BACH: Seven Motets = Der Geist hilft unster Schwachheit auf, BWV 226; Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229; Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227; Fuerchte dich nicht, BWV 228; Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230; Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWV Anh. 159; Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225 – Vocalconsort Berlin/ Marcus Creed – Harmonia mundi HMC 902079, 70:57 ****:
Something of an anomaly among Bach’s oeuvre, the six motets (1726-1730) — and the one possibly spurious — testify to an atavistic impulse in Bach, a desire to extend a medieval musical tradition that had largely passed out of fashion. Composed for the active repertory of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, they endured into the 19th Century as showpieces for the Thomanerchor. Forming no consistent unit or cycle, they do not satisfy any notion of a “set” of ensemble pieces, and scholars cannot agree on how many Bach wrote or how many may have been lost to us. The double-choir motet Ich lasse dich nicht, Anh. 159 seems to have been written by a young Johann Sebastian Bach, so increasing the official number to seven.
The opening motet, “Likewise the spirit also helpeth our infirmities” (1729), likely had instrumental support from strings and oboes. At the Alle breve the two choirs blend into four-part harmony with the words, “And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit.” The concluding chorale, “Heavenly fire, sweet consolation, Help us now,” conveys rapt optimism and steadfast spiritual confidence. For Komm, Jesu, komm (1730) Bach turned to a poem by Paul Thymich, a subjective text longing for death and release. The anguished chromatic line finds support in a series of low pedal points. The work concludes with a gentle aria that embraces Jesus as the true way, since a decided weariness of spirit has infiltrated the narrator’s sensibility.
Jesu, meine Freude is a five-voice motet in eleven (symmetrical) parts that alternates strophes from the eponymous hymn and chapter eight of the Epistle to the Romans. The sheer scale of the piece may indicate a use beyond some particular occasion, since the work borders on cantata or passion style. The writing becomes both lyrical and declamatory, using a stile brise that suggests French influence. Midway through the motet Bach writes a five-part fugue on the words, “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the spirit,” most effective, given the context of the preceding invocations to defy the jaws of death and fear. The chromatic harmonies often resonate with the lachrymae we know from Gesualdo. The final Choral transmutes all sorrow to a form of joy, the grief of earthly death transmuted to the bliss of Heaven.
Lobet den Herrn–O praise the Lord, all ye nations (Psalm 117)–may have been borrowed from a lost cantata that basks in spread arpeggiated vocal lines, a ball of rapturous energies. The chromatic lines for “his merciful kindness” convey an eternal mystery. The writing proves so fluent that we literally forget the learned craft behind the ease of musical transition. Ich lasse dich nicht is an eight-voice motet in f minor that perhaps dates at 1713, and its style has an austerity that points to Italian forebears, especially in a Neapolitan harmony in the first soprano line. The dominant conceit in the text suggests the Prodigal Son, now embracing Jesus as salvation and consolation for a hard-won faith.
Mozart heard the motet “Sing unto the Lord a new song” (1727) when he visited Leipzig, and in his own hand he indicated that the work “ought be scored for full orchestra.” Bach opens contrapuntally, setting verses 1-3 of Psalm 149 for double choir. An excited almost breathless ardor permeates the piece, the second movement’s consisting of an arrangement of the chorale, “Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet,” interrupted at the end of each line by a choral aria, “Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an,” a plea for God to care for us. The choirs combine in movement three – based on Psalm 150, verses 2 and 6 – in a four-voice fugue on the words, “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah!”
Though it takes just over eight minutes to perform, Bach’s motet “Fuechte dich nicht” (“Fear not”)–possibly a product of his Weimar days–revels in vocal opulence for double choir that strips the texture down to four parts in the central section, “I have called thee by name.” A double fugue ensues from the lower voices, the subjects embracing a descending chromatic line and a rising diatonic theme. The soprano line incorporates a chorale, “Herr mein Hirt, Brunn aller Freuden” (Lord, my shepherd, the source of all joys), that serves as a cantus firmus. The rich tapestry, incredibly concentrated, has an organ accompaniment in an otherwise a cappella setting of pietistic splendor.