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The soprano part of cantata 95 Christus, der ist mein Leben. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

After all his experimenting with the form of the cantata last week, Bach keeps exploring how he can build a cantata based on chorale melodies and chorale texts. As a result, this week’s cantata 95 Christus, der ist mein Leben again takes a unique place in Bach’s cantata collection: it features no less than four different chorales, all part of the Sterbe-lieder (Deathbed songs) that were very popular in Leipzig at the time: Christus, der ist mein Leben; Mit Fried und Freud, ich fahr dahin; Valet will ich dir geben; and Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist.

I recommend Herreweghe’s recording of this cantata. Listen to this recording on YouTube, or on Spotify. Support the artists and purchase this recording on Amazon. (Or find them in the Amazon stores  for  Germany and France)

Soloists: soprano Dorothee Mields, counter-tenor Matthew White, tenor Hans Jörg Mammel, bass Thomas E. Bauer. Choir sopranos: Dorothee Mields, Hana Blazikova, Dominique Verkinderen.

In the manuscript of the soprano part pictured above, it is interesting to note the dynamic markings for the text “Sterben ist mein Gewinn.” Dynamics are not very common in Bach manuscripts, but, as Alfred Dürr points out, Leipzig had a strong tradition of singing softly and slowly on the word “Sterben,” and singing loudly on “ist mein Gewinn,” going back at least to 1629. In that year, then Thomaskantor Johann Hermann Schein wrote this note for his singers:

“da singen sie adagio mit einem sehr langsamen Tactu, weiln in solchen versiculis verba emphatica enthalten” (here you should sing adagio in a very slow tempo, because verses like these contain emphatic words)

How Herreweghe’s sopranos sing this Sterben ist mein Gewinn in the first chorale takes my breath away, and this is the most important reason why I prefer this recording. Having grown accustomed to the boy choirs of the Leonhardt and Harnoncourt recordings in the 1970s, my parents, sister, and I were blown away by Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale Gent when their first CDs started coming out in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My mother was especially taken by the sound and blend of the sopranos, and “Herreweghe sopranos” became a household term in our family. After attending a performance by a different group, we would often say to each other: “it was nice, but they are not Herreweghe sopranos….,” and sigh a little.

In an interview on the DVD “Herreweghe by himself” Herreweghe says about the process of auditioning them: “they have to be young women, good singers of course, with the right voice for our group, but also a certain … piousness.” **

Whether you agree with that or not, I always have to think of that quote when I see and hear Dorothee Mields sing. Her recitative and chorale are out of this world. Watch a wonderful interview with her here.

This cantata is all about longing for life after death, and over the course of the cantata these statements are made: I will be happy to die (opening movement), because life on earth is worthless (soprano recitative). Saying goodbye to that will be freeing (soprano chorale), so please can I die as soon as possible (tenor recitative and aria), because death is only a sleep (bass recitative) from which I will wake up to join Jesus, who has gone before me (closing chorale).

The outstanding tenor aria features Bach’s signature “death bells” in the pizzicato strings. Bach uses these “Leichenglocken”  also in cantatas 73, 8, 105, 127, 161, and 198. [Thanks again to Eduard van Hengel for this list]. For an alternative recording of this movement, with gorgeous singing by Mark Padmore, listen to the Gardiner recording on Spotify.

The concept of death being only a short period of sleep after which the dying person wakes up to meet Jesus in the afterlife was an extremely important part of 18th-century Lutheran faith. When dealing with death on a daily basis, it was comforting to believe that death would ultimately lead to paradise. And by stressing this concept, Bach also refers to the Gospel for this 16th Sunday after Trinity. It is the story of the miracle at Nain: a young man who has died  is carried out of the city and then woken up by Jesus.

Wieneke Gorter, September 11, 2016, with links updated November 15, 2019

** the statement that they should be young women was only correct in the very beginning, Dominique Verkinderen (founding member, long-time staff member, director of auditions) was still singing in the soprano section when I wrote this.