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Bach at the Keyboard

Bach was only 22 when he landed his third church job, as organist of St Blasius in the city of Muehlhausen. His audition was on Easter Sunday of 1707 – imagine the stress! – and there’s a good chance that his audition piece was this very cantata.

If so, Bach hit a home run: the Muehlhausen city council met a month later, and no one even discussed any other musician. His second interview was on the 14th of June. The very next day, Bach signed his contract.

For this cantata, Bach used a text by Martin Luther. Unlike some of his later Easter Sunday works, it’s not a bright, joyous piece – but it’s not by any means dark. It’s celebratory, all right, but in a reserved, pensive way.

Bach opens with the chorus, the sopranos carrying the melody and the violins adding florid decorations. He keeps the mood relatively somber until the text says "des wir sollen fröhlich sein" ("thus we should be joyful"). Finally, then, he starts to open things up.

Bach was both a sensitive musician and a devout one: he wrote the letters SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, or glory only to God) at the end of every sacred manuscript. Thus he didn’t hesitate to use word-painting to illuminate the religious meaning of this cantata. He writes scales around "Menschenkinder" and "Tod," ("mankind" and "death") and assigns strong chords to the words "Recht" ("rule") and "Gewalt" ("power"). He paints the phrase "Tods Gestalt" ("death’s empty shell") in a dim, hazy light. His voices chase each other as "Tod und Leben ringen" ("death and life battled"), and "ein Tod den andern fraß" ("one death ate the other").

Then Bach drives home his point. A low part for the bass and a surprisingly dissonant orchestral part represent the Passion – and then rising scales in the violins symbolize the Resurrection. He ends with an elegantly direct setting of the gospel lesson for the day, "Christus will die Koste sein" ("Christ will be the sustenance").

Bach must have thought this cantata was effective, because he didn’t let it gather library dust forever. In his harried, overworked Leipzig days, he revived it not once, but twice – for Easter Sunday of 1724, and again on Easter of 1725.

1. Sinfonia  
2. Coro [Versus I]

Christ lag in Todesbanden
Für unsre Sünd gegeben,
Er ist wieder erstanden
Und hat uns bracht das Leben;
Des wir sollen fröhlich sein,
Gott loben und ihm dankbar sein
Und singen halleluja,

2. Chorus [Verse 1]

Christ lay in the bonds of death,
For our sin was given;
He is risen again
And has brought us life;
Thus we should be joyful,
Praise God and be thankful to Him
And sing hallelujah,

3. Duetto [Versus II]

Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
Bei allen Menschenkindern,
Das macht alles unsre Sünd,
Kein Unschuld war zu finden.
Davon kam der Tod so bald
Und nahm über uns Gewalt,
Hielt uns in seinem Reich gefangen.

3. Duet [Verse 2]

Death could capture no one
Among all mankind;
[But] As a result of our sin,
There was no innocence to be found.
Thereby death quickly came,
And seized power over us,
Held us captive in his kingdom.

4. Aria [Versus III]

Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn,
An unser Statt ist kommen
Und hat die Sünde weggetan,
Damit dem Tod genommen
All sein Recht und sein Gewalt;
Da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt,
Den Stachel hat er verloren,

4. Aria [Verse 3]

Jesus Christ, God’s own Son,
Has come to our abode
And has cleared away the sins,
Thereby from death is taken
All his rule and all his power;
Here nothing remains but death’s shell,
He has lost his sting.

5. Coro [Versus IV]

Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg,
Da Tod und Leben rungen,
Das Leben behielt den Sieg,
Es hat den Tod verschlungen.
Die Schrift hat verkündigt das,
Wie ein Tod den andern fraß,
Ein Spott aus dem Tod ist worden.

5. Chorus [Verse 4]

It was a wondrous struggle,
When death and life battled;
Life seized the victory,
It has devoured death.
The Scripture has proclaimed,
How one death ate another;
Death has been made a mockery.

6. Aria [Versus V]

Hie ist das rechte Osterlamm,
Davon Gott hat geboten,
Das ist hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm
In heißer Lieb gebraten,
Das Blut zeichnet unser Tür,
Das hält der Glaub dem Tode für,
Der Würger kann uns nicht mehr schaden.

