Posts Tagged “Bach”

J.S. Bach

Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)

Mary Bevan and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson and Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-sopranos; Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs, tenors; Matthew Brook and Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritones. Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt.

Linn CKD 499 (2xCD)

First, I’ll admit that at Christmas Messiah has most often been my jam; I have several recordings, have performed it as soloist, accompanist, and conductor, and find it to be one of the most uplifting pieces out there. This year the Dunedin Consort, led by John Butt, has changed my tune. I’ve listened over and over again to their new recording of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. 

The oratorio is actually a collection of six cantatas that were performed during a particularly festive Christmas in 1735. They cover Sundays from the beginning of the Christmas season to the Feast of the Epiphany. Butt has chosen to perform them with eight soloists, four each alternating between the successive cantatas, and four ripieno singers. The use of a relatively small complement of vocalists lines up with current Bach scholarship. Butt primarily employs soloists with two to a part in passages like the chorales. This emphasizes the contrapuntal character of the vocal parts, treating the cantatas as chamber music rather than the large choral works that they are sometimes presented as in less period-informed settings. (Butt’s notes on the history of the Christmas Oratorio and his particular performance choices for the recording make for fascinating and enlightening reading).

Chamber music yes, but the instrumentation is both varied and vivid. Part One features virtuoso trumpet parts and timpani, the second extensive writing for woodwinds, the fourth buoyant horn duos and an “echo aria” with an extra soprano, and the last cantata returns to the use of brass and timpani in its climactic passages (it also features an oboe solo during the standout soprano aria “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen,” beautifully sung and played by Mary Bevan and Alex Belamy, respectively).

Butt elicits a performance from the soloists and Dunedin Consort that is fleet-footed yet flexible, cleanly rendered yet never overly cool. Indeed, some of the recitatives and solos are quite emotively delivered. The conductor has also wisely chosen soloists who complement both the textual and textural aspects of each of the cantatas. For instance, Nicholas Mulroy is the more forceful of the two tenors. He balances well with the defiant music and ebullient orchestration of Part Six, while the more sweet-voiced Thomas Hobbs is sure-footed in the fluid recitatives and arias of Part Four. While each singer brings a different timbre and demeanor to the table, they blend seamlessly in the ensemble passages and to a person share exquisite tone and abundant musicality.

This is a recording that made me completely rethink my impressions of the Christmas Oratorio. Now, instead of writing it off as the lightweight cousin of the Bach Passions, I am ready to consider alongside the composer’s best known choral music, going toe to toe with them both in terms of ambition and quality. Recommended holiday or anytime listening.

 

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“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

– Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

For the past several election cycles, a cottage industry of fact-checkers emerges from their pumpkin patches each fall to assess the credibility of candidates’ claims.  One of most-quoted of these, FactCheck.org, is affiliated with my alma mater.  These groups’ findings are not only cited by the media but are also used by partisans of both Presidential candidates.  And while neither the press nor the candidates are free to plagiarize the articles produced by fact-checkers, the facts themselves are fair game.

In fact (sorry), it seems fact-checkers have themselves become the story. Yesterday, CBS Sunday Morning dedicated an entire segment to the role of fact checkers.  It seems these trufflers of truth have become pawns in the political chess game of electoral politics, with each campaign’s spinmeisters trying to use the checkers to “king” their candidate by persuading the voters that their opinions are facts.  In keeping with the non-partisan nature of my posts and this forum, I’ll not comment on which candidate appears to have racked up the most misdemeanors from the fact checkers – but I do have my own opinion!

As it turns out, the late Senator Moynihan is absolutely right from a copyright perspective. Section 102 of the Copyright Act not only states what is subject to copyright, including various forms of musical works and sound recordings, but also sets out many things that are not subject to copyright protection. For example, there is no copyright protection available for any “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” And while the statute’s list doesn’t explicitly include facts, the FAQ on the Copyright Office’s web site does state that “[c]opyright does not protect facts…” More importantly, the Supreme Court has said that facts are not copyrightable.

Facts are either ideas or concepts (e.g., 1+1=2) or discoveries (e.g., it’s a fact that the earth revolves around the sun).  So, the candidates and their minions, along with the media and everyone else can freely use the findings of fact-checkers as to what a particular candidate said or didn’t say and whether his proposals are better than the other guy’s.  As I said in my last post, as with fair use, the exclusion of facts, concepts, discoveries and ideas  — as opposed to the individual expression of them, reinforces our First Amendment freedom of speech as nobody can monopolize an idea.

These concepts apply not only to political discourse, but to musical expression, as well.  Section 102 states that copyright applies to “original works of authorship.” It is the individual expression of an idea or concept, not the concept itself, that is subject to copyright protection. So, what does this mean in a musical context? Imagine if C.P.E. Bach had been able to get a copyright in sonata form. Or if Bach and Vivaldi had sued each other over the exclusive right to use a circle of fifths?

It would be absurd to think that Jerome Kern couldn’t use that chord progression  in “All The Things You Are.”  Structural forms (such as a 32-bar AABA song or a 12-bar blues) and chord progressions are among the things that are generally considered to be non-copyrightable concepts or ideas.  You’d probably be justified in having the opinion that they’re musical “facts.” Just think of the all the songs and standards written on “blues” or “rhythm” changes.  Or consider the thousands of symphonies, concertos and sonatas that use sonata form. Steve Reich has copyrights in his works,  “Piano Phase” and “Violin Phase” but he can’t prevent another composer from utilizing phasing techniques in their own works. The same principle would apply to performance techniques: there’s no copyright for wind players playing double stops or practicing circular breathing.

So, feel free to marshal as many facts as you can to support your opinion as to which candidate “won” tonight’s final Presidential debate.  Or write and perform a new work on the topic using whatever forms and techniques you like. I only ask that you not post any politically-oriented comments in response to this piece. That said, your opinions as to copyright and music are most welcome, either here or at my web site.

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