Christoph Poppen, The Hilliard Ensemble

In music of the baroque era it was popular to use the medium of numbers for conveying secrets and riddles, and Bach studies have illuminated many new "meanings" in his sacred works. Now "Morimur" explores the coded references, and hidden messages in his solo violin music, opening a window on Bach’s thought at a time when he was deeply affected by the sudden and tragic death of his wife, Maria Barbara, in 1720. Building on the research of Professor Helga Thoene, violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble have realised a unique project for ECM New Series: They offer a stunning experience by interweaving the verses of the "hidden chorales" of the Ciaccona with Bach’s harmonically complex violin part.

Featured Artists Recorded

September 2000, Propstei St. Gerold

  • 1Auf meinen lieben Gott
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 2Den Tod...
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 3Allemande
    (Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 4Christ lag in Todesbanden
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 5Corrente
    (Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 6Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 7Sarabande
    (Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 8Wo soll ich fliehen hin
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 9Giga
    (Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 10Den Tod...
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 11Ciaccona
    (Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 12Christ lag in Todesbanden
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 13Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott zugleich
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 14Befiehl du deine Wege
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 15Jesu meine Freude
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 16Auf meinen lieben Gott
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 17Jesu, deine Passion
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 18In meines Herzens Grunde
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 19Nun lob', mein Seel', den Herren
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 20Den Tod...
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 21Ciaccona (für Violine und vier Stimmen nach einer Analyse von Helga Thoene)
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • 22Den Tod...
    (Traditional, Johann Sebastian Bach)
Stereophile, Recording of the Month
Fono Forum, Stern des Monats
Welcome inside the head of J.S. Bach. The composer often embedded familiar Lutheran chorales in his music so as to create devout associations in the minds of his listeners. German musicologist Helga Thoene discovered that not only are there hidden chorales in Bach's famous Chaconne for solo violin but that these chorales form a musical epitaph to his late wife, Maria Barbara Bach. Fascinated by Thoene's discoveries, violinist Christoph Poppen took the project to ECM label chief Manfred Eicher, who brought the Hilliard singers on board. The result is an absorbing piece of speculation that lets us hear what might have been running through Bach's mind when he was composing it. ... ECM ... has produced something beautiful and thought-provoking. The performers are expert and the recording, made in a monastery in Austria, suitably resonant but clear. Bach would have been amazed to hear his "subliminal" thoughts revealed in this manner, but I doubt he would have been displeased by the result.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
The idea behind this release is the intriguing one, that by covertly slipping into his works snippets of Lutheran chorale tunes, Bach was offering hints as to those pieces' hidden meanings. ... What this disc sets out to do is to take the Second Partita and turn its notional Easter connotation of "in Christo morimur" (in Christ we die) into an audible one by interspersing its five movements with relevant verses and fragments from the chorales in question, suitably paschal numbers such as Christ lag in Todesbanden and Jesu, Deine Passion. Most fascinatingly of all, though, the great final Chaconne - a piece thought to have moving extra significance as a tombeau for Bach's first wife - is played twice, the second time with the Hilliard Ensemble adding the chorale quotations to the texture. ... No one would pretend that this project represents anything that Bach would ever have heard in performance, but the thought of those fleeting, ghostly chorale fragments being something he could have heard in his head is one that is hard to resist. And in the end, when the mind has cleared itself of musicology, this is above all one of those increasingly rare things - a moving and intelligently programmed disc that is effective from beginning to end.
Lindsay Kemp, Gramophone
You are about to hear one of the world's greatest and best-known pieces in a completely new light. Indeed, you may be about to change your view of the composer whom the entire musical world reveres above all others: Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is the Partita in D Minor for solo violin, and the person responsible for what seems set to be a thorough revision of Bach and his music is a German musicologist by the name of Helga Thoene. The radicality of the rethink Thoene's work requires is matched by the excitement her discoveries bring. ... Thoene has discovered the presence of a multitude chorales shot through the textures of the Sonatas and Partitas. ... The German violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble have just recorded the Partita and "its" chorales on a CD entitled Morimur, for the Munich-based label ECM, presenting the music first separately, and then combining the violin and voices. The effect is stunning. The Chaconne in this new incarnation is one of the most moving things I have heard in years - spookily so, since what you are now hearing hasn't been heard since the thoughts passed through Bach's mind. You are, in effect, eavesdropping on the greatest mind in musical history from inside Bach's own head.
Martin Anderson, Fanfare
Many studious hours have been dedicated to deciphering the hidden codes embedded in Bach's output. The results, while deeply convincing, remain, for the majority of Bach lovers, notional jottings in obscure academic journals. Here at last is something we can hear, through the combined talents of Poppen and The Hilliard Ensemble. Delicately programmed, the Partita is interspersed unobtrusively by complete performances of the Chorales. The disc is brought to a staggering conclusion by a performance of the "Ciaccona". Perhaps for the first time we can hear something that only ever happened in Bach's mind.