6. Aria [Verse 5]

Here is the true Easter lamb,
Of which God has commanded;
It is high on the cross’s trunk
Burning in ardent love;
The blood makes a sign on our door,
That the faith regards as death,
The murderer can no longer harm us.

7. Aria (Duetto) [Versus VI]

So feiren wir das hohe Fest
Mit Herzensfreud und Wonne,
Das uns der Herr erscheinen läßt,
Er ist selber die Sonne,
Der durch seiner Gnaden Glanz
Erleuchtet unsre Herzen ganz,
Der Sünden Nacht ist verschwunden.

7. Aria (Duet) [Verse 6]

So let us celebrate
With heartfelt joy and pleasure
the high feast the Lord lays before us;
He is himself the sun,
And through His graceful brilliance,
He fully illuminates our hearts;
The sin-filled night has vanished.

8. Choral [Versus VII]

Wir essen und leben wohl
In rechten Osterfladen,
Der alte Sauerteig nicht soll
Sein bei dem Wort der Gnaden,
Christus will die Koste sein
Und speisen die Seel allein,
Der Glaub will keins andern leben.

8. Chorale [Verse 7]

We eat and thrive
On this true Easter wafer;
The old leavening shall not
Remain in the grace of the Word;
Christ will be the sustenance
He alone will feed the soul,
Faith will live on nothing else.

Translation by David Roden – may be reproduced under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA license
This article was first published in WKSU Classical on 8 April 2012.

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Marketplace had a good story about the connection between George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix (yes, there actually is one), and I thought it was worth you checking out on the Marketplace page.

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John F Kennedy
President John F Kennedy
(Schiller Institute)

Leonard Bernstein was in a fix. The man he’d supported for the presidency of the United States was to be inaugurated the next day, and he was to launch a gala celebration at the White House with his own newly composed fanfare. But Washington’s streets were nearly impassable, choked by a blizzard.

It took a police escort, but Bernstein made it to the White House. Under the circumstances, a side trip to his hotel for a change of clothes was out of the question, so on the evening of 19 January, 1961, Leonard Bernstein conducted the 30-second Fanfare for JFK without his tails. The best he could do was a borrowed, outsize dress shirt as he led an orchestra assembled from musicians who’d plowed their way through the daunting weather.

Not that a lack of formal wear was going to exclude Leonard Bernstein from the Kennedy White House. He and John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been friends for years. Both were Harvard graduates; they’d met while appearing in a mid-1950s television special about life at the school. Politically, Bernstein had deeply held progressive leanings, so backing Kennedy was natural for him. He was also close to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Leonard Bernstein conducts, 24 Nov 1963
Leonard Bernstein conducts, 24 Nov 1963
(Columbia Broadcasting System)

Two years and 10 months later, Leonard Bernstein – with all Americans – recoiled in shock and horror as the news reached him: an assassin’s bullet had ended the dynamic young president’s life.

Two days after those harrowing events of 22 November 1963, Bernstein took to television’s CBS network to deliver a musical memorial to his friend. He led the New York Philharmonic in a work he’d recorded just that year – Gustav Mahler’s transcendent, transformative "Resurrection" Symphony. Assisting him were soloists Lucine Amara and Jennie Tourel, and the Schola Cantorum of New York.

Bernstein’s hastily arranged concert was not the first classical music broadcast to honor the nation’s fallen president.

Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber

In times of deep public mourning, America has, since at least the 1945 death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, almost universally turned to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Despite its emotional intensity, the work projects both simplicity and strength. Even those unfamiliar with it find that it helps them compose their minds and hearts. The major US television networks aired the Barber Adagio when the president’s death was announced.

Their choice was apt, and not just because of tradition. The Adagio was one of President Kennedy’s favorite works. His widow Jacqueline Kennedy requested that the National Symphony Orchestra perform it on Monday the 25th, the same day as the president’s funeral mass. They played to an empty hall, but the concert was broadcast.

Erich Leinsdorf
Erich Leinsdorf

The first known classical music concert broadcast in the late president’s memory took place in Boston much earlier – just minutes after his death had been announced.

