Boys of the St. Thomas school on their way to St. Thomas church, 1723.
In last week’s post, I pointed out that Bach might have lost his soprano soloist this spring of 1724. There might not have been a boy in his choir good enough to sing complicated solo arias. Or perhaps there was a boy who had a good voice, but who needed several weeks of coaching by the maestro before he was ready to sing an aria. Because during this spring semester of 1724 in Leipzig, Bach’s cantatas featured a soprano aria (not counting solos consisting of only a chorale tune) only every 3-4 weeks.
Some writers suggest Bach might have been training a new soprano in the weeks between Easter and Pentecost of 1724, so this boy would be able to sing the aria for this Sunday (Exaudi, or the Sunday after Ascension) and the arias in the upcoming Pentecost cantatas. I myself think that Bach’s problems with the boys of the school might have persisted for the long-term, but that he had a temporary solution for these few weeks. What if one of the boys who had moved away earlier in the year would be back temporarily, visiting Leipzig with his family for the Pentecost holiday –a three-day holiday in Leipzig, as important for the church as Easter and Christmas? Or perhaps Bach knew that one of the extra oboists or trumpet players would be bringing his talented son with him? After all, as I’ve come to believe over the course of doing research for this blog, it is likely that musician friends and musician relatives visited Leipzig for two weeks or longer around the time of major holidays.
Whatever the background story, on this Sunday in 1724 there was finally a glorious soprano aria in the churches again, a favorite from my childhood. I wrote about it last year in this post.
This week I don’t feel a lot of connection with the Bach cantata from 1724 for this Sunday (the 5th after Easter, or Rogate Sunday), cantata 86 Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch. When I came home from the funeral of one friend, I learned that another friend had passed away suddenly the day before. Because these were both very strong, kind, beautiful, and inspiring women, and I can’t believe they are gone, I feel much more inclined to listen tocantata 198, Lass, Fürstin, Lass nun einen Strahl, which Bach wrote for the funeral of a well-loved Queen than to a cantata which promotes that “God always knows best.”
But I’ll still write about cantata 86. The only connection I have with it this week are the roses in the text of the alto aria. It is my favorite movement of this cantata, because of the splendid violin solo. The interpretation of that violin solo I like best of all the recordings I listened to* is the one by Kati Debretzeni on the Gardiner recording. You can find that recording here on Amazon or here on iTunes. Soloists on the Gardiner recording are Katharine Fuge, soprano; Robin Tyson, counter-tenor; Steve Davisilim, tenor; and Stephan Loges, bass.
For better interpretations of the bass and tenor solos, I recommend listening to the Koopman recording with tenor Christoph Prégardien and bass Klaus Mertens. You can find that recording on YouTube, Amazon, or iTunes.
2020 update: read my blog post of May 15, 2020, to find links to the live video recording by The Netherlands Bach Society, with Robin Blaze, coutertenor, and Shunske Sato, violin.
For the text and translations of cantata 86, please visit this page, and for the score, please go here.
Why the connection with roses? About one week ago, on Friday May 12, I went to drop off a card for a friend who was dying. I learned she was in her last days on Tuesday, but it took me until Friday morning to find the right words, finish writing the card, and to drop it off. When I walked to her door I noticed a hedge of sweet pink roses in the front yard. I felt peace from seeing the roses, and from the knowledge that she liked roses, but I also felt miserable and angry that she would be taken away from all this, from her family, her life, her home. The next day, we heard she passed away during that night.
This past Friday was the day of her funeral. I didn’t know how it would go, how my kids would handle it (my oldest and her oldest are friends), and tried to find some strength for myself, so I would be able to be there for them. I realized that I associate this woman’s kindness and warmth with the pinkish apricot color of my favorite rose in the Berkeley rose garden, Westerland. So I decided to walk through the rose garden to experience the color and scent of this amazing flower, and it helped. This is what she looked like that day:
What to listen for in cantata 86:
In the opening movement, notice how Bach accentuates the fact that Jesus is speaking important, timeless words by setting these words in the form of an archaic motet. While the motet has multiple voices, the way it was done in the Renaissance, Bach can still make it clear that the words come from Christ’s mouth only, by giving all the other “voice parts” to instruments instead of to other singers.
In the alto aria, hear how the words “brechen” (to pick [roses]) and “stechen” (to prick) are illustrated by short notes and “broken” chords in the voice part, and broken chords in the violin part.
In the soprano aria, hear how low in the soprano range this is set — it could just as well have been sung by an alto. Bach has not given significant solos to a soprano since Easter of this year, 1724, and actually pretty sporadically since the start of the new year. Many scholars suggest that during that spring of 1724, Bach might have lost his boy soprano soloist (due to him leaving the school or due to his voice changing, we don’t know), and documents suggest that he was frustrated with the low quality of the boy sopranos of the St. Thomas School in general. They believe that this is why he started the chorale cantatas (cantatas of which each movement is based on a different verse of one and the same chorale tune) after Pentecost of that year. Keep following this blog and you’ll learn more about that soon 🙂
Wieneke Gorter, May 21, 2017, updated May 15, 2020.
*I did all this listening last year, when I actually ended up writing about cantata 87, the one Bach wrote for this same Sunday, but then in 1725. Read that post here.
Interior of the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig.
For “Cantate” Sunday, or the fourth Sunday after Easter in 1724, Bach wrote a short but masterful cantata: BWV166 Wo gehest du hin? I wrote a long but educational and hopefully also entertaining post about this cantata last year. I explain how Bach illustrates that this is the “singing” Sunday, why there is so much talk of “going away” in this cantata, and why I recommend the recording by Ton Koopman/Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Read that post here.
For this Jubilate Sunday (the third Sunday after Easter) in 1724, Bach did not write a new cantata the way he had done the previous two weeks*, but repeated one he had written in Weimar in 1714. That cantata:Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen was not any old cantata, but a composition Bach was most probably very proud of: he would later use the opening chorus as template for the Crucifixus in his Mass in B minor. Read all about this cantata and the recordings I recommend in this post I wrote last year.
Wieneke Gorter, May 7, 2017
*see this post about the first Sunday after Easter in 1724 and this one about the second Sunday after Easter in 1724