Sunday, December 18, 2011

December 19

Bist du bei mir
from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, BWV 508
and performed by Dame Janet Baker

Bist du bei mir, geh’ ich mit Freuden
zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh’.
Ach, wie vergnügt wär’ so mein Ende,
es drückten deine lieben [schönen] Hände
mir die getreuen Augen zu!

Be thou with me, and I’ll gladly go
To death and to my repose.
Ah, how my end would bring contentment,
If, pressing with thy hands so lovely,
Thou wouldst my faithful eyes then close.

Nineteen years ago today-- on the 19th day of December-- this piece was sung at my wedding in Stratford, Ontario. It is a beautiful, sweet little aria (or "lied", as it would have been termed in German) that has become immensely popular for marriage ceremonies of all sorts. Although the lyrics would seem to have a distinctly secular feeling, I loved it because I could easily find within the words a meaning that reflected my own personal religious faith, as well. Because my husband-to-be leaned towards agnosticism, the piece was a perfect choice for us both.

Although the music for this aria is attributed to J. S. Bach, there are many scholars who believe that credit for the tune should be given to another composer, one Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749). Although Stölzel was one of the most well-respected composers of the time, most of his work has since been lost. Bach, himself, was very familiar with Stölzel's work, and often hand-copied Stölzel's pieces into his students' exercise books, so that they could be used for practise. Copies of Stölzel's Partia in G Minor from his Clavierbüchlein have been found in the exercise book belonging to J. S. Bach's son, Wilhelm Freidemann, as well as one Bach created for his second wife, Anna Magdalena. Transcribing music, or copying it, was also a popular teaching strategy. Not only did the work help students to reinforce their developing skills in musical theory, it also encouraged them to study great works in minute detail.

Thus, collecting and/or copying music without a proper citation was extremely common in the Baroque era. It may have been done innocently and inadvertently, it may have been due to general carelessness, or it may have been stolen outright.

Anna Magdalena was a trained singer and the daughter of a musician. She often copied music: she became her husband’s musical amanuensis, as her handwriting quite closely resembled his. They created Anna Magdalena's famed "notebooks" together, and this method of transcription may well be the reason why J. S. Bach's name became automatically linked to the piece, "Bist du bei mir". Apparently, the melody was "lifted" from a part of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel's opera, Diomedes, oder die triumphierende Unschuld, which was performed in Bayreuth on November 16, 1718. The author of the lyrics is unknown. This piece may have been transcribed and set by Johann Sebastian as a solo aria appropriate for his wife’s voice, and she may also have had to do some of the copying. No one will ever know how the actual transmission occurred.

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