Tarik O'Regan, The Observer (CD of the week)
One of the starting points of the CD is a theory developed by Helga Thoene, that there are a number of chorale tunes buried in the texture of the Ciaconna. Her analysis is certainly plausible, and the chorale tunes sung to the Ciaconna make musical sense, but the texture is sufficiently complex to mean that it is impossible to be sure. If Bach were merely a musical puzzle setter, that is where the matter would rest. But Morimur is not simply a musical crossword: the performers explore something of Bach's inner journey. ... It is reasonable to ask whether Bach meant these chorale tunes ever to be sung, or whether they were simply things floating more or less consciously in his mind as he wrote. However, in taking us through the partita, and relevant chorales, the Hilliard and Christoph Poppen take the listener on a journey which is entirely consistent with the images of Bach's approach to death and resurrection found in the cantatas that it rings true, and is profoundly moving.
Mark Argent, Early Music News
Durch aufwendiges Zählverfahren hat Helga Thoene herausgefunden, daß die d-Moll-Ciaccona im Grunde eine Trauermusik für Maria Barbara Bach darstellt, deren Namen sich ebenso verschlüsselt in dem Werk auffinden läßt und die im Jahr seiner Entstehung gestorben ist. Noch faszinierender ist freilich der mit Hilfe dieser Untersuchungsmethode gefundene Nachweis, daß Bach in dieser "kostbar ausgestatteten Trauermusik" zahlreiche Kirchenlieder, quasi wie Intarsien in wertvolle Kunstwerke, eingefügt hat. ... Gewissermaßen als "Beweis" für diese These hat die Musikforscherin eine Partitur angelegt, in der die Choralzeilen den jeweiligen Tönen aus der Violinstimme zugeordnet sind. Auf diese Weise ist sozusagen die komplexe Struktur des Werkes, die Stimmverschränkungen, wenn man so will: der universell-polyphone Geist des Komponisten sichtbar gemacht worden. Häufig kommt es nicht vor, daß die Forschung die musikalische Praxis inspiriert. In diesem Falle aber haben sich der Geiger Christoph Poppen und das Hilliard Ensemble mit der Sopranistin Monika Mauch von Helga Thoene anregen lassen und diese neue Partitur eines alten Bach-Werkes mit all seinen versteckten Chorälen zum Klingen gebracht. ... Man kann sich beim Hören dieses "analytischen Werkes", ähnlich wie bei der Bearbeitung Anton Weberns von Bachs "Musikalischem Opfer", einer ungeheuren Sogkraft kaum erwehren, als habe man Einblick in die faszinierende Werkstatt Johann Sebastian Bachs und zugleich in seinen musikalisch-theologischen Kosmos erhalten: überirdische Klänge und ebenso interpretiert.
Wolfgang Sandner, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Das lustvolle Spiel mit Zahlen- und Tonsymbolik gehörte zum musikalischen Alltag im Barock. Vor allem Johann Sebastian Bachs Musik lädt zum Entschlüsseln ein: so enthält die berühmte "Ciacona" der D-Moll-Partita einige kunstvoll umspielte verborgene Choralstellen. Mit Morimur nun starteten der Geiger Christoph Poppen und die Vokalisten des Hilliard-Ensembles ein ungewöhnliches Projekt: Die Musiker stellen der Partita die darin "versteckten" entsprechenden Kirchenliedzeilen gegenüber. Das geschieht mit einer nicht zu übertreffenden Klangschönheit, Stilsicherheit und Authentizität.
Dagmar Zurek, Financial Times Deutschland
In eng verschränktem Bezug: Bach'sche Choräle und eine bezwingend gespielte d-moll Partita für Solovioline. Zum Ereignis macht diese neue CD eine Synchron-Interpretation der Ciaconne, die auf den plausiblen Erkenntnissen der Musikwissenschaftlerin Helga Thoene beruht. Manches spricht nämlich dafür, dass Bach dieses einzigartige Stück für Solovioline 1720 als musikalischen Epitaph auf den Tod seiner ersten Ehefrau Maria Barbara geschrieben hat, aufgehoben im virtuosen Tonsatz die bedeutungsschweren Melodien protestantischer Choräle. Dies hörbar und damit aufs Eindringlichste sinnlich-geistig nachvollziehbar zu machen, ist eines der Verdienste dieser Produktion. Christoph Poppens Musizieren auf der Barockvioline zeichnet sich u.a. aus durch eine rhetorisch spontan-lebendige Phrasierungskunst. Ebenso wie den von Solisten des Hilliard-Ensembles so überaus klar und intensiv deklamierten Bach-Chorälen, eignet seinem präzisen Geigenspiel ein Geist des Unaufdringlichen, Uneitlen und zugleich Aufrechten im Wissen um ein übergeordnetes Ganzes. Was die innere Logik des Experiments und was die künstlerische Qualität seiner Ausführung betrifft, so muss diese neue CD in hohen Tönen gelobt und willkommen geheißen werden.
Helmut Rohm, CD-aktuell Bayern 4 Klassik
Eines "der wunderschönsten, unbegreiflichsten Musikstücke" nannte sie Brahms: Bachs berühmte Chaconne für Violine solo ... Jetzt kann man das Werk mit einer außergewöhnlichen Aufnahme ganz neu entdecken. Mit einer CD, die einen Preis für lebendig gemachte Musikforschung verdient hätte - und einen für hinreißende Schönheit sowieso: Morimur von Christoph Poppen und dem für Gratwanderungen bekannten Hilliard Ensemble. Poppen und das Vokal-Ensemble entschlüsseln das Stück durch die Gegenüberstellung mit Chorälen, die Bach darin wortlos zitiert oder umschrieben hat - und blenden zum Schluss noch beides ineinander... Die Musiker greifen dabei auf die Erkenntnisse der Düsseldorfer Professorin Helga Thoene zurück. ... Alles andere als ein bloß akademisches Vergnügen ist aus der Aufnahme geworden, die außer den Chorälen und der doppelten Chaconne auch die anderen Sätze der Violin-Partita enthält. Das liegt vor allem an Christoph Poppens enorm klangschöner, scheinbar müheloser und sich trotzdem tief ins Gemüt bohrender Interpretation auf der Barockvioline. Den ätherischen Gesangsstil des Hilliard Ensembles muss man nicht immer mögen, doch hier passt die zurückhaltende Ästhetik gut - als zarte Anmerkung zu den Violinstücken. Der Himmel tut sich auf bei dieser Musik. Was die Chaconne betrifft: Sie ist nicht weniger wunderbar, wenn man sie etwas besser begreift.
Roland Spiegel, Abendzeitung
In music of the Baroque era, it was popular to use the medium of numbers for riddles and hidden messages. Research on the works of Johann Sebastian Bach has over the years unearthed numerous coded references, for instance to his name, and a veritable theology in numbers and notes has been deduced from his sacred music.

