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Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s Son  by Paolo Veronese. 1565-1570, oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

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.

Alex Potter. Photo by Annelies van der Vegt.

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.
Alto Aria
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!
Soprano chorale

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!)***

Dorothee Mields

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.

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 Irea and the Gregorian Requiem that preceded it.

Alex Potter receiving applause in Naarden, October 31, 2019. To Potter’s right: tenor Thomas Hobbs, recorder player Benny Aghassi, and soprano Dorothee Mields.
Photo by Hans van der Woerd, courtesy of The Netherlands Bach Society.

Wieneke Gorter, September 26, 2020.

* 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 73895, 105127, and 198.