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Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490-c. 1500

Only three episodes into this special 1723 Leipzig Trinity season series,  I’m already taking a detour to Weimar. It’s Bach’s fault, because, after the two newly written cantatas he presented on May 30 and June 6, 1723, he “recycled” his Weimar cantata for this third Sunday after Trinity: cantata 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, written in 1714, or possibly in 1713.

We dont’ know for sure why Bach chose to use an “old” composition this early in his first season (though probably nobody except his own family knew it was not new), but  I think that he couldn’t wait to impress the Leipzig Council and congregation with a composition that was one of his all-time favorites. He had written and performed it at least twice in Weimar, then presented it in Hamburg or Köthen in 1720* and would perform it many more times in Leipzig on future third Sundays after Trinity. Another reason I believe  it was Bach’s plan all along to present this cantata 21 on Trinity 3 in Leipzig: it seems to me that when writing the masterful fugue in the opening chorus of cantata 76, Bach must have had the fugue in no. 6 of cantata 21 on his mind.

Whether it was thanks to the multiple performances during Bach’s lifetime, or to Mattheson mentioning it (however unfavorably!) in his writings, cantata 21 was known among Bach’s colleagues and students throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and is still one of the most well-known and most frequently performed cantatas today.

Instead of talking about the music, I would like to shine some light on the history of this cantata, and show you that it was not a stand-alone masterpiece that Bach created out of nothing. Most of the findings here below are from  books by Alfred Dürr and Christoph Wolff.

There are parts of this cantata that fit extremely well within the style of the 1714 Weimar cantatas. To hear cantata 21 in this context, if you have time, before you listen to the sinfonia (no. 1) of cantata 21, I invite you to first listen to the sinfonia of cantata 12. They are remarkably similar. Next, just for the fun of it, you might want to listen to the “love” duet from Weimar Pentecost cantata 172 (beautifully sung by soprano Dorothee Mields and countertenor Alex Potter during a streamed concert from 2021)

 Soprano (Soul)

Komm, laß mich nicht länger warten,
Come , let me wait no longer,
Komm, du sanfter Himmelswind,
come, you gentle wind of heaven,
Wehe durch den Herzensgarten!
blow through the garden of my heart

 Alto (Holy Spirit)

Ich erquicke dich, mein Kind.
I refresh you, my child

Liebste Liebe, die so süße,
Dearest love, who are so delightful,
Aller Wollust Überfluß,
abundance of all joys,
Ich vergeh, wenn ich dich misse.
I shall die, if I have to be without you

Nimm von mir den Gnadenkuß.
Take from me the kiss of grace.

Sei im Glauben mir willkommen,
Welcome in faith to me,
Höchste Liebe, komm herein!
Highest love, come within!
Du hast mir das Herz genommen.
You have taken my heart from me

Ich bin dein, und du bist mein!
I am yours, and you are mine!

and compare it to the “love” duet from cantata 21:

Soprano (Soul):

Komm, mein Jesu, und erquicke,

Bass (Jesus):

Ja, ich komme und erquicke

Come, my Jesus, and restore

Yes, I come and restore

Und erfreu mit deinem Blicke.

Dich mit meinem Gnadenblicker,

and rejoice with your look

you with my look of grace

Diese Seele,

Deine Seele,

This soul

Your soul

 Die soll sterben,

 Die soll leben,

that must die

that must live

Und nicht leben

 Und nicht sterben

and not live

and not die

 Und in ihrer Unglückshöhle

Hier aus dieser wunden Höhle

and in its den of misfortune

here from this den of wounds

Ganz verderben.

Sollst du erben

wholly perish.

 you shall be given

 Ich muß stets in Kummer schweben,

Heil! durch diesen Saft der Reben,

I must always be suspended in misery

Salvation! throught this juice of the grape

Ja, ach ja, ich bin verloren!

Nein, ach nein, du bist erkoren!

Yes, oh, yes, I am lost

No,oh, no, you are chosen

 Nein, ach nein, du hassest mich!

Ja, ach ja, ich liebe dich!

No, ah, no, you hate me!

Yes, oh, yes,I love you!

 Ach, Jesu, durchsüße mir Seele und Herze,

Entweichet, ihr Sorgen, verschwinde, du Schmerze!

Jesus, sweeten my soul and heart.

Give way, worries, vanish, pain!

Komm, mein Jesus, und erquicke

Ja, ich komme und erquicke

Come, Jesus, and restore

Yes, I come and restore

Mit deinem Gnadenblicke!

Dich mit meinem Gnadenblicke

 with your look of grace

 you with my look of grace.

Of course none of these are officially  meant to speak of earthly love. But still, both these duets are extremely cute, musically completely similar to opera love duets from that time, and their texts could at least partly be interpreted as such love duets, so I can imagine the Weimar poet and the young Bach must have enjoyed writing these.

To really appreciate “the making of” the opening chorus (no. 2) of cantata 21, it’s worth listening to a magnificent Vivialdi violin concerto and one of Bach’s lesser known organ prelude and fugues, to hear where Bach found the theme for the Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis fugue:

In the spring of 1713, the half-brother of Bach’s employer in Weimar, prince Johann Ernst, “a great lover of music and an incomparable violinist” (according to a testimony by Philipp David Kräuter, a student of Bach in Weimar) went on a study trip, and spent a long time in the Netherlands. Upon his return, he had brought “much fine Italian and French” music with him. One of the pieces was Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor Opus 3, no. 11  for two violins from Book II of L’Estro armonico (RV 565), published in Amsterdam in 1711.

Listen to this Vivaldi concerto in the award-winning interpretation by the fabulous Rachel Podger with Brecon Baroque on Spotify, or on YouTube

Maybe Bach, an accomplished violinist himself, and the prince played this together after the prince returned in July 1713. Bach rewrote this Vivaldi concerto into an organ concerto (BWV 596), but also used the theme in his organ prelude and fugue in B minor, BWV 544,  written in Weimar as well.  It is in this piece in particular that I can hear the relation with cantata 21 Dürr wants to point out in his book.

About recordings of cantata 21: While Bach Collegium Japan deserves a medal for  taking the trouble to research all the different versions and record the ones from 1720 and 1714 on their volume 6 , and the true 1723 Leipzig version (with trombones added in no. 9 and solo/tutti distinctions in the choruses) on their volume 12, I still like Herreweghe’s recording of this cantata the best, mainly because of the strong, crisp choruses and the music always having long lines and strong sense of direction. Listen to Herreweghe’s interpretation of  this cantata on Spotify or on YouTube.

Update from 2021: find an absolutely stunning performance of the 1720 version (with only soprano and bass soloists) on the YouTube channel of the J.S. Bach Foundation here.

Read the German text with English translations of cantata 21 here, and find the score here.

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Wieneke Gorter, June 12, 2016. Updated June 19, 2021.

*Bach visited Hamburg in November 1720, to apply for an organist and cantor post there. It turned out, however, that the post needed to be “bought” and the job went to a lesser talented but wealthy candidate. Most scholars are confident there was a performance of this cantata in 1720 in either Köthen or Hamburg, based on the surviving manuscripts of the parts. Because it was the Hamburg-based writer Mattheson who criticized the cantata in a letter  in 1725, it is probable that the performance took place in Hamburg during Bach’s visit there.

According to Bach Collegium Japan’s leader Masaaki Suzuki, the 1720 performance featured only a soprano and a bass, with the soprano also singing all the arias and recitatives we know nowadays as written for tenor.