In Leipzig, Bach wrote cantatas not just for Sundays, but also for major feast days. One of those was the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas, or “Michaelistag,” as Bach would have called it. That day is today, September 29.
Thanks to the “Cantata of the Week” series by Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras, two of the four cantatas Bach wrote for this day* are available on YouTubethis week only. This week’s video is especially wonderful because it has an excellent introductory talk by trumpet player Michael Harrison.
Another timely announcement I would like to make, is that you can join my fellow singers of California Bach Society, Bach lovers from all over the world, professional soloists (singing the solos from their homes), our director Paul Flight (who will teach us about the cantata), and myself on Zoom this Saturday, October 3 at 11 am Pacific Time,** for an interactive online workshop on Cantata 78, Jesu der du meine Seele. All Bach lovers are welcome, whether you are a singer or just a listener. All participants will be muted during the event.
Read more and sign up here. Registration is free but we hope you’ll support us with a donation of $10 or more. I hope to see you there!
Wieneke Gorter, September 29, 2020.
* The video includes Cantata 50 Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft (1723?) and Cantata 19 Es erhub sich ein Streit (1726). The two other cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday are Cantata 130 Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (1724) and Cantata 149 Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg (1729). All four are on Vol. 7 of Gardiner’s Bach Cantata series from 2000, available for streaming here on iTunes, here on Spotify, or here on Amazon.
** 2 pm Eastern Time / 7 pm UK Time / 8 pm European Time.
This is an extended lesson, in several steps, but please bear with me, it’s worth it and you get to watch or listen to some excellent videos. Happy learning and listening!
This 16th Sunday after Trinity seems to be “chorale Sunday” for Bach. His cantatas for this Sunday (161, 95, 8, and 27) either contain a high number of chorales, or are centered around an important chorale. Read for example about the four (!) chorales in Cantata 95 Christus, der ist mein Leben from 1723 in this blog post. Already in 1716, in Weimar, Bach put great emphasis on the chorale in the first cantata he ever wrote for this Sunday, Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde.
Why this stress on chorales? In his book about Anna Magdalena Bach, David Yearsley suggests it has something to do with widows. The Bible story for this Sunday is the Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s son. Based on contemporary sermons, Yearsley concludes that this 16th Sunday after Trinity was seen as some sort of National Widow Day, and wonders why no Bach scholar ever discusses this in relation to these cantatas. On page 207 of his book, he says: “Even by Bachian standards, this group of cantatas is dense with chorales, the singing of which was one crucial way for widows to make their lives bearable; melodies and texts buttressed single women’s emotional well-being and held off melancholy.”
The crucial role the chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End (My heart is filled with longing to pass away in peace) plays in Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde from 1716 brings me to Part II of my review of the All Souls production by the Netherlands Bach Society in the Fall of 2019, guest-directed by Alex Potter. (Part I is here). That program included the absolute best performance of Cantata 161 I have ever heard. Unfortunately, none of the performances were recorded.
I will discuss two good alternatives for recordings later, but first I would like to introduce* Alex Potter with this video by the Netherlands Bach Society. In this video, Potter talks about the countertenor voice, and explains how he came to be a countertenor. It’s a lovely and very accessible interview. But for me, the best are the snippets of rehearsals for the All Souls program. It’s cold comfort for the absence of a complete All of Bach recording, but for a few seconds, you can see Potter perform the alto recitative from Cantata 161 with the superb band he had put together for this : the dramatic so schlage doch section around 1’38” and the start of the recitative around 7’12”. Other singers in this recording are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Stephan McLeod, bass.
The chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End features prominently in the opening movement of Cantata 161, is referred to in the tenor aria, and then comes back in the final movement. It was an important chorale for Bach, and he used it often. Watch this 3-minute explanation by organist Matthias Havinga on how earthly misery gets replaced by heavenly paradise in the chorale prelude (BWV 727) of the same name, also written in Weimar. **
Potter wanted to make absolutely sure that the Netherlands Bach Society audience members, who all have St. Matthew Passion running through their veins, would not hear this tune as O Haupt voll Blut und wunden:
“It is NOT ‘O Haupt’ – indeed in hymnals from the time, ‘O Haupt’ is often listed to be sung to the melody of ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’,” he explained a few days after the concerts, when I had written him to ask about some of his choices.
By the time Bach repeated this cantata in Leipzig, probably sometime in the late 1720s or in the 1730s, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden had become much better known, and Bach might have had a similar concern as Alex Potter had in 2019: he wanted to make sure the congregation would have the correct chorale, and thus the correct message in mind.
