Heavenly Music

Today is Ascension Day. This gave me a convenient excuse to add to my music library another of J. S. Bach’s works – his Ascension Oratorio.

Until earlier this year, I was unaware of the existence of this piece, although I am fairly familiar with many of his liturgical works including his Christmas and Easter Oratorios.  Nicholas Kenyon, in his Faber Pocket Guide to Bach, described the Ascension Oratorio as “outstanding among [Bach’s sacred oratorios]”, so I was keen to check it out.

The Ascension Oratorio appears in the standard (thematically-organised) Bach catalogue as BWV11, which puts it squarely among the cantatas.  However, Bach himself described it as Oratorium Festo Ascensionis Christi (“an oratorio for the feast of Christ’s ascension), so this would appear to be an occasion when Schmeider’s classification broke down slightly.  Having said that, I’m not entirely sure what the difference between an oratorio and a cantata is anyway.  From the sound of the ones I’ve listened to (including clearly recognised oratorios — the aforementioned Christmas and Easter ones — and cantatas — such as Ein feste Burg (BWV 80) and Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147; the one in which the famous and absolutely beautiful tune “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” appears) — by Bach), I think the difference must be fairly subtle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ascension Oratorio comes bundled with the Easter Oratorio on many albums.  Since I already had a copy of the other work, I decided to look for an Ascension Oratorio recording that came with other pieces I didn’t already have.  I managed to find one by the English Baroque Soloists (directed by John Eliot Gardiner), together with 3 other Ascension cantatas (BWV 37, 43 and 128 – these ones seem to be unanimously recognised as cantatas).  This is, I gather, a well-respected group of Bach performers and they also happen to be the performers on my recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which I was impressed by (my Easter Oratorio is performed by the Gabrieli Consort & Players, with Paul McCreesh; that is also an excellent performance).

The Ascension Oratorio is somewhat shorter than either the Easter or Christmas ones (my recording lasts just under half an hour; by contrast the Easter one is about 45 minutes and the Christmas one, as I recall, a couple of hours), which may perhaps be why it is sometimes considered to be a cantata instead.  Regardless of length, it is a very beautiful piece of music.  I’m glad to have made its acquaintance and look forward to getting to know it much better.  The cantatas are lovely too.

I have never yet had the opportunity to perform any of Bach’s sacred works (unless you count a solo mandolin arrangement of “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring”) but I did once take part in an Ascension Day service with the Crockenhill String Orchestra, in which we played a mass by Mozart.  Unfortunately, because it was at least 18 (and possibly 19) years ago, I can’t remember all the details but I do recall that it was at a church somewhere in Beckenham and it took place on Ascension Day itself (a Thursday, as always).  I’m not sure which of Mozart’s masses  we played (he wrote quite a few); I have a vague recollection that it might have been in G major (which would make it K49 – his earliest one) but it could just as easily have been in C major or C minor (which together account for most of his other masses) and I suspect that even if I heard the piece again I probably wouldn’t recognise it.  I had been under the impression that it was a mass specifically written for Ascension Day, but I can find no trace of any such work by Mozart so I assume I was mistaken.

This was a service rather than a concert, and it was my first (and so far only, as far as I can recall) experience of worship in a high Anglican church.  This style of worship is often characterised as “bells and smells” and although I don’t recall any notable use of bells they did certainly make heavy use of incense, to the extent that at times it was almost impossible to see the music on my stand (about 2 feet away from my face) due to the thick smoke.  We joined forces with a choir and another orchestra (or at least we had some additional musicians – I don’t know if they were a group in their own right).  I remember that there was a rather lovely young (as in, about the same age as me at the time, i.e. 18 or so) cellist called Hannah, with whom I got on very well.  Sadly we didn’t manage to stay in contact after the gig.

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