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July 29, 2009

"Es Ist Vollbracht," with Marian Anderson

By: Bernard Chazelle

I realize people come here for a steady diet of serious humor and corrupt politics, not for technical dissections of Baroque music. Here's the deal. You don't have to read the words but you must listen to the music. If humanity has a future worth living, I am certain the art I showcase in these music posts will play a decisive role.

Now, what's with "Es ist vollbracht"? If you're one of those HIP (historically informed performance) Baroque snobs, this recording will positively suck: wrong language; wrong instruments; wrong continuo; wrong EQ, wrong everything.

I love it!

Yes, HIP is usually better; yes, the music sounds more like the soundtrack for a Carl Dreyer movie than a Bach Passion, but 3 comments: first, the RCA orchestra and its conductor, Robert Shaw, are nothing less than professional; second, Bach's music is uniquely "plastic" and will sound great even if you play it with pots and pans; third, Marian Anderson's voice is stunning! Sopranos tend to steal the show, but contraltos are in some ways more interesting, for the same reason the cello is a more "human" instrument than the violin.

Marian Anderson could do it all: she could sing anything, from spirituals to classical, with absolute perfection. From her microtonal nuances you get confirmation, if there were any need for it, that to grow up singing gospel music in a black Baptist church gives you better vocal training than going to Julliard.

Of course, now that we've entered the post-racial era, and no black person would ever be arrested in their Cambridge home for breathing while black, it's easy to forget that life was not always a picnic for people with the wrong skin pigmentation. Marian Anderson's life was a mix of highs and lows. Toscanini called hers "a voice you hear once in a hundred years." Sibelius composed for her. She sang for the king of England, FDR, Eisenhower, and JFK. Yet it would take 20 years after she'd performed with all the major European opera houses to get an invitation to sing at the Met. When the DAR refused her permission to sing in Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt belatedly, but to her credit, resigned from that racist organization.


"Es ist vollbracht" is the spiritual high point of Bach's St John Passion. "All is fulfilled," Ms Anderson assures us at (1:04). These were Jesus's last words on the cross. The King James bible writes "It is finished" instead, but neither Luther's "Es ist vollbracht" nor the English version does justice to the original Greek, tetelestai, which conveys the notion of a deal closed. If you lived in 1st century Anatolia (today's Turkey), where John's gospel was written, and you called the plumber to fix your toilet, after you gave him the check, he'd write on the invoice (or more likely just tell you), "Tetelestai," meaning "Paid in Full." So it's Jesus's way of saying, "Paid in Full," ie, I've done my part. Why it matters for you to know that is that the Allegro at (4:43) makes no sense if you don't get the theological meaning of "Es ist vollbracht." With death comes victory. The Allegro's words say, "Judea's hero ends his victorious fight," which, if you ask me, would make a fine Palestinian anthem.

The ending is unusually operatic. At (5:25), the music abruptly segues back to the beginning, except that instead of singing the cello's melody one fourth higher, as she did earlier, Anderson reprises it at the same pitch. The aria signs off in what has to be a first (and last) for Bach: the voice calls the end! Eerie. This is probably the most original aria Bach ever composed.

I've said before that Bach's music is striking by its utter lack of attitude. What's attitude? The famous G-G-G-Eb opening of Beethoven's 5th. That, my friends, is Attitude with a capital A! But there's not the slightest hint of an ego in Bach's passions. How the greatest art on earth is also the most humble has always perplexed me. Bach's music is not the least bit hormonal: it's music for the very young and the very... (what's the word?) mature. I'd always speculated that Bach composed his best music for children. Until I found out that, indeed, he composed his best music for children.

Now I'll make a few technical comments below the vid for the elite members of the ATR Frequent Flyer Program.


The opening features one of those classical, gorgeous modulations that, with rare exceptions, rock musicians have never bothered to learn. The cello (OK, it should be a viola da gamba but never mind) opens with a mournful descending line starting at F#. The tune is in Bm. It moves to the V7 (F#7) at (0:09) and then back to Bm at (0:18). Now comes the exciting part. Bach wants to move the tonal center to Em. That's the 4th, so a rock musician would just go there. But that's crappy musicianship. Bach knew a gazillion cadences and, in particular, the second most important one, V7-i, which is how you move tonally to Em. (This not arbitrary: there are deep physical laws to explain why that's the right thing to do.) So Bach moves from Bm to B major (because B is the V of Em). It's a minor-to-major modulation. That's done in country music all the time: just move that minor third up half a step and bingo.


