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    “O earth, bring forth this little flower”

    O Heiland, reiß die Himmel aufAdvent motetJohannes Brahms (1833-1897) In 1879, Brahms published two motets for unaccompanied chorus. They were dedicated to the great Bach scholar, Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) , and both works demonstrate how much Bach influenced Brahms. The first of these, Warum ist das Licht gegeben, is a dramatic meditation on hope, opening with a text from Job: “Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery.” The second motet, O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf, is based on an Advent hymn attributed to Friedrich Spee (1591-1635), a German Jesuit priest. The poem seems to be inspired by the ancient Rorate caeli, or Advent Prose, sung in…

  • Hymns,  Repertoire

    “We stand and swell the voice of thunder”

    Wake, awake, for night is flyingAdvent hymn arrangementF. Melius Christiansen (1871-1955) Norweigian-born F. Melius Christiansen was for over thirty years the choral director of the choir at St. Olaf’s College, one of the most accomplished college choirs in the U.S. His robust arrangements of hymns remain a staple for many Christian college choirs, especially those Lutheran schools whose choral tradition he influenced. Christiansen’s vigorous arrangement of “Wake, awake, for night is flying” is sung here by one of those groups, the Luther College Nordic Choir, conducted by Allen Hightower.

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    “We all follow to the hall of joy”

    Wachet auf, ruft uns die StimmeAdvent music byFranz Tunder (1614–1667) At root, an apocalypse is an uncovering. We tend to think that apocalyptic events belong in horror movies, not in romantic comedies. But the culmination of the drama in the Apocalypse of John is a wedding feast, the happy ending of all good comedies. What is revealed in Revelation’s narrative is the end of history as the Bridegroom comes for his Bride. No Advent text conveys that happily-ever-after ending better than Philipp Nicolai’s hymn “Wake, awake for night is flying.” The title Nicolai originally gave to this three-stanza poem was “Of the voice at midnight and the wise Virgins who…

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    “Do you come, O light of the nations?”

    Kommst du, Licht der Heiden?An Advent cantata byDietrich Buxtehude (1637–1708) Dietrich Buxtehude was born half a century after Heinrich Schütz, the “father of German musicians,” and a little less than half a century before Johann Sebastian Bach. Employed his whole life as an organist, his compositional skills were long under-appreciated. Schütz and Bach both held positions in which they were expected to compose vocal music, but Buxtehude seems to have produced a sizable catalog of music for voices motivated by sheer enthusiasm. During his long tenure as organist of the Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Lübeck, Buxtehude maintained a Sunday afternoon concert series called Abendmusiken, held on the five successive…

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    “The night is far gone and the day is at hand”

    Die Nacht ist vergangenAn Advent cantata byChristoph Graupner (1683-1760) During his lifetime, Christoph Graupner was considered one of the great musical talents of Germany. Today, despite his prolific compositional output (operas, concertos, orchestral suites, keyboard works, and more than 1,400 church cantatas), very little of his work is known. Those who know a bit about music history may remember his name from his cameo role in a famous drama that involves Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1723, there was an opening for the position of Kapellmeister (music director) at Leipzig’s renowned Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church). The job was initially offered to the justly celebrated Georg Philipp Telemann, then holding a similar…

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    Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Conditor alme siderum

    The plainchant melody at the root of this lovely motet is sometimes identified with the tune name AMBROSE. That is because the text of the Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum — sung in English as “Creator of the stars of night” — was long attributed to St. Ambrose (339-397). (You can see the music and hear that melody chanted by Cistercian monks here.) As is the case with many other Renaissance-era adaptations of plainchant tunes, Palestrina’s motet alternates between plainchant and intricate polyphony. Let’s consider the opening measures to get a sense of what Palestrina is up to. The opening words, “Conditor alme siderum,” are chanted by tenors, then the…

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    J. S. Bach, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, BWV 130

    The Feast of St Michael and All Angels (observed on September 29th and also known as Michaelmas) is an occasion for the celebration of victory over the powers of Satan. As musicologist Julian Mincham writes in a commentary on this cantata, St. Michael, who was sometimes portrayed as the dragon slayer, “was the leader of God’s army of angels, a figure who inspired fortitude and ensured the soul’s safe passage to the Throne of God. He thus symbolizes the victory of righteousness triumphing over evil.” Conductor John Eliot Gardiner suggests that Johann Sebastian Bach’s imagination was primed for decades to bring his most elaborate skills to bear when conveying the meaning and…

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    J. S. Bach, Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! (BWV 102)

    The Gospel reading for the 10th Sunday after Trinity (St. Luke 19:41-48) reveals two remarkable emotional episodes in the life of Jesus. In the first half of the reading, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem, aware that the hardness of heart of its people will result in their judgment. Norval Geldenhuys comments on this passage that “their persistence in their wicked unbelief has blinded them to the opportunities for redemption still remaining; through their own fault the way to salvation is hidden from their sight.” As a result of this rejection of the Savior, he predicts (apparently with convulsive tears) what their fate will be: For the days shall…

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    J. S. Bach, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, “Search me, God, and know my heart” (Cantata BWV 136)

    The biblical readings for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity are Romans 8:12-17 (a text which affirms our identity as children of God, and thus joint-heirs with Christ), and St. Matthew 8:15-23, which warns of false prophets and more generally of hypocrisy: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” The text of this Gospel reading is the link that connects the six movements of this cantata, one of three that Bach composed for use in the liturgy on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity. The opening chorus is a text…

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    “Ye now therefore have sorrow” — Music from Bach for the third Sunday after Easter

    The third Sunday after Easter is traditionally known as “Jubilate Sunday,” because the Introit — from Psalm 66 — begins with the words Jubilate Deo, “Be joyful in God.” Joy also shows up in the Gospel reading for this day from St. John 16, part of the “farewell discourse” of Jesus, his rich and enigmatic description of (among many other things) his coming departure from the disciples. In verse 20, Jesus says to them “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” Johann Sebastian Bach wrote three cantatas…