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Bach 360°: Chorales, Cantatas and an Oratorio for Easter

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Two things are certain about the classical music calendar: Handel at Christmas and Bach at Easter. Of course, Bach wrote a joyous Christmas Oratorio that is also heard in December, but his most celebrated choral works are those of the Easter season: there's not only an Easter Oratorio, but also two passions based on the Crucifixion story, several cantatas, Easter chorales and chorale preludes.

This weekend brings performances of these works to venues throughout the New York area, and it also provides the focus for the final day of WQXR’s Bach 360 festival. Across the pond, meanwhile, the Royal Albert Hall in London is gearing up for a nine-hour Bach Marathon on Monday, led by conductor John Eliot Gardiner.

Bach’s music for Easter is a reminder that portions of his output never survived the centuries. The Easter Oratorio, BWV 249, which he composed in Leipzig and premiered on April 1, 1725, is based on a secular cantata (the so-called Shepherd Cantata) that was lost. The text remained, however, and the work was reconstructed by modern-day scholars.

Similarly, historians believe that Bach set the passion play in five versions (based on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), yet only the St. Matthew and St. John Passions have survived. Both feature a mix of biblical texts, arias, chorales and choruses based on new liturgical poetry. But while the two passions deal with the same events, they are very different works, reflecting both the biblical text and the fact that Bach wrote the St. John Passion first, in 1724. 

On this Easter, we are thankful for the some 1,100 works of Bach that have survived the centuries and which have supplied us with more than 10 nearly days of truly remarkable music. Last year, choral director and WQXR host Kent Tritle and producer Aaron Cohen gave us some basics about the St. John and St. Matthew Passions with a set of “Passion Pointers.” Listen to them below.


Pointer One: The many types of music to listen for

Pointer Two: Knowing the difference between the St. John and St. Matthew Passions

Pointer Three: The significance of the St. John Passion's many chorales

Pointer Four: The way Bach uses male and female voices

Pointer Five: The history of the St. John Passion's creation


FREE Download [EXPIRED]: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra plays the Concerto for Three Violins BWV 1064R - Allegro

Some New York area listeners may be familiar with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra from its appearances at the Mostly Mozart Festival in recent years. The group's latest recording features the three Violin Concertos  paired with an enjoyable concerto for three violins, reconstructed from the surviving version for three harpsichords, BWV 1064 (available at Arkivmusic.com).

Programming Highlights for Sunday (all times approximate)

6am Cantata BWV 201, "Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde"

7am Chorales and a chorale preludes for Easter plus the Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D, BWV 1069

8am Glenn Gould plays the Goldberg Variations

9am  Chorale preludes from the "Neumeister Collection" discovered in 1985, plus the Easter Cantata BWV 4, "Christ lag in Todesbanden

10am   Murray Perahia with a partita, plus the reconstructed Cantata BWV 216,

11am   A chorale prelude and chorales for Easter, plus BWV 1050a, an earlier version of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

12pm   The Easter Oratorio, BWV 249

1pm    Cantata BWV 31, "Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret" - written for Easter

2pm    Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1059  (Or is that BWV 105.9?!)

3pm    Chorale preludes and chorales for Easter, plus Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048

4pm    The strophic aria discovered in 2005, Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn' ihn, BWV 1127

5pm    Cantata BWV 6, "Bleib bei uns" written for Easter Monday and chorale preludes from the "Neumeister Collection," discovered in 1985

6pm    "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," from Cantata BWV 147 and the Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079

7pm    The organ fantasia discovered in 2008, Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns halt, BWV 1128 (the highest BWV number now in the catalog)

8pm    Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042

9pm    Brandenburg No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047 and the chorale prelude that may have been Bach's last work

10pm   Mass in B Minor, BWV 232