No offense to Garth Brooks, but Bach is not one to just slide his minor 3rd up to modulate to major. First he hints at the major sound at (0:21) in an incredibly subtle way. While the cello plays F# (with your aural memory still tuned to Bm), the accompaniment (it's supposed to be an organ but apparently RCA couldn't afford the real thing) throws in the major third D#. Check it out. It all happens at (0:21). Pay close attention. You blink, you miss it! Now Bach needs to reinforce that cadence by adding the 7th (the A). He does that by going V-iv-V7-i. Here are the details. What he needs is an A (the 7th of B). Well, the next note of the melody happens to be A (0:22), so he could play the 2-note pattern D#-A and be done. That would be harmonically correct. But that's not what he does. He plays E-A instead (0:23) What's going on??? The thing is, Bach is not ready to suggest B7 just yet, which is why he takes a pass on that D#. Instead, he inverts the I-V of Am. Only dyads are played, not full chords, which adds to the ambiguity of the thing. He gets his B7 at (0:25) and then his Em at (0:26). What Bach is doing is taking us through the extended cadence of iv-V7-i, ie Am-B7-Em. Why did he do that?

Because of timing. He really had no choice. Check the rhythm. The piece is in 4/4 (4 quarter-notes per measure) and that Em has to fall at the beginning of the 3rd bar, so we need that extra cadence. Speaking of rhythm (always very important with Bach), the melody should be thought of a sequence of 16th notes (16 per measure) -- yes, these are very long measures. But Bach pairs up the 16ths to de-symmetrize them. Instead of going (1/16, 1/16) he goes (3/32, 1/32), ie, he uses a dotted 16th followed by a 32nd. That's how he gets that pattern of long-short, long-short, long-short.


Anderson's entry steals the cello's opening line, F# E D C# D B B A#, but she takes it one fourth higher, ie, B A G F# G E D. Then the cello reprises its own line in a call-and-response manner. This is like weaving a Persian rug: Anderson's last note is D, while the cello's response starts with F#, ie, the cello takes the voice's baton by completing the Bm arpeggio (D and F# are respectively the 3rd and 5th of the chord of Bm). We don't get these patterns by accident. You really have to know what you're doing, so all these notes fall on your lap at the right time. The cello then continues playing over the voice.


That giant down-interval at (2:06-2:08) just kills me. Marian Anderson drops from B to C# (almost a whole octave). It's the sound of a mother reassuring her child. (That's how I hear it anyway.) If humility had a musical entry in the dictionary this would be it. It's truly an amazing phrase. It does not get resolved until (2:16) with the D chord, which is the relative major of Bm. (The scale has 2 sharps: F and C, but in Bm Bach uses the harmonic minor scale, which adds the A#).

Now, if you wondered what a "modern" HIP interpretation was like, this is as good as it gets (well, minus the mediocre recording quality). As a bonus you also get to crack juvenile jokes if you're that age, and if you're not, relish the opportunity to hear the truly astonishing voice of Andreas Scholl, the world's greatest countertenor.

I am confident that Bach would have been impressed by both Ms Anderson and Mr Scholl.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at July 29, 2009 12:06 AM

I'm not sure if that makes me a baroque snob, but i'm a sucker for HIP's. They are normally a lot more textured than your regular symphonic orchestra.
Having said that, i'm an even bigger sucker for anything that conveys true emotion. Music that calls solely to my intellect, i may find interesting, but leaves me cold.

I wonder what you make of this?
No instruments, i warn.

Posted by: l.rodrigues at July 29, 2009 04:34 AM

Andreas Scholl is an angel. Countertenors usually give me the heebie-jeebies (they sound like they're choking, to me), but the sound just flows out of him, pure and sweet. I particularly love him in this Vivaldi:

Thank you for the Marian Anderson.

Posted by: Svensker at July 29, 2009 09:56 AM

Why is it always so important to mention that Gates is a Harvard Professor, lives in a nice neighborhood, or something of that sort? Does this social standing make what happened to him worse?

Posted by: Marcus at July 29, 2009 11:13 AM

IR: Same here. I much prefer HIP for exactly the reason you say.

Svensker: In the Allegro, in particular, Scholl leaves all the others in the dust (eg, Chance, Blaze). He is in a class by himself.

Marcus: Not at all. I wrote Cambridge just so that when blog scholars read this, decades from now, they'll know what incident I was referring to. No hidden meaning there.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 29, 2009 12:25 PM

Hi Blog Scholars!

That really is spectacularly lovely music. I think I'll send a CD to my momma.

Posted by: N E at July 30, 2009 02:43 PM