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Jesus Heals Ten Lepers, from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1035-1040

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.

Wieneke Gorter, September 12, 2020.