Bach Family Motets

Notes from the CD

By 1723, when Johann Sebastian Bach became Cantor of St Thomas', Leipzig, the popularity of the cantata meant that the performance of true motets was almost entirely restricted to weddings, funerals, and similar special services. Thus it is not surprising that Bach seems to have written only a small number of motets, all of which date from 1723-31. These motets are usually in the vernacular and usually expect only continuo accompaniment, though some do have optional instrumental doubling parts. They show the influence of the composers of the previous generation of Thuringian and Saxon cantors, such as Kropfer, Schelle and various members of the composer's own family, in their use of texts combining biblical quotation and chorale stanzas and a musical style that embraced both the double choir tradition and the newer devices of fugue and ritornello, In this recording both the textual and melodic impetus of Merk auf, mein Herz comes from the Lutheran chorale Vom Himmel hoch.

The remarkable Bach family provided their native Thuringia with organists, cantors, capellmeisters and orchestral musicians in unprecedented numbers for almost the whole of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Musical skills were learnt from other family members and, like any other trade or profession, were viewed as skills to be passed down from one generation to the next. Therefore, in describing his sons as born musici, Johann Sebastian Bach was referring not only to their natural talent but also to the way in which they would automatically be educated and trained.

It is from Johann Sebastian that we know so much of the Bach family's history. He compiled an 'Origin of the musical Bach Family' tracing the family back to Veit Bach, a miller who played the cythringen (small cittern), in the mid-sixteenth century. This not only listed names, but also gave brief biographical information about the various clan members. The original manuscript of this document was lost until as recently as 1999, but several copies were available anyway, among them one written by the charmingly named Anna Carolina Philippina Bach with additions by her father, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Of JS Bach's sons, he was perhaps the most conscious of the family's traditions. He wished to succeed his father as Leipzig Cantor, but his application was unsuccessful. He of course enjoyed considerable fame at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin and later as director of sacred music in Hamburg.

Johann Michael Bach (1648-94) was the father of Sebastian's first wife, Maria Barbara (1684-1720). JMB's father, Heinrich, had been organist at Arnstadt and had founded the Arnstadt branch of the family. The Christmas motet Ehre sei Gott in der Hohe is scored for two equal choirs singing antiphonally in the traditional central German fashion setting the vernacular version of Luke 2:14 ('Glory to God in the highest'). The two choirs combine for the final section in which the sopranos sing the final stanza of Vom Himmel hoch in long notes against an imitative accompaniment.

The funeral motet Dem Menschen ist gesetzt, einmal zu sterben is taken from a collection in the Amalienbibliothek in Berlin and uses two choirs of unequal voices in the manner of Schütz. The second choir is a smaller group of lower voices, without sopranos, and presents comment from Paul's Epistles to the Hebrews and Romans. The first choir presents words from a funeral hymn (1632/3) for King Gustav Adolf of Sweden to a chorale melody transmitted (and possibly composed) by Caspar Cramer.

Johann Michael's older brother Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) bore a name not uncommon in the Bach family. The presumed composer of Merk Auf, mein Herz was a cousin, though not necessarily a close relative, of JS Bach. But beyond that we know nothing for certain; the motet is available only in a manuscript in the hand of JSB'S son-in-law, JC Altnickol, and was copied in Leipzig around 1744. This Christmas motet is also based on the chorale melody Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her and presents verses 7, 3, 6, 8, 9, 13 and 15. By contrast with many of the other motets in this programme, the two choirs have either extended solo sections or are used together. There are many 'real' yet abstract images in the setting, notably the depiction of the donkey! Noteworthy also is the use of a tremulo effect in the penultimate verse; this is presumably an imitation of the organ tremulant and implies a measured vibrato commonly associated with emotions such as calm, weakness or sleep. This motet is the only piece by a family forerunner of JSB which enjoyed a place in the repertoire of the choir of the Thomasschule.

CPE Bach is (and was) the most famous son of Johann Sebastian. The first three of these four motets were written after 1767 (when he left the employ of Frederick the Great in Berlin to move to Hamburg) using texts by Gellert. The fourth motet (c.1781) sets a text of Sturm. The first motet (like the fourth, in three parts only) is in a simple strophic form with imitative entries; the fourth is a simple, chordal prayer. The two central motets are rather more extended and affective; they are again in a homophonic style, though here more decorated with contrasting duet sections. The soprano part, in particular, has a highly stylised ornamentation similar to that employed in his solo Lieder; indeed, each of these four motets appeared initially as a solo Lied with basso continuo.

Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731), a rather remote cousin of JS, worked from 1699 until his death as a court musician at Meiningen, firstly as Cantor and later as Capellmeister. Hardly anything of what must have been his extensive output of orchestral music has survived, though eighteen of his cantatas are preserved due to JS having performed them at Leipzig in 1726 and again ten to fifteen years later.

Das ist meine Freude, which sets a verse from Psalm 73, is once more in standard antiphonal format for two equal choirs with a closing four-part statement. Word painting as well as effective use of texture is clearly apparent in the six-part motet Unsere Trübsal which sets words from 2 Corinthians 4:17, 18.

Jauchzet dem Herren, alle Welt (BWV Anh. 160) may be less familiar; it is only in part composed by JS Bach and appears pretty certainly to be a compilation by someone associated with the Bach family whether JS, CPE, Altnickol or Telemann. The compiler uses material from a motet by JAB's friend Telemann, such that the first movement is an arrangement, probably by JSB, of Telemann's original (not least in extending four-part writing to eight-part for double choir). Unlike other members of his family, JSB here sets the two equal choirs concurrently with a texture not unlike that in Singet dem Herrn (BWV 225). The second movement is JS Bach's and is also used in Cantata 28; the scoring is now for four voices with imitative writing, based on each line of the chorale melody, in the lower three parts and with the soprano line presenting the chorale in long notes. The third movement appears also to be by Telemann and alternates between close antiphony between the two choirs and a four-part texture.