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Jesus heals ten lepers, from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1035-1040

Only a handful of Bach cantatas ask for the Renaissance/Early Baroque ensemble of one cornetto and three trombones in the opening and closing chorus. This instrumentation was considered somewhat “old fashioned” in Bach’s time, while at the same time it was still very normal in cities to hear Stadtpfeifers (city pipers) play chorales from the towers during the day, to remind the citizens of their Christian duties. In this Cantata 25 Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, for the 14th Sunday after Trinity (August 29 in 1723), the playing of the chorale tune by this ensemble in the opening chorus stands for the way it has always been, the way it has been true for centuries.

Concerto Palatino, the leading cornetto/trombone ensemble for the past 25 years. Photo by Sabrina Flauger. Learn more about them here.

My preferred recording of Cantata 25 is the one by Herreweghe, on the same album as cantata 105 for Trinity 9 and cantata 46 for Trinity 10, as well as cantata 138 for next week. Soloists in cantata 25: soprano Hana Blažíková, tenor Thomas Hobbs, and bass Peter Kooij. Cornetto: Bruce Dickey  (pictured above, front row, on left); trombones: Claire McIntyre, Simen van Mechelen (pictured above, top row, on left), and Joost Swinkels.

Listen to this recording on Spotify or on YouTube. Please consider supporting the artists by purchasing this album (containing four cantatas for this 1723 Trinity season) on Amazon.

Read the text of this cantata here, and find the score here.

I could write an entire blog post about the opening chorus alone, the way I did last week for cantata 77 and two weeks earlier for cantata 179. But in the interest of variety, I’m going to keep this section short, and I will just say that the opening chorus  is an incredible, unrivaled complex composition for ten voices, again completely different than any opening chorus the Leipzig congregations had heard before during this Trinity season of 1723. By having the “ancient” brass quartet play the chorale melody of Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem selgen End (With my whole heart I long for my blessed End / my Salvation)** Bach shows that the promise of salvation after death will always provide a silver lining to the sorrow of the daily, sinful human condition. He also illustrates this “salvation” with the recorders in the uplifting and soothing soprano aria (Hana Blažíková in top shape!), and the brass and recorders in the closing chorale, and intensifies the “sickness” of the human sins by setting these texts to “dry” recitatives  (though listen to that bass arioso, beautifully sung by Peter Kooij) in between. Again, it was completely normal in his day and age to think this way, and Bach saw it as his mission in life to teach this theology to his fellow Lutherans by way of his church music.

But, listen to the festive, large orchestra for this cantata! No less than four brass players (one cornetto and three trombones) and five wind players (two oboists and three recorder players) were required at the same time in the opening chorus and closing chorale. For a cantata about the healing of ten lepers? Well, it turns out that this weekend it was Christmas in August for Bach, and the extra players were probably in town for the much more important and incredibly festive Cantata 119 Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn that was on the calendar for the next day, Monday August 30, the day of the inauguration of the new City Council (Ratswechsel). *** As I already suggested in my post about cantata 147, Bach might have sometimes used guest musicians in his orchestra who were in town for other reasons, and judging from the level of playing required for the Brandenburg concerto-like Cantata 119, the extra brass (all playing trumpet in 119) and wind (playing oboe and recorder in 119) players might have been needed to be of the level of court chamber musician, not just Stadtpfeifer (usually a lower rank, and not necessarily used to playing the complicated court music). So in my probably not so unlikely movie script fantasy, Bach hired musicians from the not too far away courts where he had worked before or where his in-laws worked (Köthen, Weissenfels, Zerbst) to play in the orchestra on Monday August 30, and he had asked them to also play in the service on Sunday August 29.

Listen to the Ratswechsel cantata 119 Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn as recorded by Herreweghe on YouTube. (Soloists: soprano Deborah York; alto Ingeborg Danz; tenor Mark Padmore, bass Peter Kooij.)

Wieneke Gorter, August 24, 2016, updated September 10, 2020.

** Several writers have suggested the chorale best known to the congregation at the time (on the melody we have later come to know as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden) would have been instead Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, but I agree with Eduard van Hengel that because of Bach’s use of the angel-like recorders and the heavenly brass it makes more sense to go with Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem selgen End.

*** The new city council was always chosen on August 24, and then inaugurated on the first Monday following August 24, which was Monday August 30 in 1723.