Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Notes Week 5

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Sheep May Safely Graze, BWV 208

Among the cantatas that Johann Sebastian Bach composed for the church are a few secular ones, including Cantata No. 208 (that number does not reflect its place in the chronology of Bach’s works) entitled “Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd” (What My Heart Desires is only the Merry Hunt), dating from Weimar. It was composed to celebrate the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels, which fell on Feb. 23, 1713. The most famous music from the 40-minute-long cantata is the gentle aria “Schafe können sicher weiden” (“Sheep May Safely Graze”). Duke Christian was not Bach’s employer, but this neighboring aristocrat was especially fond of hunting, and it was good politics for Bach to acknowledge that occasion. Because of its hunting theme, and the occasion that gave rise to it, Cantata No. 208 is popularly known by both names, “Hunting” and “Birthday” Cantata. As one might expect, horns play a significant role in the cantata’s scoring. Bach, ever in need of being resourceful, reused some of this music for later works.

The original form of this pastoral aria, “Sheep May Safely Graze” was scored for soprano soloist, accompanied by two recorders and basso continuo (usually a harpsichord and cello). Its lilting nature beautifully befits Salomon Franck’s text:

“Sheep may safely graze

where a good shepherd keeps watch,

sheep can safely graze,

sheep can safely graze

where a good shepherd keeps watch,

where a good shepherd keeps watch.

Where rulers govern well,

one can feel the serenity and peace

and what makes countries blissful,

where rulers govern well

one can feel the serenity and peace,

serenity and peace, feel the serenity and peace

and what makes countries blissful.”

Because of its sensual beauty, the aria has become one of Bach’s best known and popular works. Among its transcribers were Percy Grainger, William Walton and Wendy Carlos (for Moog synthesizer in 1973 for the album “Switched-On Bach II”). The flamboyant conductor, Leopold Stokowski, famous for his lush and effective transcriptions of many pieces by Bach, most famously the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for Organ, also took his turn at reworking it, further impressing Bach’s tune into our collective consciousness.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV. 1047

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach looms as one of history’s pivotal figures whose music is venerated and admired by many composers who followed him, from Haydn to Bartok and beyond. His enormous output covers a virtually every genre of the Baroque era, except for opera. But even here, the drama found in much of his sacred choral music (Church Cantatas, Passions Oratorios, Magnificat, and Mass in B Minor) and other works showed considerable dramatic flair. The Six Concerts avec plusiers instruments, as the dedicatory letter to the Margrave of Brandenburg of 1721 calls them, are known collectively as the “Brandenburg Concertos.” Each concerto is scored for a different group of instruments. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 calls for a solo group comprising trumpet, flute (possibly recorder), oboe and violin accompanied by strings and continuo group.

Of the many solo concertos and concerti grossi that Bach wrote during his period of employment as Kapellmeister for the orchestra of the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen (1717 to 1723), six of them, each calling for a different scoring, were gathered together and sent to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. The second of those calls for the most interesting combination of instruments in the solo group — trumpet, flute (or recorder), oboe and violin. The distinct color of each of those instruments allows the ear to follow each solo line clearly, placing the music’s intricate counterpoint in sharp relief. This concerto for multiple soloists, along with the Fourth and Fifth Brandenburg Concertos, belongs to a category known as the concerto grosso (large concerto), a genre that harkens back to Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). In those works, a solo group (concertino) “contests” with the string orchestra (ripieno) and basso continuo group (bass instruments and harpsichord).

The outer movements of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 seems to have been created with the special quality of the (originally) valveless clarion trumpet, as evidenced by the fanfare-like nature of the musical materials. The trumpet part itself — composed, it is thought, for the virtuoso Johann Ludwig Schreiber — is written in the same range as the other treble solo instruments in the concertino, which is to say that it lies in a very high range indeed. Modern trumpeters normally use a smaller “piccolo” trumpet, which makes their job a little (but not entirely!) easier. The middle movement is a chamber work for the flute, oboe, violin and continuo instruments. The imitative figurations in the solo instruments overlap with each other over a nearly constantly “walking” bass line.

An additional note regarding the ordering of Bach’s works is in order here. The German musicologist, Wolfgang Schmieder, published a Bach Works Catalogue (BWV=Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis) in 1950 (it was updated and enlarged in 1990). Unlike Ludwig Köchel’s more famous catalogue of Mozart’s music, the Schmieder work is not arranged in chronological order, but rather by type of work. One often sees works by Bach on printed programs identified by its “BWV” number. Some writers, however, chose to give Herr Schmieder his due recognition by writing “S.”

