Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...




Program notes  –  Songs, Cantatas, and Keyboard Works of
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

In celebration of the 300th anniversary of his birth

performed February 2014

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is chiefly renowned for his keyboard works and orchestral pieces, not for his vocal compositions. However, he wrote a large amount of music for voices, including over 300 songs for voice and keyboard. Well over half of these are spiritual songs, intimate works intended for performance in private homes instead of concert venues. Many are breathtakingly tiny – barely 20 measures of music, but wedded to poetry that can run as long as twenty verses. For all of these reasons this repertoire has been largely neglected; however, an important facet of Bach’s musical nature is revealed through these pieces.

Bach’s first important song-writing project was the set of Gellert lieder. Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–1769) was celebrated throughout Germany as a brilliant poet and thinker. While many composers rushed in to meet the challenge, only Bach chose to set all the 54 poems in the collection. Melodically complex and harmonically dense, these songs were criticized for being too difficult for amateur singers, the intended performers.

‘Demut’ (Humility) embodies the finest elements of Bach’s Gellert lieder. Beginning with a line plunging down from the top of the singer’s range, Bach graphically depicts the spiritual virtue of abasement and humility, contrasting it with rising chromatic lines that suggest self-aggrandizment. ‘Trost eines schwermütigen Christen’ (Consolation of a heavy-hearted Christian) has a unique structure in the collection. The poem consists of 14 stanzas, but there is a clear shift in the poetry after stanza 6 from a tone of guilt and despair to hope and optimism. Bach therefore created a new setting for the second half of the poem and it appears in the publication as a separate song. While the first song is quite grand, almost orchestral, the mood shifts with the second song. Cancelling the somber C minor with radiant C major, the character of the second part is utterly different from the deeply etched first; it flows almost like a folk song, with a swinging triple-meter rhythm and a graceful arc to the artless melody.

‘Trost der Erlösung’ (Comfort of salvation) has a very active keyboard part that immediately suggests the fugal style of J. S. Bach. At the third line of the text Bach suddenly creates the illusion of a chorale tune entrance, complete with four-part harmony in the right hand! This is easily the most ‘Baroque’ of all the Gellert songs. ‘Das natürliche Verderben des Menschen’ (The natural corruption of humanity), is an iconic example of Gellert’s confessional poems. The voice begins its self-interrogation in a low, insinuating register. Sharp contrasts in dynamics, range, and rhythm dominate this piece, which defeats expectation virtually in every bar. This tiny 17-bar song is so eventful that it feels much longer; but the poem itself runs a full twenty stanzas, all of which explore in ever greater depth the depraved nature of humanity.

The majority of the Gellert songs are written with the voice and keyboard right hand sharing a staff; this both gives the melodic line contrapuntal primacy against the bass and suggests that the songs could exist as independent keyboard pieces. However, there are several songs in the collection where the keyboard has separate material in harmony with, in opposition to, or as introduction to the vocal line. These songs have a special musical richness. A particularly charming example is ‘Wider den Übermuth’(Against arrogance). The poem is a study of modesty and the denigration of pride and envy; here Bach elevates the keyboard to an independent and equal partner with the voice, perhaps to emphasize a less prominent and humbler role for the singer.

The majority of Bach’s secular songs are composed to texts that are witty, sardonic, or emotionally detached, even when dealing with a conventional love theme. This corresponds to the poetic taste of the era, spearheaded by Gellert himself, who was the finest exponent of a type of moralistic poetry that delighted in springing punch lines and surprise conclusions at the ends of fables or lyrical scenes. Sadly, there are practically no examples of this delightful genre (the fable-song or moral tale) currently in the concert repertoire. Rare exceptions include Mozart’s ‘Das Veilchen’ (Goethe) and Haydn’s ‘Lob der Faulheit’ (Lessing). Bach’s finest songs are clearly in this league.

The charming ‘Die Küsse’ (The kisses)narrates a lover’s dilemma; an older, ‘wiser’ man has counseled him that too much kissing is excess, so he attempts to restrict himself with his beloved. She, however, gently mocks him and reminds him that his only critic is she herself!
In ‘Phyllis’ the poet declares his independence from love, condemning those who slavishly bind themselves in romantic entanglements, until his beloved walks in the room; then, abruptly, he is all in love again! The setting is evidently comical; a martial theme proclaims the poet’s freedom, but with an abrupt shift of tone the entrance of Phyllis is introduced by sudden recitative, and illustrated by languid, sighing figures; all his boasting is for naught.

‘Nonnelied,’ with a text from Swiss folk poetry, is a touching portrait of a young girl bitterly regretting her confinement behind convent walls. Bach cleverly alters his strophic form to reflect the intensification of her grief throughout the verses. ‘Das Privilegium’ (The prerogative)is a biting indictment of fools. There’s no point arguing with them; through their own stupidity they will always win, being impervious to reason. Their ‘prerogative’ lies in clinging to their own warped view of the world. Each stanza ends with a mock-solemn ‘amen’ cadence on the refrain ‘that is their prerogative’.

