Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The 400 Blows (Truffaut)

French New Wave director François Truffaut (1932-1984) has often sought his inspiration in his own autobiography, like literary authors do. His first feature-length film, The 400 Blows, released in 1959, was based on his own troubled childhood and adolescence.

In the 1950s, Truffaut had already established himself as a vitriolic critic for the magazine Les Cahiers du cinéma and with the young colleagues at that magazine (Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer) he would play a pivotal role in the French New Wave. Truffaut and his collaborators advocated that the director of a film should stand artistically speaking over and above any other person involved in the production - like the author of a novel. It was not a movement with a structured ideology, and in the 60s differences between the various proponents widened - for example between the politically engaged movies of Godard and Truffaut's autobiographical "comedies of manners." But there were also similarities, such as the lack of plot and use of non-professional actors and natural dialogues, not to speak of the low-budget productions.

Truffaut's most representative series of autobiographical films is the so-called Antoine Doinel series, that consists of four feature-length films and one short, and was made between 1959 and 1979. I will here discuss the first film The 400 Blows (made when there was no idea yet about a series).

First the title, because "400 blows" calls up a rather violent image, as of a British boarding school. Nothing could be farther from the truth, it is a wrong translation of the French title which is an idiom. "Faire les quatre cent coups," means "to live without respect for morals or conventions," "to lead a disorderly life." This refers ironically to the hero of the film, Antoine - it is how society wrongly sees him - , and a better title would have been something like "The Wild One," or "Wild Oats."

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a 13-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a small apartment in Paris. It is so small they are always in each other's way. His tight-sweater wearing mother (Claire Maurier) neglects him as she is too busy with her lover, his uncultured step-father (Albert Rémy) misunderstands the sensitive and artistic boy. Because his creativity is not acknowledged, Antoine starts to rebel against authority and gets into trouble at school, where the teachers are insensitive bores just droning up their lessons. Finally, Antoine runs away from home and goes into hiding at the place of his best friend, René.

The boys need money and steal a typewriter from the office where Antoine’s father works. But they can't sell the heavy machine (it is too obviously stolen and has a serial number) and not knowing what to do with this heap of iron, Antoine tries to smuggle it back into the office. There he is caught by the night watchman. The police is called, and the parents, anyway not very much interested in educating the boy, place him in an institution for delinquent teenagers. At the end of the film, Antoine manages to escape during a game of soccer, and runs and runs, until he comes near the sea, which he sees for the first time in his life, and which gives him a feeling of liberation.

Despite its serious theme, The 400 Blows is full of humor. The film was made on location in Paris, and fun is the shot where the class following the physical education teacher on a jog through the city gradually diminishes as more and more pupils peel off. Also the last long shot is fantastic: Truffaut's camera follows Antoine for several minutes without any cuts when he runs away, until he reaches the beach, does a few steps in the water and then comes running towards the camera. Only then follows a cut, after a zoom-in to freeze-frame of the boy, and this is the end of the film. This shot is famous for its ambiguity.

This charming film proved popular with both critics and the public at large. It won Truffaut Best Director Award at Cannes in 1959 and brought in enough money for Truffaut's own production company, Carosse d'Or (named after a Renoir film) to continue making films and even invest in films by other New Wave directors. It is dedicated to the man who became his spiritual father, André Bazin, who died just as the film was about to be shot. It was highly praised by filmmakers as Kurosawa, Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, Cocteau and Dreyer.

By the way, in 1962 Truffaut briefly continued the story about Antoine Doinel in Antoine and Colette, a short film that was part of a collection of four pieces by different directors called Love at Twenty. Antoine Doinel (again (Jean-Pierre Léaud, who acts as Truffaut's cinematic alter ego in the whole series) works in a factory which makes records. He has lost his wildness and loves music and books. At a classical concert, he sees a nice girl, Colette (Marie-France Pisier), and falls in love with her. But Colette sees him more as a "brother" with whom she can exchange books and records. Antoine in fact gets closer to her parents - surrogate for the real parents he never meets anymore after what happened in The 400 Blows - than to her and at the bittersweet end of the film she goes out with a real boyfriend while Antoine watches TV with her parents.

Feature length films about Antoine Doinel are: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Classic Novel: "He Knew He Was Right" (1869) by Trollope

He Knew He Was Right is the ironic title of one of Trollope's greatest novels, the story of the disintegration of a marriage. Strangely enough, there is no earthly reason why the marriage between Louis Trevelyan, a well-heeled English gentleman, and Emily Rowley, the eldest daughter of a British colonial governor, would not be successful. They love each other and the fruit of that love soon makes its presence felt in the form of a baby boy. Emily's sister Nora lives with the young couple in their London mansion and there only seem blue skies ahead.

But then a small thing happens, something which normally would not even be a bump in the road. Emily receives regular visits from Colonel Osborne, a friend of her father, with a reputation of a lady's man despite his advanced years. There are some rumors, the husband starts paying attention, he gets jealous. Though nothing improper ever occurs, Trevelyan overreacts by ordering his wife to avoid Colonel Osborne in the future. Emily strongly resents her husband's lack of trust and is angry that he dare doubt her innocence.

Normally, such a small matter would be cleared up in the evening, forgiven at night and forgotten the next day. But the chance for reconciliation passes, another small matter occurs which feeds Trevelyan's jealousy, and Emily is again strengthened in her stubbornness. And so the unreasonable (and totally unfounded) jealousy of Trevelyan, and the stubbornness of the willful Emily gradually escalate. Pride and vanity on both sides cut off the way back to happiness. Husband and wife start living apart; Trevelyan travels abroad to forget his shame; in his absence, Trevelyan has his wife watched by a detective. Colonel Osborne does not make things easier by paying some more visits to Emily, just to spite the husband and feed his own vanity. This gives Trevelyan reason for his jealousy and by and by he starts wallowing in his unhappiness, and slowly descends into insanity.

A butterfly moving its wings can lead to disaster.

This main story-line has been keenly observed by Trollope, who is the author of human behavior, especially of conflict and collision. Trollope is at his best when he describes people who try to manipulate each other, his dialogues are always wonderfully sharp. Usually the weaker party, like Emily, doesn't let herself be ordered around and stands up for her rights. This leads to delicious conflicts.

The subplots are also full of it. The whole world wants Nora, Emily's sister, to marry Lord Glascock (although of course a suitor with such a name can't be allowed to be successful), but she stubbornly perseveres in her love for the penniless Hugh Stanbury, a friend of Trevelyan. Hugh's sister Dorothy lives in Exeter with their aunt, the formidable Jemima Stanbury. The aunt wants her to marry a clergyman, the sly Mr Gibson. She refuses, for she loves Brooke Burgess, the heir to the Stanbury fortune and the last person in the world her aunt wants her to marry. And so on. Exquisite is also the predicament of Mr Gibson, who after being jilted, proposes to the vain Camilla French, who even before being sure of her prey reveals she is a harridan of the first order. Poor Mr Gibson escapes from the marriage, but has to pay for his sins by being coupled for life with Camilla's elder sister, Arabella.

Conflicts of course not only arise in lovemaking. Aunt Stanbury has quarreled with Hugh because he writes for a penny newspaper and has liberal views. When Emily and Nora are staying with Hugh Stanbury's relatives, vicious letters are exchanged between Aunt Stanbury and Dorothy's sister Priscilla about a perceived "immoral" visit of Mr Osborne, which first didn't take place but later does. Emily and Nora stay for a few months with an uncle, Mr Outhouse, a clergyman who has to receive them in his house, but does not really want them to come. Sir Marmaduke, the father of Emily and Nora, briefly returns to the U.K. and is grilled by a parliamentary committee. He also gives Trevelyan a dressing down. The old and the new worlds collide in the house of Mr Spalding, the American Ambassador to Florence, where several characters have traveled to, including Mr Glascock, who is caught by Caroline Spalding and educated in democratic principles.

My evaluation: He Knew He Was Right is 950 pages thick, but remains interesting to the last page. Despite some instances of 19th century redundancy, this is Trollope at his best. Read it as an Oxford Classic as I did, a Penguin Classic, or at Gutenberg.

