Today is the last Sunday before Lent. In Leipzig, this meant Bach would get a break from the weekly cantata composing to work on (revisions of) his Passions, and rehearse those works with the choir. His audience (= congregations of the St. Thomas Church and the Nicholas Church) wouldn’t get to hear any of his music until Good Friday. Today is also the day on which, if I were Wonder Woman, I would have gone to hear Alex Potter sing in Hannover, Germany. If any of my readers live easy travel distance from there, go hear him sing with the excellent La Festa Musicale in a beautiful program of solo works by three Antonios: Vivaldi, Caldara, and Lotti. More information: https://www.lafestamusicale.de/en/concerts/upcoming-concerts.
So, what better day to repost my blog post from 2020 about Alex Potter singing Cantata 159. The post also includes links to the three other cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday.
Between Estomihi Sunday (or the last Sunday before Lent) and Good Friday, there were 47 days in 1729. During that entire time the Leipzig congregations would hear no music in the churches, except for chorales. So Bach’s last music had to be as memorable as possible, had to give them hope, and ideally also prepare them for the St. Matthew Passion they would get to hear on Good Friday.
Bach successfully checked all these boxes with Cantata 159 Sehet! wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem. And leave it to alto Alex Potter to bring all this out in a performance. Opera-like drama, heart-breaking emotion, the promise of hope and redemption, it is all there in his singing, and in that voice with the beautiful variety of colors.
Listen to / watch the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soprano:Miriam Feuersinger; Alto:Alex Potter; Tenor:Thomas Hobbs; Bass:Stephan MacLeod…
I know, this picture of the Sower in an Italian landscape has nothing to do with Bach and the weather. I had already selected it for a different type of post, focusing on Cantata 181. But looking at the painting soothes me, so I decided to leave it in.
Yesterday, on Friday afternoon, February 18, 2022, when storm Eunice made landfall here in Amsterdam, I couldn’t concentrate on that post about Cantata 181 anymore. Amsterdam was hit pretty hard, mostly with extreme wind. Three people lost their lives because of fallen trees, and one of those accidents happened in our own street.
Thus, with the wind raging through my neighborhood on Friday afternoon, I thought: well, this is exactly the weekend to talk about Cantata 18 Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (Just like rain and snow falls from heaven) again, and see how Bach illustrates the weather. Please find my post from 2020 about this cantata here.
Bach wrote two other cantatas for this Sunday.
In 1724, during his first year in Leipzig, Bach performed two cantatas during the church service: Cantata 181 Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister before the sermon, and Cantata 18 after the sermon. Find a live performance of Cantata 181 here on YouTube. The text of this cantata elaborates even more on the different kind of people discussed in the Gospel for this Sunday, the Parable of the Sower. Find that text here, and the score here.
One year later, during his cycle of chorale cantatas, Bach wrote Cantata 126 Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (Lord, keep us true to your word). As with most chorale cantatas, this one is much more based on the text of the chorale than on that of the Gospel reading. The wonderful thing about this cantata is that it shows Bach in St. Matthew Passion writing mode. Read it here in my post from 2018.
This past Wednesday, February 2, was the feast of the Purification of Mary, or The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. According to Jewish custom (as described in Luke 2:22-38), 40 days after the birth of a first-born son, his parents bring him to the Temple for a ceremony in which the mother offers a pair of doves for the purpose of her own purification, and the child is “bought back” from the Temple for money. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, the prophetess Anna, an 84-year-old full-time resident of the Temple, is there too, as well as Simeon. Simeon was a devout Jew who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. Upon seeing the child, Simeon offers a song of praise, known as the “Song of Simeon” or the “Nunc Dimittis.” He also speaks a prophecy to Mary. Read the complete Gospel text here.
I have written several blog posts about this over the past years, discussing how the early Christian church tied pre-Christian end-of-winter rites to their own feast days of Candlemass and the Purification of Mary. Whether Bach writes a joyful cantata about new beginnings or a more solemn one for this feast day, there is always a bright spotlight on Simeon’s words “Now let your servant die in peace” (Nunc Dimittis).
In his German-language Bach cantata podcasts, prominent Bach scholar Michael Maul has now twice pointed out the influence of the existing art works depicting The presentation of Jesus in the Temple on how Bach and his contemporaries might have seen this story. I loved hearing this, because that’s what I almost always try to do in this blog too, to find an example of the kind of imagery Bach might have had in mind when thinking of the Bible stories.
There is a large number of paintings about the presentation at the Temple, and Simeon plays a central role in each of them. Maul gives the example that the Bible doesn’t specify Simeon’s age and that references to “the old Simeon” by Bach and his librettists must come from the long beard and grey hair in all the paintings.
So, this week, I decided to do a bit of digging around in those art works and the Bible story.
Reading the Gospel of Luke (see above), it seems logical to me that artists thought of Simeon as an old man, since it says “that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” From the detailed description of the prophet Anna’s old age it is then of course an easy step to also think of Simeon as an octogenarian.
What I did find surprising is that in many of the paintings, especially the earlier ones, and even in the discussions by art historians such as Zuffi, Simeon gets assigned the role of the priest on duty at the temple, when he was just a visitor that day. It is an interesting question how and when that piece of fiction was born, but it is just a side story here.
In several paintings, such as all presentations by Memling (see here and here), Lorenzetti, and Lochner (Darmstadt, see above), the focus is on the ceremony. Jewelry, doves, money, and clothing are painstakingly portrayed, but there is no emotion. But then there are the paintings that seem a bit more intimate, the earliest of these the “Lisbon presentation” by Lochner, from ca. 1447, see here directly above. In this painting it is Joseph who’s carrying the doves, Mary is empty-handed and just praying. This painting is not about her. Jesus is touching Simeon’s beard, and Simeon seems to be crying. Daniel Levine offers the explanation that Simeon’s sadness is caused by his vision of the child’s future, as he says to Mary: “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” The painting at the top of this post, by Bellini, might also fall in this category.
We see this happening even more clearly and directly in Rembrandt’s representation of the same story, almost two centuries later. There is no ceremony at all here, only a conversation between two people, with Simeon clearly speaking to Mary.
Thus it seems as if at least some of the artists were especially moved by the foreshadowing of the Passion story in Simeon’s words. Whether Bach had seen those specific paintings or not, I don’t know of course. But it is clear that the idea existed at the time, and it is a bit more proof for the theory I expressed in this blog post about Cantata 125, that this cantata looks ahead to the St. Matthew Passion. This is all the more motivation for me to start writing more about that Passion in the coming weeks.