In Time Program Notes

The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.


Welcome to the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers’ opening concert of the 2023-2024 season! This  season begins with a collaboration in musical and artistic storytelling, as the TMSingers are joined by Compagnie de la Citadelle, performing choreography by Laurence Lemieux. The title of tonight’s program, In Time, opens up to numerous interpretations: the interaction of time between movement and music, the relationship of time to both art forms, and the particular time that formed the Baroque period, which all three musical pieces either date from or have connections to. Simultaneously, the program also opens into a sense of timelessness, as all three pieces textually and musically connect to themes of journeying through struggle, destination, and hope, while Lemieux’s choreography celebrates and acknowledges the strength and resilience of women as a timeless entity.

In several ways, Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden take us on similar journeys and exist in similar musical contexts. Both pieces are early, lesser-known, and rarely performed works by the two composers; both were first performed in April of 1707 when both composers were 22; both draw on texts that are central to Catholic and Lutheran spiritual tradition; both stress teachings central to the Christian faith. Furthermore, in spite of being early works (both in terms of compositional timeline and the relative youth of the composers), both pieces foreshadow the musical language, innovation, grandeur, and drama of Bach’s and Handel’s later, more well-known works, including the Passions and the English oratorios.

Yet for all their similarities, the two pieces exist in profoundly different contexts. Handel composed Dixit Dominus at the beginning of his four years in Italy, partially in response to his earliest exposures to new Italian musical styles and Roman Catholic liturgical practice. The piece was likely composed for one of Handel’s main patrons in Rome, Cardinal Carlo Colonna, and while nothing is known about the exact date or circumstances of the first performance, it is without doubt that the piece was meant to be performed for an evening Vespers service. Vespers, a liturgy practiced in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran faith traditions, combines prayer, scripture readings, and the musical performance or spoken recitation of Psalms. Dixit Dominus, specifically, sets Psalm 110 (“The Lord said unto my Lord”) with an added doxology. Textually, the piece foreshadows the coming of a Messianic figure and the central Christian teaching of the Holy Trinity. Handel’s music takes us on a journey through moments of terror, bloodshed, and wrath, alongside moments of peace and hope, all vividly depicted in his interpretation of the text.

Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ lay in the snares of death”), on the other hand, was likely first performed as part of Bach’s ‘audition’ for a post as director of church music for the Lutheran community in Mühlhausen, Germany. Bach was himself a German Lutheran, so unlike Handel in Italy, Bach knew his audience intimately. Christ lag was the central Easter hymn of the Lutheran tradition, with text and music written by Martin Luther in 1524 (notably, Luther was a remarkably active composer when he wasn’t otherwise occupied with the instigation of the Protestant Reformation). Bach set Luther’s hymn as a chorale cantata, maintaining the original text and hymn tune, but composing different variations of the tune in every verse, craftily aligning his composition and his musical theology with that of Lutheranism’s founder. Like Dixit Dominus, the text and music of Christ lag in Todesbanden takes listeners on a journey, depicting the struggle between life and death, and the ultimate overthrowing of death and promise of eternal life symbolized in Christianity by Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection.

Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands (2016) is a recent composition, yet her work also has a relationship to the Baroque period. The piece was written as a musical response to the “Ad manus” movement of Membra Jesu Nostri, a deeply influential cycle of seven cantatas composed by Dietrich Buxtehude in 1680. Shaw draws on the central question of “Ad manus” – what are these wounds in the midst of your (Christ’s) hands? – and asks the question in a more secularized fashion. What are the wounds on our hands? Shaw’s answer is the increasing global refugee crisis, and “our role and responsibility in these global and local crises.” The especially affecting fifth movement features the choir reciting what was, in 2016, the current number of globally displaced people, organized by country. Tragically, these numbers continue to increase. Shaw’s insights into her own composition offer a broader reflection that interacts with the broader themes of journeying, distress, resilience, and hope in tonight’s performance. Her words offer a fitting summation to these notes. She writes:

“Let us open our hands to those of others.
What are these wounds, in my hands, and in yours?”