In the original Weimar version from 1716, the chorale melody in the opening chorus was played, without words, on the organ. Listeners would have heard the words in their heads. For a wonderful example of this version, listen to Herreweghe’s recording here on YouTube, or here on Spotify. Soloists on this recording are Matthew White, countertenor, and Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor.
Bach’s later Leipzig solution: He replaced the organ part with a soprano part, using the first verse of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. For an example of this version, with all sopranos singing the chorale, watch the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Please note another typical Leipzig change here: recorders were replaced by the more fashionable transverse flutes. Soloists in this recording are Alex Potter, countertenor, and Daniel Johanssen, tenor.
It makes that you hear these two texts at the same time, which is very special:
Komm, du süße Todesstunde, Da mein Geist Honig speist Aus des Löwen Munde; Mache meinen Abschied süße, Säume nicht, Letztes Licht, Dass ich meinen Heiland küsse.
Come, sweet hour of death, when my spirit feeds on honey from the lion’s mouth; make my departure sweet, do not delay, last light so that I may kiss my saviour.
Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End; weil ich hie bin umfangen mit Trübsal und Elend. Ich hab Lust abzuscheiden von dieser argen Welt; sehn mich noch ew’gen Freuden: o Jesu, komm nur bald.
My heart is filled with longing To pass away in peace; For woes are round me thronging, And trials will not cease. O fain would I be hasting From thee, dark world of gloom, To gladness everlasting; O Jesus, quickly come!
Alex Potter’s 2019 solution: Use the soprano part from the Leipzig version, sung solo by the incomparable Dorothee Mields, but keep the recorders from the Weimar version.
A pragmatic solution, as Potter explained partly in the program book: recorder player Benny Aghassi was available; partly in his message to me: “I think that for a modern audience having the voice cut through a bit more makes it clearer – also with the text. I also think that any opportunity to hear more Dorothee Mields is worth it, and I got to sing with her as an added bonus.”
It turned out to be a brilliant one. If you have ever watched and heard Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter sing a duet, you know that that is pure heaven. I also truly prefer the somewhat more penetrating sound of recorders over the sweet tones of the flutes in all the movements of this cantata that they appear in (alto aria, alto recitative, chorus, and closing chorale), but especially in the illustration of the death bells in the text “so schlage doch, du letzter Stundenschlag!” (therefore sound, stroke of the last hour!)***
And, in those concerts in the Netherlands in 2019, we got to hear even more Dorothee Mields. In an extra effort to set the audience up with the correct chorale, Alex Potter had her sing Johann Hermann Schein’s setting of Herzlich tut mich verlangen right before the cantata started. Especially in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague on Sunday November 3 this was an event: She stood in a very humble location behind the stage, almost tucked into a corner next to the stairs leading up to the pulpit, hidden from view for probably half the audience. Then, during the instrumental introduction to the Bach cantata, she very slowly climbed the stairs to the pulpit, and then sang the chorale from there during the opening aria. It was as Bach intended: to die for.
Update from 2021: there now is an extremely inspired Herreweghe recording with Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter singing this opening movement together, i.e. Herreweghe adopting Potter’s idea from 2019. I was so happy to see this. It was recorded live at De Singel in Antwerp on Sunday January 31, 2021 (during the Covid19 pandemic, so without audience). Find it here.
I mentioned before that Herzlich tut mich verlangen is also referenced in the tenor aria. It is not just with the word “Verlangen” in the text, but also with the “figura suspirans” (or longing in the music, as explained in the organ video of Matthias Havinga mentioned above) that is present here too, in the tenor part as well in the violin part. The effect Shunske Sato’s longing style of playing had on Thomas Hobbs’ singing in this aria was out of this world. Thomas Hobbs really needs a shout-out for his role in this All Souls production, even though I’m writing this so long after the fact. I’ve seen him several times in concerts with Herreweghe, and his stage presence has always been an inspiration to me, but I was especially impressed by his singing in these performances. The way he sang the sentence “Der blasse Tod ist meine Morgenröte” in the tenor recitative of Cantata 161 was unrivaled. And in the first half of the program, Hobbs and his laser-beam long notes were the star of Rosenmüller’s Dies Irae and the Gregorian Requiem that preceded it.
Wieneke Gorter, September 26, 2020, updated February 13, 2021.
* Since I first heard Alex Potter live in 2018, I have written many posts about his extraordinary interpretations of Bach’s music. You can find most of them by typing Alex Potter into the search bar at the top of this post. The top three, in my humble opinion, are here, here, and here.
** Find the video of the entire organ prelude (BWV 727) here.
***Bach illustrates death bells in instrumentation, often using flutes, but sometimes only pizzicato strings, in cantatas 73, 8, 95, 105, 127, and 198.
