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The Adoration of the Kings, circa 1440. From a series of four boards from the former High Altar of the Heilig-Kreuz-Münsters in Rottweil, Germany.

In the summer and fall of 1724, Bach wrote an entire series of chorale cantatas, meaning that each cantata was based on a hymn. If at all possible, it was to be a hymn associated with that particular Sunday in the church year.  For this 18th Sunday after Trinity, he chose Herr Christ, der einige Gottessohn (Lord Christ, the only son of God). Keep reading to learn why.

When I first wrote about this Cantata 96 Herr Christ, der einige Gottessohn, in 2017, I recommended Ton Koopman’s recording. Listen to that recording here on Amazon, or here on Spotify. (It is not available on YouTube). Soloists are: Deborah York, soprano; Franziska Gottwald, alto; Paul Agnew, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Heiko ter Schegget, sopranino recorder; and Wilbert Hazelzet, transverse flute.

However, since then a wonderful live video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation has come out: you can find that here on YouTube. This is a terrific recording as well, with the added bonus that you can see the sopranino recorder and all the other instruments. Soloists in this performance are: Noëmi Sohn, soprano; Jan Börner, alto; Julius Pfeifer, tenor; Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, bass; and Maurice Steger, sopranino recorder.

Find the German text with English translation here and the score here.

In the Lutheran Church the chorale Herr Christ, der einige Gottessohn, one of the oldest Protestant hymns, was not so much associated with this 18th Sunday after Trinity, but more with Epiphany/Three Kings (January 6), for its reference to the Morning Star. Bach brings the luster of the Christmas season into this cantata in the most beautiful way. He gives the opening chorus a dusting of starlight by writing a part for flauto piccolo, or sopranino recorder*, over the rest of the vocal and instrumental parts. Since this time it is the altos that have the chorale melody in the opening chorus, Bach can create an ethereal link between the chorus and the flauto piccolo by way of the soprano part in the chorus. In the fifth line of the text, Er ist die Morgensterne (he is the Morning Star), he modulates to the brilliant key of E Major on the word “Morgensterne.”

But why did Bach select this chorale for a Sunday in the Trinity season? It becomes a bit more clear in the alto recitative and tenor aria. They refer to the fact that Jesus is God’s son, not David’s son. This is the only direct reference to the Gospel reading for this Sunday: Jesus giving the Jewish elders a hard time after they had claimed that he was only David’s son, not God’s son (Matthew 22: 34-46).  In the tenor aria Bach features his star flute player again.

In the soprano recitative, the focus changes to Jesus as guiding light, referring to the “he is the Morning Star” text from the chorale. The soprano’s statement that it can be hard to stay on the “right path” is illustrated in the bass aria.

We have heard faltering steps in Bach cantatas before (read my post about that here), but this time Bach offers a more theatrical illustration. In the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig a visual and aural effect would have made this even stronger: the violins, playing when the bass sings “zu rechten” (now to the right), would have stood on the right-hand balcony, the oboes, playing when the bass sings “zu linken” (now to the left) would have stood on the left-hand balcony. Also, in Bach’s rhetoric, right meant good and high, left meant bad and low.

The middle part of this cantata, with the text “Gehe doch, mein Heiland, mit” (My saviour please come with me) always moves me, especially when Peter Kooij sings it (listen to that here on Spotify, with Bach Collegium Japan).

Wieneke Gorter, October 15, 2017, updated October 8, 2020.

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*Since his arrival in Leipzig, Bach had used recorders in cantatas quite often (see this image by Nik Tarasov), but this is the very first time he writes for sopranino recorder, or “flauto piccolo.” The second time was on March 25, 1725, in Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, and the third time on the third Sunday after Easter in 1725, in Cantata 103 Ihr werdet weinen und heulen.