In many traditions, from pre-Christian European to contemporary American, February 2 marks the end of the dark part of the winter. Feasts on this day celebrate the daylight, looking ahead to spring, and the start of new things. Growing up in a Calvinist protestant culture in the Netherlands, I wasn’t aware of any of these holidays.
Let’s start with the silly American holiday on February 2: Groundhog Day. If the groundhog (some sort of marmot) comes out of her hole on this day while it is cloudy, spring will be early; if it is sunny and the groundhog will thus see her own shadow when she comes out of her hole, she will be scared and go back inside and spring won’t start for another six weeks. Grown men actually observe the groundhogs on February 2.
People from Celtic cultures celebrate Imbolc or Brigid’s Day on February 2 because it is the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The holiday is a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
The Catholic feast of Candlemas also originates in pre-Christian times, and originally marked the end of a period of light feasts which started around mid November. After the early Christians established that Jesus was born on December 25, it was easy to declare Saint Martin (Nov 11, 40 days before Christmas) the start of the great Christmas season and February 2 (40 days after Christmas) the end of it. I read that in some countries people leave their Christmas decorations up until Candlemas. I would have loved to have that tradition in the Netherlands too, because I had serious trouble with the bleak, grey, uneventful month of January there. And all procrastinators are now absolved: you didn’t know it, but you were doing the right thing to leave those lights up until February!
The Catholic Church merged Candlemas with the feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. In the Jewish tradition, a new mother was “unclean” for the first 40 days after giving birth. On the 40th day, she would have to visit the temple for a purification ceremony, and to present her son to the priests. Luther kept this Catholic feast on the calendar, but focused much more on the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple than on the Purification of Mary. What is more, he turned Simeon’s song of praise into a message of “Now I can die in peace.” This is why all five cantatas (BWV 82 (the famous Ich habe genug), 83, 125, 157, and 158) Bach wrote for this holiday are mostly about the joy of dying. But not to worry, the cantata from 1724 is actually very festive.
Listen to/watch cantata 83 Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde by the Netherlands Bach Society on YouTube. Shunske Sato, violin and direction; Robin Blaze, alto; Daniel Johannsen, tenor; Stephan MacLeod, bass. I prefer this recording because this cantata is a violin concerto and here we can see one of the best Baroque violinists and Bach interpreters, Shunske Sato, at work.* However, for those of you with access to Spotify: don’t miss Peter Kooij’s magical rendition of the second movement on the Bach Collegium Japan recording (Natsumi Wakamatsu, violin; Robin Blaze, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass)
The first and third movement are written like a violin concerto and celebrate the “new” era. According to an excellent study by Dutch musicologist Pieter Dirksen, presented at a Bach Symposium in Germany in 2000, the impressive violin part was most likely written for violin virtuoso Johann Georg Pisendel from Dresden. Dirksen makes a very convincing case that Bach wrote this past Sunday’s operatic cantata 81 and this cantata 83 (both from the same week in 1724) specifically to please musicians and perhaps also dignitary guests from Dresden, giving them the two musical forms the Dresden court favored most: an opera in the form of cantata 81 and a concerto in the form of cantata 83. There are no documents supporting the suggestion that Pisendel was in Leipzig around the time this cantata was played. However, as I have mentioned before in this blog, it seems evident from Bach’s writing around special holidays that there were either guest musicians or colleagues to impress in those weeks. Also, Dirksen gives many plausible examples of links to Dresden in the style and instrumentation of these compositions, and argues that Bach had no other violinist available, including himself, who would have been able to play this and that this is why he didn’t write virtuoso violin solos in any cantatas from the first Leipzig cycle.
The second movement symbolizes the “old” tradition Simon stands for in the Gospel story. In a way he has never done this in any other cantata, Bach sets Luther’s translation of Simeon’s words (“Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren …”) to the old Gregorian psalmtone for Nunc Dimittis, which was the Roman version of Simeon’s words. It is likely he wanted to show the Catholic guests from Dresden he was familiar with their tradition too, or perhaps he wanted to honor the Catholic history of this feast day. The very best rendition of this movement is sung by Peter Kooij on the Bach Collegium Japan recording of this cantata (only available on Spotify). My late mother used to say: “Peter Kooij must have a special line with God.” He definitely has a special line with Bach.
Wieneke Gorter, February 2, 2017, updated February 2, 2020.
*read how Shunske Sato’s playing made me want to write for this blog again in this post