Program Notes – June 6, 2015

THE COFFEE CANTATA,  BWV 211 — J.S. Bach 
The craze for coffee, a beverage brought to Europe from the Americas in the middle of the 17th century, spread like wildfire through England, Holland and France and from there to Germany and beyond, so that, in Bach’s time, it had become a widespread addiction which spawned everywhere specialized establishments or coffeehouses for its public consumption. These coffeehouses became popular centers not only for comfortable socializing but also for the exchange of ideas and the meeting of creative minds. The age of enlightenment found in them an ideal forum and it might well be said that the French Revolution was conceived in the Paris “Cafés”. Leipzig, a major center of trade but also a university town and a hotbed of Aufklarung (German Enlightenment) had eight such Kaffeehauses, the most famous being “Zimmermann’s”.  J.S. Bach held his celebrated musicales there every Friday night with the collegium musicum, an arm of the Leipzig University of which he was the director for 12 years. The Coffee Cantata was probably written for one of those weekly gatherings and performed by a mix of students, faculty members and guests.

The words are a satirical poem by Bach’s friend and librettist Picander, part of a collection of playlets published in 1732. Bach set it to music with obvious glee, lavishing on this little comedy the full range of his genius. The recitative-dialogues between Schlendrian, the stern father, and the perky daughter Liesgen, bent on indulging her taste for coffee in spite of all parental prohibitions, are real opera, with dramatic recitatives and arias that characterize the two protagonists with a charm and strength that foreshadow Mozart.

The Picander poem ends with the happy daughter urging her father to look for that promised husband, the only enticement that finally worked to make her give up her beloved coffee. However Bach himself added a little coda. The narrator comes back to explain that Liesgen will be sure to make her husband allow her the usage of coffee, even if such a condition has to be written in the marriage contract. A joyous trio ends the proceedings, reflecting on the improbability of changing ingrained habits and making a good-humored plea for tolerance of personal foibles. If mama can be stuck on coffee and even grandma, why not daughters?  — Simon Wainrib

 Stabat Mater  — Antonio Vivaldi
The thirteenth-century Latin hymn, Stabat Mater, attributed to the Francescan monk, Jacopone da Todi, is a powerful medieval meditation consisting of twenty couplets on the suffering of Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus.  Settings of the Stabat Mater were popular in Naples during the Baroque era.  Of the many eighteenth-century composers who wrote concert music to Stabat Mater, most notable were Giovanni Pergolesi and Alessandro Scarlatti. Antonio Vivaldi premiered his version in Brescia in 1712, using only the first ten stanzas of the hymn for his generally slow and melancholy rendition which was performed as part of a religious festival. Set for strings, alto and continuo, the music of the first three movements is repeated in the next three; nevertheless, perhaps in part because of the essential force of the music, the work is one of his early masterpieces.

ORCHESTRAL SUITE No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 — J.S. Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. The precise date of composition or first performance of the second orchestral suite is unknown. It is scored for solo flute, strings, and continuo.  A very large part—we shall probably never know how large—of J.S. Bach’s music is lost. Probably two-fifths of his cantatas have disappeared, but a much larger percentage of purely instrumental music is lost, simply because there was no institutional means of organizing or preserving it. Scores and parts might be handed to performers, passed on to others, and so on. As a result, we must assume that the surviving orchestral work of Bach—the six Brandenburg concertos, the four orchestral suites, and upwards of twenty solo concertos—represent only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the surviving works were composed (or at least put into their present form) during the six years, 1717-23, when Bach was in the service of the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen. The court was Calvinist, with little or nothing in the way of elaborate music at the church services, so Bach devoted himself almost entirely to the production of secular music such as birthday cantatas or chamber and orchestral works for his music-loving patron.

The numbering of the four orchestral suites is purely conventional. In fact, the first and fourth suites come from some time in the Cöthen period; the second and third are from the Leipzig period and were almost certainly composed for the collegium musicum, a voluntary association of professional musicians and gifted amateurs who gave regular public concerts. The B-minor suite is the smallest and most intimate of the four works, for flute, strings, and continuo. The term “suite” is a modern convention, used to describe a set of dance movements that follow one another in succession (“en suite”). Bach himself called these works after their largest component, the grand French-style overture, and indeed they are published as Ouvertures. The format combines a slow opening section, marked by dotted rhythms and harmonic suspensions, with a faster section of lightly fugal character. Normally both sections are repeated. Occasionally—as in this suite—the slower opening returns briefly at the end of the cadence. The remainder of the work consists of stylized dance movements employing the basic metrical patterns of the dances in question, but intended for concert use, not for the ballroom. The abstract movements are often of dance character (the rondeau uses the meter and flow of the gavotte, for example). The flute’s prominent part offers plenty of opportunity for virtuosity, as in the Double to the Polonaise, a kind of variation on the dance, and the saucy “Badinerie”—a word that Bach invented as a musical term (it means “banter”) to describe the soloist’s cheerful chatter.  — Steven Ledbetter

Cantata 150, NACH DIR, HERR, VERLANGET MICH — J.S. Bach 
is thought to be the oldest Bach cantata in existence. Written sometime before 1707 when Bach was in his early twenties, this cantata was composed for the church of St. Blasius in Muehlhausen where the young composer held one of his earliest organist positions. The work is based mainly on Psalm 25, alternating with freely conceived poetry reflecting the Biblical texts. Here the young Bach explores some very futuristic harmony, which as always, illuminates the text. Cantata 150 is scored for small orchestra consisting of two violins, bassoon, continuo and four-part chorus (in this case four soloists)*. Sharp ears will recognize the repeated theme in the continuo line from the final chaconne movement; this theme was later used by Johannes Brahms in the last movement of his Fourth Symphony. Cantata 150 appeared in print for the first time in 1884 in the old Bach complete edition to which Brahms was an avid subscriber. — James Bagwell