One of the three cantatas Bach wrote for this 15th Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!, the famous solo-cantata for soprano and trumpet. In a world that values athletes above artists, attending or discussing a performance of this cantata can sometimes feel as if we’re all judging a tennis match instead of a work of art: will the soprano hit that high C? and how virtuoso is that trumpet player? I have always been a bit frustrated by this.
What a breath of fresh air it was then to discover Maria Keohane’s interpretation of this cantata. There are two live registrations of her singing this on YouTube, one with the European Union Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Lars Ulrik Mortensen, with Sebastian Philpott on trumpet. Then there is a newer one, from 2015, with the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of Jos van Veldhoven, with Robert Vanryne on trumpet. That one is my favorite, and you can find it here.
Find the German texts with English translations here (click on “Text”), and the score here.
I noticed how Maria Keohane masters every aspect of this composition, not because she’s the most virtuoso soprano on earth, but because she completely understands the music. She radiates joy, but also brings a great Calm over everything and everyone. In this wonderful interview (with English subtitles here, with Dutch subtitles here) she explains how this cantata has been with her all her music-making life, how she sees her interaction with the trumpet as a symbiosis instead of a competition, and how she believes that “in allen Landen” (in all lands) means that we share the same joy of being together on this earth.
While almost all soprano solos in Bach’s church cantatas were intended for a boy soprano (no female musicians allowed in the churches of Leipzig), it remains a big question whether this one was ever sung by a boy. Under the “Story” tab on this website, the Netherlands Bach Society explains that Bach composed this cantata around 1730 for either the Weissenfels court (where his wife Anna Magdalena, an accomplished singer who had family there, might have performed it) or for one of the Italian opera singers who settled in Dresden that year. Even Gustav Leonhardt chose an adult female soprano (Marianne Kweksilber) for his recording of this cantata.
If you’d like to hear the perfect “boy soprano voice” sing this cantata, I invite you to listen to Emma Kirkby on the Gardiner recording from 2000, here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. While she doesn’t move me the way Maria Keohane does, her voice is an unbelievably amazing instrument.
While my family is not in any direct danger of the fires here in California, and we are lucky in many ways, it has been hard for me to avoid going into serious flight mode this week. What has kept me sane are yoga classes on Zoom, but also a daily gratitude practice, where I write down specific examples of things that went well or that I enjoyed, and count my blessings.
I was comforted to discover this week that Bach also focused on gratitude and joy in the third cantata he wrote for this 14th Sunday after Trinity. The Bible story for this Sunday is the miracle of Jesus healing ten lepers, from Luke 17: 11-19. While Bach’s first two cantatas for this Sunday talk about salvation from sickness, the third one, Cantata 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich (He who gives thanks, he praises me), from 1726, focuses on the second part of the story (as well as the second part in the painting above): the one man who comes forward to thank Jesus for healing him.
Of all the recordings I listened to, I prefer the live video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation, released in March 2020. Watch that recording here on YouTube or, if you prefer to listen on Spotify, you can find my playlist here. Soloists are: Noëmi Sohn-Nad, soprano; Jan Börner; alto; Sören Richter; tenor; and Daniel Pérez, bass. I enjoyed listening to all of them.
Find the German texts with English translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
There are two unique aspects to this cantata, especially when you compare it to other cantatas for “regular” Sundays. First, there is no hardship to overcome, no sin to be absolved in this cantata. It is all one big song of praise for God’s benevolence. Quite unusual, but a nice change. Second, Bach writes an “Evangelist” part for the tenor at the start of part II, directly quoting the Bible text:
Einer aber unter ihnen, da er sahe, dass er gesund worden war, But one of them, when he saw that he was healed, kehrete um und preisete Gott mit lauter Stimme turned back and praised God with a loud voice und fiel auf sein Angesicht zu seinen Füßen and fell on his face at his feet und dankte ihm, und das war ein Samariter. and thanked him, and this man was a Samaritan.
There are only a handful of other cantatas in which this happens, but most of those are very meaningful (Cantata 22 and 42 come to mind). So I don’t think Bach is experimenting. He probably again wants to educate his fellow believers, and perhaps make them see that that part of the story is what the whole cantata is about.
I have to leave it at that, because the other two cantatas for this Sunday are not to be missed either and I don’t want this post to become too long.
Cantata 25 Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (Nothing healthy is to be found in my body), from 1723, starts out with an incredible opening chorus with trombones playing a chorale that begs for salvation. That salvation then appears towards the end of the cantata, in the form of a jubilant soprano aria. Read my blog post from 2016, not only to find links to Herreweghe’s fabulous recording of this cantata (with Hana Blažíková singing the soprano aria), but also to learn why Bach must have felt like a kid in a candy store that particular Sunday.
