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 mercy by 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.
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.