On the afternoon of the 22nd, the Boston Symphony was set to play a concert to air live over Boston public radio station WGBH. Minutes before the scheduled 2:00pm start of the program – 1:00 Dallas time – Boston Symphony librarian William Shisler received an urgent message from music director Erich Leinsdorf.

Shisler already knew that the president had been shot. He’d been working in the library, and his wife had called with the news. Now Leinsdorf told him to locate and distribute the music for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The musicians were already onstage. Quickly, Shisler explained to each what had happened.

The WGBH announcer introduced the first scheduled work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or suite. The engineer brought up the microphones.

But instead of raising his baton, Leinsdorf turned to the audience and spoke: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires – we hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it – that the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination. We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s third symphony."


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Isaac Stern, 1963
Isaac Stern, 1963
(University Musical Society)

That same fateful Friday afternoon in November, violinist Isaac Stern was at the Dallas airport. He was en route to a Saturday concert date with the San Antonio Symphony when he too learned that the president had been murdered.

Stern was slated to play the Sibelius concerto, but at the next morning’s rehearsal, he found that he simply couldn’t. It wasn’t in his heart. That evening, Stern wept as he played the Bach Chaconne in tribute to his fallen friend. The orchestra sat, silent.

The president’s funeral mass was on Monday at Washington’s St Matthew’s Cathedral. It was a low mass, so no complete requiem setting was performed. However, the St Matthew’s Choir presented excerpts from Lorenzo Perosi’s requeim; and tenor Luigi Vena sang several sacred works, including Schubert’s Ave Maria. (Almost 46 years later, soprano Susan Graham sang the same Ave Maria at Senator Edward Kennedy’s funeral mass.)

Georges Bizet and Ernest Guiraud
Georges Bizet and Ernest Guiraud
(Wikimedia Commons)

According to William Manchester, author of The Death of a President, Jacqueline Kennedy also requested that Vena sing a work that he had performed at her wedding.

What we usually call the Bizet Agnus Dei is indeed Bizet’s music, but it’s not really his setting. After Bizet’s death, his publisher asked Bizet’s friend, the American-born Ernest Guiraud, to arrange a second suite from Bizet’s incidental music for the play L’Arlesienne. Guiraud went further, fitting the sacred Agnus Dei text to the intermezzo from the suite.

The First Lady’s request wasn’t honored that Monday, but we’ll honor it this evening through a performance by tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

The full Requiem Mass for President Kennedy took place at Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral almost two months later, on 19 January 1964 – exactly three years after Bernstein had conducted his fanfare at the president’s inauguration. Cardinal Cushing officiated.

The Requiem setting was Mozart’s. At Jacqueline Kennedy’s request, Erich Leinsdorf led the Boston Symphony along with the Chorus Pro Musica, the Harvard and Radcliffe Glee Clubs, and the Seminarians of St John’s. Soloists were soprano Saramae Endich, alto Eunice Alberts, tenor Nicholas DiVirgilio, and baritone Mac Morgan.

The performance was recorded and originally issued in 1964 as a 2-record set. A recent CD release was timed to coincide with this 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Warren Benson
Warren Benson
(Louis Ouzer)

Web exclusive: When percussionist and composer Warren Benson (1924-2005) began work on a new piece in 1963, his goal was simple: to create a wind band composition with a broad range of expression. The unrelenting energy of most existing band works "just wore you out by the time it was over," Benson said.

But then came November, and everything changed. "The news really devastated us," he said. "I guess it was on the next Monday that one of my percussion students brought in [the poem] Autumn by Rainer Maria Rilke. The first line captivated me because it seemed like everything was going to pot … the upbeat spirit of the Kennedy Administration had just been blown away."

Benson married his earlier musical ideas with the Lutheran hymn Ein Feste Burg to complete The Leaves Are Falling in honor of the late president’s legacy.

Listen to Warren Benson’s The Leaves Are Falling:

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("The President’s Own" US Marines Band conducted by Colonel Michael J Colburn – courtesy USMC)

As we reflect on President Kennedy’s life and death, it’s worth remembering the part that music plays in helping us through our darkest moments.

