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Lazarus and the Rich Man / Lazarus and Dives, Codex Aureus of Echternach, 11th century

On this First Sunday after Trinity (for short:Trinity 1), Sunday May 30, 1723, Bach started his first cycle of weekly cantatas in Leipzig. It was two days before his official installation, and one week after he and his family had arrived in the city.

Trinity is also the start of the part of the church year that deals exclusively with issues of faith and doctrine, instead of celebrating events from Jesus’ life, as was done in the period between Advent and Pentecost. This change must have been important to Bach too, because all three surviving cantatas for Trinity 1 are large-scale, musically ambitious works.

The composition with which Bach made his debut in the St. Nicholas Church (he would not perform in the St. Thomas Church until one week later) was cantata 75 Die Elenden sollen essen, a piece of considerable length, containing no less than 14 movements, seven before the sermon, seven after.

I prefer the recording by Herreweghe, which appears on the same CD as cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.

Listen to Herreweghe’s recording of cantata 75 Die Elenden sollen essen (with soloists Carolyn Sampson, Daniel Taylor, Mark Padmore, and Peter Kooy) on YouTube

Purchase Herreweghe’s recording of cantata 75 Die Elenden sollen essen and two other cantatas on Amazon

Find the complete German text with English translation of this cantata here.

The text of the opening chorus is from Psalm 22, but it is strongly related to the Gospel of the day: the story of Lazarus (a poor leper, who lies in front of the door of a rich man’s house, asking the rich man for food every day) and Dives (the rich man, who ends up in hell when he dies because he didn’t share his blessings/wealth with those in need).

When I listen to the opening chorus, I keep wondering if Bach wrote a Kyrie in Köthen which he never finished or which got lost for another reason. This is not backed up by any of the commentary about this cantata, but in these first measures I can’t stop myself from hearing “Ky-ri-e-e-le–”  in my head when the choir sings “Die-ie E-e-le–.” The music accents the second syllable of the word Elenden, while in the spoken language the stress would be on the first syllable. I find it strange that Bach would have ignored word stress in such an important composition, which he spent extra time on, and probably already wrote before he arrived in Leipzig (Gardiner notes that the paper of the manuscript was not from Leipzig, and that the handwriting was extremely neat). So I’m hoping something will turn up in my lifetime to substantiate this hunch I have ….

Wherever the opening chorus originated from, it is beautifully written,  as are all the arias. The soprano aria has a tender, plaintive oboe d’amore accompaniment, the alto aria floats on a rich blanket of strings, and the bass aria is a show-off piece with virtuosic music for the singer as well as the trumpeter.

There is a symmetry to the order in which the recitatives and arias appear in the cantata which is rarely seen in other Bach cantatas.

In the first half:

Bass recitative – Tenor aria – Tenor Recitative – Soprano Aria – Soprano Recitative

in the second half this pattern is mirrored for the remaining voices:

Alto recitative – Alto Aria – Bass recitative – Bass Aria – Tenor Recitative

But of course it is typical for Bach to use mathematical design when wanting to make a lasting  impression with a composition (such as with the St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor). Also the fact that there are 14 movements to this cantata is not a coincidence: it is the sum of the numbers B, A, C, and H in the alphabet.

There is more symmetry in the cantata: The text of the first half refers to the Gospel story from Luke about Lazarus and Dives, and talks about earthly life and material possessions. In contrast to this, the second half of the cantata moves up to a spiritual level, and up to heaven. This change is illustrated by the introduction of the instrument that was associated with heaven: the trumpet. In the opening movement of the second half of this cantata the trumpet plays the chorale tune with which the first half had ended, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, and then later accompanies the bass in a stand-out virtuosic aria.

There is also more “showing off” in this cantata. As Gardiner points out, Bach seems to have wanted to make it clear that he was a skilled court composer (which he had been at Köthen before he took the position in Leipzig): after the French Ouverture of the opening chorus, all the arias together from a French Suite: The tenor aria is a Polonaise, the soprano aria a Minuet, the alto aria a Passepied, and the Bass aria a Gigue.


Wieneke Gorter, May 29, 2016