Tuesday, February 3, 2015

C.P.E. Bach - Six Spiritual Songs

C.P.E. Bach is most well known for his instrumental works, of which his most prolific genre is the works for solo keyboard with over 400 pieces.  But it may be a surprise to learn that his second largest genre of works was his output of songs, with over 250 works.  Bach's role as a transitional composer applies to his songs as well as other genres. To be sure, songs had been written before his time, but the style of accompaniment for earlier songs was a holdover from the Baroque era, a continuo accompaniment that could be played by a bass instrument that included numbers (a figured bass) that were an outline for harmony to be filled in by a keyboard.  Bach wrote out his accompaniments in full to his later songs and made them specific for a keyboard instrument.

Bach was very discriminating towards the texts that he set to music. Many of the texts he used were spiritual or sacred in nature.  One of the poets he set to music was Christoph Christian Sturm, German writer and preacher. Geistliche Gesänge (Sacred songs with melodies) is a set of two volumes of Sturm's poems (thirty in each volume for a total of 60 songs) that Bach set to music in 1780 and 1781.  Many of the songs are strophic; the music is the same for each verse of the poem.  Bach did not always set all the verses of a poem, and performers did not always perform all the verses that were contained in a song.

1) Über die Finsterniss kurz vor dem Tode Jesu (On The Darkness Shortly Before Jesus' Death) Wq. 197, No. 29
Christoph Christian Sturm
 Bach did not always set every verse of a poem, and performers did not always perform all the verses that were contained in a song. This is part of the tradition of these songs to this day, and  the performance linked at the end of this post has only the first verse of the song performed.  Modern scholarship has seen more awareness of the tonal colors C.P.E. Bach was familiar with. With most of Bach's songs being intended for private performance in a household or a very intimate venue, the keyboard instruments of his time are often utilized in performance. The first five songs in the linked video are accompanied by a tangent piano, a keyboard instrument that was a hybrid between piano and clavichord.

Night and shadow cover
the mediator's face,
and the soul cannot bear
the soul's terror!
Oh, how he feels the despair
for joy and light!
Father, oh how long
must your face remain hidden!
Lord, have mercy!
God, have mercy!

Christian Gellert
Geistliche Oden und Lieder (Spiritual Odes And Songs) are a collection of poems written by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, who was a German philosopher and poet that helped usher in the Golden Age of German literature that culminated with the writings of Schiller and Goethe. Despite that he could be exceedingly wordy, his works were very popular. C.P.E. Bach admired Gellert's works so much that he set all fifty four poems of the first volume in 1758 as well as a supplement of twelve poems in 1764. Bach himself wrote a preface for the first edition of the work that conveys his purpose in setting the poems:
It would be superfluous to add more praise to the famous author of the text, since his work has already received much recognition. However, it can not be thankful enough fully convinced of the distribution of this collection and its enormous advantage. I for my part, have been very moved by the excellence of the noble and instructive thoughts contained in these texts and felt compelled to set all of them to music. It is common knowledge that didactic odes are not so easily set to music as lyrical poems. However, if didactic odes are as beautifully written as by Mr. Gellert, one feels compelled to make every effort to beautify their purpose, so that their use will be more widely circulated. It is solely for this reason that I composed these melodies. My main objective was to allow these odes to be more accessible and enjoyable for music lovers...
The melodies, which show directions such as 'alive', 'happy', et al. require a moderate pace, otherwise one can easy fall into a bold interpretation and can be easy to forget that these are religious songs Last but not least, I hope again for the approval of the experts and would be very grateful if my good intentions would be recognized.
2) Prüfung am Abend (Reflections In The Evening) - WQ. 194, No. 7
The day has gone again, and so thus far in my life,
how have I spent it? Has it passed by in vain?
Have I seriously strived after good?
Have I, perhaps only obeyed myself and not my duties?

God, who knows everything, what could I conceal from You?
Every day I still feel the frailty of my soul.
Forgive my breach of duty through Christ's blood;
Forgive and do not pronounce judgement on me.

Yes, You forgive the one who is wounded by his sins;
You love mercy and You will have mercy on me, too.
You protect me this night as well;
if I live, I live for You, if I die, I die for You!

3) Trost der Erlösung  (Consolation Of Redemption) - Wq. 194, No. 30
What cannot be explained by thought
the heart is able to understand.
"That God so loved the world that He gave
his only begotten son."

Give me the comfort to know that Jesus Christ
on the cross removes the blame from me,
that He is my redeemer
so that I am not filled with fear.

I know that my Redeemer lives,
that when I rise from the grave
I will see Him in the flesh.

4) Paßionslied - Erforsche mich, erfahr mein Herz (Passion Song - Search within me, inspect my heart) - Wq. 194, No. 14
Search within me, inspect my heart
and see, Lord, who I am.
I think of the pain of your suffering,
of your love, and I weep.
Your cross shall be praised!
What a miracle of mercy
have you given the world.
When have I ever thought of this enough,
and when have I ever, with all my strength,
praised you for it enough?

A victim, according to the old scripture.
burdened with our afflictions,
for you people's iniquity
tormented and beaten.
You are taken away to the cross
in innocence, like a lamb,
that leads to the slaughter.
Voluntarily as the hero's hero.

Your head falls. It is accomplished.
You die, the earth trembles.
This I have made you do.
Lord, my soul is shaking.
What is man, that you free him?
Oh, if only I could be truly thankful;!
Lord, let me find mercy.
And your love shall press me
so that I love you back,
and never crucify you again with my sins.

5) Abendlied - Herr, der du mir das Leben (Evening Song - Lord, you have given me my life) - Wq.194, No. 32
Lord, you have given me my life.
Until this day,
I pray to you like a child!
I am much too undeserving
of the loyalty that I sing of,
which you have shown me today.

Covered with your blessing
I hurry towards my rest,
your name shall be praised!
My life and my end
is yours; into your hands
Father, I commit my spirit.

6) Bußlied  (Song Of Penance) Wq. 194, No. 46
This final song in the video is sung to the accompaniment of a clavichord, reportedly Bach's most favorite keyboard instrument. It is an instrument that is capable of much nuance and expression, but in a very subdued tone.

Against you I have sinned
And often done evil in front of you.
You see the guilt,
Which declares my curse,
God. also look at my misery!

To you my pleading
My sighing is not hidden,
And my tears are in front of you,
Oh God, my God,
How long must I worry?
How long will you be absent from me?

Lord, do not treat me
As I deserve because of my sins,
Do not punish me for my guilt.
I seek you,
Let me find you,
God of infinite patience.

Soon you will fill me
With your grace,
God, father of mercy.
Make me glad for the sake of your name,
You are a God that gives delight.

Allow me on your path
Wander again with joy,
And teach me your holy law,
So I can every day
Do what pleases you.
You are my God, I am your servant.

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