Monday, December 9, 2013

Bach's "Echo Aria" from the Christmas Oratorio

This week, I performed half of Bach's Christmas Oratorio with the North Carolina Symphony. Bach's Christmas Oratorio is basically just six cantatas that tell the Christmas story (we sang parts 4-6, for those counting at home). A cantata, if you are wondering, is basically a church sermon set to music. Bach wrote literally hundreds of them, often the same week he would rehearse and perform them. Usually, a cantata features scripture passages, commentary on the scripture, and related chorales. Each cantata has from 7 to 14 parts. Some parts are sung by soloists or groups of soloists, and some are sung by the choir. Sometimes the audience would join in to sing the chorales, and sometimes just the choir would sing a more complex version of the chorales.

In comparison with Handel's music, which I sang last week, Bach's choral and vocal music is more intricate and has more exciting, carefully-structured part-reading, but is less flashy and memorable. For example, I don't have Bach stuck in my head for weeks after I sing it, which is what usually happens with Messiah. However, there was one aria, or solo number, from part 4 of the Christmas Oratorio that left an impression on me. It's named "Flößt, mien Heliand, flößt dein Namen," but is often just known as the "Echo Aria." Why, you ask? Well, the aria is basically a duet between the oboe player and the soprano, and both of them has a backstage pair that sometimes echoes the notes they sing.

Here, watch and listen:

I don't think this echoing is just a gimmick. Not only is the echo worked seamlessly into the music, but it fits with the text of the song. The main soprano singer is basically asking questions of the Lord, and the Lord is answering the questions in the echo, in the first part no, in the second part yes. Perhaps "Ask and ye shall find."

It is also really interesting how Bach foreshadows the echo with his music. In the solo oboe's introduction, it repeats a motive, the first time loud, the second time soft, as if Bach wants us to get used to that concept. When the echo from the upstage oboe happens, at first we aren't sure if the echo just might be the solo oboe. Then, the solo oboe starts echoing the voice. Finally, we are surprised by the upstage voice, though we've already been subtly prepared for it. That's some good foreshadowing. And neither the oboe's nor the soprano's echoes are ever quite the same—sometimes one echo, sometimes two, and in different orders—so the surprise continues. The balance of two echoing pairs is also a nice touch.

What do you think of the "Echo Aria"? Anyone have any other favorite Bach cantata numbers?

Vocab: cantata, chorale, aria, oratorio, motive

1 comment:

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