Symphony No. 3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) Henryk Górecki

Polish composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was born in Czernica, near Rybnik on Dec. 6, 1933 and died in Katowice, Poland, Nov. 12, 2010. He studied composition at the Music Academy in Katowice where he later taught and became Rector until 1979. His early reputation in Poland was that of an avant-garde composer, but his international fame rests primarily with his Third Symphony (1976), which was the result of a commission from the West German radio. But even the popularity of this work had to wait until the 1992 when the recording (the fourth ever made) with Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman, became an international sensation that has sold more than a million copies; many other performances and recordings have followed. Each of its three slow movements contains settings of a poetic text.

It is rare to talk about a 20th-century composition that became a bestseller within a composer’s lifetime. But the case of the Third Symphony of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (pronounced Gor-ETZ-kee) may be attributed at least in part to a recording featuring a star conductor (Zinman, who guest conducted the CSO in the 1980s) and famous soloist (Upshaw) that received significant radio play. I would suggest, however, that there was more to its success than just its media exposure. As Adrian Thomas astutely observes in his biographical article on the composer in the online edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

“ ‘The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ … holds a prominent place in post-World War II music. [It is a distillation] of ideas the radicality of which, at the time and since, has yet to be fully recognized. The symphony has been dismissed by some, particularly in Western Europe, as lacking in musical and intellectual substance, too reliant on sentiment, both personal and religious. This is to misunderstand its roots in Eastern European secular and sacred musical traditions: the symphony’s underlying ethos of reflection and transcendence and its candid combination of emotional and technical directness may not always cross cultural boundaries. The work’s origins in the example of Szymanowski, in Polish hymnody and folksong and in the traumas of the Silesian Uprisings and World War II, and its iconic references to Beethoven and Chopin, have given rise to an enormously powerful and unique tribute to the power of prayer in the face of recurrent inhumanity. The Third Symphony is fashioned within three slow movements lasting almost one hour and concentrated on the strongly maternal figure of the solo soprano; compositionally, each movement of the Third Symphony is a scion of his earlier reflective codas, bereft of their original role as diffusers of conflict. The first is characterized by a masterful yet simple canonic process which filters the subject at different levels through a constant aeolian mode on E. The second is memorable for its harmonic head-motif, while the third isolates a two-chord alternation (just one example of Górecki’s profound attachment to the lullaby) from Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4 and elides it harmonically, and symbolically, with the chordal climax from the development section of the first movement from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.”

The work’s modal vocabulary lends it an antiquated quality has come in for some severe criticism from many of Górecki’s contemporaries and critics. But audiences seeking solace from the horrors of contemporary life have found safe harbor in its embrace, as well as the kind of spirituality that also made the recordings of plainchant by the Monks of Silos (released, coincidentally in the 1990s) a best seller in the classical music category. So what, finally, is the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs?” The history of Poland in music? A lament for the victims of Fascism and Auschwitz? A flash in the pan? Only time will tell.

A translation of the Polish texts, derived from three different sources, are as follows:

First Movement

My son, my chosen and beloved

Share your wounds with your mother

And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart,

And always served you faithfully

Speak to your mother, to make her happy,

Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.

(Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery from the “Lysagóra Songs” collection, second half of the 15th century.)

Second Movement

No, Mother, do not weep,

Most chaste Queen of Heaven

Support me always.

“Zdrowas Mario.” *

(Prayer inscribed on a wall of cell No. 3 in the basement of “Palace,” the Gestapo’s headquarters in Zadopane; beneath is the signature of Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna, and the words “18 years old, imprisoned since 26 September 1944.”)

* “Zdrowas Mario” (Ave Maria) is the opening of the Polish prayer to the Holy Mother.

Third Movement

Where has he gone

My dearest son?

Perhaps during the uprising 

The cruel enemy killed him

Ah, you bad people

In the name of God, the most Holy,

Tell me, why did you kill

My son?

Never again

Will I have his support

Even if I cry

My old eyes out

Were my bitter tears

to create another River Oder

They would not restore to life

My son

He lies in his grave

and I know not where

Though I keep asking people


Perhaps the poor child

Lies in a rough ditch

and instead he could have been

lying in his warm bed

Oh, sing for him

God’s little song-birds

Since his mother 

Cannot find him

And you, God’s little flowers

May you blossom all around

So that my son

May sleep happily

(Folk song in the dialect of the Opole region.)

David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

David Levy

The author David Levy