Vespers is an ancient service, a gathering of Christians at the end of the day and dating as far back as the second century. Associated with monastic use in the Middle Ages, Vespers was retained by Martin Luther and his followers in the Reformation with one important addition: the use of hymns in the vernacular (called chorales to distinguish them from the older Catholic hymns retained for use). Like the morning services, Vespers has hymns/chorales and psalms, Bible readings and prayers in its simplest form. Opening Versicles and a closing Benedicamus are sung in addition and differentiate Vespers from the morning service. In Germany following the Reformation, choirboys sang the Vespers service mostly in Latin. By the early 1700s, Vespers services in northern Germany were conducted mostly in German, were held regularly on Saturdays and on the evenings preceding feast days such as the Purification (February 2nd) or St. John the Baptist (June 24th), contained the Magnificat canticle usually sung in Latin, and included a sermon (sometimes an hour long!).
The celebratory Bach Vespers at First Lutheran keeps most of the elements to this mix, with the addition of instrumental prelude before the service, a Latin-texted choral work from a popular anthology of 16th-century music used in German churches, a short homily, and the choir’s performance of one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas – vocal music with instruments based on a combination of hymn, poetic and/or Biblical texts and in contrasting styles for soloists with or without choirs, not labeled “cantata” by Bach or known as such until the first collected edition of his works appeared in the 1850s. The cantata for the first Bach Vespers services will be a so-called chorale cantata for the choir, based on one hymn throughout and interspersed with orchestral interludes and sections for solo voices. It was the practice in Leipzig churches, where Bach worked for much of his career, for the cantata to precede the sermon and to be based on the readings for the day, so we will follow suit.
While the cantatas were sung in German, Leipzig church congregations were also accustomed to Latin-texted choral music in the old, so-called “stile antico,” usually sung by one voice to a part. Today’s motet and Magnificat settings by Jacob Handl and Hans Leo Hassler are exemplars of the motet style, for double-choir (8 parts) and 4 parts respectively. The mostly chordal declamation of these two composers reflects careful sensitivity to the words. Handl sets the somber, 8th-century text “Media Vita” to the equally somber Phrygian mode, mode III, whose third pitch G wavers from major to minor, an instability representing the tenuousness of life, but there are also brief flowerings at words like “adiutorem” and “Deus” or more dramatic antiphonal treatment at “nisi te, Domine” when addressing God. Most riveting is the final appeal on the words “ne tradas nos,” (deliver us not unto death). Hassler’s Magnificat setting in the less austere mode V is almost flippant by contrast. Within the traditional Magnificat format of alternating chant and choir verses, Hassler begins in a deceptively simple chordal style, then employs devices such as imitation and dancelike syncopation, and then quotations from popular songs (repeated just in case the listener doesn’t quite catch the allusion the first time around), to enliven the text without any obvious plays on words until “dispersit” and “dimisit,” and saves his best joke for the end: five repetitions of “saeculorum, Amen” for mode V.
Neither wavering nor joking characterizes any portion of Bach’s concerted setting of “Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost.” The text expresses ideas common to many of his cantatas: on the one hand sincere acknowledgement of one’s sins and expression of guilt, individually or collectively, and longing for redemption, alternating with the more optimistic assurance of salvation, trust in God, and confidence in one’s faith. In the context of a chorale cantata, one can hear in particular the distinction between individual and collective expressions of guilt and remorse. Almost always, the extended solos are intense and dramatic, and sung to the accompaniment of an obbligato instrument such as an oboe, flute or violin, as if to express that the individual is never, ever really alone, that God is always there. The choral sections by contrast are less anguished, more comforting, representing the body of witnesses to God’s benevolence toward mankind.
Both chorale melody and six-strophe text were well established by 1724 when what we now call Cantata 114 was performed in the service for the first time. Dating from the earliest years of the Reformation, the melody (unattributed, published in a hymnal collection in 1524) was originally set to the text “Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält,” used by Bach in Cantata 178, but was also associated with two other texts including Johann Gigas’ “Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost.” Neither version appears in modern Lutheran hymnbooks. An unknown librettist, perhaps the superintendent of the Thomasschule, retained three verses of Gigas’ text in order in the choral settings of the cantata – the first and last verses and one interior verse – and paraphrased the other three verses, with the second verse becoming two contiguous sections of the cantata (#2 and #3, the tenor solo and following bass recitative) and the fourth and fifth verses shifted forward to become sections #5 and #6. Transformation of the second verse into material for two solo sections is an indication of dramatic intent on Bach’s part, and indeed these two sections together form the longest and most soul-searching portion of the cantata.
With restricted compass and repeated notes, the chorale melody lends itself well to active accompaniment. The texts for the opening and middle chorale statements may be penitential, but Bach’s bass lines propel forward energetically and with ebullience; nothing is staid or mired in misery. Repetition of the first two melodic lines of the chorale invites variation and this is indeed what Bach supplies in the opening verse in the guise of a chaconne.
Notes by Cheryl Ryder