Concertos that laugh with joy

Posted on: 18 April 2021, by :

Some of the best concertos for multiple instruments were not called ‘concerto’ at all. Instead they take the form of a sinfonia or sonata or ouverture that opens a vocal composition, constructing the sonic tableau for the first scene, whether that scene is staged or unstaged. The church music of Johann Sebastian Bach provides many examples, but for his Easter Oratorio BWV 249, first performed in Leipzig on Easter Day in 1725, he went further, fashioning a three-movement opening sequence, bursting at the seams with soloistic elements, that may be described as a concerto with voices.

The theme for it is a heady mix of laughter, merriment and the hasty running around of the women and other disciples who, on discovering that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, first spread the joy of the resurrection. The sinfonia provides both the first movement and the following slow movement (in this video: from 4:05 minutes in): a drawn-out lyrical solo presented, with framing from the strings, in the manner familiar to Bach from his extensive knowledge of Venetian concertos. In that Italian tradition, the slow movement is a centrepiece of contrasting pathos sandwiched between robust fast movements: in this case it seems to reflect the hopelessness and disorientation felt after the crucifixion. The first vocal movement (from 7:30) completes the implicit three-movement concerto scheme, with music that closely resembles the opening movement of the sinfonia.

The solos emerging in the first movement from the crowd of many instruments are like individuals excitedly competing to tell the good news: even the bassoon manages to get a word in edgeways between passages from the violin and group-solos from the oboes and trumpets. The human voices, when eventually they join in, are required to sing with the same dexterous virtuosity as the instruments and to compete with them for space and attention.

Ten years earlier, for Easter Sunday in Weimar in 1715, Bach had written the same sort of giddy, joyful laughter into the Sonata that precedes the vocal music in the cantata BWV 31. Here too he summoned the full force of multiple groups (trumpets, oboes, violins, bass instruments), this time for the laughter of the whole of heaven and earth:

Heaven laughs! Earth exults
and all she bears in her lap;
the Creator lives! The Highest triumphs
and is freed from the bonds of death.
He who has selected the grave for rest,
the Holy One, cannot be corrupted.
Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret Und was sie trägt in ihrem Schoß; Der Schöpfer lebt! der Höchste triumphieret Und ist von Todesbanden los. Der sich das Grab zur Ruh erlesen, Der Heiligste kann nicht verwesen. Translation from here.

* *  This is the fourth post in consorts unchained: a series on the heyday of the concerto. * *

The Sinfonia and opening chorus of the Oster-Oratorium, BWV 249, performed in April 2019 in Amsterdam’s Walloon Church (with its organ of 1733) by the Netherlands Bach Society directed by Jos van Veldhoven.

Come, hurry and run, you speedy feet,
reach the cavern which conceals Jesus!
Laughter and merriment accompanies our hearts, 
since our Saviour is risen again.
Translation from here.
Kommt, eilet und laufet, ihr flüchtigen Füße,
Erreichet die Höhle, die Jesum bedeckt!
Lachen und Scherzen begleitet die Herzen,
Denn unser Heil ist auferweckt. 

Below: The Sonata and opening chorus of the cantata Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret, BWV 31, performed in Paris in 2018 by Pygmalion, directed by Raphaël Pichon.