The Raising of Lazarus, Oratorio
Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach
(b. Leipzig, 21 June 1732 – d. Bückeburg, 26 January 1795)
Die Auferweckung Lazarus
(The Raising of Lazarus)
Oratorio on a libretto by Johann Gottfried Herder
The raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-57) is one of the most familiar salvation stories in the Bible. Being closely connected with Jesus’s own resurrection, it is also of fundamental importance to the Christian faith. That this miracle has been a favorite subject in the visual and dramatic arts is evident in its unbroken reception over the centuries. Yet Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach’s oratorio on the subject, Die Auferweckung Lazarus of 1773 (BR D 6), has received little attention from music historians. The present volume is intended to give it the recognition it deserves on the basis of its skillful workmanship, the inherent importance of its words, and the unique context of its origin. It appeared in print for the first time in 1917, published by Breitkopf & Härtel.
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, one of the four best-known sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, has gone down in history as the “Bückeburg Bach.” During his years at the court of Count Wilhelm zu Schaumburg-Lippe in Bückeburg he produced a remarkable body of sacred and secular works, including piano concertos, symphonies, cantatas, oratorios, and Passion settings.
Lazarus stands alongside Die Kindheit Jesu (BR D 5) and Der Fremdling auf Golgatha (BR D 7) among the oratorios based on librettos by the poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder.1 It was written to commemorate the death of the twin brother of Countess Marie Barbara Eleonore, Count Ferdinand Benjamin zur Lippe-Biesterfeld, who died at the age of twenty-eight.2 As Herder was close to the countess, the work also has a personal dimension.3 Yet compared to the structure Handel’s popular Messiah, which had already assumed monumental proportions in the age of J. S. Bach, the defining feature of Lazarus is its tone of internalized intimacy.
In addition to being a gifted and inspired virtuoso, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach stands out not only for his penchant for sentiment but for his solid command of musical resources, as is amply evident in the voice-leading and the entire compositional fabric of this oratorio. On the one hand, he creates an ordered simplicity in his compositional devices without sacrificing expression. For example, the oratorio lacks an instrumental introduction, beginning instead with the voice of Mary mourning at the grave of her brother Lazarus. The orchestra enters on the second syllable of her words “Ist hin!” (he is gone). This may mean either of two things: man searches alone when he suffers and feels deeply; yet he seeks a foothold, and receives it in the accompagnato entering in the next measure. It is at this point that man stands out as an individual being.
Even stronger in its impact is, however, the moving feeling expressed in the figure of Mary: “Ist hin! Ist hin! – den Gott mir nahm – wo nimmer keiner wieder kam und was ich Tränen auf sein Grab weine kommen sie hinab?” (He is gone, gone, he whom God took from me, where none has ever returned; and the tears I shed upon his grave, do they come from above?) The countess must have felt fundamentally understood when she heard the work, presumably to mark the anniversary of her brother’s death. Her dismay can be felt in a letter which she sent to the composer on 25 April 1774: “I have done nothing but wished to show, from a distance, that I am a perhaps not entirely unworthy listener of your sublime hymns; a grand object, but how imperfect compared to what you have given us! If Nature had granted me more courage and a better voice, I would be joining in your choruses at the present moment; – but that which was impossible for me here will, I hope, be given me in a better world during the great Hallelujah, for which you prepare us and offer us many a blissful foretaste.”4
The Lazarus story was thus chosen not only to suit the occasion: it also has crucial parallels with the persons involved. Mary and Lazarus are siblings in the same way as the countess and her brother, and the two sisters bewail their lost brothers in the same way. Bach reflects this connection in the voices: Mary is sung by a contralto, while the role of Lazarus is written for tenor. Grief and lamentation find deeper expression in the low female voice, whereas the high male voice lends a contrasting brightness, signifying hope. The intimate affection between the two figures is also expressed in the relation between the two vocal registers, with the tenor voice being closest to the contralto.
Later in the oratorio Herder links the raising of Lazarus with Jesus’s resurrection. In this passage Bach displays both his adroit craftsmanship and a feeling for the relation between words and music. Jesus’s salvation is set in a passage of fugato sung by the chorus to the words “Christus ist Auferstehung und Leben, wer an ihn glaubt” (Christ is resurrection and life to those who believe in Him). The choice of fugato again emphasizes the act of searching (fuga is Latin for “flight”) and highlights the supremacy of Jesus, as expressed in this most artful form of canon. The conclusion “… der soll leben” (he shall live), in response to the preceding search, is presented in the next section of the piece in the form of a homophonic chorus.
Bach’s oratorio thus reveals a very sensitive handling of the Lazarus subject, owing not only to the warmth of Herder’s libretto but equally to Bach’s subtle and deeply felt musical idiom. The quotation below, taken from a letter to Herder from the countess, speaks of solace and hope as she thanks him for his libretto. It is hoped that attentive listeners of the oratorio will be able to understand these very sentiments “If you could but see the willing, silent tears that flow as I read and repeat your words, they would assure you, more than I can say, how truly your heart has spoken, and what a good deed you have wrought to bestow on me your heavenly thoughts and feelings.”5
Translation: Bradford Robinson
1 Geck, Martin: Die Bach-Söhne (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 32014), p. 95.
2 Leisinger, Ulrich: “Ew. Durchl. treu unterthänigster Knecht: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bachs Beziehungen zum Adel,” in Ulrich Leisinger, ed.: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795): Ein Komponist zwischen Barock und Klassik (Bückeburg: Createam, 1995), p. 21.
3 Leisinger, Ulrich, ed.: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach: Briefe und Dokumente (Hildesheim: Olms, 2001), p. 319.
4 Ibid., p. 287.
5 Ibid., 358.
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