Also see the Anthony Trollope website, the Trollope Society or the Victorian Web.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bach Cantatas (12): 4th Sunday after Epiphany

The cantatas for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. This fourth (and last) Sunday after Epiphany does not occur every year, so there are only two cantatas for it.

Romans 13:8–10, love completes the law
Matthew 8:23–27, Jesus calming the storm

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

[The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, 1632]

  1. Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? BWV 81, 30 January 1724

    Aria (Alt, Blockflöten): Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?
    Recitativo (Tenor): Herr! warum trittest du so ferne?
    Aria (Tenor): Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen
    Arioso (Bass): Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?
    Aria (Bass, Oboe d'amore): Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer!
    Recitativo (Alt): Wohl mir, mein Jesus spricht ein Wort
    Choral: Unter deinen Schirmen

    "Jesus sleeps, what hope is there for me?"
    Text and translation

    The familiar story of Jesus stilling the waves. Life is compared to a sea voyage. The cantata plays with the contrast of Jesus being hidden (sleeping) and appearing (acting). This a very operatic and dramatic cantata, concentrating on solo vocal movements. After an alto aria, which speaks of the "sleeping" (illustrated by the recorders, low registers of the strings and long notes in the voice) - at the same time, a contemplation on the terror of death - we get a ferocious storm scene in the tenor aria, full of bravura passage work. The arioso is devoted to the bass as the Vox Christi reciting a quote from the Gospel: "Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?" This is followed by a powerful bass aria where the storm (unison runs of the strings) is silenced by Jesus (calmer motion in the oboes). The cantata concludes with a four part choral.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung

  2. Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14, 30 January 1735

    (Coro): "Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit" for choral and instrumental tutti.
    Aria: "Unsre Stärke heißt zu schwach" for soprano, corno da caccia, strings, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Ja, hätt es Gott nur zugegeben" for tenor and continuo.
    Aria: "Gott, bei deinem starken Schützen" for bass, oboes, and continuo.
    Chorale: "Gott Lob und Dank, der nicht zugab" for choral and instrumental tutti colle parti.

    "If God were not with us at this time"
    Text and translation

    This is the last cantata written by Bach, dating from January, 1735. The initial chorus and final chorale are based on Luther’s Psalm 124, a hymn of communal thanksgiving. The inner movements are concerned with the results of sin: war and natural disaster, from which God’s protection is required (reflecting the protection given against the storm in the reading for this day). The somewhat academic opening chorus explores complex contrapuntal possibilities. The brilliant soprano aria with its delightful orchestration (corno da caccia) comes as a fresh breeze. It reflects the wrathful enemy. Also the bass aria with two obbligato oboes is a nice show piece, singing about God's intervention and the taming of the forces of evil.

    Rating: B+
    Video: Johannsen / Cantus Cölln

    Saturday, January 28, 2012

    Classic Fiction: "The Death of the Heart" (1938) by Bowen

    "The Death of the Heart" (1938), by Elizabeth Bowen, is an extraordinary novel, written in dense Jamesian prose and excellently observed. It is also an almost plot-less book, everything in this psychological novel takes place between the ears. The theme is "innocence" - not only how innocence can be lost to experience, but even more so the effect of true innocence on experience and sophistication.

    The story is simple. A sixteen year old orphan, Portia Quayne, has come to live with her prosperous half-brother Thomas and his reluctant wife Anna, who is also the embodiment of urbane cynicism. Raised by her mother in a series of hotels on the Continent, Portia is possessed of a sort of devastating innocence: she literally can not understand unkindness or false motives.

    In the polite but cruelly sophisticated world that is the house of Thomas and Anna, Portia encounters the attractive, carefree Eddie, who just lives by the moment. While Eddie indulges himself in playing with the child-woman, to Portia he seems the only real person in the cold atmosphere enveloping her.

    Contemporary readers might expect some sexual denouement (innocence lost), but nothing of the sort happens. Portia's childish love comes to grief in a much more subtle way, when she is vacationing in the windswept cottage of Anna's former governess at the seaside. Eddie has followed her for the weekend - of which Portia is proud -, they visit the cinema with a group of acquaintances  and there, during the chance flash of a cigarette lighter, she sees him holding hands with another girl. That is all. But it is enough to end her state of innocence.

    At the same time, Portia's real adversary is not the faithless Eddie, but Anna - worldly sophistication and childlike innocence don't go very well together. Anna will see herself reflected in the mirror of Portia's innocence and what she sees there is not very nice. In the end, we could well ask: whose heart has died?

    Thursday, January 26, 2012

    Caught by Max Ophuls

    Caught (1949) is one of the two noir films Max Ophuls made in the U.S. and it is a concise, tense and mean little film, a criticism of  capitalism run wild.

    Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes in her best performance), a poor model, dreams of romance, pouring over fashion magazines with mink coats and waiting for her Prince Charming. She even gets a feminine social education at charm school ("college and finishing school combined").

    Then she happens to meet cynical control-freak millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) - based on Howard Hughes, it is rumored - who marries her as a kind of joke, just to spite his psychoanalyst and to show her he controls her destiny. As a result, Leonora finds herself another piece of opulence stuffed in Ryan's Long Island mansion. On top of that, her husband has a psychotic streak and his manservant, Curt (Franzi Kartos) is almost menacing in his obsequiousness to his master.

    To get away, Leonora trades richess for New York's East Side and lands a grind-house job as receptionist for struggling slum pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason). Although briefly returning to Ryan by his promises of change, Leonora is determined to stay in charge of her own destiny. During a dance in a chock-full cafe where they keep stepping on each other's toes, Larry proposes to her. But she is pregnant with Ohlrig's child and once more returns to her husband who proves more abusive than ever.

    He wants his “possession” back, even calling her his "employee." Extreme capitalism cheapens human feelings. The very rich think their money buys everything, but although it goes far, Ophuls shows there is a limit to what money can do. Even pimp lackey Curt walks out in disgust. Leonora is saved from her Long Island prison by Larry, as she has a miscarriage brought on by Ohlig's violence. In the back of the ambulance they reaffirm their love.

    The film's title "Caught" not only refers to the marriage trap Leonora walked into, but more broadly to the wrong ideas that entrapped her: the materialistic view that money would be the root of all happiness. Unfortunately, as the world is, too many people are "caught..."

    Tuesday, January 24, 2012

    Letter from an Unknown Woman by Max Ophuls

    Max Ophuls was the director of romantic regret. His flowing, generous style of filming is like a Viennese waltz. His whole life on the move because of persecution (he was Jewish), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) was the second (and only major) film made by this German born, French citizen in Hollywood. The film already exudes the grace, beauty and sensitivity characteristic of the masterworks he would make in the 1950s in Europe.

    The story is set in a nostalgic Vienna around 1900, and is loosely based on a story by Stefan Zweig. At night, a hurried man arrives at his apartment, telling his manservant that he will depart before the morning. This is Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a failed concert pianist, planning to leave Vienna to avoid a duel. His servant hands him a letter, from one of the many women in his life - dissipation was the main reason for his stranded career -, a woman he cannot remember and who is therefore the "unknown woman."

    Brand sits down to read the letter and in a long flashback we see the love Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) felt for him: "By the time you read this letter, I may be dead…. If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn’t know who I was or even that I existed." In other words, Lisa dies, because her existence has been unacknowledged. The film is her posthumous plea for recognition.

    There are three major episodes: as a girl, she was Brand's  neighbor and dreamed secretly about the famous piano lion; as a young woman, she has a short affair with him and secretly bears his child; as a mature, married woman of high status she finally meets him again and abandons her husband Johann (Marcel Journet) for her youthful memories - only to discover that her philandering hero doesn't remember at all who she is. He has been completely blind to her lifelong love. She has written the letter in the hospital where she is dying of typhus. Brand spends the night reading her letter, instead of fleeing to save his life and in the morning, her husband who as a military man is an excellent marksman, arrives to get satisfaction in a duel.

    This film is more straightforwardly melodramatic than Ophuls' later French films, and misses the irony of those works. That may have been due to the climate in the U.S. with its infamous Hays Code - the cynical La Ronde could never have been filmed in Hollywood. After this, Ophuls only made two minor noir films in Hollywood (Caught and The Reckless Moment) before returning to Europe.

