Festival of Women in the Arts

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Johann Sebastian Bach would be pleasantly surprised to find his music still admired – perhaps more today than ever.  He composed his cantata Ihr werdet weinen und Heulen (No. 103) as part of a long, steady stream of cantatas – more than a hundred – written during his first two years at Leipzig, from mid-1723 to mid-1725.  His job in Leipzig entailed producing and overseeing music in all the city’s churches for every Sunday (and other holy days) of the year.  Ihr werdet weinen und heulen was written for the Third Sunday after Easter – falling upon April 22 – in 1725.  While he himself reused the cantata from time to time over the next 25 years, doubtless he thought it would soon pass into oblivion with ever-changing times and tastes.

The text for the Third Sunday after Easter is Jesus’ farewell to his apostles, foretelling his own death and resurrection (beginning with John 16:16):

A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again a little while,
and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.  . . .   
Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice:
and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned to joy.

As usual, Bach relied on a skilled poet to write a libretto for his cantata based on the gospel text.  Often the librettist is anonymous, but in this case we know who it was:  a local poetess named Marianne von Ziegler, who lived from 1695 to 1760, published several volumes of poetry, was named a “poet laureate” of Wittenberg University, and played several musical instruments on the side.  Marianne von Ziegler wrote texts for a series of nine consecutive cantatas by Bach, starting with this one and ending with the First Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday), May 27, 1725.

In the present cantata Ziegler illustrates “weeping vs. rejoicing” with the analogy of “sickness vs. health.”  The first recitative and aria (movements 2-3) pursue the analogy of sickness.  Bach sets Ziegler’s aria text with the poignant tones of the flute and alto voice, in a pensive “siciliano” rhythm.  The second recitative and aria (movements 4-5) take up “health,” which Bach represents with the bright sounds of trumpet and full string section, together with the tenor voice, all set to a lively “bourrée” rhythm.  These wonderfully colorful solo numbers are framed by two choruses.  The opening chorus (movement 1) makes extraordinary use of the sopranino recorder – the highest member of the recorder family – to depict the “wailing and howling” of the gospel text with utmost brilliance.  The concluding chorale (movement 6) is a single verse of an old hymn, Barmherzger Vater, höchster Gott (Merciful Father, God most high), set to the tune of Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit (What my God will, so be it always), one of the greatest of the old Lutheran hymn melodies.

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Marianna Martines (also styled Marianne von Martínez) was born in 1744 to a Spanish-Italian family who lived in high social standing in Vienna.  From childhood onward, Marianna counted among her friends some of Vienna’s finest musicians and artistic personages, including the composers Haydn and Mozart and the poet Metastasio.  She showed early talents as a singer and keyboard player.  At sixteen she took up composition, and within a year a complete mass written by her was sung at the Vienna court church.  By her late twenties she was widely known throughout Europe; the English music historian Charles Burney praised her works, as did the noted Italian theorist Padre Martini.  She never married but led a vivacious public life.  She kept a large household where she held musical soirées to entertain the best of Vienna’s society, even on occasion playing four-hand sonatas with Mozart himself.  Later in her career she ran a singing school that produced many notable operatic performers.

Martines’ compositions include numerous songs, keyboard pieces and church works.  The two songs heard today have Italian texts by Metastasio, and are written in the style of such contemporary Viennese opera composers as Hasse, Jommelli and Galuppi.  The music is perhaps less adventurous than Mozart’s, but is very much in keeping with the most refined taste and standards of the time.

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Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was born in 1805 to a Berlin Jewish family of highest cultural distinction and artistic background.  She shared with her younger brother Felix Mendelssohn, born in 1809, a precocious talent and a voracious appetite for all things musical.  Though Felix was to overshadow Fanny in his later public life, in private the two siblings kept always in close touch; Felix owed much of his success to the unending inspiration and mentorship of his older sister.  Fanny’s early death in 1847 dealt a hard blow to Felix, who died himself only six months later.

Fanny’s own life was largely domestic and private, as befit a lady of the times.  She enjoyed a happy marriage to the artist Wilhelm Hensel with whom she maintained a lively household and raised a son (named Sebastian Ludwig Hensel in honor of Bach and Beethoven).  Their home was a mecca for musicians, artists, writers and philosophers from all over Europe.  They were widely renowned for their weekly Sunday afternoon musicales, bringing together the finest players and singers from Berlin, and attracting the cream of society within the audience, including such international luminaries as Liszt, Goethe and Robert and Clara Schumann.  Often these concerts highlighted great music of the past – especially the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – as well as new works by Fanny, Felix and their contemporaries.

Fanny’s output encompasses some 466 works, including many volumes of songs, piano pieces and chamber works, as well as several weighty compositions for choral and orchestral forces.  In the cantata Hiob (Job) Fanny draws heavily upon the music of Bach, whose early cantatas – especially Aus der Tiefe (Out of the Depths, No. 131) – form a clear model.  Fanny’s mastery of Bach’s style of fugal writing, as shown in all three sections of Hiob, is second to none.  At the same time she embraces an adventurously modern harmonic idiom, modulating quickly to distant keys in the latest style of Schubert or Schumann.  Today’s musicians can learn much from Fanny – and we are just beginning to do so.