In this first part we'll take a look at how the Lutherans did things in Germany, and then in part two we'll look at a popular tradition of religious choral music called the oratorio.
Assignment #29 will ask you nine questions about both parts.
J. S. Bach's Day Job
A scene from The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach  imagines Bach at work.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was born into a family of musicians. Being a musician in 18th-century Germany wasn't a particularly glamorous life, but it was a dependable, middle-class occupation. People like J.S. would vie for various town jobs, where they would be paid a salary to provide music in the local church and at public functions.
We don't know very much about Bach as a person - he simply didn't leave behind many personal letters or colorful anecdotes. (Probably the most interesting personal fact about him is that he was married twice and had 10 children who survived into adulthood. Many of them became important composers in their own right.)
But we do know that he was devoted to the church and to the craft of organ playing and composing. In his lifetime he would work for a few different German towns (namely Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, Köthen, and Leipzig.)
In most of these positions his main responsibility was to provide half-hour long musical services for the local Lutheran church, called cantatas. These productions would take the usual sermonizing that we might expect to be spoken by a pastor and turn it into a sort of mini-opera, with recitatives, arias, and choral numbers.
Bach produced more than 200 of these works in the course of his career. Let's take an in-depth look at one of his most well-known cantatas, No. 140, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme." (Wake up, the voice is calling to us.)
Cantata No. 140
This piece has seven parts to it. We are actually going to start with the very end, because it is the key to understanding the whole work.
Part VII: The Chorale Melody
At the end of the cantata the chorus sings a fairly simple religious tune called a chorale. (In other traditions one might call it a hymn or an anthem, but in Lutheran Germany they are called chorales.) Bach did not write this melody! It is a tune that the congregation would have known. It is possible that they would have even sung along with the choir at this part of the service.
Other parts of the cantata present what I like to call a "remix" of the chorale melody. That's obviously an anachronistic, 21st-century way to describe it, but I think it holds up pretty well. :) The chorale tune becomes the unifying factor for the whole cantata, as it appears at the beginning, in the middle movement, and at the end.
So now let's rewind to the beginning of the piece.
Part I: The First Chorale Remix
The beginning of the piece breaks the the chorale melody into short phrases and kind of doles them out gradually. It is woven into a rich, polyphonic texture that has very active rhythmic parts, and the chorus sings lots of other lines that are added around the chorale melody.
Part II: Recitative
Now we are going to get into some very churchy parts. (Remember, this musical work takes the place of a more conventional religious service, so it's still designed to deliver a message.)
Here a singer playing the role of "evangelist" delivers a short recitative, in which he weaves an elaborate metaphor about being ready for the second coming of Jesus.
Part III: Duet
Here we get a very lovely duet between a man (representing Jesus) and a woman who perhaps represents the soul of the average parishioner. A violist weaves a polyphonic line as part of the accompaniment.
So how is this different from Catholic Mass?
Now that we've gotten an earful of this cantata, it is a good place to pause and reflect on how much religious music has changed in 18th-century Germany. What are some things we are seeing in these clips that we've never seen before?
One obvious one is the role of instruments. We've got a small orchestra in this church, and certain movements feature instrumental soloists, sort of like a concerto. (We hear a lot from the oboist in the first movement, and the first violinist gets nice lines throughout.) Sacred music from the Renaissance, on the other hand, is usually performed a cappella.
Also, there are roles for both men and women in this group. Unlike the people of the Renaissance, who seem to have still vaguely preferred all-male ensembles, the Lutherans are doing this on purpose. The female roles are written for sopranos.
(Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena was a professional soprano vocalist, who made many contributions to the family business.)
This cantata is written in the local vernacular language (i.e. German), at a time when the Catholic church is still doing Mass in Latin. And in general, there is a overall difference in tone, which is part of the Lutheran's religious strategy. The God of Catholic Mass is portrayed as lofty, powerful, and perhaps somewhat abstract. The Lutherans, on the other hand, try to make their message very intimate and personal. In this cantata Jesus is depicted like a friendly person that you should get to know.
Part IV: Chorale Remix
Let's listen to the central movement in the cantata which is another "remix." Here the chorale melody is matched with a pretty tune in the strings which you may have heard before. Like in the first movement, the singers gradually work their way through the chorale tune in short phrases with lots of space in-between.
We can skip over parts five and six, which are another recitative and duet, and recall that the whole thing ends with a straightforward presentation of the chorale. In class I like to play it again. :)
Part VII: The Chorale Melody
Part Two and Assignment #29
Part Two will talk about the other big Late Baroque composer who we've been ignoring up until now, George Fridric Handel. We'll look at the oratorio, a kind of religious music that became his specialty.
Meanwhile, Assignment #29 wants to ask you nine questions about both parts. Link will open in a separate tab.