    That being said, even in Letter from an Unknown Woman Ophuls keeps enough distance from his characters to make a more critical reading of their actions possible, and laugh at the sardonic joke of Lisa taking revenge on Brand from the grave, as it were, for it is her long letter that keeps him from running away from a duel where he will surely be killed!

    As Lisa herself says in the film: "The course of our lives can be changed by such little things. So many passing by, each intent on his own problems. So many faces that one might easily have been lost. I know now that nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured; every step is counted."

    Sake Files: The enjoyment of warm sake

    There are so many types of sake today that should be drunk cold, that we almost end up thinking cold is the only way to drink sake. No: sake is a drink that can be enjoyed at a wide variety of temperatures, from 0 degrees Celsius ("ice sake") to 55 degrees. As such, it is probably unique in the world. Shaoxing wine from China is also delicious when warmed, but I do not know whether that can be drunk very cold. And there are some wines that can be had warm, but that are inferior types like Glühwein. The sake that is also delicious when warm, is high quality junmai sake.

    What has made the image of warm sake bad, is the custom to drink cheap sake very hot. This not only happens abroad, but also in Japanese izakaya where piping hot sake ("tobikiri-kan") is served to hide the fact that it is rather tasteless stuff with lots of diluted brewing-alcohol added for volume plus sugar for taste. The result is a sort of jet fuel, of which the alcohol fumes blow in your face. Good sake should never be made really hot - just above body temperature, or lukewarm (40 degrees), is the best. In that case, it gives a very comforting feeling.

    Where does the custom to drink sake warm come from? It has been recorded that when Emperor Saga (785-842) went out to hunt on a certain autumn day, the weather suddenly turned cold and the Minister of the Left, Fujiwara no Fuyutsugu (775-826), offered him warm sake. The Emperor was so delighted at this (according to the story) new way of drinking sake that he ordered that from then on in autumn and winter sake should be served warm in the palace. The idea may have come from China, where the custom to drink wine warm goes back to at least the Tang-period .

    The best sake to drink warm is junmai, or a sturdy honjozo. Also Kimoto and Yamahai type sakes are delicious when warm. Perhaps not by coincidence, these are also the sakes that normally are better at room temperature than cold.

    Monday, January 23, 2012

    Père Goriot, by Balzac

    Le Père Goriot (1835; "Old Goriot" or "Father Goriot") is a fierce criticism of the money-and-greed dominated society that France had become in the 19th century. The hero is a social climber, the student Rastignac. The novel is set in the Paris of 1819, in the Maison Vauquer, a poor boarding house in Paris' rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève. Eugène de Rastignac lives here together with several other characters, of whom the most important are the elderly Goriot, a retired businessman who dotes on his two daughters who have married status and money and don't want to see him anymore; and Vautrin, a mysterious criminal in hiding.

    The novel is filled with descriptions of corruption and greed. Balzac quotes the price for everything, from the room rents on different floors of the boarding house to the cost of a meal or a horse-drawn carriage. Money rules the world after the success of capitalism through the Industrial Revolution, and has also infiltrated aristocratic society.

    Rather than studying his law books, Rastignac tries a shortcut to wealth by having himself introduced in high society by his cousin, Madame de Beauséant. There he meets Goriot's daughters, Anastasie (married to rank, a count) and Delphine (married to money, a banker) and falls in love with the second one. Vautrin, at the same time, pushes him to court a young woman in the boarding house, Victorine, whose family fortune is blocked only by her brother - of course, he offers to clear the way for Rastignac. The student balks at the idea of murder, but listens attentively to the lessons about the harsh realities of modern society that Vautrin teaches him.

    Old Goriot is supportive of Rastignac's courtship of his daughter, but dies after suffering a stroke. Neither of his daughters visits him at his deathbed (ashamed as ;they are of their pauper of a father) and only Rastignac attends the funeral - before heading off to the apartment of Delphine for another rendez-vous. He sure is climbing the social ladder, and shouts out at the city of Paris: "It's between you and me now!"

    Le Père Goriot is a "bildungsroman:" the initially naive Rastignac is tutored by Vautrin, Madame de Beauséant and others in the truth of society and the ruthless strategies required for success. First repulsed by these unpleasant realities, Rastignac eventually embraces them. The novel gave rise to the French expression "Rastignac" for a social climber willing to use any means to better his situation.

    Sunday, January 22, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (11): 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

    Here are the cantatas for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany. 22.

    Romans 12:17–21, overcome evil with good
    Matthew 8:1–13, the healing of the leper

    The Gospel reading for this day consists of two stories, the healing of the leper and the faith of the Centurion. The emphasis is on blind faith. Romans, in contrast, extols the virtue of charity towards one's enemy.

    Cantata Studies:
    Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

    [Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864]


    1. Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir, BWV 73, 23 January 1724

      Chorale e recitativo (Tenor, Bass, Soprano): Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir
      Aria (Tenor, Oboe): Ach senke doch den Geist der Freuden
      Recitativo (Bass): Ach, unser Wille bleibt verkehrt,
      Aria (Bass): Herr, so du willt
      Choral: Das ist des Vaters Wille

      "Lord, as thou wilt, so ordain it with me"
      Text and translation

      A short, but very original cantata. It takes its cue from the leper story which contrasts human frailty with God's will, and the leper's plea "Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean." The oboe motif of the chorus morphs into the recurring "Lord, if Thou Wilt," a sort of leitmotiv for the whole cantata. The chorus is interspersed with recitatives from each of the soloists. The emotional center of the cantata is the tenor aria (again with oboe accompaniment) "Oh enter thou spirit of joy into my heart." The ensuing bass aria describes the soul's readiness for death. In the final stanza, pizzicato strings suggest funeral bells. The cantata is concluded with the usual quiet choral.

      Rating: A
      Video: Bach-Stiftung

    2. Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit, BWV 111, 21 January 1725

      1. Coro: Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit
      2. Aria (bass): Entsetze dich, mein Herze, nicht
      3. Recitativo (alto): O Törichter! der sich von Gott entzieht
      4. Aria (alto, tenor): So geh ich mit geherzten Schritten
      5. Recitativo (soprano): Drum wenn der Tod zuletzt den Geist
      6. Chorale: Noch eins, Herr, will ich bitten dich

      "What my God wills, that will always be"
      Text and translation

      Choral cantata. The story of the Centurion who has faith that Jesus will cure his servant leads to a meditation on steadfast faith. The very elaborate opening chorus with soprano cantus firmus is very intense and dynamic. It is introduced by a 16 bar instrumental statement. The bass aria is more like a resolute admonition. In their radiant duet, alto and tenor sing in canon to bring out the meaning off the text "following God with courageous footsteps." So we get a walking rhythm - full of profound joy, as the main theme is the salvation of the soul through death. But this duet is a dazzling jewel.

      Rating: A
      Video: Bach-Stiftung

    3. Alles nur nach Gottes Willen, BWV 72, 27 January 1726

      Coro: Alles nur nach Gottes Willen
      Recitativo und Arioso (Alt, Violinen): O selger Christ, der allzeit seinen Willen
      Aria (Alt, Violinen): Mit allem, was ich hab und bin
      Recitativo (Bass): So glaube nun
      Aria (Sopran, Oboe, Streicher): Mein Jesus will es tun, er will dein Kreuz versüßen
      Choral: Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit

      "All only according to God's will"
      Text and translation

      The cantata takes the readings as a testimony to the blind faith that the believer, in good times and in bad times, should place in the Lord. Bravura work opening with a brilliant chorus in concertante style - the word "alles" is repeated almost obsessively. This is followed by a complex recitative-arioso-aria for alto. The sweet soprano aria brings a balmy peace, as does the short final choral.

      Rating: B+
      Video: Paul Boehnke

    4. Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156, 23 January 1729

      Aria (Tenor) and Chorale (Soprano): Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe
      Recitative (Bass): Mein Angst und Not
      Aria (Alto): Herr, was du willt, soll mir gefallen
      Recitative (Bass): Und willst du, dass ich nicht soll kranken
      Chorale: Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir

      "I stand with one foot in the grave"
      Text and translation

      Solo cantata showing Bach's late cantata style at its most subtle. The theme is Jesus healing the sick, based on the reading about the healing of the leper. Starts with a deeply felt sinfonia for oboe and strings. The second movement is a combination of a tenor aria with a chorale cantus firmus. A bass recitative and arioso express anguish at "the longer here on earth, the later in Heaven." This is followed by an airy alto aria with lively contrapuntal accompaniment. The whole cantata is suffused with a longing for death.

