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Allegory of Vanity, Antionio de Pereda, between 1632 and 1636

Bach wrote cantata 166 Wo gehest du hin?  in 1724 for the fourth Sunday after Easter, or Cantate Sunday. I recommend listening to Koopman’s recording of the cantata. I appreciate his choices of tempo and his decision to use five voices instead of just one for the soprano chorale. Also, the tenor and alto arias are absolutely marvelous.

We are now much closer to Ascension than to Easter in the Lutheran Church year, so there is definitely some of the despair about Jesus’ imminent departure in text and music. This time the text focuses more than last week on the actual “going away,” and what that means for the disciples / the believers.

However, it is Cantate Sunday, and of course Bach could not leave that alone. He uses several terrific examples of what “singing” can mean in his church music: a Vox Christi (a bass voice representing Jesus) arioso as opening, a beautiful tenor aria, a soprano chorale, and then a piece of opera for the alto. In the cantata he wrote for this same Sunday the next year, he even includes a bit of polyphonic choral motet-writing in the middle. (cantata 108, Est ist euch gut, das ich hingehe).

The bass arioso quotes only the Wo gehest du hin? from the Gospel text (John 16):

5. Nun aber gehe ich hin zu dem, der mich gesandt hat; und niemand unter euch fraget mich: Wo gehest du hin?


[5] But now I go my way to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?

The text of the  tenor aria elaborates on this, focusing on heaven, where Jesus is going, versus world, or life on earth, that man has to do something with. Interestingly, the title of the lost Weimar cantata for this Sunday is Leb ich oder leb ich nicht (To be or not to be, freely translated).

Ich will an den Himmel denken
I want to think of heaven
Und der Welt mein Herz nicht schenken.
and not give away my heart to the world.
Denn ich gehe oder stehe,
For whether I go or stand still
So liegt mir die Frag im Sinn:
I have this question in my mind:
Mensch, ach Mensch, wo gehst du hin?
Man, ah man, where are you going?

I love this aria. It is one of the many examples in Bach cantatas where the tenor aria is a perfect trio sonata,  and I adore this soloist: Christoph Prégardien.

The soprano chorale  answers the last question of the tenor aria (and perhaps also the question asked in the bass arioso) with a firm answer from the Christian(s)  that they want to stay on the path to Christ, to heaven. Koopman’s choice to have this sung by the entire soprano section of the Amsterdam Baroque Choir is brilliant. Not only do the five sopranos (Vera Lansink, Caroline Stam, Francine van der Heijden, Annemieke Rademaker, and Melanie Greve) sound wonderful together, it is also a better balance with the string accompaniment, played unisono by the violins and violas.

Ich bitte dich, Herr Jesu Christ,
I ask you, Lord Jesus Christ,
Halt mich bei den Gedanken
keep me in your thoughts
Und lass mich ja zu keiner Frist
and do not let me at any time
Von dieser Meinung wanken,
falter in this purpose,
Sondern dabei verharren fest,
but instead let me firmly persevere
Bis dass die Seel aus ihrem Nest
until my soul from its nest
Wird in den Himmel kommen.
shall go to heaven.

The bass recitative points out the worthlessness of life on earth and worldly possesions, reminding the congregation that whenever things are going well, life can quickly take a bad turn:

Gleichwie die Regenwasser bald verfließen
Just as rainwater soon flows away
Und manche Farben leicht verschießen,
and many colours easily fade,
So geht es auch der Freude in der Welt,
so is it also with joy in this world,
Auf welche mancher Mensch so viele Stücken hält;
which many people value so highly;
Denn ob man gleich zuweilen sieht,
even though sometimes people are seen
Dass sein gewünschtes Glücke blüht,
to be flourishing with the good fortune for which they longed
So kann doch wohl in besten Tagen,
still even in the best days
Ganz unvermut’ die letzte Stunde schlagen.
quite unexpectedly the last hour may strike.

The alto aria elaborates on this thought, and Bach really shows off his vocal writing in this aria.How the friendly smile of good fortune can quickly turn into satanic laughter of sorrow/bad luck/disaster is brilliantly illustrated in the music, and wonderfully executed by countertenor Bernhard Landauer. Koopman’s and Landauer’s interpretation of this aria is unrivaled by any of the other recordings I listened to.

Man nehme sich in acht,
You should take care
Wenn das Gelücke lacht.
when good fortune smiles.
Denn es kann leicht auf Erden
For easily in this earthly life
Vor abends anders werden,
before evening things can turn out differently
Als man am Morgen nicht gedacht.
from what you thought in the morning.

Wieneke Gorter, April 23, 2016.