Onion River Chorus Spring Concert Planned — Masterworks from the German Choral Tradition: Bach, Schutz, Distler

MONTPELIER — Onion River Chorus presents German choral masterworks from three centuries by J.S. Bach, Heinrich Schütz and Hugo Distler in two concerts: Saturday May 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday May 14 at 7 p.m., both at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier. The Montpelier community chorus of 65 voices is led by Larry Gordon and will be accompanied by Lynnette Combs on organ and Tom Jocks on cello. Admission to the concerts at the door is $15, $10 for students. Advance tickets are available from chorus members or at North Branch Cafe.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) composed six motets, and of these “Jesu Meine Freude,” in 11 movements, is the longest and most complex. Six odd numbered movements with texts from the hymn by Johann Franck from 1650 alternate with the even numbered movements with texts from the Epistle to the Romans 8:1–2, 9–11. The hymn movements all use the basic chorale melody in the top soprano line but with highly varied harmonizations in the other voices. The other movements are freely composed, including several massive fugues and also more lyrical settings in the style of trio sonatas. The extremely dramatic German poetry abounds with stark contrasts between images of heaven and hell, often within a single section. For example the fifth movement: Despite of the old dragons, Despite the jaws of death, Despite the fear thereof; Rage, world, and attack; I stand here and sing in certain peace! Bach’s vivid setting of the words heightens these dramatic contrasts resulting in a motet with an uncommonly wide dramatic range.

The second Bach motet is Lobet den Herrn, which contains some of his most virtuosic writing for chorus. It begins with two separate fugues with extremely long running lines for the voices. Then comes more chordal sections, sometimes contrasting the women’s and the men’s voices. The piece climaxes with a final fugue on the Alleluja.

Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), was the first great composer to really capture the cadences of Martin Luther’s German in choral music, and he had an immense influence on Bach a hundred years later. The ORC program includes three of his dramatic short motets. In Die mit Tränen säen he sets the opening phrase — They that sow with tears — in slow suspended chords which then abruptly contrasts with dancing triple time on the second phrase — shall reap with joy. Similar contrasts and word painting abounds in the other motets. Das is je gewisslich wahr —  That is indeed a true and precious word —  uses a similar alternation of slow suspensions and lilting triple time. Was betrübst du dich meine Seele — Why are thou so troubled o my soul — opens and closes with a heart-rending downward chromatic theme taken up by all the parts with intense suspensions.

Hugo Distler (1908–1942) was steeped in the German chorale tradition. He became aligned with the Renewal Movement, a campaign to reform Protestant music and liturgy, removing Romantic excess, restoring the directness and clarity of early Lutheran practice. Distler’s music for the church epitomized Renewal principles — rhythmically energetic, harmonically sophisticated, but heavily indebted to older composers, especially Bach and Heinrich Schütz. The rise of the Nazis eventually brought intolerable pressures to bear on his life. He encountered official opposition to his sacred subject matter; Hitler Youth members repeatedly sabotaged his rehearsals of sacred choral music; the war separated him from his family; he was threatened with conscription. Finally, in 1942, Distler, 34 years old, committed suicide. However, in his short career he produced some of the greatest choral works of the 20th century, certainly the finest by a German composer. His two major works on the program use classic German texts: Wachet auf — Wake up … you city of Jerusalem – as set by Bach in his famous Christmas cantata, and Das is je gewisslich wahr, as set earlier by Schütz. The latter is probably the most challenging work on the program with unusual, jagged but somehow lyrical melodic lines, and fiendishly complicated rhythmic structures that defy barlines. Wachet auf begins with an extended meditation on the opening words — Wake up! The second movement contrasts two solo sopranos in canon with the remaining five part choir singing more chordal harmonies. The third movement matches the joyous text with a final alleluia. He ends each movement with a fanciful rhythmic cadenza in one or more of the vocal lines.

Onion River Chorus, now in its 39th year, is a non-auditioned community chorus based in Montpelier, open to any singers interested in singing challenging choral repertoire from all time periods. The fall program, to be conducted by Dick Riley, will feature music by 20th century Latvian composers, and will begin rehearsals Sept. 11. For more information contact David Grundy: ddgrundy@comcast.net or www.Onionriverchorus.org

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