      Rating: B+
      Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung

    Bach Cantata Index

    Saturday, January 21, 2012

    Classic Film: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957) by Wilder

    In Witness for the Prosecution (1957) a man, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a former RAF sergeant and now inventor of kitchen appliances down on his luck, is accused of murder. There is only circumstantial evidence and that all points in his direction (DNA tests were not possible yet in 1957, otherwise this case would have soon be settled). Vole is accused of murdering Miss French, a rich, older woman who had become fond of him, even making him the beneficiary of her will. So he needs a good lawyer to get him off the hook: he does an appeal on master barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton).

    The massively obese Robarts takes on the case although he has just left hospital after recovering from a heart attack and is engaged in various battles with his bossy private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), for the desire for cigars, cognac and the adrenaline offered by a criminal case prove stronger than prudence. I like that mountain of a man - he is massively human. In real life, Laughton and Lanchester were married, which gives her mothering and his grumpiness some marital reality.

    Another intriguing element that pulls Robarts into the case is Vole's German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a very cold and self-possessed woman who has a nice surprise up her sleeve - when the case is heared, she appears for the prosecution and busts the alibi she had originally provided for Vole! True to her character in previous movies, she is a former cabaret dancer picked up by Vole in a bombed out German city.

    Well, Sir Robarts has something to put his teeth into! I won't go into details for this is really a film where the plot and its final twists (and surprise ending) are important. But I would like to draw your attention to the atmosphere and the characters, which are well drawn and superbly acted. Marlene Dietrich gives one of the best performances of her career, even entertaining us with a cockney accent. Charles Laughton is, well, himself. He anchors the whole movie, childlike in his transgressions (substituting brandy for cocoa in his thermos bottle), garrulous, mischievous but also utterly charming. The dialogues, too, are smart and witty, as is to be expected of Billy Wilder. The courtroom dueling is fun, as is the beautiful recreation of the Old Bailey. The original story, by the way, is a play by Agatha Christie.

    Friday, January 20, 2012

    Classic Film: "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) by Lubitsch

    The Shop Around the Corner (1940) rests on a wonderful premise, that has been borrowed by several other films and musicals (such as the inferior You've Got Mail): a man and a woman have come in contact via a newspaper ad and are exchanging letters which turn increasingly amorous, without having met yet; but when in real life they become co-workers, they are always quibbling and quarreling. Their personalities as letter writers seem totally different from their real life egos.

    The story, written by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, is set in interwar Budapest, and stresses the insecurity of people's lives because of the 1930s crisis - today, we can feel again their fear of unemployment. Almost the whole film takes place in and around the upscale leather goods shop of Matuschek and Co. Here work eight people among whom the most important are: the owner, Mr Matuschek (Frank Morgan); chief salesman Alfred Kralik (James Stewart); Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), a family man, who keeps as much as possible in the background but who is also the moral centre; Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), an aging dandy (the original of Mr. Humphreys in Are You Being Served, a TV series that also borrowed from this film); an errand boy, Pepi (William Tracey); and the newest member, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), who when the film starts comes in begging for a job. She is Alfred Kralik's romantic pen pal.

    This one of Ernst Lubitsch' best films (much better than Ninotchka), a combination of his famous wry humor and delicate sentiment. Himself from Germany and living since the 1920s in Hollywood, Lubitsch looks with nostalgia and idealism at the "Old Europe." The story is also very well written, with many important events (and even a whole person, the redoubtable Mrs Matuschek, whose infidelity is a major plot element) entirely kept off-screen.

    The acting is faultless, and there is real chemistry between the two protagonists, Stewart and Sullavan. Yes, they get each other, but only after a bumpy ride during which Kralik is temporarily fired due to a festering disagreement about musical cigarette boxes, Matuschek has a detective spy on his wife and after receiving proof of her infidelity ("she doesn't want to grow old with me") tries to commit suicide, and Kralik and Novak continue verbally pestering each other. She tells him at one point: "I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find: instead of a heart, a handbag; instead of a soul, a suitcase; and instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter that doesn't work." They even set up a date as letter writers, but when she sees him, Novak never believes Kralik can be her romantic pen pal.

    Thursday, January 19, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (10): 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

    All three cantatas for this day are concerned with Jesus answering his mother's plea for help. They also associate this day with the beginning of Christ's difficult journey, and therefore with the journey of the soul. They are among the saddest music Bach has written.

    Romans 12:6–16, we have several gifts
    John 2:1–11, the wedding at Cana and Jesus' miraculous transformation of water into wine.

    Cantata Studies:
    Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

    [The calling of Apostle John at the Marriage at Cana, c. 1530,
    Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen]

    1. Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? BWV 155, 19 January 1716

      Recitativo (Sopran, Streicher): Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?
      Aria (Alt, Tenor, Fagott): Du mußt glauben, du mußt hoffen
      Recitativo (Bass): So sei, o Seele, sei zufrieden
      Aria (Sopran): Wirf, mein Herze, wirf dich noch
      Choral: Ob sich's anließ, als wollt er nicht

      "My God, how long, ah, how long"
      Text & translation

      Short solo cantata in chamber style, written in Weimar, but also performed in Leipzig on January 16, 1724. The wedding at Cana, the gospel reading for this day, symbolically represents the marriage of Christ and the soul. It is also about transformation: water into wine, doubt into trust. The theme of the cantata therefore is grief about the separation from God, gradually transformed into the joy of coming together.  Images are all about water, wine and tears. The cantata opens with an operatic recitative for soprano, followed by a very original duet between alto and tenor that exhorts to trust and hope. It is accompanied by a weeping bassoon that takes the part of the troubled soul. The bass recitative speaks in the voice of God about the wine of comfort. The sonata is concluded by a joyous soprano aria in a dancing rhythm, and a chorale.

      Rating: A
      Video: Bach-Stiftung

    2. Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV 3, 14 January 1725

      Chorus: Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid
      Recitative and Choral: Wie schwerlich lässt sich Fleisch und Blut
      Aria for Bass: Empfind ich Höllenangst und Pein
      Recitative for Tenor: Es mag mir Leib und Geist verschmachten
      Duet for Soprano and Alto: Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen
      Choral: Erhalt mein Herz im Glauben rein

      "Ah, God, how much heartache"
      Text & translation

      A chorale cantata based on the hymn "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" by Martin Moller (1587). It is a paraphrase of the Latin "Jesu dulcis memoria," a medieval hymn attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, a meditation on Jesus as a comforter and helper in distress. After a beautiful orchestral ritornello, the cantata opens with a very chromatic and complex-sounding chorus, in an overall mood of mild lamentation. The choral tune is given to the basses doubled by a trombone. The stepwise fall through four notes (descending tetrachord) is a Baroque symbol for "grief," often used in chaconnes of the period. The mood of lamentation is further supported by the elegiac sounds of the oboes d'amore and sighing motifs in the strings.

      After a hybrid recitative (chorus with interpolations by the soloists) follows a tortuous bass aria full of writhing chromatism, and with the violoncello expressing the "fear of Hell." There is however a change of mood and the tenor recitative expresses trust in Jesus to overcome despair.

      The duet for soprano and alto banishes human care by means of joyful singing. It is a highlight of the cantata. The obbligato motif, played by the oboes d'amore and violin in unison, provides a remarkable tone color. Bach refers to the Cross, as mentioned in the text, by using a cross-motif in the melody and applying double sharps marked by a cross.

      The cantata concludes with a plainly harmonized chorale. The choral melody is reinforced by a horn.

