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Madonna with the Christ Child and St. John the Baptist, also known as Madonna of the Meadow, by Raphael, 1506. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

For those of you who already saw this on the third Sunday of Advent 2016: please keep reading, because I considerably revised this post, clarifying the information about the reconstruction and including one more painting 🙂

Growing up, I had a cousin. She was almost exactly six  months older than me. My baby photo album holds several pictures of the two of us together, me a helpless baby, her an infant who could already sit up by herself. I’m always touched by those photos. Not just because they make me think of the cousin I lost when we were both 19, but also because they represent how fast a baby grows up, and how soon the “older” baby can be of help and entertainment for the younger one, and how adorable it is to see that.

Many painters were aware of this cuteness factor too. Especially in the Renaissance, the concept of a one-year-old John playing with or helping a six-month-old Jesus in Madonna and Child paintings became an extremely popular subject, starting with  Leonardo da Vinci. Raphael in particular painted several variations on this theme, including the Alba Madonna, La belle jardinière, Aldobrandini Madonna, Madonna della seggiola, and the Madonna dell’Impannata. The tradition continued well into the 17th century, see this beautiful example from 1658 by Francisco de Zurbarán in the San Diego Museum of Art:


Why is all this relevant to Advent? Well, on this third Sunday of Advent, many Christian churches read about John the Baptist, as they believe John was Jesus’ forerunner. Because of a mention in the Gospel of Luke, the Catholic church in the very early Middle Ages determined that St. John’s birthday must have been exactly six months before Christmas — and decided to celebrate this on June 24th.*  You can read more about this in my post about the Feast of St. John.

As far as we know, Bach wrote only one cantata for this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. It is the one listed in the BWV catalog as Cantata 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, first performed in Weimar on Sunday December 13, 1716. No original music score is left of this cantata. However, thanks to Bach’s librettist, Weimar court poet Salomo Franck, who published the full libretto for this cantata in a poetry volume in 1717, we do have the original text of 186a.

And, it is not hard to make an educated guess as to what the music would have been.

On July 9, 1723, for the 7th Sunday after Trinity in Leipzig, Bach expanded the music of the 1716 Weimar cantata with four additional recitatives and two chorales (per his usual template for reviving Weimar cantatas for Leipzig), and we do have that music: it is Cantata 186, also with the title Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht.**

To reconstruct the original 1716 Weimar Advent version, or Cantata 186a, one would have to eliminate all the recitatives Bach added in 1723 as well as both chorales, superimpose different texts on some of the arias, and select alternative music for the original closing chorale. There have been a few performances of these kind of reconstructions, but unfortunately there are no recordings of those.

So I invite you listen to Bach Collegium Japan playing this music via my playlist on Spotify. To imagine the original texts superimposed over this music, and learn why I selected this particular closing chorale, please keep reading.

Opening chorus: This has the same text in 1716 as in 1723. We should imagine a smaller ensemble singing this though, as the maximum number of singers in the Weimar chapel was 7. This opening chorus is again a beautiful example of how Bach provides an “entrada” for the Duke as well as an opportunity for himself to show off his skills with the “fashionable” music, the way he almost always did in the Weimar cantatas.***

Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht,
Daß das allerhöchste Licht,
Gottes Glanz und Ebenbild,
Sich in Knechtsgestalt verhüllt,
Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht!
Do not be confounded, o soul,
because the all-highest light,
God’s radiance and very image,
is concealed in the form of a servant;
do not be confounded!

