cantatas and cleverness

A student of mine did a project on the movie Australia, directed by Baz Luhrman. Typical of his movies, it is grand of scale (hellloooooo: the title is Australia for goodness sake!) and full of music from a wide variety of sources, re-worked to suit his purpose. Most prominent among that music is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which my student described as “everywhere. Oh my god, once I noticed it, it I couldn’t stop hearing it. So much that I thought maybe I was imagining it.”

“You weren’t,” I confirmed. “It’s everywhere.” Including references as abstract as just the accompaniment of the ukulele version by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

What she did not notice was the excerpt from a Bach cantata that is also interwoven throughout the score. It’s not credited on the soundtrack. I first noticed it at 47:39 (according to the Amazon Instant Video streaming numbers), though I suspect it happens earlier because it’s just a fragment there, right when Hugh Jackman says, “the boy needs mothering.” It comes back at 1:26:20, when the kid is talking about not belonging anywhere and 1:35:45, when Hugh Jackman shaves. Then it comes and goes almost as much as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

I thought, “oooh! That’s from a Bach cantata!” But I couldn’t remember which one, so I just searched Spotify for “Bach cantata” and figured the famous stuff would come up top. I was right–it was in the top ten search hits. It’s the aria “Sheep may safely graze” from the Hunt Cantata, number 208.

Before I learned that, I thought it was weird that the final scene of the movie is underscored by “Nimrod” Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which never appears noticeably elsewhere in the movie. I was like, “WTF: suddenly Elgar out of nowhere?” It makes some sense: Nimrod was a hunter, grandson of Noah, which parallels the kid in the story.

Then I found the Hunt Cantata reference and was like, “ohhhhhhh. Gotcha. I see what you did there, Baz.

So, there’s a neat, clever thing. But I also wanted to describe how I knew for sure it was from a Bach cantata. See, I took a class in my master’s program called “Bach Cantatas.” And I took one in my doctoral program called “Bach Cantatas.” I must say, the one I took at Westminster, taught by Robin Leaver, just might be the best class I ever took.

It was three hours on a Monday night. We spent the first half talking about the history and analysis of a particular cantata. In the second half of class, we performed the cantata. Each week, a different group of students was responsible for preparing to lead–a conductor, section leaders

Every week for twelve weeks, we discussed and then sang a Bach cantata. It was amazing. One particular memory I have of that class was the week my group lead. I don’t remember which cantata it was, but it was a late one–lots of recitative and melismatic imitative polyphony. During our short rehearsal time, something came up where they played something better than I prepared for, and I said to the orchestra that I was really glad that they were smarter than me.

Robin Leaver told me in the driest way I can imagine, “you made a primary error of conducting: never let the orchestra think they know as much as you.”

He was joking, of course.

It was a class that taught me more about cantatas than I learned in the doctoral level class I took on the same topic–where we never once sang a note. I also learned something about teaching:  the value of creating a class where students make music, do things, not just listen and describe.

EDIT: Right after I posted this, a Facebook friend posted this:

Top 10 Colleges for Music Ed Majors in the U.S.

Experiences like my Bach cantata class with Robin Leaver are why Westminster is on that list.

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