      Rating: B+
      Video: Kay Johannsen

    3. Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13, 20 January 1726

      Aria (Tenor): Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen
      Recitative (Alt): Mein liebster Gott läßt mich annoch
      Chorale (Alt): Der Gott, der mir hat versprochen
      Recitative (Sopran): Mein Kummer nimmet zu
      Aria (Bass): Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen
      Choral: So sei nun, Seele, deine

      "My sighs, my tears"
      Text & translation

      Intimate chamber cantata without chorus that opens with a lament by the tenor, as a vivid picture of the struggle of the sinner. Beautiful is the accompaniment by two recorders and the dark tones of the oboe da caccia. On the words "way to death" the music sinks lower and lower. The chorale is interestingly not sung by a small chorus, but by the alto. Mercy is not yet in sight ("My dear God lets me call in vain"). In the ensuing bass aria "Moaning and most piteous weeping" accompaniment is by the first violin in unison with the recorder playing one octave higher, leading to a very particular sounds-cape. The music also sighs and weeps. Only the chorale ("O Welt Ich muss dich lassen") brings some consolation, but that is short indeed compared to what went before. This is perhaps the most desolate cantata Bach ever wrote.

      Rating: A

    Bach Cantata Index

    Wednesday, January 18, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (9): 1st Sunday after Epiphany

    Depending on the date of Easter, a variable number of (up to four) Sundays occurred between Epiphany and Septuagesima, the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday. In 2012, the first of those Sundays fell on Jan. 8.

    Romans 12:1–6, the duties of a Christian
    Luke 2:41–52, the finding in the Temple

    (Bach's Lutheran church prescribed the same readings every year. They consisted always of a pair, a section from a gospel and a corresponding section from an epistle. A connection between the cantata text and the readings was necessary.)

    Cantata Studies:
    Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

    [William Holman Hunt (1860) - The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple]

    1. Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren, BWV 154, 9 January 1724

      Aria (tenor, strings): Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren Recitativo (tenor): Wo treff ich meinen Jesum an
      Chorale: Jesu, mein Hort und Erretter
      Aria (alto, oboi d'amore, strings, no continuo): Jesu, laß dich finden
      Arioso (bass): Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß
      Recitativo (tenor): Dies ist die Stimme meines Freundes
      Aria (alto, tenor, oboi d'amore, strings): Wohl mir, Jesus ist gefunden
      Chorale: Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht

      "My dearest Jesus is lost"
      Text & translation

      A cantata without chorus (although there are two chorales), but it compensates for this by having three beautiful arias. The cantata takes the parents' search for the lost boy Jesus as symbolic for the general situation of the soul who has lost Jesus. The first movement laments this loss, not in a chorus, but in an impassioned tenor aria full of despair and only accompanied by sparse strings. This is followed by a chorale asking Jesus to return. Next, the same request is done in a gentle alto aria, the gem of the cantata: "Jesus, let me find Thee." The bass, the voice of Christ, then answers "Do you not know that I must be in that which is my Father's?". An aria by alto and tenor then expresses the joy of the finding, after which follows the concluding chorale.

      Rating: B+
      Video: -

    2. Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht, BWV 124, 7 January 1725

      Coro: Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht
      Recitativo (tenor): Solange sich ein Tropfen Blut
      Aria (tenor): Und wenn der harte Todesschlag
      Recitativo (bass): Doch ach! welch schweres Ungemach
      Aria (soprano, alto): Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, der Welt
      Chorale: Jesum laß ich nicht von mir

      "I shall not let my Jesus go"
      Text & translation

      Chorale cantata with beautiful parts for the oboe d'amore. The readings are the same, of course, as in the cantata above, but here the wish not to loose Jesus is taken to the point of wanting to be reunited with Him after death. The opening chorus is a gentle minuet. The dramatic tenor aria, "And when the dreaded stroke of death," has a violent staccato accompaniment and delicious oboe melody. Soprano and alto next sing a joyful dance-like duet (with sparse accompaniment as its sings about withdrawal from the world). The cantata concludes with the usual harmonizing chorale.

      Rating: A
      Video: Kay Johannsen

    3. Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32, 13 January 1726

      Aria (soprano): "Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen" for soprano, oboe, strings, and continuo.
      Recitativo: "Was ists, dass du mich gesuchet?" for bass and continuo.
      Aria (basso): "Hier, in meines Vaters Stätte" for bass, solo violin, and continuo.
      Recitativo (dialogue): "Ach! heiliger und großer Gott" for soloists, strings, and continuo.
      Duetto (soprano, basso): "Nun verschwinden alle Plagen" for soloists, oboe, strings, and continuo.
      Chorale: "Mein Gott, öffne mir die Pforten" for choir, oboes, strings, and continuo.

      "Dearest Jesus"
      Text & translation

      This is a delicate solo cantata in dialogue form for soprano and bass representing the soul (Anima) and Jesus. It starts with a fine aria (with prominent oboe solo) in which the soul expresses longing for the absent Jesus. The accompanying Gospel text is about 12-year-old Jesus who escapes his parents and is only found in the temple after a few days. He appears to be engaged in conversation with wise men. In the first aria we find an intense lament between soprano and oboe, as if Maria is uttering her despair about not being able to find her son. At the same time, Maria's voice is symbolical of the wandering soul. The answer, therefore, is not given by the little Jesus but the mature Christ in a lyrical bass aria. The long aria is characterized by a virtuoso violin accompaniment. Then Jesus and the soul find each other, which is described by the soprano in a grateful arioso. The union of Christ and soul is celebrated in a duet by soprano and bass, with a substantial contribution by the oboe and violins, it all in the form of a dance, a gavotte. The hymn "Weg, mein Herz, mit den Gedanken" provides a dignified ending to the cantata.

      Rating: A+
      Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung

      Tuesday, January 17, 2012

      Bach Cantatas (8): Feast of Epiphany (Jan. 6)

      The 6th of January is the Feast of Epiphany, when the Three Wise Kings, the biblical Magi, visited the infant Jesus, i.e. the day of his first manifestation to the Gentiles. It is also known in some countries as "Three Kings' Day."

      Epiphany is the climax of the Advent/Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are usually counted from the evening of December 25th until the morning of January 6th, which is the Twelfth Day.

      [The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones]

      The term epiphany means "to show" or "to make known" or even "to reveal." In Western churches, it remembers the coming of the wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing "reveal" Jesus to the world as Lord and King, the revelation of the Incarnation of the infant Christ.

      There are three cantatas for this day, including the last part of the Christmas Oratorio.

      Isaiah 60:1–6, the heathen will convert
      Matthew 2:1–12, the Wise Men From the East

      Cantata Studies:
      Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

      [Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo]

      Cantatas for this day:

      1. Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65, 6 January 1724

        Coro: Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen
        Chorale: Die Kön'ge aus Saba kamen dar
        Recitativo (bass): Was dort Jesaias vorhergesehn
        Aria (bass, oboes da caccia): Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht
        Recitativo (tenor): Verschmähe nicht, du, meiner Seele Licht
        Aria (tenor, all instruments): Nimm mich dir zu eigen hin
        Chorale: Ei nun, mein Gott, so fall ich dir

        "All those from Sheba shall come"
        Text & translation

        This is an impressive, festive cantata, with a dance-like rhythm throughout. Bach composed it in 1724 for his first Leipzig cantata cycle. It formed the conclusion of his first Christmas season, which had been celebrated with five cantatas, the Magnificat and a new Sanctus. The text, by an anonymous author, combines the prescribed readings of the prophecy from the Book of Isaiah and the gospel of Matthew about the Wise Men from the East. Bach underscored their exotic origins with "oriental" sounds. He opted for a colorful instrumentation: strings, horns, recorders and oboes da caccia and seems to enjoy the exotic sounds. It is as if a caravan comes swaying near in twelve-eight measure. The opening chorus features a pair of dramatic horns and interesting fugal writing. "All they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense." The first recitative proclaims that it is the Christian's duty to bring his heart as a gift to Jesus and this idea is also the subject of the following bass aria with two oboe da cacia, creating a pastoral rather than an exotic atmosphere. The librettist also employs a stanza of the early anonymous Christmas carol "Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem," to show the fulfillment of the prophecy. The second recitative equals the gold given by the Magi to Faith, their incense to Prayer and myrrh to Patience, and this is again commented upon in the highly charged tenor aria that follows. The whole orchestra accompanies this aria. The cantata ends with a chorale, stanza 10 of Paul Gerhardt's hymn "Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn."

