For Bach, Easter season in Leipzig was extremely busy. Immediately after the passion on Good Friday, he needed to have three to four cantatas ready to go: two cantatas for Easter Sunday, one for Easter Monday, and one for Easter Tuesday. And then five days later, again one for the Sunday after Easter, the one I am discussing here. If we imagine Bach having to work on most of these in the week before Easter, that same week in which he was rehearsing the Passion for Good Friday, and often adjusting the score still too, it is not so strange that he often re-used existing music at this time of year. It would either be a repeat performance of an Easter cantata from his time in Mühlhausen (Christ lag in Todesbanden) or Weimar (Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde Jubilieret!) or a new cantata, with new text, but largely based on existing secular music he had written for the Weimar or Köthen courts.
In 1725, the performance list looked like this:
Good Friday: St. John Passion, 2nd version, significantly rewritten from the year before.
Easter Sunday: Easter-Oratorio, largely based on existing court music from Köthen + a repeat of Christ Lag in Todesbanden (Bible story: Maria Magdalena and Maria Jacobi finding the empty tomb)
Easter Monday: new composition: Cantata 6 Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden (Bible story: Jesus appeared before two of his disciples while they were walking on the road to Emmaus).
(If you have time, it is helpful to listen to cantata 6 (here on YouTube) before you listen to today’s cantata 42, because 42 refers to 6 in style and thought, and the use of the “two and three” in the text of the alto aria of cantata 42 might even be meant to “remind” us of these *two* disciples in that story of Easter Monday.
Easter Tuesday: we don’t know what was performed on this day in that year.
1st Sunday after Easter: Cantata 42 Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, opening sinfonia and alto aria based on existing court music from Köthen (Bible story: while a small group of his disciples are inside a house in Jerusalem, with all the doors and windows locked, Jesus appears in their midst).
Ever since I started this blog at the beginning of this year, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this first Sunday after Easter, so I can finally introduce you to cantata 42 from 1725. It is one of my favorites because of the many gems strung together: a Brandenburg concerto-like sinfonia (as if Bach wanted to continue the kind of instrumental opening he had written for the Easter Oratorio from last week), a bit of Evangelist recitative (which is missing from the Easter Oratorio, so is more a reference to the St. John Passion), a terrific alto aria, a pretty soprano-tenor duet, an impressive bass aria, and a wonderful closing chorale.
I discovered this cantata about fifteen years ago, on the Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis CD Herreweghe recorded in 2000. It took me a little while to listen past the well-known cantata 21, and thus get to know cantata 42, but then I fell in love with it, especially with the alto aria, so beautifully sung by Gerard Lesne. Later, in 2007, while watching the documentary DVD Philippe Herreweghe by himself, it was a treat to find a couple of scenes showing Herreweghe rehearsing that same alto aria (though sadly not with Lesne).
Read the German text with English translation of cantata 42 here.
For a long time I thought that the gorgeous oboe parts at the start of the alto aria were based on the opening chorus of cantata 3 (and only found one other commentator ever to remark on this too) but thanks to Gardiner’s recent research, we know that the music for the aria as well as for the opening sinfonia of this cantata was copied from a (now lost) birthday serenata Bach wrote for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (BWV 66a).
We can only guess if Bach had always meant to use the birthday music from Köthen, and selected text that would fit on the music, or if he received the “Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind” (Where two or three are gathered together) text from his librettist and only then had to think of that composition he had written in Köthen, with the groups of two and three in the orchestration …
Wieneke Gorter, April 3, 2016, updated April 8, 2018.