The unexpected insight that purely instrumental works, such as the Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin can also be read this way is the discovery of Professor Helga Thoene, of the University of Düsseldorf. Her interpretation of the Ciaccona from the Partita in D Minor BWV 1004 as an "epitaph in music" for Maria Barbara Bach is based upon the chorale quotations concealed in the piece as well as on the symbolism of the numerical patterns, interpreted by means of gematria: "Frequently we can identify two or even three lines of a chorale in interlocking counterpoint and discover that they define the harmonic progression of a phrase, or even of an entire movement. Often the secret chorale quotations are embellished in the contrapuntal texture with broken chords containing the notes of the melody, sometimes in alternating registers. The quotations are also highlighted by musico-rhetorical figures that reflect the unstated words or emotional contents of the chorale (...) The abstract figures in this wordless music speak a specific but clandestine language that can be made intelligible through decryption."

Professor Thoene published her findings on the Ciaconna in the Cöthener Bach-Hefte, an academic journal devoted to Bach studies, in 1994. Intrigued by the implications of this text, Christoph Poppen discussed with producer Manfred Eicher the possibility of a recording that would make the "hidden chorales" audible and a collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble was proposed. Widely acclaimed for their adventurous reconstructions of early music (including Lassus, Guillaume de Machaut, and "Officium" with saxophonist Jan Garbarek) the Hilliard singers rise to the challenge of illuminating Bach's thought. "What we hear [on "Morimur"] is surely something of what went on inside Bach's head as he composed the pieces," says tenor John Potter. What words and musical notation present analytically becomes an audible reality in this recording.

The five movements of the Partita No. 2 are linked together by various chorales on "Morimur". (It is striking, too, to hear Bach chorales sung by a small ensemble). So: the Partita is played in its entirety.

The album's dramaturgy climaxes with a revelatory version of the Ciaconna for violin and voices, where the Hilliard singers intone the single verses in parallel with the solo instrument. Herbert Glossner, in the liner notes: "The present recording of the Ciaconna with members of the Hilliard Ensemble makes perceivable the ingenious interplay between the virtuoso and harmonically complex violin part and the lines of the chorales. This recording turns the piece into a work literally never heard before." Except perhaps in the composer's own mind.

Ex Deo nascimur/In Christo morimur/Per Spiritum Sanctum reviviscimus is a Trinitarian formula summing up the central articles of Christian faith. ("We are born of God, We die in Christ, We are reborn through the Holy Spirit") Amongst her many discoveries, Professor Thoene finds this saying embedded, encrypted, throughout the D Minor Partita and stressed particularly in the Cicaonna; the discovery adds weight to her thesis that the work was conceived originally as a tombeau for Bach's wife.