In 2003 it was the release of Ludger Rémy’s recording of his St John Passion which put Georg Gebel the Younger on the map. Before that his music was almost completely ignored. In the liner-notes to this disc Manfred Fechner suggests this could be partly due to the rather negative assessment of Gebel’s oeuvre by the German composer and writer Johann Adam Hiller (1784). In his time Gebel was in high esteem of his employers, and especially Prince Johann Friedrich von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, whose service Gebel entered in 1746. He didn’t enjoy his position that long, though: in 1753 he died of exhaustion, about a month before turning 44. He spent so much time composing that he often worked two days without sleep. It seems that he was driven by the desire to show that he was up to the high expectations of his environment. It is quite possible that this was an inheritance from his youth when his father trained him as a child prodigy and explored his great skills.
The recording of the St John Passion was followed by a recording of two oratorios for Christmas and New Year. In 2010 a disc with Christmas cantatas was released, followed one year later by this disc. A large part of Gebel’s oeuvre has gone missing, but two annual cantata cycles have been preserved almost complete. The cycle of 1747/48 originally consisted of 74 cantatas: 62 of them have come down to us. The cantatas of vol. 1 and vol. 2 are taken from this cycle.
Mein Jesu A und O, der Anfang und das Ende (My Jesus A and O, the beginning and the end) is for New Year’s Day. As with all the cantatas of this cycle it is divided into two parts: one was to be performed before, the other after the sermon. Both parts begin and end with a chorale setting. The festive character of New Year’s Day is reflected by the two trumpets which appear in the opening chorale and the next chorus, a dictum (litteral quotation from the Bible): “The name of the Lord is a mighty fortress”. In the next recitative and aria pair the bass states God’s protection for “righteous men”. An accompagnato for the tenor is followed by a sweet aria for alto, accompanied by two transverse flutes and strings: “Child of the holy woman’s seed, let your dear name of Jesus be an ointment (…)”. The second part again begins with a chorale, followed by a dictum which quotes part of the epistle of that day (Galatians 3, vs 26-27). These two verses are set in contrasting style: the first as a fugue in the stile antico, the latter homophonic. The bass recitative emphasizes the forgiveness of human sins through Jesus’ passion which is followed by a soprano aria – the only one without a dacapo – and a recitative and aria for tenor which dwell on the importance of Christ’s blood for the faithful.
Begebet eure Leiber zum Opfer (Give your bodies as an offering) is written for the first Sunday after Epiphany. Both parts open with a dictum rather than a chorale. The opening dictum of the first part quotes St Paul’s letter to the Romans (12, vs 1): “Give your bodies as an offering that is living, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service to God”. This sets the tone for the cantata. The following pair of recitative and aria express the lack of power and capability of mankind to fulfill the requirements of the above-quoted verse: “[The] spirit is willing, he flesh is weak”. Gebel has translated this into music in a quite evocative way, and the contrast with the next recitative and aria cannot be missed when the alto asks the Holy Spirit to “renew in me body, soul, heart and mind”. The second part begins with a quotation of the second verse of chapter 12 from Romans in which the faithful are urged “not conform to this world”. In the recitatives and arias God is asked to “[guide] me in every instance” and “never let me reach the forbidden fruit”.
These cantatas reflect the style of the time. In one aria Gebel makes use of Lombardic rhythms, for instance. The connection between text and music isn’t quite what it was in the baroque era. The orchestra creates the mood which suits the text rather than directly illustrates the text. A good example of this is the use of the flutes in the alto aria from Mein Jesu A und O, der Anfang und das Ende. Notable is also the choice of texts. The librettist is unknown, and it is assumed he also compiled the texts of the chorales. In most of them traditional melodies are used, such as Nun danket alle Gott and Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, but with a new text. Rhythmically they also differ from the originals, dating mostly from the 16th or 17th centuries, and there are some melodic deviations as well. In my review of the first volume I stated that Gebel differs from other composers of his time in that his music is never superficial. That can be repeated here.
The performances are pretty much ideal. The cantatas are performed with one voice per part; only in Mein Jesu A und O, der Anfang und das Ende four ripienists are used in the chorales and choruses. I can’t figure out why they are used only in this cantata and not in the other. In the tutti the balance is quite good, the exception being the opening chorale of Mein Jesu A und O, der Anfang und das Ende in which the upper voices are too dominant. In the tenor aria of Begebet eure Leiber zum Opfer Andreas Post sings a cadenza in the A part. It underlines its rather operatic character. The soloists bring across the content of their arias very well. Matthias Vieweg is quite drastic in exposing the closing phrase of his aria in Begebet eure Leiber zum Opfer: “must become for me a burden and disgust”.
This disc once again proves the commanding qualities of Georg Gebel the Younger as a composer of sacred music. I don’t know whether more discs with his music are to come. I certainly hope so.
Johan van Veen (2012)
(You can listen to the Christmas Cantatas Vol. 1 here)