        Rating: A+
        Video: Netherlands Bach Society

      2. Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen, BWV 123, 6 January 1725

        Coro: Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen
        Recitativo (alto): Die Himmelssüßigkeit, der Auserwählten Lust
        Aria (tenor): Auch die harte Kreuzesreise
        Recitativo (bass): Kein Höllenfeind kann mich verschlingen
        Aria (bass): Laß, o Welt, mich aus Verachtung
        Chorale: Drum fahrt nur immer hin, ihr Eitelkeiten

        "Beloved Emmanuel, Lord of the righteous"
        Text & translation

        This is a chorale cantata composed by Bach for his second Leipzig cycle. It is based on the hymn by Ahasverus Fritsch (1679). The unknown poet kept the first and the last stanza, and paraphrased the inner stanzas to a sequence of as many recitatives and arias. The text has no specific reference to the readings, but refers to the naming of Jesus celebrated on 1 January. The poet inserts "Heil und Licht" (salvation and light) as a likely reference to the Epiphany, and alludes to Christmas by "Jesus, der ins Fleisch gekommen" (Jesus who came into flesh). Otherwise the cantata text follows the idea of the chorale: hate and rejection in the world cannot harm those who believe. The opening movement of this cantata is one of the most beautiful pieces Bach ever wrote, a gracious melody in pastoral 9/8 rhythm that keeps turning in your head. There is an extended orchestral ritornello before the chorus enters. Beautiful, too, is the slow but expressive tenor aria, with oboe d'amore accompaniment. From the following aria for bass speaks a great loneliness. This is accompanied by flute. The last lines of the final choral are sung piano.

        Rating: B+
        Video: -

      3. Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben 6 January 1735 (Christmas Oratorio Part VI)
        Chorus: Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben
        Recitative (Evangelist, tenor; Herod, bass): Da berief Herodes die Weisen heimlich / Ziehet hin und forschet fleißig
        Recitative (soprano): Du Falscher, suchet nur den Herrn zu fällen
        Aria (soprano): Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen
        Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Als sie nun den König gehöret hatten
        Chorale: Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier
        Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Und Gott befahl ihnen im Traum'
        Recitative (tenor): So geht! Genug, mein Schatz geht nicht von hier
        Aria (tenor): Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken
        Recitative (soprano, alto, tenor, bass): Was will der Höllen Schrecken nun
        Chorale: Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen

        "Lord, when our arrogant enemies snort with rage"
        Text & translation

        This 6th part of the Christmas Oratorio starts with a glorious,  almost martial chorus, trumpets and drums blazing away. The story is based on Herodes trying to get the Three Kings to reveal the whereabouts of Jesus. It also describes the worship of the Three Wise Kings at the crib-side (in the choral in the middle of the cantata). The tenor aria celebrates the strength of faith. The final chorus is again outstanding.

        Rating: A+
        Video: Bach-Stiftung / Rene Jacobs / Harnoncourt

        Monday, January 16, 2012

        Bach Cantatas (7): Sunday after New year

        We continue with cantatas written for the Sunday between New Year's Day and Epiphany, so between January 2 and January 5 - note that not every year has such a Sunday.

        As is shown below in the readings, the New Year celebrations have already ended and instead we are talking about the suffering of Christians - based on the story of the Flight into Egypt.

        Including Part V of the Christmas Oratorio, there are 3 cantatas for this Sunday.

        Readings for this day:
        1 Peter 4:12–19, Suffering of Christians
        Matthew 2:12–23, the Flight into Egypt

        Cantata Studies:
        Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

        [Flight into Egypt by Rembrandt, 1627 - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

        Cantatas written for this day:
        1. Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind, BWV 153, 2 January 1724

          Chorale: Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind
          Recitativo (alto): Mein liebster Gott, ach laß dichs doch erbarmen
          Arioso (bass): Fürchte dich nicht
          Recitativo (tenor): Du sprichst zwar, lieber Gott
          Chorale: Und ob gleich alle Teufel
          Aria (tenor): Stürmt nur, stürmt, ihr Trübsalswetter
          Recitativo (bass): Getrost! Mein Herz
          Aria (alto): Soll ich meinen Lebenslauf
          Chorale: Drum will ich, weil ich lebe noch

          "Behold, dear God, how my enemies"
          Text & translation

          This cantata was part of Bach's first Leipzig cycle. The cantata draws a contrast between life on earth, made miserable by the attacks of our enemies, and the peace of heaven, and prays for God’s protection and guidance. There are 9 movements, but all are very short. It is structured around 3 chorales, but contains no virtuoso choruses. The cantata opens with the first stanza of David Denicke's chorale "Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind. Movement 5 is stanza 5 of Paul Gerhardt's "Befiehl du deine Wege" (known as movement 44 of the St Matthew Passion). The cantata ends with stanzas 16 to 18 of the chorale "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid", attributed to Martin Moller. The cantata also contains 2 arias, no 6 (illustrating the "enemies" in fast violin passages and dotted rhythms played in unison) and 8 (a minuet, depicting eternal joy).

          Rating: C+
          Video: Amphion/Gesualdo

        2. Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV 58, 5 January 1727

          Duetto: "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" for soprano & bass soloists, oboes, strings, and continuo.
          Recitativo: "Verfolgt dich gleich die arge Welt" for bass and continuo.
          Aria: "Ich bin vergnügt in meinem Leiden" for soprano, violino solo, and continuo.
          Recitativo: "Kann es die Welt nicht lassen" for soprano and continuo.
          Chorale: "Ich hab für mir ein schwere Reis" for soprano & bass soloists, oboes, strings, and continuo.

          "Ah God, how many a heartache"
          Text & translation

          The cantata's text traces the soul's journey through a life "full of sorrow" to the salvation of heaven. The cantata, which has been dubbed "a little gem", is in dialogue form, starting with an opening duet. One voice symbolizes the sadness of this world, the other brings a message of consolation, which throughout the cantata gradually wins the day. The recitative narrates the story of the flight into Egypt, the reading for this Sunday. The soprano aria is a statement of acceptance of suffering under the hand of God ("I am cheerful in my sorrow"). The final chorale is interestingly melded with another soprano solo, so it again forms a duet, but now the atmosphere is ebullient.

          Rating: A+
          Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung

        3. Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen 2 January 1735 (Christmas Oratorio Part V)

          Chorus: Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
          Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Da Jesus geboren war zu Bethlehem
          Chorus / Recitative (alto) / Chorus: Wo ist der neugeborne König der Juden / Sucht ihn in meiner Brust / Wir haben seinen Stern gesehen
          Chorale: Dein Glanz all' Finsternis verzehrt
          Aria (bass): Erleucht' auch meine finstre Sinnen
          Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Da das der König Herodes hörte
          Recitative (alto): Warum wollt ihr erschrecken
          Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Und ließ versammeln alle Hohenpriester
          Trio (sopr., alto, ten.): Ach! wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?
          Recitative (alto): Mein Liebster herrschet schon
          Chorale: Zwar ist solche Herzensstube

          "Let honor to you, God, be sung"
          Text & translation

          Part 5 of the Christmas Oratorio. A lively opening chorus is followed by a recitative and chorus about the Three Wise Men searching Jesus. After a simple choral, a bass aria with oboe d'amore accompaniment asks for divine light as a shield against sin. This - and the following trio - is the moral heart of the cantata. It is concluded by a simple choral.

          Rating: A
          Video: Bach-Stiftung / Rene Jacobs / Harnoncourt

        Bach Cantata Index

        Sunday, January 15, 2012

        Bach Cantatas (6): New Year (Jan 1)

        On 1 January, in Lutheran churches the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus was celebrated (New Year's Day was not a religious holiday, the new church year started with the First Sunday in Advent). According to Jewish custom, the male child was circumcised on the eighth day of his birth and given a name. The circumcision of Jesus has traditionally been seen as the first time the blood of Christ was shed and thus the beginning of the process of the redemption of man, as well as a demonstration that Christ was fully human. But as New Year's Day was a big day, church holiday or not, its meaning spilled over into the religious celebrations of this day and infused the texts of the cantatas with praise and thanksgiving, something which called for the addition of trumpets and drums.

        There are five cantatas for New Year's Day, but one of these (BWV 190) is a reconstruction as the music was lost when Bach reused it at a later time.

