October 31st is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of his Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, starting all kinds of trouble hither and yon throughout Christendom. Besides his polemic and carpentry skills, Luther also tried his hand at composition, coming up with "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott," a perennial favorite among the non-papists. Stories differ as to when and for what purpose he wrote this, but it seems most likely to have been about 1528 or 1529, but it might have been 1521, in time for the infamous Diet of Worms.
Oddly enough, Luther also sent his theses by mail to Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg; most people only recognize Brandenburg because of Bach's six concertos. And to close the loop, two hundred years after Luther's challenge to the Catholic church, J. S. Bach sat down to write two cantatas based on Luther's snappy tune. By that time, millions of people throughout central Europe had died in religious wars, or been executed for heresy, with Luther's music as a kind of battle hymn for the Reformation. It took decades after the Thirty Year's War to regain population and prosperity enough for performances on the scale of Bach's cantatas, modest as that scale is by contemporary standards. Isn't religion grand?
Fast forward another three hundred years: Bach's Luther-based cantatas are well-known and loved all over the world. Both, along with a motet, were performed by the Bach Akademie Charlotte, a choir and soloists, joined by the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, and all directed by Scott Allen Jarrett. The choir was SATB with soloists – soprano Margaret Haigh Carpenter, counter-tenor Charles Humphries, tenor James Jones, tenor Michael H. Trammell, and bass Charles Wesley Evans.
The orchestra had Baroque strings as first and second violins, viola, cello, violone (a double bass set up in Baroque style with several gut frets), theorbo, portative organ, and three Baroque oboes. They opted for bringing their own portative organ instead of using the pipe organ installed in the church. The theorbo is the most exotic of the instruments, basically a large lute with a long extension on the neck for several sympathetic strings – quite a challenge to pack, and I wouldn't want to put it on a plane.
Both the theorbo and organ made rather subtle contributions, staying mostly in the background. The upper strings had a clear tone and the kind of articulation that you get with Baroque bows – rather softer in attacks than with the kind you see on the modern stage. The oboes were softer and with a rather sweeter sound than the modern type, and they blended well with the small size chorus and orchestra of the Baroque era. Intonation was spot-on – always a challenge with gut strings, even with extensive retuning before each work. Director Jarrett had a clear beat, and all the tempos and interpretations were appropriate for the period and quite effective.
St. Alban's Episcopal is a charming church with a high-quality concert series. Few seats went empty for this afternoon's concert. Before each of the three works on the program, Director Jarrett gave extensive comments which was most helpful.
First up was the Bach cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80, in which Luther's hymn is taken apart and put back together at some length. This cantata had a tortured and prolonged history between its inception in about 1714 to its final form in 1731. Even afterwards, his son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach added trumpets and timpani, not included in this performance. With the words safely in German, it was easy to go along with the magnificent melodies and typically amazing Bach counterpoint, so well and professionally performed by these musicians. Still… this is much like the English "Onward, Christian Soldiers," in being a martial hymn, with plenty of fighting words, the Devil, and an enraged deity. The program did not list the lyrics, which probably was a good idea. After so much elaboration, the ending is in typical Bach cantata style – a simple chorale of Luther's final verse.
Next came the motet "Lobet den harrn, alle Heiden," BWV 230, for chorus, organ, theorbo, cello and violone. The only "early" sources are from the late nineteenth century, and only one is attributed to a "Signor Bach." It seems a stretch to attribute this to our J. S. Bach, and on hearing it, I am not convinced. It's not a bad piece, but hardly memorable, and the counterpoint is cluttered in a way not generally found in the Master's work. It is also shorter than any other Bach motet – a setting of Psalm 117. This motet was with chorus only, without soloists.
Finally, the well-known cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140. This uses verses by Phillipp Nicolai, as well as an anonymous author, with allusions to the Song of Songs. Each singer among the soloists takes on a specific role; the tenor is the narrator, the soprano as the soul of the believer, and the bass as Jesus. The most famous part of this cantata, excerpted widely and universally admired, is with the tenor section of the choir singing melodies from the Luther hymn, with florid strings above a regular continuo. The result is one of the high points of all Baroque music.
This was a delightful concert on a bright and sunny afternoon, with red tail hawks visible through the windows, and a chance to hobnob with the musicians in the lobby afterwards.