For the first Sunday after Trinity in 1724, June 11: Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano
For the second Sunday after Trinity in 1724, June 18: Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto.
For the Feast of St. John in 1724, Saturday June 24: Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor.
For the third Sunday after Trinity in 1724, June 25: Cantata 135 : Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder: Chorale fantasia, cantus firmus in bass.
The Feast of St. John, celebrating the birth of St. John the Baptist, always falls on June 24 (exactly six months before Jesus’ birth). Read more about this feast day in my blog post from last year. This means that in 1724, this date came *after* the second Sunday after Trinity, while of course this year (2017) it came *before* that date.
Because I’m trying to follow the order in which Bach wrote his cantatas in 1724, I did not write about this cantata this past Saturday, but feel it should be presented within the order Bach wrote them in: between this past Sunday and next Sunday. So after the French Overture in cantata 20 and the chorale motet in cantata 2, Bach now presents you with an Italian concerto in this cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam. The performance I like best is the one by Montreal Baroque, because of the opening movement and because of Charles Daniels singing the tenor aria. Other soloists are Daniel Taylor, countertenor, and Stephan MacLeod, bass. You can enjoy this performance here on YouTube. The phrasing of the orchestra is beautiful and overall this recording is much more thoughtful and satisfying to me than many others I listened to.
Find the German text with English translation of this cantata here, and the score here.
Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for the Herreweghe choir sopranos*. But the alto section of Collegium Vocale Gent is often equally impressive, and they deserve a special mention for their fabulous sound in the cantus firmus of this cantata’s opening chorus. Listen to Herreweghe’s recording of cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein on YouTube.
Find the text of this cantata here (read along so you can see the brilliant text-illustration in the music), and the score (where you can see which instruments double which vocal parts) here.
Bach wrote this cantata for the 2nd Sunday after Trinity, which fell on June 18 in 1724. As I explained last week, this is the second in a series of four cantatas at the start of Bach’s 1724/1725 Leipzig cycle, and according to the master’s orderly design for these first four chorale cantatas, the cantus firmus of the hymn tune (always the same as the cantata title) is now in the alto part.
This Herreweghe recording is from before the time that soloists joined the choir sections of Collegium Vocale, which means that alto soloist Ingeborg Danz does not sing in this excellent group of one mezzo (Mieke Wouters), two contraltos (Yvonne Fuchs and Cécile Pilorger), and one countertenor (Alex Potter). Also the blend with the instruments doubling this alto part (two oboes and one trombone) is so marvelous it gives me goose bumps. Then again, there aren’t many things in music that move me more than a Bach opening chorus with trombones.
Whenever Bach uses the archaic form of chorale motet as opening chorus, especially when he combines it with the use of the Renaissance/Early Baroque trombone quartet (1 cornetto and 3 trombones), he wants to stress the timeless importance, the authoritative character of a message. In this case the at that point already two centuries old message is the chorale, one of Luther’s own. For readers who understand German: Eduard van Hengel’s website (in Dutch) has a very insightful overview of the original German text of Psalm 12, the text of Luther’s chorale, and how Bach’s librettist changed that into the text for the cantata. You can find it here.
Bach alto and tenor arias are at their prettiest, I find, when they are written as a trio sonata, and there is a wonderful example of that in the alto ariaTilg, o Gott in this cantata. It is a plea for help in fighting the “Rottengeister,” or the sectarians amidst the Lutherans. Alto soloist Ingeborg Danz does a terrific job interpreting the text. When the alto starts singing the word Rottengeistern, we see that it was that word we had already heard many times in the triplets of the violin part. As Eduard van Hengel says, it is the “popular easy talk of the sectarians, and that is also the reason why the other two parts don’t have this motive” [to further illustrate the schism].
In his effort to educate his fellow Lutherans (the Leipzig congregations) with his music, Bach wants to make it clear that he’s still preaching by means of the well-known chorale, and uses longer notes for the direct quotation (in music and text) of the chorale in this aria: der uns will meistern.
The best interpretation of the tenor ariaDurchs Feuer wird das Silber rein actually appears on another recording, that of Bach Collegium Japan with tenor Gerd Türk. You can listen to that aria here. Here we have arrived at the solution/salvation part of the cantata, and so this music is more pleasant, easier to listen to. But Bach is still preaching: there are some crossing (!) lines in the music, and in the middle section, which tells the listeners to be patient (sei geduldig) and Bach stresses the words Kreuz und Not.
So one wonders: was Bach’s decision to focus on chorales for this 1724/1725 cantata cycle inspired by his need to make things easier for the boy sopranos, or by a wish to explain the theology to the congregations in a way that was more obvious to them than the more complicated, sometimes perhaps too hidden, messages he had so far delivered by way of his music? Or had the City Council or the church elders told him to to this?
