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The Ascension, from the illuminated 15th-century manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 184r – Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

Today was Ascension Day. In Bach’s time this was a very important holiday in the churches. Many countries in Europe have a four-day weekend starting on this Thursday. I did too as a kid growing up in the Netherlands. But we didn’t go to church on this day, and I don’t remember my mother playing the Ascension cantatas or the Ascension Oratorio on the turntable at home on this day. Instead we went for a bike ride, visit grandparents, or go camping. I didn’t know Bach’s music for Ascension Day at all until we performed BWV 11 and 43 with California Bach Society in the early 2000s. The choruses from these compositions are among the most fun I have every sung in a choir. I love the syncopated rhythms.

Here is an overview of Bach’s music for Ascension Day, as far as we know, in order of creation:

In 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 37 Wer da gläubet und getäuft wird (Whoever believes and is baptised). Listen to it here. Soloists in this recording by Ton Koopman/Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra are Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Bernhard Landauer, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; and Klaus Mertens, bass.

In 1725, as part of the series of cantatas on texts by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, Bach wrote Cantata 128 Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein (On Christ’s ascension alone). Listen to it here. Soloists on this live recording by John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists are Lenneke Ruiten, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo soprano; Andrew Tortise, tenor; and Dietrich Henschel, bass. Find my blog post from 2018 about this cantata, which includes a different recording by Gardiner here.

The last Bach cantata we have for this holiday is from 1726: Cantata 43 Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (God ascends with shouts of joy). Listen to it here. Soloists in this live recording by Rudolf Lutz/J.S. Bach Foundation are Miriam Feuersinger, soprano; Annekathrin Laabs, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; and Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass.

Nine years later, Bach wrote his Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11 Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (Praise God in His kingdoms), incorrectly labeled as a cantata in the 19th century. Bach might have been inspired by the Christmas Oratorio he had written only five months before that.

On that Ascension Day, Thursday, May 19, 1735, this oratorio was performed in the morning service in the St. Nicholas Church, and again in the afternoon service in the St. Thomas Church. Watch the wonderful opening chorus here in a live performance by Philippe Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale Gent from 2014 from the Chapelle de la Trinité in Lyon, France. Or listen to the entire oratorio by Philippe Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale Gent on a CD recording from 1993 here. Soloists on that 1993 recording are Barbara Schlick, soprano; Catherine Patriasz, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.

Wieneke Gorter, May 13, 2021.