Bach’s last major collection of lieder, published in two volumes of thirty songs each in 1780 and 1781, is set to poems by Christoph Christian Sturm (1740-1786). Sturm’s poetry is very deeply felt but less sophisticated than the earlier Gellert poems. The mercurial, violent language of Bach’s empfindsamer Stil is exploited here to great effect, and the best of these songs are tiny masterpieces of misdirection, surprise, and heart-stopping pathos.

A conventional use of chromaticism is employed in “Jesus in Gethsemane.” Depicting a moment of fragility for Jesus, the highly melodramatic poetry is set with angular, diminished fourths and fifths, accompanied by a pulsing eighth-note ostinato in the bass. In ‘Über die Finsterniß kurz vor dem Tode Jesu’(On the darkness shortly before Jesus' death),the darkness and terror described in the Gospel of Matthew are graphically portrayed. The song begins with a mysterious long note in the voice accompanied by peaceful but harmonically wandering chords. At the end the voice is directed to become softer and softer, sustaining its final note for a full three bars while the accompaniment extends the resolution to a concluding plagal cadence. A more conventional use of chromaticism is employed in ‘Passionslied’. This is composed with four stanzas describing the events of the Crucifixion and a final stanza depicting the Resurrection. Bach writes different music for this conclusion, and the effect is reminiscent of the thrilling chorale that ends J.S. Bach’s Johannes-Passion (‘Ach, Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein’), which similarly moves from darkness to light in its Abgesang. A joyous song on the Resurrection, ‘Lobgesang auf die Auferstehung Jesu’ is filled with brilliant arpeggiated sixteenth notes in the bass line, creating tremendous energy and drive.

Bach’s final collection of songs, Neue Lieder-Melodien, W. 200 (1789), published posthumously, was composed over a series of years and does not comprise a group unified by one poet. He placed in the final, culminating position a piece from 1774: the cantata Die Grazien (The Graces). Unlike any of Bach’s other works titled ‘cantata’, this is intended for voice and keyboard and does not include an additional instrumental obbligato. The text, by Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1737–1823), oscillates between prose and poetry and shifts meter and verse forms rapidly. The fluidity of its structure affords the composer opportunities to transition from one character or texture to another in a seamless manner, without the breaks between recitative and aria in traditional cantatas. The poem is a masterpiece of misdirection and wit. Beginning as a pastoral with mythological overtones, the narrator describes an evening when one of the three Graces, Aglaia, suddenly goes missing. Her two sisters are distraught, and fear abduction; their anxiety is charmingly and sardonically portrayed with vivid touches like ‘they beat the leaves softly and fearfully recoiled at every blow’. As the story continues, they come upon a grove, where they discover—the narrator! This delicious surprise, that the narrator is not an impersonal speaker but part of the action, is withheld for over a third of the text. He is, in fact, concealed with his sweetheart Chloe, with whom he engages in a kissing game. The two Graces immediately cry out that they have found their sister, and seizing Chloe, run away with her. As the narrator leaps up to follow after them, shouting that they’ve made a mistake, the missing Grace steps out from behind a bush and attempts to seduce him herself! It’s easy to picture a 19th-century version of this scene by Heine or Eichendorff; the vulnerable human being tempted into an alluring and dangerous magical world. However, Gerstenberg has other ideas; the narrator sizes up the situation and decides to ‘exchange hostages’, as it were. He drags the goddess over to the other Graces and demands to have Chloe returned. The poem ends with a scene that sounds like a police lineup: ‘Is this Aglaia's face and appearance? There! Take the Grace back’.

The inventiveness of this lengthy text is more than equaled by Bach’s music. Melting from secco recitative to arioso to metrical aria and back again, he responds to every shift in tone with imaginative and original gestures; he depicts the tragic laments of the bereft sisters with touching and poignant echoes, and allows their increasing panic to develop into fully dramatic, operatic gestures, complete with continuo flourishes. The reveal of the narrator is accomplished in coyly dry recitative, but the playful kissing game blooms into full song mid-sentence. This section concludes with the first real solo moment for the keyboard, which mirrors the exchange of kisses with little motives exchanged between the two hands. Again lacking a true conclusion, this passage is halted with a deceptive cadence on a dominant-seventh chord, as the Graces interrupt and snatch Chloe away. The narrator’s response lurches from one affect to the other—first angry, then pleading, and finally a more assertive demand for justice—and the music offers three markedly different aria fragments to match! The appearance of Aglaia is heralded by a new aria texture, seductive and lilting. In perhaps the wittiest moment in the cantata, the narrator’s subsequent wavering between temptation and fortitude is depicted by a lyrical arioso, followed by an abrupt plunge into recitative as he suddenly perceives the danger he could be in. In the final passage, he pleads for his true love, Chloe, to be returned to him, the rather serious D minor aria expressing his obvious concern. Bach concludes the cantata with a melodramatic postlude, as the leaps in the keyboard expand absurdly to encompass the entire range of the instrument.

© Pamela Dellal