostles, and in the final panel a white dove hovers over the head of the knelling Mary which show the presence of the Holy Sprit and the instrument of her impregnation. The text of Gabriel words to Mary are painted in Gothic script, in Latin, from his lips toward her: “Hail who are full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Mary’s answer, toward him, in Latin, only this time backwards and upside down so that God from above may read her reply, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.”

Of course, the whole fiction of the scene is artistic invention—a literate Mary and the Archangel present in 15th century Flanders—, but a beautiful one. I am not sure that this particular Bach work was in mind when I first saw van Eyck’s masterpiece many years ago. I am sure that baroque music did fill my head at the time. That and the smell that is unique to Medieval cathedrals did make for a deep spiritual experience that I can remember to this day.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, New Brunswick Canada, 16 October 2018.

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