The Last Judgment by Dutch painter Lucas van Leyden, 1526-1527. Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands. (link for more information at the very end of this post)
When Bach accepted his post in Leipzig, he knew that between the first Sunday in Advent and Christmas Day, there wasn’t to be any music in the churches in that city. However, among the goods he moved with him to Leipzig on May 22, 1723, there was a stack of several beautiful Advent cantata manuscripts from his Weimar period (1714-1716), and I think he was eager to perform all this music for the much larger audience he had in Leipzig than the small entourage of the Duke of Weimar that would have heard the music there. So he reworked and expanded several of those Weimar Advent cantatas for other times of the church year in Leipzig.
The Weimar Advent cantatas all had a similar structure: opening chorus, arias without recitatives, closing chorale. For the performances in Leipzig, Bach added recitatives, to make the libretto closer related* to the Bible text of that particular Sunday. He would also insert a chorale in the middle, so he could perform Part I of the cantata (with the newly written closing chorale at the end of that half) before the sermon in Leipzig, and Part II (with the existing closing chorale at the end) after the sermon.
During the 1723 Trinity season he had already done this successfully with cantata 147 for the Feast of the Visitation, and cantata 186 for the 7th Sunday after Trinity, but he truly mastered it with cantata 70, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!, originally written for 2nd Advent in Weimar in 1716, but now dramatically expanded for the 26th Sunday after Trinity, November 21, 1723. As last week, it is a Judgment Day cantata, and the stunning recitatives for bass and trumpet make that absolutely clear, but there is much more sparkle in the music and hope in the text than last week, because of the link with Advent.
As a child I loved the tenor aria from this cantata, exactly because of that sparkle and lightness in the music and the hope in the text. Also, I have beautiful but emotional memories connected with a performance of this cantata during the First Advent church service in my parents’ church in the Hague, only three days after my mom’s funeral service in that same church.
For my own sentimental reasons, and for an excellent rendition of the tenor aria by Kurt Equiluz and the bass recitatives and aria by Ruud van der Meer, I would listen to the Harnoncourt recording of this cantata. But the opening chorus and some other movements in the first half are a bit hard to listen to, so I’ll give you just the second half of that Harnoncourt recording, here on Spotify.
A joyful update from 2019: this entire cantata is now available on YouTube in an excellent performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation. Watch it here. Soloists on this live video recording are Gudrun Sidonie Otto, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Daniel Johannsen, tenor; Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, bass, and Patrick Henrichs, trumpet. For the Advent cantata version of it, just imagine it without all the recitatives and without the chorale in the middle.
For those who understand a little German, there’s also a nice interview with trumpet player Patrick Henrichs here on YouTube.
Find the German texts with English translations here, and the score here.
Apart from the beautiful light in the tenor aria, and the incredible writing for bass and trumpet, listen for two special chorales:
In the bass recitative in the second half (movement 9, not part of the original Advent cantata), the text mentions “der Posaunen Schall” (the sound of the trumpet, meaning the trumpet that announces Christ coming down from the heaven as Judge at the end of times) and then immediately after the bass sings that word, the trumpet plays a chorale, which the congregation in Bach’s time would have recognized as emphasis of the Last Judgment theme:
Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit,
daß Gottes Sohn wird kommen
[in seiner großen Herrlichkeit,
zu richten Bös’ und Frommen.]
Dann wird das Lachen werden theur,
Wann Alles soll vergehn im Feu’r,
Wie Petrus davon zeuget.
Indeed the time is here
when God’s Son will come
[in His great glory
to judge the wicked and the righteous.]
Then laughter will be rare,
when everything goes up in flames,
as Peter bore witness.At the very end, Bach uses the closing chorale from the original Weimar Advent cantata, and gives it as much hope and light as possible, in three ways. First, in the melody of the chorale, which the congregation would have recognized as the to them very well-known “Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht”:
Meinen Jesum laß’ ich nicht.
Weil er sich für mich gegeben,
So erfordert meine Pflicht,
Klettenweis’ an ihm zu kleben;
Er ist meines Lebens Licht;
Meinen Jesum laß’ ich nicht.
I shall not leave my Jesus.
Since he has given himself on me,
my duty therefore demands
that I should cling to him like a limpet;
he is the light of my life;
I shall not leave my Jesus
Second, in the addition of three shimmering string parts above the regular four choral parts. Third, in the actual text he uses here, which confirms the light (Jesum wünsch ich und sein Licht / I wish for Jesus and his light) and confirms the melody at the very end: Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht.
Wieneke Gorter, November 20, 2016, Location of painting updated November 24, 2019, link for recordings updated December 7, 2019.
More information about the painting (which was at the time I originally wrote this post on special exhibit in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but is now back at Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden) is available here.
*The texts of the Advent cantatas were not that far removed from the new texts as we might think. In this case, the reading for the Second Sunday in Advent (Luke 21: 25-36) linked the first coming of Christ (Advent) to his second coming as judge at the end of times, which is the reading for the 26th Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 25: 31-46).