©2019 Vida Theresa Rodriguez. All Rights Reserved.

THE SIX MOTETS OF J.S. BACH (1685-1750)

by Theresa Rodriguez, M.M.

 

It has been said that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was the culmination of all music that came before him and foresaw all music that was to follow him. Although neglected for nearly eighty years after his death, it was the famous Berlin performance of the Saint Matthew Passion in 1829, sponsored by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which brought J.S. Bach back from obscurity for the world again to hear and appreciate. When we listen to Bach we hear more than a particular or particularly German-Baroque composer: we hear music of and for the ages.

 

A motet is a sacred work for voices with roots embedded in the earliest forms of Medieval music. It is an outgrowth of the development of polyphony (Latin for “many sounds”), meaning the layering of different music lines of more than one voice part. The basis of polyphony lies in the cantus firmus, or the chant melody which acts like an anchor around which the many musical lines would develop. The term motet comes from the French word “mot”, meaning “word”, and the term implies different or overlapping settings of words to multiple lines of music at the same time. By the Baroque period the chorale, or Lutheran hymn-tune, took the place of the ancient cantus firmus in those motets which still used this compositional style. In listening to a motet the ear has to learn to discern the parts which make up the whole, rather than accepting a presentation of blocks of sound. The medieval music theorist Johannes de Grocheio (c. 1255 –

c. 1320) believed that the motet was “not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art.” This holds true today, in that a discipline of the ear is necessary in order to hear and appreciate the many layers and subtleties which make up this complex and formidable musical form.

 

Although the provenance of the Bach motets had at one time been traced to the purpose of training young members of the choir “to sing notes more accurately and with pure tone,” I cannot help but agree with more modern scholarship, that these motets were commissioned works for various occasions such as funerals or memorial services, and for voices of professional quality and virtuosity. The density and complexity of the melodic lines are challenging to any seasoned choir singer and virtuosic enough for any group of professional soloists. To learn and perform this particular corpus of works in one program is indeed in itself Olympian in scope and achievement for any group of singers.

 

In the motets we hear faith expressed by the careful use of musical idioms and conceits to illustrate Bach's deeply-felt and held beliefs. Unique to these motets is the use of eight-voiced double-choir (found in Singet dem Herrn, Der Geist hilft, Fürchte dich nicht and Komm, Jesu, komm), and Bach enjoys using compositional structures such as setting not one, but two fugal sections against each other; one choir of homophonic statements against the florid declamations of the other; and the setting of not just four, but eight separate lines in fugues of grand and powerful dimensions. (A fugue is a compositional form by which there is a kind of “branching out” from one stated theme or idea by subsequent musical lines or voices, and is presented by concurrent melodic, harmonic and rhythmic variations.) These structures are interspersed with chorale settings, which act as a summary or commentary on the text which precede them. In these motets we experience passages of joy, admonition, confidence, resolution, encouragement, supplication, declaration; and as our minds and ears move through sinews of line and texture, we feel the pain of exquisite beauty, are roused with the fervor of doctrinal directness, and dance with Bach when he is dancing.

 

It is this composer for whom his faith was the beginning and end of all he did, signing his works “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God alone be the glory) and “J.J.” or “Jesu, Juva” (Jesus, aid me). Surely we have entered into music which has given God the greatest glory a composer could ever offer. This program of the six motets of J.S. Bach is truly a feast for the ears, the mind, the heart and the spirit.

--Theresa Rodriguez, M.M.

 

 

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225

 

It was this motet to which excited a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in what has been known as a “formative artistic experience” to exclaim “Now there is something one can learn from!” This is a setting of Psalms 149 and 150-- the last of the “praise psalms”-- with a meditative middle section. What one hears is almost an aural representation of “the congregation of the saints” heartily declaring “Sing!” from various points of the world-- like little bursts of joy which pop out, like aural stars, in a firmament of the extended joyful first chorus soprano “Singet” melisma, providing a canopy above all the activity below it. There is an undeniable joy in the first movement, which climaxes in the coming together of both choirs in shouts of praising God “with drums and harps”-- you can hear the drums by the repetitive setting of the percussive-sounding “mit Harfen und Pauken” text as well as the overlapping of the double choruses to reach a interesting musical “knot” at the cadences after so much excitement and momentum. The middle section contains some poignant moments of suspension and resolution in the sweet melodic lines of Chorus I (most memorably at the end of the section with the suspension-resolution of “der sich steif und fest auf dich” between the soprano and altos, just before the vigorous and joyful third movement enjoining the congregation to “Praise the Lord” with a brilliant dance-like fugue to “Alleluia.” Mozart was well-inspired indeed!

 

Der Geist hilft unser Swacheit auf BWV 226

 

This is a happy Bach who is dancing his way through his affirmation that “The spirit helps our infirmities”. The operative word for this motet is “Geist” (Spirit) and Bach literally pours “Geist” into every line of the eight-voiced double choir in melismas which are both a joy to sing and to hear. It is happy confidence that exudes from the first section of the motet. The second fugal section is even more intense and declamatory, with an almost march-like cut-tempo and the strong repeated declaration that the Spirit “makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” Just by nature of the strong cut-tempo we get stresses on words like “Herzen” (heart), “forchet” (searches), “weiß” (points out), “Geistes” (Spirit), and then a lovely and confident florid treatment on the word “Heiligen” (the saints)-- as if the saints and the Spirit are to share more than just complimentary florid melodic lines. Bach ends the fugal section by reminding us, in bringing the voices together in unison at the final cadence, that this is “das Gott gefället”-- as God wills. The chorale responds with texts picking up on themes of the motet: ”heilige” (heavenly); “Trübsal” (trouble) and the consonant-rich “Fleisches Blödigkeit” (feeble flesh). After exploring a full gamut of tonal modulations the chorale ends with a hearty German-accented “HA-le-lu-ja”!

