Chorale Cantata was composed in 1994 for performance by Peggy Pearson and Dawn Upshaw, who gave its first performance with the Greenleaf Chamber Players at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
It is based on Aus tiefer Not words and music (here in translation) by Martin Luther. Two settings of poems by Michael Fried also use, in a less direct way, Luther's melody. The cantata is about 9 1/2 minutes long and is scored for solo oboe, solo violin, and string quartet with bass.
© John Harbison
Mr. Harbison wrote Chorale Cantata in 1994 for Peggy Pearson and Dawn Upshaw. The composer has had a longstanding interest in the music of J. S. Bach, particularly the Baroque composer’s church cantatas, which he has conducted in highly regarded performances. Chorale Cantata offers a present-day updating of the type of Lutheran cantata Bach cultivated so assiduously. Like Bach’s sacred cantatas, it is based on a traditional Protestant chorale, or hymn tune, in this case Aus tiefer Not schei’ich zu dir (“From deep despair I cry to you”), composed by Martin Luther. This melody appears conspicuously in the first two movements and is subtly woven into the third movement’s aria as well.
Both the Chorale Prelude and Chorale Fantasia, movements I and II, extend the venerable practice of embedding a chorale melody within a larger musical structure – or, from a different perspective, clothing the hymn tune in a raiment of elaborate counterpoint. Bach practiced such contrapuntal embroidery around chorale melodies in both instrumental and vocal compositions, and the opening movements of Chorale Cantata examine Luther’s in both these contexts.
Bach’s cantatas generally draw their texts from both Lutheran chorales and verses by contemporary poets. In keeping with this practice, the third movement of Mr. Harbison’s work, a recitative and aria, sets lines by the present-day poet Michael Fried. His verses, while not ecclesiastical, nevertheless reflect on mortality, a favorite theme of the Lutheran poets with whom Bach collaborated in composing his church cantatas. The work closes, as Bach’s church cantatas typically do, with a relatively straightforward chorale rendition.
(from the G. Schirmer website)