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In 1725, between Easter and Pentecost, Bach set nine cantatas in a row to texts by Christiane Mariana von Ziegler (1695–1760). And it is in part thanks to her poetry that I’m favoring the cantata from 1725 over the one from 1724  for this “Rogate” Sunday – the fifth Sunday after Easter.

This cantata 87 from 1725, Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen, contains two jewels of arias: the alto aria (no 2) and the tenor aria (no 6). Von Ziegler’s poetry combined with Bach’s sublime scoring in those arias completely knocked me over when I first listened to this cantata this week. I found Gardiner’s recording of this cantata (which I happened upon by accident – read more about this at the very end of this post) the most moving.

Listen to Gardiner’s recording of cantata 87 on Spotify.

Listen to Gardiner’s recording of cantata 87 via a playlist I created on YouTube (there might be some ads in here – you can click to skip them after a few seconds).

Buy Gardiner’s live recording of cantata 86 and 87 on Amazon

(This album is absolutely worth purchasing –  cantata 86 is beautiful too, and the violin accompaniment in the alto aria of that cantata 86 on this recording is the best)

About Christiane Mariana von Ziegler: A female librettist, who didn’t have to hide behind a male alias to get recognition or to get her works published? In 18th century Leipzig? When I first heard about this I could not believe it. But it turns out that by unusual circumstances, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler was as “free” as probably no other woman at that time was, at least between 1722 and 1741.

In that time period, there was no husband or other male relative by whose rules she had to live: her father had been in jail since she was 11, she had been twice widowed, and had lost both her children (one from each marriage). Despite all this, she was still in possession of her family’s house and fortune, and was well respected in Leipzig society. She wrote poetry, sang, and played many musical instruments. In 1722 (at age 27) she was appointed the official guardian of her family’s household, a position normally never awarded to a woman. For the next two decades her house served as the salon where many artists and intellectuals could meet. She would promote artists, poets and writers, and introduce them to representatives of the university who also attended her events.

In 1730, Von Ziegler became the first and only female member of Gottsched’s German Literary Society. She was named “poet laureate,” crowned by the emperor in 1733. In 1732 and 1734 she received the poetry prize from the German Literary Society. Her last published work appeared in 1739. In 1741, she married Professor Balthasar von Steinwehr and lived with him in Frankfurt an der Oder until her death in 1760. As far as we know, she did not write anything in this last period of her life.

In 1728, she published Versuch in gebundener Schreib=Art, which contains the texts for the nine 1725 Bach Cantatas (103, 108, 87, 128, 183, 74, 68, 175, 176). In 1729 she published In Gebundener Schreib-Art: Anderer und letzter Theil, which contains the rest of a complete yearly cantata cycle which Bach never set to music.

Since there is no correspondence between Von Ziegler and Bach left to us,  we don’t know why they started working together, we don’t know why the working relationship ended, nor why Bach never used the other texts she had provided for the rest of the cantata cycle. There are some theories that she must have been vexed about Bach altering her texts on several occasions in 1725. However, the only proof we have for what her “original” texts would have been are her publications from several years later. She might have changed them herself between Bach first using them and her later publishing them. We do know that Bach first worked with Picander, the poet with whom he would later collaborate extensively (including for the St. Matthew Passion) in February 1725.

Back to this cantata. It was Bach’s life goal to not only praise God, but also educate “his neighbor” (the congregation, his fellow believers) with his church music, and it seems that Von Ziegler definitely shared this vision. To not make this post too long, I’ll only highlight the alto aria, since it is the piece that impressed me most, but the rest of the cantata is well worth listening to, especially the tenor aria.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday was the last part of Jesus’ speech to his disciples, from John. Note verse 24 (quoted in the bass arioso opening) and the overall stress on speaking in proverbs versus speaking plainly.

23. Und an demselbigen Tage werdet ihr mich nichts fragen. Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch: So ihr den Vater etwas bitten werdet in meinen Namen,so wird er’s euch geben.

[23] And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.

24. Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen. Bittet, so werdet ihr nehmen, daß eure Freude vollkommen sei.

[24] Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.

25. Solches hab’ ich zu euch durch Sprichwörter geredet. Es kommt aber die Zeit, daß ich nicht mehr durch Sprichwörter mit euch reden werde, sonderneuch frei heraus verkündigen von meinem Vater.

[25] These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father.

26. An demselbigen Tage werdet ihr bitten in meinem Namen. Und ich sage euch nicht, daß ich den Vater für euch bitten will;

[26] At that day ye shall ask in my name: and I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you:

27. denn er selbst, der Vater, hat euch lieb, darum daß ihr mich liebet und glaubet, daß ich von GOtt ausgegangen bin.

[27] For the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God.

28. Ich bin vom Vater ausgegangen und kommen in die Welt; wiederum verlasse ich die Welt und gehe zum Vater.

[28] I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.

29. Sprechen zu ihm seine Jünger: Siehe, nun redest du frei heraus und sagest kein Sprichwort.

[29] His disciples said unto him, Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb.

30. Nun wissen wir, daß du alle Dinge weißt und bedarfst nicht, daß dich jemand frage. Darum glauben wir, daß du von GOtt ausgegangen bist.

[30] Now are we sure that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee: by this we believe that thou camest forth from God.

After the Vox Christi bass arioso opening (beautifully scored as an opening “chorus” for strings, oboes, and bass voice), Von Ziegler doesn’t hold back in communicating what the believers should take away from this lesson, and writes this text for the alto recitative:

O Wort, das Geist und Seel erschreckt!
O word, that terrifies spirit and soul!
Ihr Menschen, merkt den Zuruf, was dahinter steckt!
You people, notice the call hidden behind these words!
Ihr habt Gesetz und Evangelium vorsätzlich übertreten;
You have deliberately transgressed the law and gospel;
Und dies möcht’ ihr ungesäumt in Buß und Andacht beten.
And because of this you should pray without delay in repentance and devotion.

And then gives them the prayer they should be saying in the alto aria, and this is the part that bowled me over, because of the combination of the music, the text, and the humble interpretation of it on the Gardiner recording:

Vergib, o Vater, unsre Schuld
Forgive, O Father, our guilt
Und habe noch mit uns Geduld,
and still have patience with us,
Wenn wird in Andacht beten
when we devoutly pray
Und sagen: Herr, auf dein Geheiß,
and say: Lord, at your command,
Ach, rede nicht mehr sprichwortsweis,
Ah, speak no more proverbs,
Hilf uns vielmehr vertreten.
Instead help us represent ourselves.

Here’s the story of how I happened upon the Gardiner recording of this cantata, and this aria in particular: I was only familiar with cantata 86, not with 87. When comparing several recordings of the alto aria in cantata 86 (because of the stunningly beautiful and very virtuosic violin accompaniment), I decided I liked the violin playing on Gardiner’s recording the best. Satisfied that I had found this and knew what my blog post was going to be about, I took a break while letting the album play, and of course cantata 87 was next. I was on the floor on my yoga mat, just lying there, letting the music wash over me, unable to do anything else.

I am rarely so physically moved by a Gardiner recording, so I went and looked up his journal of the live performances (and recordings) in question, and found this:

“In addition to our habitual position of “bringing coals to Newcastle,” the potential impertinence of interpreting Bach to the Germans, we faced the far pricklier issue of performing Bach in the city [Dresden] whose cultural treasure had been wantonly destroyed by British bombs in one mad night towards the end of the war and with colossal loss of life.”

So there it was: the prayer for forgiveness and better representation had been as meaningful to the British musicians in the German city at the time of this recording as it was to me this week.

Wieneke Gorter, May 1, 2016