If I would have to come up with a “top 5” of blog posts, the one about cantata 81 for today, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, is definitely one of them. There is lots to read and learn, and a marvelous tenor aria to listen to. You can find that post here.
I’ve created a Google calendar for the upcoming Sundays and other holidays. You can find that here. When you click on the Sunday or holiday, you will find a link to the blog post connected to that day.
There are four Bach cantatas for this Sunday, the third after Epiphany. Last year I wrote about two of them: cantatas 72 and 73. You can read that post here.
This year I’d like to share a little bit about cantata 156 Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe. I did not grow up with this cantata, my mother didn’t play this one for us. Whether this was because the Harnoncourt recording of this cantata is not very satisfying, or because she liked the three other cantatas for this Sunday much better, I don’t know.
I heard cantata 156 for the first time around 2008 or so, on a recording by American Bach Soloists from 1992, and was blown away by the rich sound of the strings and by the “groove” the ensemble finds so easily, it seems, in the opening movement and in the tenor aria. I have not heard such comfort with the rhythm in any other recording of this cantata. It is also a historic recording: it is one of the few ABS cantata recordings on which director Jeffrey Thomas sings the tenor arias himself. While Thomas’ voice is perhaps not as full as Gerd Türk’s on the recording by Bach Collegium Japan, I enjoy the music-making in this movement so much that it was comfort-music for me in the weeks and months after my mother passed away in 2010, and it is still one of my favorite Bach cantata recordings.
Other soloists on this recording:
oboe: John Abberger; violin: Jörg-Michael Schwarz; counter-tenor: Steven Rickards; bass: James Weaver. Choir sopranos singing in the tenor aria: Julianne Baird, Christine Earl, and Claire Kelm.
Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
You might recognize the opening movement of this cantata as the second movement of Bach’s harpsichord concerto, BWV1056. However, Bach based both the cantata movement and the harpsichord concerto movement on an oboe concerto from Köthen which is now lost.
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. If you prefer to watch a live recording, you can find the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation here, with Julia Neumann, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Julius Pfeifer, tenor; and Raphael Jud, bass.
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. Rudolf Lutz explains extremely well (with music examples) how the notes of the solo bassoon part form in fact a lament for three voices. This video has English subtitles. 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, links updated January 31, 2020. Link for the score updated January 16, 2021, link for the J.S. Bach Foundation video with English subtitles updated January 15, 2022.
*The Purification of Mary on February 2, The Annunciaton of Mary on March 25, and the Visitation of Mary on July 2.
The Weekly Cantata blog is one year old this weekend! When I started on January 6, 2016, I was not sure I could actually write a post every week, but thanks to the support of my wonderful family, the encouragement of so many readers, and the inspiring music and research, I made it, and am happy to continue.
While I celebrate the blog’s anniversary with my family this weekend, I invite you to read my post for Epiphany/Three Kings Day (January 6) here, and my post for the first Sunday after Epiphany here.