In 1724 Bach wrote Cantata 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, you [who saved] my soul). After a completely different, but equally beautiful and poignant opening chorus, joy presents itself much earlier, in the music of the second movement: the cute soprano-alto duet that is nowadays probably Bach’s most beloved duet. In my blog post from 2017 I recommend a Rifkin and a Herreweghe recording and I still stand by those choices today. In that post, I praised the opening chorus and the duet, but I completely forgot to discuss an often overlooked movement from this cantata: the tenor aria. I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. About two years ago I started dreaming of a podcast about this underrated aspect of Bach’s compositions, and when I finally have the time and the guts to create it, this aria will definitely be in it.
Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, the 13th after Trinity, all more or less related to the story of the Good Samaritan. In 1723 he writes the incredibly beautiful Cantata 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben (You must love God, your Lord). Read about it in my post from 2016. Along with many fellow members of California Bach Society I had the pleasure of singing this cantata earlier this summer, each of us sitting in front of our computer in our own home. Even though we could only see each other on a computer screen and not hear each other sing, it was a beautiful and meaningful experience. And while I tend to focus on the opening chorus and the alto aria when thinking about this cantata, several of my friends pointed out that the texts are still, or again, very appropriate today. Take for example the text of the tenor recitative:
Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz, For this purpose, my God, give me the Samaritan’s heart Dass ich zugleich den Nächsten liebe so that I can at once love my neighbor Und mich bei seinem Schmerz and in his sorrow Auch über ihn betrübe, feel concern for him Damit ich nicht bei ihm vorübergeh so that I shall not pass him by Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse. and leave him in his distress. Gib, dass ich Eigenliebe hasse, Grant that I may hate self-love, So wirst du mir dereinst das Freudenleben then you will grant me one day a joyous life Nach meinem Wunsch, jedoch aus Gnaden geben according to my desire, from your grace.
In 1724, within the framework of the 1724/1725 series of chorale cantatas (his second year of cantata compositions in Leipzig)* Bach writes Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (Solely towards you, Lord Jesus Christ). Because the libretto is based much more on the chorale text than on the Gospel text, it includes only one quote from the Bible story: “I may love my neighbour as myself.” But while it is just one line of text, Bach doesn’t let it go unnoticed, and turns that fifth verse of the libretto into a duet that has all the characteristics of a love duet from the Venetian operas of the time. At least the instrumentalists in the orchestra must have gotten the reference loud and clear. This also proves that the oh-so-cute soprano-alto duet from Cantata 78 (which Bach wrote one week later) didn’t come out of the blue. Here is the artists’ study for it, albeit written for tenor and bass. Read all this and more in my post from 2017.
From Trinity Sunday 1723 to Trinity Sunday 1725, Bach had provided the Leipzig churches with a cantata for almost every Sunday and Feast day. But for the Sundays between Trinity and Christmas 1725, we have only a handful of his cantatas left.** Cantata 164 Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet (You, who take your name from Christ) is among these. Bach saw his church music as a means to “educate his neighbor” about Christian theology, and it seems that in this case, a third cantata for this Sunday was needed: he was not done educating his neighbors about the story of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, the priest and the Levite pass the wounded man without showing mercy. In the libretto of this cantata, this example is turned onto the Christian believers themselves:
You, who take your name from Christ, where is to be found the mercyby which people recognize members of Christ?
It is far, far away from you.Your hearts should be rich in love,but they are harder than a stone.
Because of the preaching character of that first text, it seems only fitting that Bach doesn’t set this as a chorus, but as a tenor aria, as if to better scold the congregation. The use of two flutes (in the alto aria) is unusual for a cantata, and makes me think of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach must have wanted to stress the loveliness of the text in that aria. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists in this performance are Monika Mauch, soprano; Jan Börner, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Markus Volpert, Bass.
Find the texts & translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
Wieneke Gorter, September 5, 2020.
A little more about the painting:
At a distance, on the left, behind a tree, we see the Levite retreating. Still further away, reading a book, is the priest. This is the only known work of this painter, Balthasar van Cortbemde. It was most probably commissioned by the guild of surgeons in Antwerp in 1647, because it was displayed in their Chamber from 1647 to 1798. It became property of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in 1810.
*to learn more about Bach’s series of chorale cantatas, start reading here
**we don’t know if the missing cantatas were composed but then were lost, or if they were simply never composed because Bach started to focus on other things.