 

Jesu Meine Freude BWV 227

 

There is an earthiness and sincerity of declaration of faith in this pyramidally-constructed motet that brings out Bach's often earnest sense of Germanic ruggedness and intensity. Bach utilizes 3, 4, and 5-part settings in a carefully-constructed sequence of symmetrical movements. He utilizes homophonic texture, where all voices sing the same basic text and rhythm at the same time, to strongly declare points of doctrine he feels are imperative: “There is now no, NO! No condemnation to them which are in Jesus Christ”; “Earth and the abyss must fall speechless”; “Despite, DESPITE the old dragon!” The chorales are in mostly homophonic hymn-like form and are placed as a kind of commentary on the text and “action” that lies between them, much as in the format of works such as the Saint Matthew and Saint John Passions. Bach has also given us one of the most beautiful fugal movements ever composed: the confidently gentle “Ihr habe seid nicht fleischlich, sondern geistlich” where the “geistlich” (“spirit”) is tenderly word-painted in a repeated, flowing melismatic first fugal subject and “wohnet” (“dwells”) in similarly treated-- sometimes by parallel motion in two voices moving in thirds or sixths. Jesu Meine Freude is the strongest and most confident of the motets in terms of the direct intensity of doctrinal exposition.

 

 

Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir BVW 228

 

This is the only one of the six motets where God is speaking directly to the listener. “Fear not, for I am with thee; I am thy God! You are mine!” It seems that the entire motet is an object lesson in repetition-- the action of the two choruses in the first section serves as almost a call-response pattern to enforce in the ear the admonitions of the text. In the second section the choirs reduce from double to single chorus with the chromatically fugal “denn ich habe dich erlöset” (“for I have redeemed thee”)-- text that is lengthily repeated nine times by the altos alone! This motet does not end as others with a summary chorale; rather the chorale (“Herr, mein Hirt, Brunn aller Freuden”) is effected as the cantus firmus by the soprano while the activity of the fugal section is carried out by the lower three voices. (Bach was indeed the father of the “mash-up”!) The chorale text is a prayer which essentially reflects back to God what God has said to the believer: “You are mine, I am yours”; “I am yours because You gave me life”; “none can part us”. Through the sinews and intense layering and repetition of the fugal section it seems Bach wishes to convey that God has redeemed (“erlöset”) and called the believer “by name” (“bei deinem Namen gerufen”), illustrated by the intense stepwise chromaticism of the melodic lines, and indeed, to “fear not”-- as if the trials of life may lie underneath but faith is to ride over them in victory. It is particularly gratifying to have the intensity of the fugal section somehow wrap up the entire motet in a quick whirlwind climax with the clear homophonic declaration of God to the believer-- and this He makes very clear indeed-- with “Du Bist mein!”: “You are mine”!

 

Komm, Jesu, Komm BWV 299

 

Of all the motets this is the most plaintive and supplicating in its affect. The text points to its composition for a funeral: “my body is weary; my strength deserts me more and more; the bitter way of life is too much for me.” The double-choir statement and echoing of the plaint “Come, Jesus, come” with the use of a repeated leaning neighbor-tone motif expresses in sighs and moans the earnest nature of the text. One of the musical treasures in the writing is the exquisite ending of the phrases “mein Leib is müde” and “nach deinem Friede”-- with a lengthened suspension-resolution at these cadences that is reminiscent of the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms. The middle section occurs with the text “du bist der rechte Weg, die Warheit und das Leben” and Bach dances in the joy of his savior being “the Way, the Truth and the Life” in a certain resolutely-dispensed expression of joy and finality. The chorale text sums up the sense of resolve to meet death; “though the sands of life are at and end, my spirit is ready” and “Jesus is the true way to life.” The motet is a three-part statement of faith: I am ready to die; You are the way to eternal life; I am ready to meet You: Come!”

 

Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden BWV 230

 

This motet may be considered the most joyful in overall affect of all the six motets. There is a directness and instant likeability to this motet, possibly because it is set primarily in a major tonality and a sprightly rhythmic structure which the modern ear finds particularly appealing. In this setting of Psalm 117:1-2 we are enjoined to “Praise the Lord”-- “alle Heiden” (all lands), “alle Völker” (all people)-- in a fugue of jubilant floridity. The middle section provides moments of more reserved intensity combined with exquisite melodic writing and dissonance-resolution moments such as on the words “Gnade” (mercy) and “Wahrheit” (truth). An interesting piece of word-painting is the extended vowel on the the words “Ewigkeit” (“forever”), the “E-” for which the altos get to hold for a full nine beats over two measures-- such a long-held note gives the listener an aural image of the text “for ever.” The middle section provides balance between the opening section and the final burst of joy at the magnificent final “Alleluia” fugue-- a movement nearly as memorable to any listening audience as Handel's “Halleluiah” chorus. Bach has never danced so joyfully in his music as he is dancing now!

 

--Theresa Rodriguez, M.M.

 

 

©2015 Vida Theresa Rodriguez. All Rights Reserved. Permission to quote with proper citation granted. Please use the followng:

Rodriguez, Theresa. "The Six Motet of J.S. Bach" bardsinger.com/bachmotets Published February 2015.

If you wish to use any portion or all of these notes in a concert please email Theresa Rodriguez

 

 

BACH MOTET CONCERT NOTES

 

©2015 Vida Theresa Rodriguez. All Rights Reserved. Permission to quote with proper citation granted.

Please use the followng:

Rodriguez, Theresa. "The Six Motet of J.S. Bach" bardsinger.com/bachmotets Published February 2015.

If you wish to use any portion or all of these notes in a concert please email Theresa Rodriguez