Program Notes for July 10th, 2008

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach

Cantata #56 “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (1726)
Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Eisenach, 1685; d. Leipzig, 1750)
When Bach assumed his role as Cantor at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1723, he took his duties very seriously. Not everything went smoothly, though. He had not been his employers’ top choice in the hiring process, and he complained about having to teach Latin. He received, and parried, reprimands about the choosing of hymns and about his accompanying of congregational singing at the organ. Still, his work is now remembered above that of all other Lutheran cantors, and he has even been called the “Fifth Evangelist.”

While at Leipzig, Bach composed, copied, rehearsed, performed and improvised music on a frantic weekly schedule. On a particularly festive occasion the Sunday morning service could last more than three hours. One of the composer’s duties was to provide a cantata for most of the Sundays and other festivals of the church year, amounting to about 60 occasions. Bach composed five such cycles of cantatas, often employing the choir in a substantial opening movement and featuring soloists, accompanied by a small orchestra, in a further succession of movements.

Some cantatas, however, are for a solo voice and orchestra, with little of no participation of the choir. Such is the case with Cantata #56, “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (“I will gladly carry the cross”), composed in October 1726 for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, according to the numbering of the Lutheran church-year calendar.

The Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 9: 1-8, begins with a mention of Jesus’ embarking on a ship, giving the anonymous librettist of the first four movements of the cantata ample scope for nautical references and the composer opportunities for painting musical pictures of individual words. It begins immediately: “Kreuzstab” refers not only to the cross but also to the navigational sextant. Since “Kreuz” also means “sharp,” Bach made good on the possibility for a musical reference by sprinkling sharps in his notation.

Alternating recitatives and arias explore nautical imagery and traverse the soul’s progress from sorrow to joy. In the final chorale, with a text by Johann Franck, the journey is complete: “Bring me safely to port.”

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by
Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, op. 61 (1806)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)

Beethoven composed ten sonatas but only one concerto for the violin. Fortunately, he got it right the first time; the concerto belongs to the handful of greatest masterpieces for the instrument. In 1806, Franz Clement, the concertmaster of the Theater an der Wien, asked Beethoven to compose a violin concerto. Clement, a former child prodigy who by all accounts possessed a particularly lyrical style of playing, impeccable intonation and a prodigious musical memory, was also a showman. At the concert on which Clement gave the premiere of Beethoven’s concerto, the violinist captured the attention of the audience by turning his instrument upside down and playing some unaccompanied variations on one string.

A relaxed, pastoral atmosphere prevails in the first movement. Four soft, repeated strokes on the timpani not only set the mood but also provide a musical motif for later development. The composer shows his consummate mastery when he transforms the soft opening call-and-response texture (for solo timpani and woodwinds) into a powerful statement for the entire orchestra when the music is later recapitulated. In the muted Larghetto movement the solo violin provides a running commentary of birdcall-like ornamentation to counterbalance the steady march of the orchestra’s solemn procession. The jovial Rondo finale is connected to the Larghetto without pause. At the end Beethoven plays one of his favorite formal tricks. Just as the music seems to wind down, there is a final burst of energy.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is difficult to play, not so much because of fiendish pyrotechnical demands-other concerti go beyond it in that respect-but precisely because there is nowhere for the soloist to hide. The solo part, often consisting of scales and arpeggios (broken chords), is always exposed and calls for consummate musicianship.

Although the concerto is now a staple of the violinist’s repertoire, this was not always the case. The premiere did not go well, and the piece was probably performed only once more in the composer’s lifetime. Beethoven, or perhaps a close contemporary, reworked his concerto in a version for piano and orchestra, but this, too, failed to gain any traction. It was only in 1844, when Mendelssohn conducted his teenage protégé Joseph Joachim in the work, that it began to assume its place in the repertoire for the instrument. Joachim later championed his own violin concerto and the concerto that Brahms composed for him, but the concerto to which he always returned-the one that he performed most frequently-was Beethoven’s.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Pulcinella Suite (Ballet 1920;
Suite, 1922, revised 1947)
Igor Stravinsky (b. Oranienbaum, Russia, 1882; d. Venice, 1971)

Stravinsky first established himself as a major composer with three ballets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris shortly before World War I. After the war, Diaghilev tried to entice the composer back into the world of ballet by suggesting that Stravinsky arrange some eighteenth-century music for modern orchestra. After first declining the offer, Stravinsky relented, and gave Diaghilev more than he had bargained for.

Pulcinella was the chief character in the old Italian commedia dell’arte, an entertainment improvised anew for each performance, against the background of a stock scenario. Pulcinella is also the Punch of the English Punch-and-Judy show and the Petrushka of Stravinsky’s earlier ballet. The road to Pulcinella’s eventual marriage with Pimpinella is not without adventure. Rivals attack him and leave him for dead. He stages a revival and then confounds everyone by seeming to clone himself. Multiple Pulcinellas perform a “Keystone Cops” routine.

In order to convey the Neapolitan aspects of Diaghilev’s scenario, Stravinsky agreed to use music that Diaghilev suggested and that both men thought to be by the 18th-century Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Stravinsky recomposed, rather than arranged, pieces that have since been identified as the work of three different composers: Pergolesi, Domenico Gallo and Carlo Monza.

Using the musical gestures of the original compositions, Stravinsky nipped and tucked, added material to throw the symmetry off balance, inserted extra notes in the harmonies and generally put his own stamp on the music. The process was of pivotal importance to the composer and his newly emerging Neoclassic style. The result can be crisp and incisive in the opening Sinfonia, mock tender in the Serenata and frenetic in the Tarantella. By the end, all is bright, Neapolitan sunshine. Naturally, the score calls for brilliant orchestral playing.

Stravinsky clearly valued his Pulcinella, perhaps realizing that it was a seminal work that would influence him as a composer for the next several decades. Stravinsky returned to the work several times to extract suites for various forces, such as cello and piano, or, here, a Bellingham Festival-sized orchestra.

Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.