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Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, 1568

Previously on Weekly Cantata: For his first three Sundays in Leipzig, Bach presented ambitious, two-part cantatas, the first part before the sermon, the second part after.  On this Trinity 4, June 20 1723, the congregation and the musicians in Leipzig may still have had the trumpets and timpani from the impressive closing chorus of last week’s Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis going through their heads.

Up until now, it seems to all have been part of a plan: Bach probably wrote his cantatas for Trinity 1 (cantata 75) and Trinity 2 (cantata 76) while still living in Köthen, and most likely had also been planning all along to perform cantata 21 on Trinity 3. *

But now what to do for Trinity 4? In his stack of Weimar cantata manuscripts there was a nice one, very closely referring to the Gospel for the day (Luke 6: 36-42), but it was too short, and not very impressively scored.

So, it was time to write a new cantata that could function as Part I, the part before the sermon, and then present the one from Weimar after the sermon, as part II. This newly composed piece became cantata 24 Ein ungefärbt Gemüte. Only four weeks into his new post at Leipzig,  and possibly up to his ears in getting things organized at the St. Thomas School, Bach had not had the time (or the social intelligence, we don’t know) to find a librettist, so for this cantata he used a pre-existing text by Erdmann Neumeister, a Leipzig-trained theologian, who was preaching at the St. Jacob church in Hamburg from 1715 to 1756. Bach may very well have met him there, since this was the same church where he applied for the post of cantor and organist in 1720. Neumeister’s many volumes of cantata texts were published in the early 1700s, and through the excellent library at the castle in Weimar Bach might have had access to these too, as he already used a Neumeister text for his Weimar Advent cantata 61 from 1714.

The recording of cantata 24 Ein ungefärbt Gemüte I like the best is Bach Collegium Japan’s recording, with beautiful singing by countertenor Robin Blaze and tenor Gerd Türk in the arias. Listen to this cantata on Spotify, or purchase the album on Amazon. Read the German texts with English translations here.

Though on a much smaller scale than cantata 75 from three weeks ago, this cantata 24 again displays a wonderful symmetry: Bach emphasizes that the main message “Everything that you want other people to do to you, you should do yourself for them” is at the center of the cantata text. He sets that part of the text to an intricate choral piece with the fullest instrumentation of the entire cantata, including trumpet, and scores the arias and recitatives around this main message much more soberly. In the two recitatives, Bach accentuates the words at the end of each by letting the music blossom out into an arioso in those spots. This happens on this text in the tenor recitative:

Mach aus dir selbst ein solches Bild (Make yourself such an image)
Wie du den Nächsten haben willt! (As you want your neighbour to have)

and in the bass recitative on these words:

So geht es dort, so geht es hier. (These things go on here, there and everywhere.)
Der liebe Gott behüte mich dafür! (That the dear God preserve me from this!)

Then comes Part Two, cantata 185 Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe, written in Weimar in 1715. For this 1723 Leipzig re-creation of it, Bach transposed it from F sharp minor to G minor, since the tuning in Weimar was different than in Leipzig, and had a trumpet play the chorale tune in the opening duet, instead of an oboe.

Of all the recordings I listened to, only Gardiner brings to life the opening duet of this Leipzig version of cantata 185, with a trumpet playing instead of an oboe. Listen to a recording of that first movement by Gardiner, with soprano Magdalena Kozena and tenor Paul Agnew, on YouTube. However, for the wonderful alto rectitative and aria that come next, as well as the bass recitative and aria, I feel the need to switch to Koopman’s recording, with countertenor Kai Wessel and bass Klaus Mertens. Listen to this recording on YouTube, starting with the alto recitative (when you click on this link, it starts at 4m1s into the cantata).

I am too much of a countertenor lover to pass up this heavenly singing by Kai Wessel for Nathalie Stutzmann on the Gardiner recording, but I realize others might prefer it the other way around. I’m also not completely convinced by Gardiner’s argument that Bach is imitating an irritating Weimar preacher in the bass recitative and aria, so while Gardiner’s bass soloist Nicolas Testé very skillfully portrays this interpretation, it is a bit overdone to my taste.

So why not listen to the entire Koopman recording of this cantata?  Well, there’s the strange opening duet: Koopman makes the surprising choice to have the choir sopranos sing the chorale melody with text instead of having an oboe (per the Weimar version) or a trumpet (per the Leipzig version) play that part. This decision is not explained in their liner notes. And while I like soprano Barbara Schlick’s and tenor Guy de Mey’s individual voices, I feel that Schlick’s voice outbalances De Mey’s on this recording.

One wonders: was the new job as teacher at the St. Thomas School and director of the choir a bit overwhelming for Bach, or was he by this time already getting frustrated with the lack of skill and talent among the choir boys? A few years later, he would complain to the council that there weren’t enough strong voices, and that he needed the good instrumentalists among them to fill the many vacant seats in the orchestra, and could thus not use them in the choir. It is interesting to see how, after the many challenging choral pieces in cantata 21 last week, there is only one polyphonic chorus part in the  combined cantatas for today, and only an embellished chorale in the cantata for the feast of St. John the Baptist Bach was preparing for June 24.

Wieneke Gorter, June 18, 2016

*Please note: the numbers we use now for these cantatas are a product of the 19th and 20th century. Bach never gave his compositions numbers, and he must have referred to the cantatas by title only.