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[Music Forum] How did ‘Aus Liebe’ get to be so slow?

Date/Time:
Date(s) - 02/15/2019
2:30 pm - 4:30 pm

Location:
Rm. 3491 (Large Seminar Rm.), Graduate Center

“How did ‘Aus Liebe’ get to be so slow?”

Daniel R. Melamed (Indiana University)

A high point of almost every performance of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is the tragic and time-stopping aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben.” It appears to make sense in context, but Paul Brainard led commentators in wondering how Bach and his librettist could have reused such somber music in the so-called Cöthen Funeral Music BWV 244a with a new text that opens “Mit Freuden sei die Welt verlassen”; the invocation of joy apparently represents a strong contradiction in affect.

How did the passion aria come to be understood as slow and tragic? The slow tempo did not originate with Felix Mendelssohn, who included the aria in his second performance of the passion in 1841. The aria’s character appears to have been established later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in critical writings that regarded it as transcendent and representative of the passion’s supposed pure tragedy. The aria arguably came to be seen as the St. Matthew Passion‘s “slow movement,” a much-venerated type. The character was also established in influential ninetenth-century editions that assigned slow tempo and metronome markings, and the recorded history of the work documents very slow tempos, only recently moderated.

Modern writings that consider the aria central to the passion and realizations of the passion with large choruses and orchestras have cemented this view. Modern adaptations of the aria have taken it to be very slow as well; they are thus readings of the received performance tradition of the work.

If we set aside the tempo inherited from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the work’s doctrinal and affectively neutral text and its musical construction suggest the plausibility of a much faster tempo. And this, in turn, could explain why it occurred to Bach and Picander to re-use it for a text that begins with the concept of joy. The slow tempo of “Aus Liebe”—and the problem of its reuse with a very different text—turn out to be our own creations.

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