SALEM — “Tracing a Line” was an innocent-looking title for the program offered Saturday in the Atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum. The line ran from a 17th-century German chorale through a Bach cantata to the Berg Violin Concerto. But PEM composer-in-residence Matthew Aucoin didn’t just trace the line, he explored it, in the tradition of the seafarers who founded the museum. And he extended it into the 21st century by incorporating the chorale into a startling work of his own that provided the magnificent climax to a magnificent evening.
Franz Joachim Burmeister’s text for the chorale, beginning with the words “Es ist genug” (“It is enough”), bespeaks an acceptance of death, but Johann Rudolph Ahle’s melody betrays doubts and fears as early as the unexpected D-sharp in the second measure. Bach appropriated the tune for the chorale of Cantata No. 60, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (“O Eternity, You Word of Thunder”). In 1935, Alban Berg slipped it into the final section of his Violin Concerto, which he wrote in memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, who, just 18, had died of polio earlier that year.