Sunday, 8 January 2012

Beyond the Canon

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1709) has long been seen as a one-hit wonder, with his Canon becoming one of the best-known works of Baroque music. Things appear to be changing with recordings of his other works growing apace, including his choral pieces. 

One such work particularly caught my attention a couple of years ago and could easily see Pachelbel becoming, at the very least, a two-hit wonder. It's his enjoyable setting of Psalm 100, Jauchzet dem Herrn (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord). The scoring is for double chorus (two each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass) and organ. The two choruses are sometimes used antiphonally to achieve the effect of splendour, as composers had been doing since the days of the Gabrielis, a century earlier. The very opening bars show Pachelbel sitting on the pivot, so to speak, between the age of the greatest master of the German early Baroque, Heinrich Schütz, and the greatest master of the German late Baroque, J.S. Bach - albeit, in the work as a whole, dangling his legs more often on Bach's side of the pivot!

At the very start, the altos, tenors and basses of Choir I sing the word 'Jauchzet' in a strictly rhythmic and syllabic pattern (four quavers followed by two crochets), which is very catchy, whilst the sopranos sing a joyful melisma on the first syllable of their second 'jauchzet'. The second choir joins them all in the second bar, adding a greater weight to this delightful expression of joy. When I first heard this I thought it sounded like Bach, and had to rack my poor brains to try and remember which particular piece I had in mind. It's his glorious motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit, BWV226 (The Spirit helps us in our weakness), also for double chorus, specifically its opening bars. Back to the Pachelbel and if the first two bars look forward to Bach then the third and fourth bars, which end with the words "alle Welt" (all the earth), look back to the age of Schütz, with its antiphonal exchanges of short homophonic phrases. Schütz made his own setting of Jauchzet dem Herrn, and you can hear something of its soundworld (what can be called, using a broad brush-stroke, 'Monteverdi madrigals and polychoral Gabrieli meet a German sensibility') in Pachelbel's setting of the words "Erkennet, daß der Herre Gott ist" (Recognize that the Lord is God), 2.05 into the link provided. 

The German mid-Baroque is a fascinating period of music, full of little known but highly talented composers whose style is only a hybrid when heard through ears that are far more familiar with the distinctive styles of a great composer of one age, and quite familiar with the no-less-distinctive style of a great composer of another age (though many listeners might think of Monteverdi and Gabrieli without thinking of their great German contemporary, Schütz). Bach was taught by his brother, a pupil of Pachelbel (a close family friend of the older generations of Bachs), so something of Pachelbel's music certainly must have filtered through to Johann Sebastian. Wonder if he knew Jauchzet dem Herrn?

Incidentally, and going back to Mendelssohn, our Felix also made settings, a century and a half after Pachelbel and two centuries after Schütz, of the same psalm. There's his a cappella Wo028 setting, a simple piece, and the richer, more polyphonic setting that forms the central motet of his Op.69. Both project the spirit of old German chorales in some of their melodies and textures. They are not Mendelssohn's most distinguished choral pieces, but they are quite attractive and characteristic.

As I've linked to a lot of Jauchzet dem Herrns, it would perhaps be no bad thing for me to provide the text of the psalm:

Jauchzet dem Herrn
alle Welt.
Dienet dem Herrn mit Freuden.
Kommt vor sein Angesicht mit Frohlocken.
Erkennet, dass der Herre Gott ist.
Er hat uns gemacht, und nicht wir selbst,
zu seinem Volk
und zu Schafen seiner Weide.
Gehet zu seinen Toren ein mit Danken,
zu seinen Vorhöfen mit Loben.
Danket ihm, lobet seinen Namen,
denn der Herr ist freundlich
und seine Gnade währet ewig
und seine Wahrheit für und für.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord,
all the earth;
serve the Lord with joy.
Come before his visage with rejoicing.
Recognize that the Lord is God:
he made us—and not we ourselves—
to be his people
and to be sheep for his pasture.
Enter through his gates with thanks,
into his courts with praise.
Give him thanks and praise his name,
for the Lord is kind,
and his mercy endures forever,
and his truth for all time.


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