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Easter Through The Ages

Eggs decorated for Easter.

This hour, we're exploring nearly seven hundred years of Easter, from the 11th century to the 18th century. We'll hear a story of the events leading up to the writing of one of Bach's first Easter cantatas. We'll also hear medieval chants for Easter, and our featured recording is Haec Dies: Music for Easter, by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

Let's start with two pieces for the Easter mass from the 2016 recording Haec Dies, by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

Medieval chant for Easter

Chant – it's one of the most evocative sounds of the whole medieval period. We heard an 11th century Easter antiphon, sung by the Monks of Norcia. You can almost picture their medieval forebearers, getting out of bed at midnight and making their way to the chapel, where they would gather by candlelight to sing matins, the first of the eight daily offices.

Gregorian chant is the most popular and well-known form of Western plainchant today. Named for Pope Gregory I, it developed mainly in central and western Europe, beginning in the 9th century. The monks of that period would gather at regular intervals throughout the day and night to sing the eight daily offices. In between, their time was filled with meals, private devotions, and work. Let's listen to another Easter tune from the medieval monastery, the 14th century hymn "Concordi laetitia."

Bach's Easter, 1707

Let's jump forward almost seven hundred years, to Easter, 1707. A young man, just starting to make his way in the world, makes some mistakes, loses his temper, and ultimately finds himself in need of a new job. It's not unheard of, is it? This was the situation for Johann Sebastian Bach in 1707. He had been at his first real job for four years, and during that time, he had not made a lot of friends.

First, he had had a little spat, back in 1705, with J. H. Geyersbach, a student at the local school. Bach ran into him one day in the town square. He insulted Geyersbach (or, according to one account, his bassoon), Geyersbach hit him, Bach drew his sword. Fortunately, the two were separated before anyone got injured too badly, but this kind of behavior didn't exactly endear him to his superiors.

Ultimately, it was a cantata that helped get him out of Arnstadt and into a new job, and moreover, it was an Easter cantata! We'll hear "Christ lag in Todes Banden," one of Bach's earliest cantatas, based on an Easter hymn by Martin Luther, performed by the Concentus Musicus Wien, with the Leonhardt-Consort, and assorted soloists, all under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt.

There was another snafu at Arnstadt soon after the Geyersbach incident. Bach, annoyed at the incompetence of the local musicians, and irritated at the fallout that had resulted from his earlier bad behavior, developed a sudden desire to walk to Lübeck, nearly three hundred miles away, in order to hear Buxtehude play.

While the records aren't exactly clear on the dates, it appears that, having been granted four weeks' leave, in reality, Bach took nearly three months off! As with the Geyersbach incident, Bach's superiors weren't too impressed with this kind of behavior.

Therefore, it was imperative that Bach find a new job, and quickly! Let's hear the last few movements of Bach's Easter cantata "Christ lag in Todes Banden," which was most likely written to impress his new potential employers.

While Bach wasn't exactly fired, there were some threats made along those lines, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the position at Arnstadt was never going to be a great fit. Therefore, at Easter, in 1707, Bach traveled to Mühlhausen, in order to play a trial service.

While he was there, he also probably performed "Christ lag in Todes Banden," (music from which we just heard). Bach would go on to write over three hundred cantatas in his lifetime, but it's easy to imagine that this one may have held a special place in his heart. It helped propel him out of his hated post at Arnstadt, and launched him into a better, brighter future. What's not to love?

Haec Dies

And now, with our featured release, we're headed backwards three hundred years, squarely to the middle of the Renaissance era. We'll hear three pieces for Easter from the early 16th century, from the 2016 recording Haec Dies: Music for Easter, by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, under the direction of Graham Ross.

Break and theme music

:30, Christopher Tye: Consort Music – In Nomine, The Spirit of Gambo / Freek Borstlap, Pavane Records 2014, Tr. 9 In nomine: My deathe bedde (excerpt of 2:41)

:60, Christopher Tye: Consort Music – In Nomine, The Spirit of Gambo / Freek Borstlap, Pavane Records 2014, Tr. 11 In nomine: Sirrexit non est hic (excerpt of 2:32)

:30, Christopher Tye: Consort Music – In Nomine, The Spirit of Gambo / Freek Borstlap, Pavane Records 2014, Tr. 13 Amavit eum Dominus (excerpt of 3:16)

Theme:Â Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Elizabeth Clark.

Special thanks to Wendy Gillespie for filling in the week as host.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.

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