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WeinenKlagen

Fragment from Bach’s manuscript of cantata 12 in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

For this third Sunday after Easter, I’m jumping back in time to Weimar, 1714, and Bach’s monthly cantata cycle there. Cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen was the second cantata Bach wrote in Weimar after having been promoted to Konzertmeister in 1714. (The first one was cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen for Palm Sunday.)

Bach repeated this cantata in Leipzig in 1724.

There are several very good recordings of this cantata, but I would recommend listening to the one by Collegium Vocale/Herreweghe, or to the one by Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel, and then listen again to the tenor aria on the American Bach Soloists recording (keep reading until the end to learn why).

I love the Collegium Vocale/Herreweghe recording for the excellent timing and phrasing, the sound of the alto section in the choir, and Marcel Ponseele’s oboe playing. Listen to cantata 12 by Herreweghe on YouTube

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Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel’s recording is one on a part, more similar to what it would have sounded like from the small organ loft in the Himmelsburg, and soprano Johanna Koslowsky’s singing always gives me goose bumps, no matter how many times I’ve listened to it. Listen to cantata 12 by Cantus Cölln (scroll to 48’40”)

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The complete German text with English translations of this cantata can be found here.

The beautiful but sad opening sinfonia would probably have served as an “entrada” for the Duke and his entourage. It is very similar to the one of cantata 21 Ich hatte viel bekümmernis, also written in Weimar.

Several of Bach’s Weimar cantatas were lost when the castle’s chapel burnt down in 1774. Most of the Weimar cantatas we still have today “survived” only because Bach performed those again in Leipzig, sometimes several times. If he did this because he was proud of these cantatas, then  Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen must have been his greatest pride, since he later transformed its opening chorus into the Crucifixus for his Mass in B Minor.

Both the sinfonia and opening chorus convey enormous sadness, while it is “Jubilate” Sunday, and only three weeks after Easter. This has to do with the Gospel reading for this Sunday: Jesus’ speech to his disciples explaining that he will leave them, that they will go through immense suffering, but that their sorrow will turn into joy, comparing it to a woman going through childbirth.

So this cantata first conveys the feelings of the disciples, knowing they will soon be without Jesus, and the “tribulations” Jesus predicts for them. But then it explores the journey “from sadness to joy.”

First of all, the entire score can be seen as  uplifting, even though the general atmosphere is downcast. As many scholars have pointed out, the score ascends, movement by movement, in intervals of a third, alternating a minor key with its relative major: f, A flat, c, E flat, g, B flat. Gardiner says that this is the “escape ladder” Bach lowers into the pit of sorrow.

The “sorrow to joy”-theme is also cleverly portrayed in the texts, thanks to Salomo Franck, the Duke’s librarian, acting as librettist for all cantatas Bach wrote in Weimar. Many consider Franck’s poetry superior to most of the texts Bach had to work with in his Leipzig years. The alto aria is a good example: after the Gospel quote in the recitative “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal” (we have to go through tribulation) comes an upbeat aria illuminating how “Kreuz und Krone” (cross and crown) and “Kampf and Kleinod” (conflict and jewel) are always connected.

While I love everything about this cantata, my absolute favorite part is the tenor aria Sei getreu.

The text of the tenor part refers to the Gospel text “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father” and plays on that concept of “little while” – Franck decided it was not any longer than a period of rainy weather (which in Germany can be a few weeks in a row of course) …

Sei getreu, alle Pein
Be faithful, all pain
Wird doch nur ein Kleines sein.
will only be a little while.
Nach dem Regen
After the rain
Blüht der Segen,
blessing blossoms,
Alles Wetter geht vorbei.
all bad weather passes by.
Sei getreu, sei getreu!
Be faithful, be faithful!

And it gets better! Bach offers additional consolation by way of his music: through this aria, a trumpet plays the melody of “Jesu, meine Freude.” Everyone in attendance in the Himmelsburg would immediately have recognized the melody, and would have heard these words in their head:

Jesu, meine Freude,
Jesus, my joy,
Meines Herzens Weide,
My heart’s delight
Jesu, meine Zier,

Jesus, my treasure
Ach wie lang, ach lange
Ah how long,ah how long
Ist dem Herzen bange
must my heart be anxious
Und verlangt nach dir!
And full of longing for you!
Gottes Lamm, mein Bräutigam,
Lamb of God, my bridegroom
Außer dir soll mir auf Erden,
Besides you there is in on earth
Nichts sonst Liebers werden.
Nothing else that is dearer to me.

My all-time favorite recording of this particular aria is the one by American Bach Soloists, with Benjamin Butterfield singing tenor, and Stephen Escher playing the chorale melody on a cornetto. On most recordings (Herreweghe, Cantus Cölln, Gardiner) the part is played on a Baroque trumpet, on some (Koopman) on a Baroque oboe. The softer, more human sound of the cornetto combined with Escher’s fabulous playing makes this the most moving interpretation of this aria I’ve ever heard. Listen for yourself: find American Bach Soloists’ recording of Sei getreu on YouTube.

cornettplayer with singer

singer with cornetto player, anonymous, 16th century

Wieneke Gorter, April 16, 2016