On this First Sunday after Trinity (or “Trinity 1” for short) in 1724, Bach started his second cycle of cantatas in Leipzig.* He was well aware of the importance of this occasion, and wrote one of his most dramatic cantatas for this day: cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort. The cantata features a wealth of opera-style writing for the soloists, and such a stately French overture, that one wonders if the use of this style was ironic: see, if you behave in this rich, arrogant way, things will end horribly for you. A lesson like this would be fitting for this cantata, because the Gospel reading for this Trinity 1 Sunday was that of Lazarus and Dives: The poor leper Lazarus lies in front of the rich man Dives’ house, asking him for food every day. Dives ends up in hell when he dies because he didn’t share his blessings/wealth with those in need.
Over the course of writing this blog, whenever a cantata contains significant operatic writing, I tend to give the prize for best recording/interpretation to Gardiner, because he and Harnoncourt seem to be the only ones not shy to “overdo” it in these cases. This time it is no different. I especially love Paul Agnew in the tenor aria and Wilke te Brummelstoete and Paul Agnew together in the duet, where they illustrate the “chattering of teeth” perfectly. Bass Dietrich Henschel does a good job too, though I’m not sure I prefer him over Peter Kooy on the Herreweghe recording. Listen to Gardiner’s recording of cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort : hereon YouTube
Bach marked this “second beginning” in Leipzig in several different ways, for himself as well as for others:
First of all, on this Sunday he starts an entire series of new** cantatas, which we now call his chorale cantatas. For nine and a half months, including the entire Christmas season, he would write every cantata according to this same template: the opening movement is a chorale fantasia on the first stanza of an existing Lutheran hymn or chorale, with the tune appearing as a cantus firmus. The last movement has the last stanza of the same hymn as text, in a four-part harmonization of the tune. The text of those choral, outer movements was used verbatim, while the text of the solo, inner movements was paraphrased, but still based on the inner stanzas of the same hymn.
If you believe in the theory that Bach lost his soprano soloist sometime in the spring of 1724, and was having trouble training a new one, this concept of a chorale cantata would have been a brilliant move to solve this problem. This way, Bach still presented a series of impressive cantatas (arguably more impressive than his 1723/1724 cycle), while limiting the rehearsal hours needed with the choir boys. In many of these cantatas, as is the case for today’s cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, the choir boys would only have to sing the chorale melody in the opening chorus, and there would be no soprano recitative or aria among the inner movements at all. If in later cantatas in this series the boys would get assigned something a bit more complicated, it would still be based on the chorale melody they already knew by heart, so it would require much less rehearsal time with them.
As if with this dramatic cantata 20 Bach didn’t already make enough of a splash, he most probably intended for the first four chorale cantatas of this 1724 Trinity season to form a set, or at least to present some kind of order, if you look at the composition form of the opening movement, and which voice has the cantus firmus of the chorale tune in that chorus:
Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano
Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto.
Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor.
Cantata 135 : Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder: Chorale fantasia, cantus firmus in bass.
We know that Bach liked to use order and symmetry when he wanted to impress other people with a composition. But perhaps he was also thinking of his legacy. When he started composing cantatas at the Weimar court in 1714, albeit on a monthly instead of weekly basis, his first four cantatas formed a similar portfolio of composition styles in the opening choral movements:
This symmetry with his Weimar days must have been lost on others, even his fellow musicians, since they heard all these Weimar cantatas in Leipzig over the course of the 1723/1724 cycle, but not in this order they were created in Weimar.
In today’s cantata, cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, there are more links to other compositions nobody or only a few fans would have noticed: In the music as well as the text, Bach makes some pretty strong references to the first and the last cantata of the 1723 Trinity season. References to the first one (cantata 75, discussed here on this blog) appear in the decision to go back to this long, two-part format, the use of the trumpet as symbol for the heavens, and the illustration in the music of the word “Flammen” (flames). References to the last one (cantata 70, discussed here on this blog) present themselves in the selection of the chorale that talks about the Day of Judgement, and the operatic writing for the soloists, especially the bass and tenor.
After having followed Bach’s weekly compositions during the Trinity season of 1723, I feel it could be interesting to see this cantata 20, the first of the 1724 Trinity season, as the immediate successor of cantata 70, the last of the 1723 Trinity season. I realize that by doing so, I would ignore a few gems from early 1724, and an entire St. John Passion, but I do believe that as educator of his fellow Lutherans, Bach found Trinity season the most important part of the church year, and perhaps sometimes in his mind indeed ignored all the other stuff in between.
During the Trinity season, the theology moves away from the stories about the life of Christ, and instead focuses on the Lutheran doctrine, how one behaves before God, and on doing good deeds. So with this cantata, and the series that was to come, I think Bach wanted to make sure the Leipzig congregations were fully aware that the Trinity season was starting. The text “Wacht auf, wacht auf” (Wake up, wake up!) in the bass aria is testament to this, but also the writing of the opening chorus and the alto-tenor duet: it all makes you sit up and pay attention.
Wieneke Gorter, June 19, 2017.
