Soli Deo Gloria Wise & Foolish Virgins
A new composition by Artistic Director Allen Simon, based on a poem by Christina Rossetti, complements Bach's cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme to illuminate this famous parable.
Featuring Christa Pfeiffer as soprano soloist and Robert Stafford, baritone soloist with Orchestra Gloria.
For this program, I set out to compose a companion piece to Bachs familiar cantata, Wachet auf, but ended up enfolding Bachs composition within my own. The result is a seamless work, with no movement breaks, incorporating two poems by Christina Rossetti and the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (or Ten Virgins) from the Latin Vulgate, as well as Bachs full composition. The passages I composed were designed to complement Wachet auf, and so eschew the angular rhythms and irregular meters typical of my music, and harmonically are relatively conventional and at times Baroque-influenced. My composition uses the same orchestra as the Bach three oboes, strings, and continuo although at times I wrote out individual parts for cello or bassoon or harpsichord, which Bach would have just combined as part of his continuo group. Obviously, were not aiming for an historically-informed performance here, since Ive chosen to place the Bach in a context of later poetry and later musical styles; but, of course, the concept of authentic performance was foreign to Bach himself, who had no qualms about arranging music by other composers or adapting secular works he wrote for the Weimar or Cöthen courts into sacred cantatas (and even the B Minor Mass). Bachs composition is strong enough to survive such adaptation, and I hope I have done it justice.
Bach wrote this cantata in 1724, just after he started as Kantor in Leipzig, as part of a complete set of cantatas to complement the three-year lectionary cycle.. Like many of his cantatas, it is chorale-based, using a chorale from 1599 by Philipp Nicolai for three chorus movements: a complex counterpoint with the chorale in long notes, an instrumental chorale prelude with the choir singing the tune in unison, and a homophonic hymn-style version. The remaining movements, sung by soloists, are recitative-duet pairs with texts loosely based on the Song of Solomon by an unknown author.
Christina Rossetti is best known to choral musicians as the author of In the Bleak Midwinter, a Christmas hymn set by Holst, among others. Advent, her vision of the parable told from the point of view of the waiting virgins, appeared in her most popular collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, published in 1862, and is among her best-known works. Advent Sunday,written in 1885 as part of Time Flies: A Reading Diary, is another reflection on the same parable, but focused more on the arrival of the bridegroom and his almost erotic reunion with the bride, only touched on in the earlier poem. I cant know whether Rossetti had heard Bachs cantata, but I suspect she was familiar with the chorale, not only because of the focus in Advent on the character of the watchman (who is not even mentioned in the parable, but is present in the chorale) but also due to the phrase eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, almost a literal quotation from the chorale text.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins is a bit peculiar. Most of Jesus parables are attempts to make the subtle justice of God comprehensible via similes to scenes from everyday life: a woman searching for a lost coin, an estranged son returning, a farmer sowing seeds, an oil merchant settling his debts, an injured traveler asking for help. In these examples, the story is easy to understand literally, and it provides an analogy to some aspect of the divine order, whether or not that analogy is made explicit. But this story is the opposite: while its symbolic meaning would be obvious, even if Jesus didnt explain it afterwards (Keep awake therefore...), it is the literal meaning which is incomprehensible: a bridal couple (or just the groom early sources dont mention a bride) arrives in the middle of the night and begins a wedding reception immediately, inviting into the bridal party whomever happens to be hanging around the door when they arrive, bolting the door against any latecomers, and requiring the guests to provide their own lights. Who would do such a thing? Who gets married in the middle of the night? Who chooses their wedding guests (or brides) at random, or keeps them waiting until the wee hours? It seems impulsive and arbitrary. Even the moral of the story (keep awake) doesnt really fit: the wise virgins didnt stay awake (it explicitly says they fell asleep); they just brought extra oil, a material possession.
Although this reading is popularly associated with the season of Advent, with which it shares the theme of waiting for Jesus to come, liturgically it comes near the end of the season of Pentecost (usually in November), in the midst of a number of readings referencing the last judgment. The Rossetti poems, which are set in todays music, have titles indicating Advent, but Bachs cantata, Wachet auf, intended to go with this reading, was first performed in Leipzigs Nicolaikirche in November of 1731, although seemingly he wrote it in 1724.
A common theological theme regarding this and other wedding stories in the Gospels is to envision it as a wedding between Christ, as the groom, and the church, or the resurrected soul entering into heaven, as the bride. The Song of Solomon, a secular love poem somehow incorporated into the Bible, has been given a religious interpretation via this method, and the Song is quoted both in the Rossetti poem (Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away) and Bachs cantata, although notably the latter changes the pronouns, turning My beloved is mine, and I am his into a dialogue ...and I am yours, a common practice among Bachs librettists to help the listener identify with the characters in the Biblical passages.
The dramatic movement of the poem Advent, like that of the original parable, begins with a period of impatient waiting, and continues to the arrival of the groom. The dénouement of the poem though, like the cantata, forgoes the condemnation of the foolish in order to focus on the comsummation of the union with the bridegroom, which continues in Advent Sunday. The music is intended to convey this progression, of course, and I have chosen to set Advent Sunday in a more hymn-like style, to complement the final chorale setting of the Bach. I have also repeated the initial verse (Behold, the Bridegroom cometh) periodically throughout the poem, in the manner of a refrain. The initial verse does come back at the end in the original poem; but note a few small changes (go we out rather than go ye out, and lamps ablaze) to emphasize the consummated partnership with the groom.
One other Bach work is quoted briefly in the midst of Wise and Foolish Virgins: the motet, Ich lasse dich nicht (possibly by Bachs uncle Johann Christoph Bach), right after a similar passage of text in Advent. Both passages refer to Genesis 32:26, in which Jacob, having just pinned God after an all-night wrestling match, says, I will not let you go unless you bless me. SDG will perform the entire motet as part of its March, 2017 program. Allen H Simon
Grace Lutheran Church (View)
3149 Waverly Street
Palo Alto, CA 94301
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