2012 Festival Newsletter
Issue 12, April 2012
THE CONTEST OF PHOEBUS AND PAN
Artistic Director of the Dunedin Consort, John Butt, writes...
Much of Bach's music is characterised by a striving for a degree of coherence and completeness that is shared by few other composers of his time. In following this urge he was not afraid of conflict and competition (such as in the famous musical duel with Louis Marchand, from which the latter fled and which will be celebrated in this year's Festival), and recent discoveries suggest that he undertook musical challenges with his sons even after they left home! In following what he saw as the inevitable potentialities of the musical language to their very limit he was not immune from criticism, particularly from those who believed that nature dictated otherwise.
In our Festival programme, Cantata No.201 Geschwinde, ihr wirbeinden Winde sums up, like no other, the issues at stake, with its allegorical competition between the musically trained Phoebus and the musical naturalist Pan, and there is no doubt as to who wins - at least in Bach's mind. Similarly, both Brandenburg Concerto No.3 and Cantata No.207 play on the implications of the concerto style - the cantata having a direct relationship with Brandenburg 1 - and it is in this inherently dialogic idiom that Bach so often sought to find harmony in competition and conflict.
Two contrasting definitions of the concerto idiom still seemed to be current in Bach's time: concerto as agreement and interplay between the instrumental forces concerned and concerto as 'competition' between forces unequally disposed between soloists and ripienists (i.e. non-soloists). The third Brandenburg concerto comes closest to fulfilling the first definition, with the opening movement comprising the interplay of the three choirs of violins, violas and cellos and the last presenting an even more homogeneous texture of violins and violas above the continuo. What is sacrificed in terms of solo virtuosity is amply compensated by the fleet interplay of forces, a kaleidoscopic celebration of the entire violin family.
Bach wrote Cantata No.207 Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten ('United discords of quivering strings') for the installation of the young Gottlieb Kortte as professor of jurisprudence at Leipzig University on 11 December 1726. The unknown librettist has created allegorical characters to depict the virtues and fate of the academic: Fleiß ('Industry', tenor), Ehre ('Honour', bass) and Glück ('Happiness', soprano) make their offerings in turn, and Dankbarkeit ('Gratitude', alto) pays tribute to their offerings.
It has often been assumed that the opening movement is a skilful arrangement of the opening movement of Brandenburg Concerto No.1, with the chorus taking over most of the material originally played by the piccolo violin. However, Malcolm Boyd has suggested that both works may in fact go back to an earlier (lost) model, perhaps one of the several secular cantatas that Bach wrote for the court at Cöthen. If this is indeed the case, it would be a rare instance of Bach deriving a purely instrumental piece from an earlier vocal model.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Bach's instrumental and choral music were conceptually closer to one another than we might imagine: both types of music play on the idea of dialogue and conversation. The text for the opening chorus of Cantata No.207 thus provides a wonderful double play on the conversational properties of concerted instrumental music. It tempts us with the actual music it brings to presence, enticing the listener who seeks pleasure and proclaiming the reward of virtue.
The Dunedin Consort's acclaimed recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion was 1st choice in BBC Radio 3's Building a Library on Saturday 7 April. You can have the chance of winning a copy of this outstanding CD by 'liking' both our Facebook page (if you haven't already) and the picture of the CD we have posted there by Friday 20 April. A winner will be picked at random and will be announced on Facebook on Monday 23 April.
For your further interest...
Booking open for City of London Festival Golden Jubilee
Book now for a summer of spectacular events held in the Square Mile's most impressive venues, as part of the City of London Festival's 50th birthday. Highlights include the LSO and Sir Colin Davis at St Paul's Cathedral performing the epic Berlioz Requiem, the legendary guitarist John Williams at Fishmongers' Hall and the OAE at the magnificent Mansion House. Tickets from £5 - £45.
65th Aldeburgh Festival
8-24 June 2012
Since the days of Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh Festival has been acclaimed for its eclectic programming, and this year is no exception. Now headed by Artistic Director Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the 2012 season features Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are & Higglety Pigglety Pop!; Ensemble Modern with Helmut Lachenmann; a dramatised performance of songs by Britten, Finzi and Tippett with James Gilchrist, Before Life and After; and much more.