*Bach had made his Leipzig debut on Trinity 1, 1723, with cantata 75 Die Elenden sollen essen. Read more about that fabulous cantata in this blog post.
**During this period, there will be no repeats of existing cantatas at all. It is stunning to realize that Bach made this huge commitment to himself, knowing how often during the 1723/1724 cycle he “recycled” music from Köthen and cantatas from Weimar.
part of my new office space, with a space for my mom, and a space for my books 🙂
I did not write about Pentecost last week, even though in Bach’s time this was a three-day holiday with a cantata on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. And I am late with this Trinity post. Even her in California it is not Sunday anymore. However, it is all for a good reason …
Over the last couple of months I started missing my Bach books (which were scattered all over the house and which I sometimes did not even read anymore) and yearned for a space in my house that’s dedicated to my blog. So, after some visits to the local hardware store and the Swedish furniture store (always a little bit like going home for me) and a lot of help from my wonderful family, I now have a streamlined, quiet looking office, where I can look out of a window while I sit at the computer, and where I have the Bach books right by my side.
And how happy I was to go back to the books, the real research, instead of relying mostly on websites for my information. In my reading for Trinity Sunday in 1724, I discovered a very interesting new fact, something I wished I had known in October 2016.
I won’t beat myself up about it, since I still vividly remember October 2016 as my busiest month of the last five years, so I’ll forgive myself that I brought you a bit of fake news: I stated in this post that Bach didn’t write a cantata for Trinity 23 in 1724 because it was Reformation Day, October 31. If I had checked the “chronology” chapter in “The New Bach Reader” by David, Mendel, and Wolff, I would have seen that in that week in 1723, Bach went to inspect a new organ in the nearby town of Strömthal. He wrote a 12-movement-long cantata for the dedication of the new organ and the new church building in that village on November 2, 1723: cantata 194 Höcherwunschtes Freudenfest.
He repeated this cantata on Trinity Sunday 1724, though perhaps not in its entirety. Gardiner suggests Bach performed only the first six movements instead of all twelve in Leipzig, but I can’t find any explanation for this anywhere, so I’ll need to do more research on that subject, or, who knows, ask Gardiner? Would he email me back?
Listen to the opening chorus and the soprano aria from cantata 194 Höcherwunschtes Freudenfest by Bach Collegium Japan on YouTube, with soprano Yukari Nonoshita.
Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
When listening to this music, two things might jumped out at me:
This cantata, especially the opening chorus, sounds more like court music than church music. This is because Bach based the music for the Strömthal cantata on music he wrote for the court of Anhalt-Köthen where he worked from 1716 to 1723.
In the opening chorus, the sopranos go up to a high C, which happens only in one other Bach cantata: BWV 151 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. Based on instructions Bach wrote in the string parts for the players in Leipzig, scholars think that the organ as well as the oboes in Strömthal must have been tuned to “tiefer Cammerton” (A=390). Gardiner writes that this posed a “huge problem” for his performances of this cantata in 2000, and says they were obliged to transpose all the parts down, and he wonders why Bach had not done the same for his Leipzig revivals. The way some of Gardiner’s colleagues solve this problem with regards to the beautiful but extremely high bass aria, is to contract a famous baritone for this occasion, as on this recording of Harnoncourt with Thomas Hampson.
If indeed only the first half of this cantata was performed on Trinity Sunday in 1724, Bach would have added cantata 165 O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, which bears a much stronger relation to the Gospel of the day: Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, stating that only those who are reborn through water baptism and the Spirit (or Holy Ghost) can reach eternal life. (Find the text of that part of the Gospel of John here).
Jesus and Nicodemus, by Dutch painter Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn (1601-1645)
This cantata 165 was not a new composition either: Bach wrote it in Weimar in 1715. It is not completely certain that this cantata was also performed on Trinity Sunday in 1724, but most sources mention it and it is an interesting cantata with pretty arias and good word painting in the music, so I decided to include it here.
No recording of this cantata was satisfying to me in all the movements, so I made a playlist on YouTube with the soprano, alto, and tenor from the Gardiner recording (Ruth Holton, Daniel Taylor, Paul Agnew), and the bass from the Leonhardt recording (Max van Egmond). The opening aria is extremely hard and Ruth Holton does the best job of all recordings I listened to.
Find the text of cantata 165 O heilges Geist- und Wasserbadhere, and the score here.
the river in the soprano aria;
the dark harmonies in the first bass recitative, illustrating the words sündig (sinful), Tod (death), and Verderben (destruction);
the steadfastness (including a steadily moving river?) in the alto aria;
the dramatic ending of the second bass recitative: on the words “wenn alle Kraft vergeht” (when all my strength fails) the bass part reaches its lowest note, Bach tells the violins to play piano, the keyboard player to not play any chords, and on the final note the strings have nothing, there is only one note of the continuo left;
the healing snake in the tenor aria (in the strings), noting that in the preceding bass recitative, we have learned that the “old” snake (the venomous one/the one who seduced Eve) has turned into a new, healing snake.