        [Circumcision of Christ by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1661]

        Readings for New Year's Day:
        Galatians 3:23–29, By faith we inherit
        Luke 2:21, Circumcision and naming of Jesus eight days after his birth

        Cantata Studies:
        Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

        [Bach's Thomaskirche in Leipzig]

        The five existing cantatas written for the service on January 1 are:
        1. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 190, 1 January 1724

          Coro: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
          Chorale e recitativo (alto, tenor, bass): Herr Gott, dich loben wir
          Aria (alto, strings): Lobe, Zion, deinen Gott
          Recitativo (bass): Es wünsche sich die Welt
          Aria (tenor, bass, oboe d'amore): Jesus soll mein alles sein
          Recitativo (tenor, strings): Nun, Jesus gebe
          Chorale: Laß uns das Jahr vollbringen

          "Sing to the Lord"
          Text & translation

          This bright and fine cantata unfortunately did not survive intact, as most of the music was lost when Bach reused it at a later time (I imagine he literally cut out what he needed...) - and that later music, for a Lutheran feast, the "Augsburg Confession" (BWV 190a), was lost... It has been reconstructed as far as possible, but because of its incomplete state this cantata is only seldom performed. The festive cantata was written for Bach's first New Year's Day in Leipzig, in 1724, and starts with grand trumpets and drums. The unknown librettist uses parts of Psalm 149 and 150. This chorus is followed by a chorale (a rare combination), based on Luther's Te Deum. The alto aria has elements of a polonaise and the duet between tenor and bass has a pastoral color. The text of the cantata generally stresses praise and thanks for the gifts of the past and prayer for further blessings. Upbeat and vigorous, although the arias are more relaxed than the magnificent chorus.

          Rating: B+
          Video: -

        2. Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, BWV 41, 1 January 1725

          (Coro): "Jesu, nun sei gepreiset" for choir, trombe, oboes, tamburi, strings, and continuo.
          Aria: "Laß uns, o höchster Gott" for soprano, oboes, and continuo.
          Recitativo: "Ach! deine Hand, dein Segen muss allein" for altus and continuo.
          Aria: "Woferne du den edlen Frieden" for tenor, violoncello piccolo da spalla, and continuo.
          Recitativo & Coro: "Doch weil der Feind bei Tag und Nacht" for bass, choir, and continuo.
          Chorale: "Dein ist allein die Ehre" for choir, trombe, oboes, tamburi, strings, and continuo.

          "Jesus now be praised"
          Text & translation

          Large-scale work, full of splendor and majesty. This chorale cantata was composed for Bach's second edition of the cantatas, for New Year's Day 1725 in Leipzig. The opening chorus, starting off with a ritornello fanfare, is a joyful and mighty hymn of praise, one of Bach's best choruses, clocking in at more than eight minutes. Bach uses the chorale Jesu, nun sei gepreiset (1591) by Johannes Herman (1515-1593), one of his predecessors as cantor in Leipzig. As this chorale has only three verses and Bach uses the first and last verse as usual for the first and last movements of his cantata, the unknown librettist had to extract the arias and recitatives in-between from only the second verse. This is followed (without recitative) by a beautiful pastoral soprano aria, an intimate prayer for blessings in the new year. The tenor da capo aria, accompanied by a beseeching violoncello piccolo (a cello with five strings, developed by Bach), is a very personal plea for divine blessings and the expressive heart of the cantata. The bass recitative, with one dramatic insertion by the chorus, is a request to crush evil. The final chorus is again a celebratory choral, quoting the opening fanfare and so bringing the cantata full circle.

          Rating: B+
          Video: -

        3. Herr Gott, dich loben wir, BWV 16, 1 January 1726

          Coro: Herr Gott, dich loben wir
          Recitativo (bass): So stimmen wir bei dieser frohen Zeit
          Aria (bass, tutti): Laßt uns jauchzen, laßt uns freuen
          Recitativo (alto): Ach treuer Hort
          Aria (tenor): Geliebter Jesu, du allein
          Chorale: All solch dein Güt wir preisen

          "Lord God, we praise you"
          Text & translation

          Another cantata that centers on thanksgiving (the first 3 movements) and a prayer for blessings (the last 3 movements), on a libretto by Georg Christian Lehms. The opening chorus is a festive "archaic" choral melody, Luther's version of the Te Deum, but shorter than in the previous New Year cantatas and more modestly scored. The cantus firmus of the soprano is underscored by a horn (corno da caccia). After the basso recitativo asks everyone to "sing a new song," the chorus immediately reacts with "Laßt uns jauchzen, laßt uns freuen." The basso also joins in the chorus, making for a quite experimental form, almost a basso aria accompanied by the chorus. Like in BWV 41, the tenor aria is again a tranquil and tenderly moving plea for divine blessings in the new year. It is the longest movement (about half of the whole cantata!) and is accompanied by an oboe do caccia (an alto oboe with a curved tube and a brass bell) . The cantata closes with a simple and direct chorus.

          Rating: B

        4. Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm, BWV 171, 1 January 1729

          Coro: Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm
          Aria (tenor): Herr, so weit die Wolken gehn
          Recitativo (alto): Du süßer Jesus-Name du
          Aria (soprano): Jesus soll mein erstes Wort
          Recitativo (bass): Und da du, Herr, gesagt
          Chorale: Laß uns das Jahr vollbringen

          "God as your name"
          Text & translation

          This cantata on a text by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici, who also wrote the texts for the Matthaus Passion and the Weinachtsoratorium) was meant for New Year's Day 1729. As circumcision was not a Christian custom, the text concentrates on the naming of Jesus ("as your name is, so also your praise is to the ends of the world"). The lively, fugal opening chorus with an independent trumpet is both succinct and ebullient. This impressive chorus is better known as the second chorus in the Credo of the Mass in B minor. This is followed by a brilliant tenor aria, with two obbligato violins, singing about Gods renown spreading as far as the clouds - and fast moving, Northern-European clouds they are! The quiet alto recitative forms a reflection on the name of Jesus, close to the prescribed readings for this day. Then comes a joyous, pastoral soprano aria with virtuoso violin solo, about the sweetness of the Savior's name. This gentle aria with brilliant violin accompaniment must be counted among the greatest soprano arias Bach wrote. The final chorus was lifted from BWV 41.

          Rating: B+
          Video: -

        5. Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben, 1 January 1735 (Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 Part IV)

          Chorus: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
          Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Und da acht Tage um waren
          Recitative (bass), Arioso (sopr./bass): Immanuel, o süßes Wort / Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben
          Aria (soprano & 'Echo' soprano): Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen
          Recitative (bass), Arioso (soprano): Wohlan! dein Name soll allein / Jesu, meine Freud' und Wonne
          Aria (tenor): Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben
          Chorale: Jesus richte mein Beginnen

          "Fall with thanks, fall with praise"
          Text & translation

          This is Part Four of the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. It skips the usual thanksgiving and prayers for blessings, and instead focuses on the name of the Savior, in line with the Readings for this day. The opening chorus (a parody of BWV 213/1) is fine, but rather modest, with rustic horns but no trumpets. The horns do impart an otherwordly quality to the chorus, however. The gorgeous tenor recitative introduces the theme of Jesus' circumcision, the following bass recitative about the transient nature of death is interestingly interspersed with a choral intoned by the sopranos. This is followed by the beautiful and interesting echo aria (a parody of  BWV 213/5) for soprano "Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen." The echo stands for the voice of God, and would be sung by someone standing in an other part of the church, symbolizing the division between Heaven and Earth. The tenor (a parody of BWV 213/7) pledges to lead a life to the glory of God, after which follows a fine choral finale (the 15th verse of Herr Jesu, laß gelingen by Johann Rists Hilf).

          Rating: A
          Video: Bach-Stiftung / Rene Jacobs / Harnoncourt

        In Japan, people try not to use negative words or expressions on New Year's Day, as they believe that might have a bad impact on the following year. They believe in the power of words and say as much as possible good things. Bach did the same in his New Year cantatas, which are invariably of a celebratory nature.

