The 2020 Yale Cantata Project performed two Bach cantatas — “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” and “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” — at Dwight Chapel on Saturday.
In the mid-1800s, the chapel was part of the college’s central library. But on Saturday, as a group of musicians standing before the chapel’s organ filled the hall with Bach, it was difficult to imagine the chapel as a space dedicated to anything other than music-making. The two cantatas, which translate to “Awake, calls the voice to us” and “Heart and mouth and deed and life,” respectively, are two of Bach’s most famous cantatas.
Benjamin Beckman ’23 directed the performance. Tenor soloist Alex Whittington ’22 described the music as “wonderfully provocative, emphasizing themes of both the comfort of preparation, as well as the acceptance of astonishment. The music is full of these complementary contradictions, making it all the more motivating and enthralling.”
Beckman — who sings, composes and plays piano and French horn — directed the ensemble while playing the harpsichord. As a member of several musical groups on campus — the Yale Symphony Orchestra, Yale Schola Cantorum, Battell Chapel Choir and Yale Undergraduate Chamber Orchestra — he encountered a strong group of student musicians interested in early music.
“I recognized a certain need and opportunity [for a concert like the Cantata Project],” Beckman said. “There is no place on campus that puts together similar small-scale projects.”
Because music-making opportunities for those interested in early music are sparse during the middle of spring semester, Beckman reached out to these musicians. He then acquired funding for the project via a Saybrook College Creative and Performing Arts Grant. This allowed the Cantata Project to be entirely student-run. Pianist and audience member Jack McArthur ’22 noted the project’s independence from other “official” registered performing groups.
Beckman chose his two favorite Bach cantatas and assembled a group of highly trained musicians — two violins, viola, cello, theorbo, bass, three oboes, trumpet, horn and a quartet of vocal soloists — for the event.
The first cantata, also known as “Sleepers Wake,” was first performed in November 1731. It tells the story of Jesus as a bridegroom, arriving to greet his “Daughters of Zion.” The text expresses joy and love and, according to Beckman, is often performed during weddings and associated with the onset of spring. The work is split up into seven movements, which alternate between chorales, recitatives and arias. Chorales have a fuller sound — all of the vocalists and instrumentalists participate. Recitatives and arias, in contrast, feature one or two soloists. Recitatives highlight a text, and the vocalist sings conversationally, while arias highlight an expressive melody.
Violinist Vivian Mayers ’21 commented on how the music “incorporate[s] a really wide range of emotion, from joyful and triumphant movements to mysterious or melancholy ones.”
The second cantata, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” professes love for the divine and the sacred. Bach composed the cantata in 1723, during his first year as the director of church music in Leipzig. The cantata consists of two parts, and the final chorales in each part became one of Bach’s most well-loved melodies: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
Both cantatas were written and sung in German, but at the performance, programs included the text in both English and German.
“The copy of the text made the performance accessible to a wider audience,” McArthur said. “The programming is really good for people who want to learn more about Bach’s choral works.”
The musicians performed the concert in a quasi-Baroque style. Beckman played harpsichord instead of a modern piano, and the string players performed on Baroque-style bows. But the performance also used modern cellos and oboes.
Mayers, who specializes in Baroque violin performance, explained that the group “made as close of an approximation as [they] could.” According to Mayers, it’s impossible to claim that a performance is completely historically accurate.
“When we perform Bach with some modern instruments and outside the context of a religious service, it’s not the wrong way to play his music,” Mayers said. “It’s just the way we happen to be capable of playing it, and interested in playing it, as present-day musicians.”
Creative and Performing Arts Awards are presented to students in each residential college two times per academic year.
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org