While most of Bach’s cantatas in Weimar were performed in the castle’s chapel, the Himmelsburg, sometimes the Duke would visit the St. Peter und Pauli (St. Peter and Paul) church, also called the Stadtkirche (city church), and nowadays also called the Herder Kirche. It might have been for political reasons, or because of wanting to hear a certain preacher. Whatever the Duke’s motivation was on Easter 1715, it is clear from the orchestration of cantata 31 Der Himmel Lacht, die Erde Jubilieret that it cannot have been performed on the small organ loft of the castle’s chapel. (Lucky for all those musicians, they didn’t have to climb the 65 feet / 20 meters Bach climbed every day to play organ there).
Listen to cantata 31 by Harnoncourt on YouTube
Listen to cantata 31 by Harnoncourt on Spotify
Please find the German text of this cantata with English tranlations here and please find the score here.
After the first performance in Weimar on April 21, 1715, Bach performed this cantata at least two more times in Leipzig. This might have been because of writing or revising the Passions for Good Friday, he didn’t have time to write something new (he also recycled cantata 4 a couple of times), but let’s just say he really liked them.
In the fabulous opening sinfonia, one can clearly hear that Bach had been studying Vivaldi’s music and also that the start of the Christmas Oratorio (written much later, in Leipzig) was conceived already here in Weimar. At one point in the cello part, there is a reference to the brilliant writing in cantata 18 from two months earlier that same year.
Whether the sinfonia was meant to function as an “entrada” for the Duke and his entourage into the church or not, it needs to be that slow for me, that I can at least picture a ceremonial entrance happening while this music is being performed. That desire combined with strong nostalgic emotions I have when listening to this cantata, I can only recommend the Harnoncourt recording of this.
The nostalgia is of course not for the sometimes struggling brass instruments in the opening movement. (It was not easy in the early 70s to play historic trumpet. But those guys paved the way. And who knows, maybe that’s why Harnoncourt takes the tempo so much slower than Historical Performance conductors do that nowadays). The nostalgia is for the fabulous Peter Jelosits. In my memory this cantata got played more often in our house than just on Easter Sunday and I truly grew up with his voice. In this cantata he gets to sing the soprano part in the five-part (!) opening chorus by himself for several measures, which is pure heaven, and he sings a fabulous aria as well. In the liner notes it only says “soloist of Wiener Sängerknaben,” but if you compare it with this recording, it is clearly him.
About the aria (the before-last movement of the cantata): after the super-happy opening chorus celebrating the resurrection and -in the subsequent movements- reflections on what Christ’s passion and resurrection mean for man, it is by now time to turn back to the always present death, and the trust that Jesus will not leave the believer’s side. By this time Bach had already buried two of his children, and his employer was also a very devout Lutheran, so this was entirely appropriate, as dark and heavy as it might seem to us today.
So Bach already presents a “deathbed chorale” in this aria, in the melody of the upper strings, while of course the soprano voice part sings different words. We can assume that the congregation at this church in Weimar as well as Duke Wilhelm-Ernst knew this chorale so well they could hear these words in their head:
Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist,
When the hour of my death is at hand
This same tune then comes back in the closing chorale, using the original text, albeit the very last verse of it.
Wieneke Gorter, March 27, 2016, updated April 3, 2021.