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Florid Christmas Ornamentation

California Bach Society

Dec. 4, 5, and 6

The glorious sounds of choral music for the Christmas season come in many forms, and the California Bach Society’s “Advent in Dresden 1620” concerts, presented Dec. 4-6 in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley, promise musical splendor in an old and lush tradition. Featuring music by Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, Samuel Scheidt, and Johann Heinrich Schein — four prominent composers associated with the early-17th -century Dresden court — the program follows the order of a traditional Vespers service, taking the audience through the expectations, the solemn reflections, and the joys of the Advent season.

“The beauty of this program lies in the contrast between the simple and the complex,” says Artistic Director Paul Flight. The simple element is the Lutheran hymn tunes that underlie nearly all this music. The Society will sing a few hymns in traditional Lutheran settings, though most of the program will reflect the complex element — these tunes woven into intricate counterpoint and often decorated with breathtaking ornamentation. “One can only marvel at the skills of the North German composers Schütz, Schein, Scheidt, and Praetorius,” Flight adds, “as they develop every musical possibility inherent in the tune.”

Praetorius is the featured composer on the program. Audiences will hear his unique settings of such familiar tunes as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme; Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, as well as his less familiar Magnificat super Ut re mi fa sol la, based on the simple melodic motive of six ascending notes of the scale. The offerings from the other composers feature antiphonal writing. Schein’s Aus tiefer Not is a complex canon for two voices with continuo, while Scheidt’s version of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and Duo Seraphim and Schütz’ setting of Psalm 128 are for double choir, showing the influences of the Venetian polychoral tradition.

It has been many years since the California Bach Society presented an all-German Christmas (or Advent) concert, as it has been focusing recently on Italian and French offerings, to enthusiastic acclaim. The German Lutheran settings offered this season are unique and moving, says Flight, in part because they present a “heartfelt, pietistic poetry,” layered with a new interest in an expressive musical language that prized word painting and heightened emotions.

For fans of either the 17th century or the German musical tradition, this program is a perfect fit. For listeners who do not know this tradition, this concert promises to open wide the doors of a rich musical world. And for anyone who simply wants to hear classic choral music of the season sung with adept passion, this is a concert not to be missed.

Kaneez Munjee is a singer, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University, and specializes in late 17th- and early 18th-century French music.