On July 2, eight days after Johannis (St. John, the birthday of John the Baptist), the churches in Leipzig celebrated Mariä Heimsuchung (or Visitation of Mary, celebrating the story of a newly pregnant Mary going “back home” to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was six months further along, carrying John the Baptist). It is one of the few Marian feast days the Lutheran Church kept on their calendar, and which is still celebrated on July 2.*
For this holiday in 1723, Bach reworked a short Advent cantata from Weimar into a longer, two-part cantata, with a chorale at the end of each half. This cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben is a truly beautiful and memorable cantata, and for many more reasons than just the famous closing chorale Jesus bleibet meine Freude. What actually stands out the most for me is the incredible trumpet part in the opening chorus and the bass aria, and the beautiful violin accompaniment of the gorgeous soprano aria. All these movements are from the original Weimar composition, which contained only the arias, the opening chorus, and a different closing chorale (we don’t know which one). For the Leipzig performance, Bach changed the order of the arias, added recitatives to reflect the Gospel reading of the story of the visitation and Mary’s praise to God (the Magnificat), and added a new closing chorale at the end of each half of the cantata.
I recommend the recording by Bach Collegium Japan of this cantata 147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, with wonderful singing by soprano Yukari Nohoshita, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Gerd Türk, an excellent performance by bass Peter Kooy, and fabulous playing by Toshio Shimada (trumpet) and Ryo Terakado (violin). Listen to this recording on Spotify.
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If you don’t have access to Spotify, or would love to watch a live performance, I recommend the YouTube video by the J.S. Bach Foundation (Bach Stiftung), with with Hana Blažiková, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Follow the German text with English translations here.
Continuing on the path of the wild hypothesis I made last week, that many of Bach’s colleagues and students would be in town for these two weeks of holidays, let’s now imagine that many of these visitors were playing in the orchestra for this week’s cantata, thus creating a situation where all orchestra seats were filled, and the musically gifted among the choir boys could actually sing in the choir. Of course I don’t know if this is what happened, and if Bach maybe even planned it this way, but I hope you’ll allow me this indulgence. (We do know from later letters that choir members often had to fill the many vacancies in the orchestra).
Several scholars have suggested that Bach recycled/reworked so many of his Weimar cantatas in the first months in Leipzig because he was overwhelmed. But what if he just really wanted to show off these Weimar cantatas to the Leipzig congregation? Especially the ones originally written for Advent, since he knew he would not be able to perform those in Leipzig at all. (No figural music was allowed during Advent in Leipzig). What if he hadn’t found a librettist yet in Leipzig who matched the talent of Weimar court poet Salomo Franck? What if he wanted to show off the talent and skills of his first trumpet player in Leipzig, the famous Gottfried Reiche, to all the visitors who were in town for this holiday? When we see cantata movements returning in the form of movements of his Lutheran Masses, his Mass in B minor, and repeat performances in Leipzig, we say “he must have been proud of that piece.” Well, when I hear the opening chorus and the arias of Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, I can understand why the Duke in Weimar didn’t want to let Bach go. Those movements already composed in Weimar are exciting and deeply moving at the same time. Definitely something to be proud of.
We don’t know who the librettist of the new recitatives was, but he or she did a good Lutheran job of teaching the congregation that even though they were celebrating a Marian feast day, they should really not praise her too much, but praise Jesus instead. Bach did an even better job setting these recitatives to music. Listen to all the word painting in the bass recitative, and the musical illustration of the text Er wird bewegt, er hüpft und springet (he is moved, he leaps and jumps) in the alto recitative, describing how John moved in Elizabeth’s womb upon hearing Mary talk of Jesus. The other remarkable thing about this alto recitative is that it has an accompaniment by two oboi da caccia, as Bach would later use in his St. Matthew Passion.
Wieneke Gorter, July 2, 2016.
*In 1969, the Catholic Church moved this day to May 31, after they realized that it is strange to celebrate a mother (Elizabeth) being pregnant after celebrating the birth of her son (John the Baptist), but the Lutheran Church has kept the feast day on July 2.