Entering the world of the oratorio: Muhlenberg presents variations of a “gospel”

Photo Courtesy of Cole Geissler

It is a work among the many with an emphasis on the one: one voice, one thought, one meaning and one essential design. This is one of the ways to describe what was (and remains) the role of the oratorio. An art form that can be traced from Baroque period (about 1600s-1750) to even contemporary time, the oratorio is essentially defined as a large ensemble of voice (and/or orchestra) with select, usually religious, narratives being told through song. Great examples of such works include Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Handel’s “Messiah,” and Haydn’s “The Creation.” On this particular night, Oct. 11, I was given the great pleasure of witnessing various Muhlenberg vocal students perform parts from oratorios across time, including Handel, Bach, Greig and Schubert. Each vocalist took their masterpieces by storm, fully embodying their roles, while also seducing us, the audience, into a complete otherworldly sense of being. We were no longer citizens of pure observation, but instead participants and even characters within the various realms of music and storytelling. A specific performance I would like to dive into is a piece sung by Theresa Corinne Wegher-Thompson ‘20 titled “Blute nur, du liebes Hurz,” which is a part of the “St. Matthew Passion” oratorio by J.S. Bach.

Taking us back in time to between the 17th and 18th centuries, we are presented with a gorgeous Aria written for the soprano, the highest of the four vocal choral parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Normally, pieces such as these are accompanied by a complete orchestra of wind and string instruments to support the vocalist, serving as both a harmonious and rhythmic foundation. In the case of the student recital, the piano served as a wonderful accompaniment by Vincent Trovato.

Diving into the essence of the piece, that is the score versus the vocal technique, the aria begins with the accompa- niment –– note, it’s important to keep in mind that this aria is taking place in the middle of an entire oratorio. The context of this particular piece is that Judas has just sold out the whereabouts of Je- sus, betraying him for thirty silver pieces. This aria is in response to this “sudden” reveal. Corinne begins with the phrase “Blute nur, du liebes Herz,” which she repeats in an almost canon-like phrasing, consistently descending and ascending, representing the pain and discourse occurring within the story being told. The German is translated to “Bleed on, dear heart;” it is here we have a case of textual painting. Corinne, or this case her character which I’ll call “the soprano,” is crying over an eternal loss. Both the accompaniment and vocal score express an endless cycle, as if in an ever spinning wheel; this process continues throughout the entire beginning, or A section, of the aria.

Photo Courtesy of Cole Geissler

The second part of the aria, the B section, begins in a similar phrase structure ascending by step only to descend by leap on the words: “Ach! Ein kind, das du ersogen” – “Ah! A child, whom you reared.” This structure, when it approaches the C section, begins as a study ascent alone, both paralleling and contrasting with its previous descending pattern. It’s a similar theme of canon, but rather than that of a constant, it is the passage of time.

“Das an deiner Brust gesogen, droht den Pfleger zu ermorder, denn es ist zur Schlange worden”

Which translates to: “That sucked at thy breast, is threatening to murder its guardian (nurse), For it has become a serpent.”

Photo Courtesy of Cole Geissler

I was able to get a small interview with Corinne, who kindly shared her thoughts on both her performance of “Blute nur du liebes Herz” as well as the oratorio as a whole.

“Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ is a sacred oratorio translating St. Matthew’s gospel of the passion of Christ into music. As an oratorio, the work is not traditionally theatrical like an opera and is intended to be performed in a concert setting. However, that does not mean that the performance of the work should be lifeless or devoid of active storytelling.  I am a huge advocate for the integration of acting techniques into classical vocal performance; not only does this assist the audience in engaging in the piece, but it also offers additional contextual information for the vocalist to explore. Of course, within the realm of classical performance the vocal aptitude of the performer takes precedence, but a sense of character and situation invites the audience into the world of the work. In ‘Blute nur du liebes Herz,’ a soprano sings an aria of devastation, grieving the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The chronological context for the aria is somewhat ambiguous, and the soprano is not specifically named, but what prevails is a sense of foreboding in the face of sacred tragedy. The text also indicates the bereavement of a mother, leading me to speculate that the soprano is an interpretation of the Virgin Mary and her experience in the midst of the Passion. In my performance, I decided to focus on the idea of Mary’s experience as a human mother faced with the sacrifice of her son, the immense pain of knowing the child that you loved and cared for since birth, who is the a gift to the world from God, will be betrayed by a friend and die a horrific death. How can a mother contend with her God in that moment? How can she even begin to experience such knowledge? I don’t think I have experienced that kind of pain in my life, but as I performed this piece I attempted to draw the audience into a sense of deep mourning, confused grief: the moment a mother turns to her God and asks, ‘Why?’”

The “soprano,” who embodies the role of a mother as well as an observer, serves as the narrative voice in this aria. She is the teller and we her witnesses; and with her songful narrative we are all left with songs of thought.

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