At its core, music is organized sound. If we’re to bring order and peace to this disordered, violent world, the place to start is inside our own hearts, where music’s quiet rigor raises a bulwark against chaos. As Bernstein said the day after his 1963 memorial concert, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

Urlicht (Primal Light)
From the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)
O Röschen rot! O little red rose!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not! Mankind lies in greatest need!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein! Mankind lies in greatest pain!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein! I would much rather be in Heaven!
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg; Then I found myself on a broad path;
da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen. Came then an angel who would divert me.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen! No, no, I will not be diverted!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott! I’m from God, and intend to return to God!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben, The loving God will grant me a small light,
wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben! will light me to blessed eternal life!
Herbst (Autumn)
Rainer Maria Rilke
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit, The leaves fall, fall as if from afar,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten; as if distant gardens withered in the skies;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde. they fall and shake their heads "no."
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde And in the nights, the heavy earth falls,
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit. desolate, away from all the stars.
Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt. We all fall. This hand falls.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen. And look at the others: it is in them all.
Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen And yet there is one who holds this falling
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält. Endlessly, softly, in his own hands.

Translations: David Roden – Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA

Further Information:

Excerpt from Bernstein’s 1963 Mahler Concert (Youtube)

Leonard Bernstein’s speech at United Jewish Appeal benefit, 25 Nov 1963

Baritone Thomas Hampson on the origins of Mahler’s Urlicht (Hampsong Foundation)

Erich Leinsdorf’s Tribute to JFK, Friday 22 November 1963 (Time Magazine)

Isaac Stern plays the Bach Chaconne (Youtube)

The Leaves Are Falling (PDF: Eastman Wind Ensemble conductor Donald Hunsberger interviews composer Warren Benson)

A portion of this article was published in WKSU Classical on 22 November 2012.

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David Guerrier
David Guerrier plays the keyed trumpet

The trumpet goes back a long, long way. Trumpeters are depicted in art from ancient Egypt, dated in the 14th century BCE.

For most of its centuries of existence, the trumpet was an instrument of royalty, used for playing fanfares. Frankly, that’s about all it was good for. These early trumpets couldn’t play all the notes of the scale. They played only the first few notes from the harmonic series, which is already a subset of the scale’s notes.

The Natural Trumpet's Harmonic Series (

By the 16th century, instrument makers had figured out how to make trumpets play more of the notes from the harmonic series. Now, the further up you go in the harmonic series, the closer together the notes get. If you could push your trumpet far enough, and fudge the pitch of some notes a bit, you could play all the notes of the scale. By the 17th century, trumpets could actually be used to more or less play melodies.

I say "more or less" because they still didn’t do a very good job of it. It took a really talented (and fit!) player to get all the notes in tune. (Many of today’s period instrument specialists use trumpets with tiny, inconspicuous, and inauthentic "cheater holes" that help them with this challenge.) Even then, the timbre (tone quality) of the notes varied radically.

In the 15th century, a few instrument makers had experimented with adding slides (like a trombone’s) to trumpets. We have pictures! But given the design – they were straight trumpets – it’s hard to see how a player could’ve flung that slide around fast enough to play any but the slowest music. He might well have knocked his own front teeth out trying. For centuries more, trumpet players had to pretty much depend only on skill and lungs to coax a real tune from their instruments.

In the 17th century, Vienna became something of a Mecca for trumpet players. The very earliest trumpet players had been little more than vagrants, but Viennese trumpeters were given a place of honor. On high feast days the court’s string orchestra was augmented by a choir of trumpets, playing sonatas composed by the likes of Schmelzer and Biber.

But by the late 18th century the trumpet was going out of style, giving way to more agile and tonally consistent instruments. A few trumpeters, determined to salvage their careers, scrambled to develop a trumpet that could compete with the violin, flute, and oboe. Some of them achieved a measure of success by adding keys to the trumpet, so it could play all the notes of the scale, even in its lowest register.

Enter Anton Weidinger (1767 – 1852). Weidinger was a Viennese court trumpeter. Around 1793, he began experimenting with some of these keyed trumpets, refining them and practicing with them. By 1796 he was making enough progress that he convinced Haydn to write a concerto for his Klappentrompette (keyed trumpet). He took that concerto on the road in 1803, playing it in France, Germany, and England. Weidinger caught the interest of composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who composed yet another concerto for him and his curious keyed trumpet.

