Of this cantata 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele most people only know the soprano-alto duet Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten. The best rendition of this I have ever heard in my life is by Julianne Baird and Allan Fast on the Rifkin recording from 1988. Listen to it here. Fast passed away in 1995 at age 41.
Bach wrote this cantata for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, September 10, 1724. It was not the first time he wrote a “cute” duet — there are gorgeous examples in sacred and secular cantatas from his Weimar and Köthen years. However, at the start of his second Leipzig cycle, for the Trinity season of 1724, there are more and more duets in his cantatas. Alto-tenor duets appear in cantatas 20 and 10, spaced three weeks apart. A series of soprano-alto duets follows on July 9 in cantata 93, a month later in cantata 101, and the next week in cantata 113. Then there’s the terrific tenor-bass duet in cantata 33 on September 3, and this duet on September 10.
This is why I like it so much to listen to Bach’s cantatas in the order he wrote and performed them. I would never have noticed connections such as these otherwise.
The rest of the cantata is wonderful too, especially the opening chorus, which is among the most complex Bach ever wrote. For those who read Dutch, I encourage you to read Eduard van Hengel’s splendid article about this cantata here.
For the entire cantata I prefer Herreweghe’s recording, also from 1988. Soprano: Ingrid Schmithüsen; Alto: Charles Brett; Tenor: Howard Crook; Bass: Peter Kooy. Find the recording here on YouTube. Find the German text and English translations of the cantata here, and the score here.
More listening for this Sunday: cantata 25 from 1723. It has a much bigger orchestra, including many brass players. Find my explanation for that here.
Wieneke Gorter, September 17, 2017, updated September 10, 2020.
It is now the 13th Sunday after Trinity — time for the story of the Good Samaritan. For a sublime cantata that stays close to that Gospel text, read my earlier post about cantata 77 Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723.
When Bach receives the libretto for Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ in 1724, it is -except for one line- not related to the Bible story at all. Maybe he already knows this, since he himself was probably responsible for selecting the chorale to serve as the basis for this cantata: a hymn of penitence from 1540, asking Christ to be freed of the pressing burden of sins. The part of the libretto that might have moved him the most* is this:
Wie furchtsam wankten meine Schritte, Doch Jesus hört auf meine Bitte Und zeigt mich seinem Vater an. Mich drückten Sündenlasten nieder, Doch hilft mir Jesu Trostwort wieder, Dass er für mich genug getan.
How fearfully were faltering my footsteps, but Jesus listens to my entreaties and bears witness for me to his Father. The burden of my sins weighed down heavily on me, but Jesus’ word of comfort reassures me that he has done enough for me.
Wie zittern und wanken Der Sünder Gedanken, Indem sie sich untereinander verklagen Und wiederum sich zu entschuldigen wagen. So wird ein geängstigt Gewissen Durch eigene Folter zerrissen.
How tremble and waver the sinners’ thoughts while they bring accusations against each other and on the other hand dare to make excuses for themselves. In this way a troubled conscience is torn apart through its own torments.
Bach is in general also still exploring ways to get more drama and text illustration into the music of his cantatas without it coming across as too operatic. So after a delicate opening chorus (Gardiner describes this as “an antique ring” in which the ornate beauty of the orchestral setting almost eclipses the inner gem of the hymn setting) and a powerful bass recitative, he writes a heart-wrenching alto aria on the moving text.
Click on this link to hear the amazing interpretation by countertenor Damien Guillon and the instrumentalists of Belgian ensemble Il Gardellino. Nobody delivers such a fantastic combination of completely “getting” the text and wonderful, seemingly effortless singing. And listen to how he pronounces the consonants r-ch-t-s in the word “Furchtsam” without any concession to the vowel sounds.
When the libretto finally comes to the only quote of the Good Samaritan story: “I may love my neighbour as myself” in the fifth movement, Bach takes the opportunity to write a striking duet, including the parallel thirds and sixths characteristic of the amorous duets in Venetian operas of the time. If you thought that the famous soprano-alto duet from cantata 78 came out of the blue, here is the artist’s study for it, one week before 🙂
A wonderful live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation is available here on YouTube. Soloists in this video registration are Ruth Sandhoff, alto; Andreas Post, tenor; Markus Volpert, bass.
Wieneke Gorter, September 8, 2017, updated September 3, 2020.
*of course I don’t know for a fact that this was the part of the libretto that moved Bach most. It is the text that moves me most, and of course that is partly because of Bach’s beautiful setting of it.
**and of course I don’t know this for a fact either, but it is the first thing I wrote down when I listened to this cantata, without having read Gardiner’s notes, which state that this alto aria from cantata 33 “bears a striking kinship in mood, subject-matter, and even melodic outline” to the soprano aria from cantata 105. So I am not alone in noticing this.
Six weeks ago, it was easy to guess why there was a cantata missing from Bach’s collection of all-new chorale cantatas he wrote in the summer of 1724. Bach had probably been granted a short leave of absence because his presence was required in Köthen. But for today’s missing cantata there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason.
After his death, Bach’s compositions were divided over his sons. Most of them took care of these manuscripts, but apparently Wilhelm Friedemann often sold his father’s music to supplement his income. And of course it was always possible that the score and parts were at one point used by a colleague or relative and got displaced, or burnt in a fire.
While we don’t know how Bach’s cantata for the 12th Sunday after Trinity in 1724 disappeared, I can assure you all the other cantatas he wrote for the fall of 1724 as well as the 1724/1725 Christmas season did survive, so please keep following this blog. There are many cantatas coming up that I am not familiar with, so it will be a great journey of discovery for me, and it is great to know that I have so many readers traveling with me 🙂
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