What are your five favorite cantatas? This question was asked this week on Facebook by the Residentie Bach Ensembles, the choirs and orchestra of the monthly cantata services in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague, the Netherlands. A hard question to answer, and I would probably have a different Top Five every month. However, Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, today’s cantata from 1725, will probably always be in it. The soprano aria from this cantata is forever linked in my heart and mind with the funeral service for my mother in this same Kloosterkerk in The Hague (read a bit more about that in this post), but having carefully listened to about 120 cantatas over the past two years I am struck by how special this cantata is within Bach’s oeuvre.
I’m not alone in my appreciation of Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott. Eduard van Hengel calls it an “exceptionally inspired cantata,” 19th century Bach biographer Spitta called it “perhaps the most important” cantata, and it received “the most beautiful” qualification by Arnold Schering as well as Ton Koopman.
My favorite recording of this cantata is now [update from 2021] Herreweghe’s live recording from January 31, 2021. Find it here on YouTube.
There are several reasons why this last Sunday before Lent, or Quinquagesima Sunday or Estomihi Sunday, was such an important day for Bach, and maybe especially in 1725:
- This was the day, in 1723, on which he had auditioned for his job in Leipzig, with Cantatas 22 and 23, his first performance ever for the Leipzig congregation and city council. In 1724 he would repeat the same cantatas on this same Sunday.
- After this Sunday, his audience (=the Leipzig congregations of the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches) would not hear any of Bach’s music until March 25, on the feast of the Annunciation of Mary. No figural music (only chorale singing) was allowed in the Lutheran churches in Leipzig during Lent (the approximately 40 days before Easter), with the exception of the Annunciation. In 1724 this period was 33 days, but in 1725 it was 41 days (from February 11 to March 25). So Bach might have wished to leave his audience with something special, something they would remember for 41 days.
- If it is true that Andreas Stübel had been Bach’s librettist for his entire chorale cantata cycle, Bach would have now known that this was the last regular chorale cantata of the cycle for now: Stübel died on January 31, 1725. So perhaps Bach wanted to “go out with a bang” for that reason. It is striking to me that he chooses a bass recitative/arioso with trumpet talking about the Day of Judgement, a similar combination of voice, instrument, and subject matter he uses at the end of the Trinity period in 1723, and again (though less dramatically) at the end of the Trinity period in 1724. Is this Bach’s way of saying: this is the end of an important series?
Compared to all opening choruses that had come before, this opening chorus is the most complex and intricate. It is the same as chorale fantasias in previous chorale cantatas in the sense that the six lines of text of the chorale Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott appear in six sections, with the chorale melody (the cantus firmus) in the soprano and trumpet part. However the orchestra greatly enhances the meaning of Bach’s message by referring to this chorale plus two others. The instrumental groups (recorders, oboes, strings, and continuo) represent four musical themes referring to these chorales. Eduard van Hengel illustrates this extremely well with two diagrams on his website, which I am copying here with his permission:
(a) The recorders play a dotted rhythm which in both the St. John and St. Matthew Passions illustrates punishment and suffering.
(b) The oboes introduce the “Leitmotiv” that will sound 78 times throughout the entire movement, and stands for the Herr Jesu Christ, wahr Mensch und Gott chorale. Jesus was a true (“wahr”) man and God. Probably Bach’s most important message here.
(c) The strings quote the chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes, or Luther’s Agnus Dei. It would show up again in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, which Bach might already have been working on around this time, see my post about Cantata 125 last week.
(d) In the continuo we hear six times the first seven notes of Ach Herr mich armen Sünder, nowadays better known as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, one of the main building stones of the St. Matthew Passion. In the seventh section of the opening chorus, when the sopranos are already done singing the chorale melody, Bach repeats this particular theme in the vocal bass line in the choir, as if to make sure that even those who might have missed the quotation earlier would now hear it loud and clear.
Van Hengel adds this extra diagram to show in which measures of the opening chorus the different themes appear:
At this point Bach might still have been planning to prepare his audiences for a first St. Matthew Passion, not abandoning that plan until much closer to March 30, Good Friday, 1725. Not only are the references in this opening chorus a striking example of that, but also in the extraordinary bass recitative/aria do we see the theme of the Sind Blitze, sind Donner chorus from the St. Matthew Passion appear on the text “Ich breche mit starker und helfender Hand.”
Regular followers of this blog will notice that Bach had been making a study for this bass recitative/aria in the previous three cantatas: combining lines of the chorale text with “free” text in the bass solo of Cantatas 92 and 125, and then using Sind Blitze, sind Donner material and trumpet accompaniment in the bass solo in Cantata 126.
Wieneke Gorter, February 10, 2018, updated February 22, 2020 and February 13, 2021.
* Herreweghe’s album “Jesu, deine Passion” features cantatas 22, 23, 127, and 159. Cantata 23 has exceptionally beautiful choruses and Cantata 22 represents the first introduction of Bach’s version of the “Vox Christi”(voice of Christ) to the Leipzig congregations, considered by some as an intentional preparation for the listeners of what would be to come in the Passions. Cantata 159 on this album is fantastic too, with an unrivaled interpretation by Peter Kooij of the fourth movement, the bass aria “Es ist vollbracht.”