The Marriage at Cana, c. 1500, by Gérard David. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Mary pleads and worries, but Jesus says: “Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.”
This week, I watched a very good video by the Swiss Bach Foundation (Bachstiftung) about today’s cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? I found it very insightful, helpful, and even entertaining, but was struck by its Calvinist character and was a bit disappointed by the director’s statement that he doesn’t know why this cantata starts with a movement for solo soprano. When reading Gardiner’s and Van Hengel’s discussions of this cantata, I liked their suggestions that the soprano lament refers to Mary’s role in the Bible story of this Sunday, the Marriage at Cana. It made sense to me. This cantata, from 1715 and repeated in 1724, contains references to the wine as well as to the fact that Jesus says to his mother: “my time has not come yet.”
While the Lutheran church in Bach’s time did not regard Mary as a saint, let alone a mediator between God and the people, she was still an important person in the faith, and thus probably also for Bach. The three Marian feast days* Luther kept on the calendar were important holidays and Bach wrote cantatas for all of them. Also, Bach wrote this cantata 155 in his Weimar years, when he explored a large number of works by (Catholic) Italian composers.
Listen to Montreal Baroque’s recording of cantata 155 on YouTube through a playlist I created. With Monika Mauch, soprano; Franziska Gottwald, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Anna Marsh, bassoon.
Read the German text with English translation of this cantata here, and find the score here.
The cantata is not so much a musical play with the soprano taking the role of Mary, but more a reference to her role in the Gospel story and an exploration of that theme: try to trust that everything will be okay in the end, try to not be in control all the time. The first movement has the character of a lament in music and text, you can picture the hand-wringing, the desperation. There is also the steady pedal point in the bass, similar to what Bach will use later in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion.
However it is the second movement, not even sung by the soprano, and with text that is trying to urge her to “let go,” that secretly is the true lament, in the music that is. To hear or see this, the video by the Swiss Bach Foundation is terrific. They explain extremely well (with music examples) how the notes of the solo bassoon part form in fact a lament for three voices. watch from 12:10 By the way: the composition I had to think of when hearing the “lamento bass” was Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa
If you would like to explore other cantatas for this second Sunday after Epiphany, I invite you to read my post about cantata 3 from 1725 here. It is all about hidden messages in the music of a an extremely beautiful composition with an equally heart wrenching—but completely different—opening movement as this cantata 155.
Wieneke Gorter, January 14, 2017
*The Purification of Mary on February 2, The Annunciaton of Mary on March 25, and the Visitation of Mary on July 2.