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My absolute favorite recording of Cantata 180 Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Adorn yourself, beloved soul, from October 22, 1724) is the video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2009. I love how the entire ensemble truly brings luster into the opening chorus and the soprano aria, and how the instrumentalists illustrate the “knocking” in the tenor aria. Also: Rudolf Lutz’s lecture about this cantata is in my top five of all his lectures I’ve watched so far.

When I first wrote about this cantata, in 2017, only the soprano aria from this video registration was available on YouTube, and Lutz’s lecture didn’t have English subtitles yet. However, this has all changed, and the entire cantata is now available here on YouTube, and Lutz’s lecture, now with English subtitles, can be found here. Soloists in the performance: Maria Christina Kiehr, soprano; Jan Börner, counter-tenor; Julius Pfeifer, tenor; and Fabrice Hayoz, bass. 

Find the German text with English translation here, and the score here.

When I listened to Lutz’s lecture again this week, I noticed some things I had missed when listening to it in 2017. For example, around 2 minutes into the lecture, when talking about the opening chorus, Lutz says:

“I like to compare it to a flowing wedding garment of the noblest kind.”

The title of the cantata is “Schmücke dich” (Adorn yourself) and the 20th Sunday after Trinity was a Communion Sunday in Leipzig. As I mentioned in my post from 2017, it was normal in Bach’s time to compare the Communion between Jesus and the believer, or Jesus and the soul, to the marriage between groom and bride. So it makes sense to use this image of a bride dressing up for her wedding. In addition, the reading for this Sunday mentions wedding guests being sent away because they are not dressed for the occasion. So on this 20th Sunday after Trinity, we can pay a bit more attention to clothing.

Lutz being Lutz, a talented improvisor, and often one to throw in some local folklore to make his Swiss audience laugh, makes a joke about that “wedding garment of the noblest kind,” and adds: “Perhaps by Akris, or so.” I had to Google that one, and it turns out that Akris is a Swiss fashion house that still has its headquarters in St. Gallen (the same town where the J.S. Bach Foundation resides), and has been owned by the same family continuously. There’s a nice New York Times article about its current creative director Albert Kriemler here.

I started thinking: if Bach also paid more attention to clothing for this Sunday, what would he have had in mind on the words “Schmücke dich”?

We know that the Rhine wine was flowing at Bach’s own wedding to Anna Magdalena in 1721, but for the rest it would probably have been a simple affair, since it was held at home. There are no paintings of the weddings of his employers, nor of the weddings that would have taken place in Leipzig at the time. However there are paintings of noble dresses Bach might have seen on official occasions, worn by the Princess his employer in Köthen married a little later in December 1721*, and by the consorts of dignitaries Bach would have visited in Dresden and Berlin. See pictures at the top of this post. This would then also be the style in which the noblewomen of Leipzig would have dressed up to go attend church, especially on an important Sunday such as this one.

Read more about all the luster in this cantata, and about an impatient groom/Jesus in my blog post from 2017. I’m apparently always late in posting for this Sunday, whether there are choir performances going on in my life or not.

Wieneke Gorter, October 25, 2020.

*In a rare letter to a friend, Bach mentioned Friederike Henriette and the absence of her interest in music as one of his reasons for leaving Köthen in 1723. However it was probably for financial demands by the Prussian military that the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen had less and less funds to spend on music. Henriette died in April of 1723, 14 months after her marrying Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Bach moved to Leipzig in May 1723.