        [Circumcision of Christ, Menologion of Basil II, 979-984]

        P.S. The Wikipedia article about the circumcision reveals that this used to be a feast celebrated in the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran and other churches. It figured in Western art from the Renaissance on (as in the painting by Durer, where, as was common in the synagogue, the high priest holds the baby, as he or a mohel performs the operation). The representation always focuses on the penis of Jesus to show that he had become human and sometimes looks quite cruel! The circumcision was also versified, as here by Milton. And, of course, at various times in history, relics of Jesus' foreskin, the holy prepuce, surfaced in precious reliquaries to entertain the gullible. Just as in the case of the Buddha's teeth in East Asia (which surfaced in incredibly huge quantities as far as Japan and which when put together would constitute a truly monstrous denture), there seems to have been an amount of foreskin around to challenge the (baser) imagination... Most of these relics now have disappeared, perhaps not by chance...

        Friday, January 6, 2012

        "Ornamental Hairpin" (1941) and other films by Shimizu Hiroshi

        Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966) was a contemporary, colleague and friend of Ozu Yasujiro, but history has dealt undeservedly harshly with him. He made realistic films about daily life that share Ozu's "Ofuna flavor" and also resemble Ozu technically in the preference for a static camera, long shots, distance shots and low angles. Despite my interest in things Japanese, I didn't know his name until last year when I happened to came across the Criterion edition with four of his films. I have already written about one of these, Mr. Thank You - here follows Ornamental Hairpin (1941; Kanzashi) plus a short note on the other two films.

        Shimizu's films are really about nothing, they are probably the most wonderfully plot-less films that exist. Ornamental Hairpin shows the daily life of a group of people staying at a hot spring resort in the scenic Izu Peninsula: a grumpy professor (Saito Tatsuo, the father from Ozu's  I Was Born But...); a married couple, of whom the husband has the annoying habit of always putting words in his wife's mouth; a grandpa who likes to play go and two boys. There is also a soldier who is recuperating from a leg wound, Nanmura (a very young Ryu Chishu) - in 1941 the war in Asia was in full swing.

        When the soldier incurs an additional wound by stepping on a sharp hairpin that has fallen into the communal spa bath, the woman who lost that ornamental pin during a brief stay at the inn (Emi, played by Tanaka Kinuyo), returns all the way from Tokyo to apologize in person. She stays on to help Nanmura recuperate and learn to walk without crutches.

        Emi is a geisha who by returning to the spa resort is escaping from her life in Tokyo, where she presumably was supported by a man she is fed up with. Her occupation is only slightly indicated at the beginning of the film, when she is shown walking in a sunny landscape with her friend Okiku, remarking how nice it is not to have to wear oshiroi. This is the powder used to whiten the faces of geisha. And a kanzashi, ornamental hairpin, was worn with a traditional hairdo, and was therefore around this time also in the first place an ornament of a geisha.

        As Emi is beautiful, it is a foregone conclusion among the other guests that love will blossom between her and the unmarried soldier. Nanmura even doesn't mind the additional wound and calls it "poetic." They are everyday together, while Emi and the boys help him exercise his leg (with many shouts of "Gambatte!", "Do your best!"). But by the time he is recovered, the other long-staying guests are leaving for Tokyo and Nanmura joins them, presumably to go back to the battlefield. Emi stays behind alone...

        Shimizu's films are seemingly very light, but you have to watch attentively. Important facts are often only suggested slightly, and they are very non-verbal, so you have to be on the look-out for the slightest gesture and facial expression. As Mr. Thank You, Ornamental Hairpin has been filmed on location in the Izu Peninsula.

        Some commentators remark on the absence of the war in this film, and interpret the escape of the protagonists to the spa hotel as an escape and therefore criticism of the war Japan was waging. I think this is not the case. In the first place, we are still in 1941, before the attack at Pearl Harbor, when in general films about the war were nor very strident yet - showing more the sufferings of ordinary Japanese than the victories of the army. And in the second place, Ornamental Hairpin does have one clear patriotic episode, which must have been enough to convince the censors to let the rest of the film pass as well: the effort of Emi and the boys to help the wounded soldier exercise and as soon as possible learn to walk without crutches. In the film, Emi may have had another motivation - to be close to Nanmura as she was in love with him - but these scenes can also be interpreted as support for the army and its fighting men - think of all the "Gambattes!"

        That nod to the censors, by the way, does not diminish the humanitarian values of this beautiful film.

        Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) is a silent film, a minor melodrama made in the then popular "modernist style." The modernism appears in the experimental shots and strange camera angles, the Western names of the protagonists and the appearance of a church - not as a symbol of religion, but of the modern West! But this film has a plot, and a rather melodramatic and traditional one at that, so this is the least film in the set.

        The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) is very much akin to Ornamental Hairpin, as it is also situated at a hot spring resort. Masseurs were usually blind and here they travel from inn to inn to offer their services. One of them develops a bit of a crush on a mysterious woman from Tokyo staying alone at a resort (Takamine Mieko). Like Hairpin, this film is almost plotless, just showing small daily events.

        Classic Film: "And the Ship Sails On" (1983) by Fellini

        Opera is the most unnatural and unrealistic of all art forms. It is also an art form from the past, and although operas are still being composed, its heyday has clearly gone by. How can you sing instead of talk, how can you sing your thoughts? How can a dying person - many opera's end in the decease of the hero or heroine - find the strength so sing?  Where - if this were a real world - does the music come from? When I burst out in sudden song in my bath, there is usually no orchestra available to accompany me. And I don't even want to talk about the hideous cardboard gods of Wagner, or the terrible acting...

        Still, without being an outright fan, there are many opera's I love, for example those by Puccini and Mozart. In any case, I am enough of an opera lover to be able to enjoy Fellini's And the Ship Sails On (1983, Et la nave va) - I stress this, because I don't think opera haters will like the film. It is after all a film about opera, with opera, and using opera as a symbol for our society.

        And the Ship Sails On is about a group of opera singers, their patrons and aristocratic admirers, and other hangers on such as a documentary journalist with film camera (played by Freddie Jones), who are making a trip in a luxury liner from Italy to Erimo island in order to scatter the ashes of deceased opera diva Edmea at her place of birth. The passengers and the vessel are also a symbol of bourgeois society, sailing in the ship of Western civilization. Just like opera, Western bourgeois society is past its prime and falling apart from decadence. It even stinks, but that is a joke by Fellini: it is the stench of a rhinoceros with stomach problems who is also on board.

        There are many funny episodes playing out among the weird passengers on the liner. One opera fan has his cabin transformed into a shrine dedicated to the diva's memory. Rival singers try to fathom the secret of the diva's success and line up to compete for the now open position. A Russian basso tries to hypnotize a chicken in the ship's kitchen with only his voice. There is a concert on a glass harmonica. An actor is bent on seducing sailors, a voyeuristic English aristocrat spies on his nymphomaniac wife and an obese Prussian Grand Duke with a blind sister is engaged in various palace intrigues.

        The ship's captain saves a group of Serbian refugees, who are like the hungry third world gazing through the windows of bourgeois society (they stand on the lower deck like a prisoner chorus in opera). Their presence on the ship gives rise to fierce discussions, but the captain is adamant. He even does not give up the refugees when an Austro-Hungarian warship appears and demands that the Serbians are handed over - it is 1914, and the First World War has just begun. With the help of the Prussian grand-duke, permission is obtained to first go to Erimo and scatter the ashes of the diva. But when that has been done in proper style, mayhem breaks out when a Serbian hurls a bomb at the Austrian warship. Its cannons burst out in fire and soon sink the defenseless "opera ship"... just like European society with its bourgeois values was sunk in the wars of the 20th century.

        The unnatural character of opera is on purpose maintained in the film, which was made inside the studio. There are painted sunsets and seascapes, the Austrian warship is a clear (but rather impressive) mock-up, and at the end we even get to see the studio and its technicians with the deck of the ship mounted on hydraulic pipes to move it up and down.

        1914 was also the period that film started - in Italy the great epic Cabiria was made around this time - the journalist, who guides us through the film, has a cameraman with him and often stands straight in front of the camera as if he was making a documentary and delivering his comments from the scene - is he breaking the fourth wall by speaking into Fellini's camera, or is he addressing his own camera inside the story? We also have to forget that sound didn't exist yet for another 13 years, but perhaps that is also part of the unnaturalness of opera that infuses the whole film.