The critics had good things to say about Weidinger’s trumpet and his playing. But it was too late. By 1820 the valved trumpet had appeared in Vienna and was rapidly taking over. Weidinger’s keyed trumpet hung on for a little longer; some musicians and composers preferred its tone to the valved trumpet’s. But by 1840 the Klappentrompette was forgotten – obsolete.

Although the Baroque natural trumpet has no shortage of proponents (and makers and players), not many musicians have shown much interest in reviving the Klappentrompette. Who can blame them? After all, what’s the point of reviving an instrument for which only two major concertos were ever written? (See also the arpeggione.) Rainer Egger has built modern reproductions, as has Christopher Monk, but they don’t seem to have had many customers. The few recordings that have been made with their instruments have quickly gone out of print, presumably for lack of interest.

But if you’d like to see and hear the keyed trumpet, here’s a rare opportunity: David Guerrier playing the first movement of the Haydn, recorded at the Festival de l’Epau in May of 2009. He’s accompanied by the chamber orchestra "Les Siècles."

Further reading:

The story of the keyed trumpet, by Norwegian trumpeter Ole J Utnes

The natural trumpet in Wikipedia

Rainer Egger’s workshop

Trumpeter David Guerrier from Trumpet World

This article was first published in WKSU Classical on 28 December 2009.

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When Whoopi Goldberg moved into the convent as Sister Mary Clarence in the 1992 film Sister Act, the abbey was forever changed – or at least changed until Sister Act 2 a year later.

The music world might have seen a similar revelation and revolution, if not for society’s limitations on women in centuries past.

Consider two highly musical sisters, Maria Anna Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn. Both received outstanding musical instruction. Both impressed thoughtful, unbiased contemporaries as immensely talented – equal to or perhaps even superior to their more famous brothers.

Maria Anna Mozart
Maria Anna Mozart

As a child, Maria Anna Mozart (Nannerl) studied with her father Leopold. She and younger brother Wolfgang were both on show as prodigies, touring Western Europe and Vienna with their father.

Maria Anna developed into a thoroughly capable composer, an accomplished keyboardist, and a fine improviser. Her father proudly touted her talents: "My little girl plays the most difficult works with incredible precision … although she is only 12 years old, [she] is one of the most skillful players in Europe."

And yet, as little brother Wolfgang rapidly progressed, Papa Leopold put the brakes on his big sister’s career.

Despite her father’s restrictions, Maria Anna served as Wolfgang’s agent, inviting Haydn to her home and playing some of Wolfgang’s quartets for the older composer. And in one of her letters, Maria Anna said that she had been Wolfgang Mozart’s only music advisor. Indeed, Wolfgang sent her most of his piano concertos, at least up to #21. He expressed amazement at Maria Anna’s skill as a composer, and – despite Leopold’s admonitions – encouraged her to write more. Alas, none of her compositions survives.

As the decades passed, although no radical changes developed, the climate improved somewhat for women musicians.

Fanny Mendelssohn

In the early 1800s, another dynamic sister-brother duo appeared on the scene. Both prodigiously talented siblings in the prominent Mendelssohn family, Fanny and Felix, studied with the finest instructors that Berlin could offer, thanks to their father’s encouragement (and his substantial financial resources).

Fanny Mendelssohn wrote a significant amount of music. But if her brother Felix encouraged her to compose, he drew the line at publication. He wrote that publishing her music "would only disturb her" in her "primary duties" of managing the home.

Of course, he was just echoing the cultural norms of the day – and papa Abraham’s exhortation to his 14 year old daughter: "You must become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your calling, the only calling of a young woman — that of a housewife … music will perhaps become [Felix’s] profession, but for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing."

Despite these restraints, Fanny persevered. Her surviving works include over 250 lieder, a string quartet, an overture, a piano trio, 125 solo piano works, and four cantatas.

In one of her late songs, Dein ist mein Herz, Fanny Mendelssohn quotes the poet Nikolaus Lenau. She bares her soul to many of those who held her back – perhaps most pointedly to her brother, whom she adored: "The dearest thing I may acquire in songs that abduct my heart is a word to me that they please you, a silent glance that they touch you."

– Sylvia Docking

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