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Tuesday, July 27, 2004
  Cantata: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, 3. Aria (Duet): Wann kommst du, mein Heil?
Johann Sebastian Bach
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 6 Track 7

How is it that C minor can sing so sweetly? By the time of this aria the affections have been categorized and understood well enough that a minor chord could make even the crustiest basso weep. Yet this love duet does well in the minor mode. Neither singer builds phrase upon phrase to climatic, emotional epiphany. Rather, taking advantage of the extended vocabulary offered by a minor key, they content each other with brief, gentle exchanges and an occasional sustained pitch.

Timbre is vital to this duet for four. For instance, the distinction between the violin and soprano is primarily one of color. Though they have very different jobs, their registers overlap. This voice crossing is important to the symbolism of the composition and is effective only because of their strong differences in timbre. The same is true for the bass voice and ‘cello. However, Bach’s interest in timbre is only utilitarian. The voices and string instruments never exchange jobs.

What I like about this three way over ground bass is that it concludes so simply. After all the fancy filigree sol, fa, re, do is enough for the violin and mi, fa, sol, do is enough for the ‘cello.

Read also about more baroque duets from Charles T. Downey at ionarts, Jessica Duchen listens to Carmen and Chopin, and Alex Ross is in Bayreuth.

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In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

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