“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear,” said the announcer at the beginning of each episode of “The Lone Ranger” serial broadcast. A comfortably full Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School heard a musical version of “thrilling days” as conductor Brian Schmidt led his Duke Vespers Ensemble and members of the instrumental group Capella Baroque in what the program notes described as “an exercise in historical listening.” 

The historical setting: a Lutheran vespers worship service during the Cantorship of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). [In the Lutheran church of the 17th and 18th centuries, the parish musician was called the Cantor, whose position was highly regarded and accepted as a co-homiletician with the Pastor, music being viewed as another interpretation of God’s word.]

The assembled congregation/audience was quiet for the organ prelude and postlude (now there’s an old idea which should be reclaimed!), played by Duke Chapel and Divinity School Organist Christopher Jacobson. Both works were Bach’s settings of the plainsong melody to which the Magnificat canticle was normally sung. While the cantus firmus of the opening “Meine Seele erhebt den Herren” (one of the Schubler Chorales) was on the loud side for the other voices, the concluding “Fugue” on the Magnificat was masterfully played as a grand conclusion to a well-designed and performed service/concert.

Two facets of the evening’s program were unlike Bach’s 18th century services. The two congregational hymns were not introduced by organ chorale preludes, but rather by simply playing all the way through the hymn; and the pastoral meditation lasted only a few brief minutes, rather than the much longer time allotted to the sermon, which on Sunday mornings could easily last for an hour. No complaints were heard from the audience about this particular departure from historical accuracy, however. 

Without enumerating each of the fourteen parts of the program, its centerpiece Bach cantata was framed by music which Bach would have known and likely performed. The opening and closing versicle/response and benediction were by composers who were his contemporaries: Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (c. 1656-1746) and Gottfried August Homilius (1714-1785). The psalm (Ps. 51, “Schaffe in mir, Gott”) by Andreas Hammerschmidt (c. 1611-1675) and the Magnificat canticle by Johann Schelle showed the Monteverdian Italian musical influence brought to Germany vividly by Heinrich Schütz. All this music was performed “with the spirit and the understanding also.” The Vespers Ensemble is one of the finest non-professional vocal groups I’ve had the opportunity to hear. Schmidt’s clear, non-histrionic conducting shapes phrases with regard for their musical and textual construction; his singers [28 in the current roster], using minimal vibrato, blend beautifully, but also number some fine solo voices in their midst. Lydia Greene’s pure and liquescent soprano voice, in brief duet passages in the Schelle work, was a delight to hear.

The Bach cantata, Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, while given the number 131 by Wolfgang Schmieder in his catalog of Bach’s works, is likely the oldest surviving cantata, dating from 1707, when Johann Sebastian was all of twenty-two years old. [The cantata’s title as given three times in the program booklet, “Aus der Tiefen…,” and the missing “n” from freudigen in Hammerschmidt’s Psalm 51 text would have benefitted from a bi-lingual proofreader.] With neither recitatives nor “da capo” arias, the cantata’s symmetrical structure consists of five movements: the first, third, and fifth are choruses which are each in the form of a prelude and fugue, while the second and fourth movements are bass or tenor solos with a chorale melody obbligato sung by sopranos or altos. Vocal soloists were all chorus members, with Nathan Jones’ brightly-colored bass voice memorable for navigating the many repetitions of his aria’s short text without sounding repetitious. While each member of a ten-musician instrumental group is important, the underpinning of the whole by cellist Stephanie Vial and violonist Robbie Link was excellent, as were the oboe solos by William Thauer. Because the violins and violas most often were doubling choral parts, their instrumental voices and solid musicianship were less-often obvious, but the resulting blend of vocal and instrumental forces was just right for the space and for the music.

Pastoral leadership was given by German Lutheran Pastor Anne Gidion, currently a Guest Lecturer at Duke Divinity School. In addition to reading the Gospel in German and offering a prayer by Martin Luther, she gave a brief meditation in which she mentioned several topics on which she might have expounded but did not, because, in her words, “Tonight, the music is everything.” Together with its texts, it was, indeed, everything, and everything well done!