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The Sermon on the Mount, oil on copper painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598

In 1723 Bach wrote cantata 138 Warum betrübst du dich, mein HerzAgain I prefer Herreweghe’s interpretation, but it’s not so easy to choose between his recording from 1998 (with soloists Deborah York, Ingeborg Danz, Mark Padmore, and Peter Kooij) and the one from 2013 (with soloists Hana Blazikova, Damien Guillon, Thomas Hobbs, and Peter Kooij). Update from 2021: there now is an extremely inspired Herreweghe recording with all my favorite soloists (Dorothee Mields, Alex Potter, Guy Cutting, Peter Kooij), recorded live at De Singel in Antwerp on Sunday January 31, 2021 (during the Covid19 pandemic, so without audience). Find it here.

Listen to the entire 1998 recording on Youtube or listen to one long track of the 2013 recording with Hana Blazikova and Damien Guillon on YouTube. Please consider supporting the artists by purchasing the 1998 version (used copies available only) or the 2013 version  on Amazon.

Find the text, based on the Sermon on the Mount, of this cantata here, and the score here.

It is often not immediately clear what a Bach cantata is about, what the text means, or what Bach wanted to convey with it. In an absolutely wonderful interview (with excellent English subtitles) for the Leipzig Bach Festival, soprano Dorothee Mields says that even she, as a native German speaker, often feels the need to look at English translations, go back to the Bible texts, and read more about the subject, because she didn’t necessarily recognize the text from her children’s bible.

The image of the children’s bible stuck with me since first watching the interview seven months ago. And when listening to the cantata for this Sunday, I had to think of it again, because the choice of words in this cantata is very moving, but at the same time so simple, that it is almost as if the librettist is speaking to children. Listen, for example, to the text the soprano sings in the third movement:

Nur ich, ich weiss nicht, auf was Weise ich armes Kind mein bisschen Brot soll haben; Wo ist jemand, der sich zu meiner Rettung findt?

(It is just that I, poor child, don’t know how I should receive a bit of bread; Where is the person who will save me?)

Eduard van Hengel hilariously remarks that it reminds him a bit of Calimero (a popular children’s cartoon about a little chick, which aired in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Italy in the early 1970s. Watch this first episode to get an idea).

I wonder who the librettist for this cantata was. I imagine a different person than who wrote texts for the last few cantatas. Last week, the Bachs possibly had their house full with the families of Anna Magdalena’s brother and sisters, visiting because the men, all trumpet players, were needed for two cantatas. Perhaps one of the visitors had talent for entertaining the children with stories and making up poems on the spot? Did Bach ask this person to write the libretto for this cantata? Or was his own head still filled with children’s stories and did he write the text himself?

These are all just assumptions and we don’t know for sure if last week’s extra players were the relatives of Bach’s wife, but my potential movie script is getting better and better …

There’s of course more to this cantata than the charming texts. Musically, as far as the form and structure is concerned, this cantata is unique within this first cycle of Leipzig cantatas. Bach takes a chorale as the base for the cantata, yet it is not at all the same as his series of chorale cantatas from the 1724/1725 cycle. In those later chorale cantatas, he always uses all the verses and keeps a strict structure of one soloist per movement. In this cantata 138, he only uses three verses of the chorale, and gives the cantata a very free form, with a different number of soloists for each movement. He is obviously experimenting. And I wonder again: might he have been influenced by his visitors from last week? Did he have discussions about his compositions with his colleagues? And how is this playing around with the form of the cantata related to using a different librettist or no librettist? Did he not want to bother a professional writer with his experimenting?

There is one more–for me at least–exciting aspect to this cantata: when I first started listening to it, I discovered that I already knew the bass aria. Same singer (Peter Kooij) and same music, but a different text, because I had until then only heard this as the Gratias from Bach’s Mass in G Major, BWV 236 from the mid 1730s. Listen to both, and marvel at Bach’s talent for subtle recycling.

Wieneke Gorter, September 3, 2016, updated September 19, 2020 and February 13, 2021.