For the Bass aria, imagine this Advent text instead of the Trinity 7 text you hear (changes in bold type):

Bist du, der da kommen soll,
Seelen-Freund, in Kirchen-Garten?
Mein Gemüt ist Zweifels-voll,
Soll ich eines andern warten!
Doch, o Seele, zweifle nicht.
Lass Vernunft dich nicht verstricken,
Deinen Schilo, Jacobs Licht,
Kannst du in der Schrift erblicken!
Are You He, who should come,
Friend of souls, to the Church’s garden?
My spirit is full of doubt,
perhaps I should wait for someone else!
Yet, o soul, do not doubt.
Do not let reason beguile you.
Your Messiah, Jacob’s light,
is visible to you in the scripture.(translation of original text by me, unchanged words courtesy of bach-cantatas.com website)

For the Tenor aria,  imagine this Advent text instead of the Trinity 7 text you hear (changes in bold type):

Messias läßt sich merken
Aus seinen Gnaden-Werken.
Unreine werden rein.
Die geistlich Lahme gehen,
Die geistlich Blinde sehen
Den hellen Gnaden Schein.
The Messiah lets Himself be seen
in His works of grace.
The impure become purified.
Those lame of spirit will walk,
Those blind of spirit will see
the clear brilliance of the mercy.(translation of original text by me, unchanged words courtesy of bach-cantatas.com website)

There is only one word change in the Soprano aria: In the last line the 1716 text is “des Lebens Wort” instead of “das Lebenswort” from 1723.

Die Armen will der Herr umarmen
The Lord will embrace the poor
Mit Gnaden hier und dort;
With his mercy here and there;
Er schenket ihnen aus Erbarmen
Out of his compassion he sends to them
Den höchsten Schatz, das Lebenswort.
His greatest treasure, the word of life.

Enjoy Miah Persson’s beautiful voice and interpretation. If you would like to hear and more about her, read my post about cantata 179. Cantata 179 appears on the same album by Bach Collegium Japan as this cantata 186.

Soprano-alto duet: This is the original text from 1716, unchanged in 1723. The text promises the believer the crown (die Krone) of the everlasting life, but only if he stays faithful (getreu) and only in the afterlife, when free of the body (wenn des Leibes frei).

Laß, Seele, kein Leiden
My soul, let no sorrow
Von Jesu dich scheiden,
Separate you from Jesus
Sei, Seele, getreu!
Be faithful, my soul!
Dir bleibet die Krone
The Crown weight you
Aus Gnaden zu Lohne,
Is your reward through grace
Wenn du von Banden des Leibes nun frei.
When you will be free from the body’s prison.

In Weimar in 1716, for the closing chorale Bach used the 8th verse of Von Gott will ich nicht lassen from 1563, based on the French tune Une jeune fillette from 1557. Since this is not the same melody as Es ist das Heil uns kommen her Bach used in 1723 it is very plausible that both chorales from the 1723 version are new, in text as well as in music. So in an effort to reconstruct the 1716 version,  we need to think of a different solution for the music than the tune from 1723. A good fit would be a simple setting of the Von Gott will ich nicht lassen chorale, the way Bach would set for example verse 5 of this chorale as closing movement of cantata 73 in 1723 or 1724. So that’s why, for now, I’ve included that music (from a Herreweghe recording) in the Spotify playlist. The text would be this:

Darum ob ich schon dulde
Hie Wiederwärtigkeit,
wie ich auch wohl verschulde,
kommt doch die Ewigkeit,
ist aller Freuden voll,
die ohne alles Ende,
dieweil ich Christum kenne,
mir widerfahren soll.
Therefore, even if I endure
unpleasantness here,
as I have well deserved,
eternity is coming
filled with all joy;
this for ever
will befall me
while I acknowledge Christ.

All translations of existing text and closing chorale courtesy of bach-cantatas.com website, translations of changed texts by me.

© Wieneke Gorter, December 10, 2016, revised December 15, 2017.

* Luke 1:36 (about the Annunciation) mentions that the angel Gabriel also informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was already six months pregnant. The June 24 date was most probably also chosen to give a Christian meaning to already existing Pagan Midsummer celebrations. The Feast of St. John being celebrated on June 24 shows up in records as early as the year 506.

**I discussed this 1723 version of the cantata here, and recommended the recording by Bach Collegium Japan with soprano Miah Persson, alto Robin Blaze, tenor Makoto Sakurada, and bass Peter Kooij.

***Read more about Bach’s Weimar cantatas in my posts about cantata 182, 12, 147, and 21