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Paolo Veronese: Jesus Among the Doctors, circa 1560, oil on canvas

Lutherans in the 18th century knew very well that on this Sunday, the first after Epiphany, they should fast-forward twelve years in Jesus’ life, to the story of his parents losing him on a trip to Jerusalem, and then finding him in the temple, conversing with the Doctors. This story often appeared on paintings from the 15th century onward, and the text from Luke was probably as familiar to the Leipzig congregation as the Christmas story :

48. Und da sie ihn sahen, entsetzten sie sich. Und seine Mutter sprach zu ihm: Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns das getan? Siehe, dein Vater und ich haben dich mit Schmerzen gesucht.

[48] And when they saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him : ‘My son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have looked for you with anxiety.’

49. Und er sprach zu ihnen: Was ist’s, daß ihr mich gesucht habt? Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß in dem, was meines Vaters ist?

[49] And he said to them : ‘How is it that you looked for me?Did you not know that I must be in that which is my father’s?’

In cantata 154 Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren (from 1724, written 3 days after Sie werden aus Saba alle kommenBach doesn’t set the scripture literally, except for one of Jesus’ lines of text. He doesn’t let Jesus’ parents talk (as for example Schütz had done 75 years before in his Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns das getan? from Symphoniae Sacrae III) but instead it is “man” in general who thinks he has lost Jesus, and is later happy to have found him again. However, the loss of a child as well as the fear of it happening is something that Bach could relate to, and that drama is palpable in the opening tenor aria.

Listen to cantata 154 by Bach Collegium Japan on Spotify (fabulous singing by Robin Blaze and Gerd Türk)

For those without access to Spotify, listen to cantata 154 by Kuijken on YouTube

Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.

For the rest this cantata feels almost like a little opera, with the very pretty alto aria asking Jesus to please not hide in the clouds, followed by the appearance of Jesus speaking “Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß in dem, was meines Vaters ist?” and then the exuberant alto/tenor duet rejoicing in the fact that Jesus has been found. Bach uses two special and wonderful orchestrations in this cantata. In the alto aria he uses a “high continuo” with violins and harpsichord to accompany the voice and the oboes, most probably to illustrate purity and innocence.  And in the alto/tenor duet Bach brings both the violins of the tenor aria and the oboes from the alto aria together, the first violin and first oboe playing the same part, the second violin and the second oboe also playing the same part, as an additional illustration of the happy reunion and the last two lines of text of the duet:

Ich will dich, mein Jesu, nun nimmermehr lassen,
I want never again to abandon you, my Jesus,
Ich will dich im Glauben beständig umfassen.
I want to embrace you constantly in faith.

John Eliot Gardiner, in his terrific liner notes with his recording (scroll down to page 6), states that on the text “O Donnerwort in meinen Ohren” (O thunderous word in my ears) in the opening tenor aria, the orchestra should evoke “ear drumming.” (If you would like to listen to this Gardiner interpretation with tenor James Gilchrist, you can find that here on YouTube). Gardiner also points out that this tenor aria is a cousin to Peter’s Ach, mein Sinn! aria from the St. John Passion. That passion would not be performed until Good Friday of that year, 1724, but in his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven Gardiner suggests that Bach was probably working on the passion, and might have been preparing the people in Leipzig for it. This included introducing them to Jesus (even a twelve-year-old one) as a bass voice. This might explain why Bach somewhat unnaturally “interjects” Jesus’ text “Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß in dem, was meines Vaters ist?” in between the alto aria and the tenor recitative in this cantata.

With cantata 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (from 1726), Bach steps even further away from the literal story of this Sunday. It is now not even “man” anymore who has lost Jesus and then finds him again, but the “soul” in the form of a soprano voice, and Jesus. Herreweghe’s first oboist, Marcel Ponseele, recorded a handful cantatas with his own ensemble Il Gardellino and I was excited to find out that they also recorded cantata 32. Beautiful job by soprano Caroline Weynants and of course Marcel Ponseele himself in the pretty opening aria.

Listen to the entire recording of cantata 32 by Il Gardellino on Spotify

Listen to the entire recording of cantata 32 by Il Gardellino on YouTube

Click here for the German text with English translation of cantata 32

Click here for a vocal score for cantata 32

In closing, some food for thought: Bach incorporates the text of Psalm 84 Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen in the fourth movement of Cantata 32 in the soprano voice. Knowing that Schütz also used that same Psalm text at the end of his  Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns das getan?, I wonder if Bach knew that particular Schütz piece and used it as inspiration for this cantata and, who knows, perhaps also for cantata 154, since that one is so operatic, shall we say Schütz-like, in nature and structure …

Wieneke Gorter, January 10, 2016, links updated January 11, 2020.