At the end of a two-week trip to Italy in the summer of 2018 (my family’s first visit to that country), we would have only one afternoon and night in Florence. After booking our hotel in a neighborhood a good friend had recommended, I saw on Google maps that the hotel was around the corner from a church called Santa Maria del Carmine.
The name rang a bell, but I didn’t immediately realize why. Then I started searching my blog, and yes: there it was, the fresco of TheHealing of the Cripple, from the Brancacci Chapel in that church, in my blog post from 2016 about Cantata 48. After seeing a lot of art in other cities in Italy and with a big train trip ahead of us, we decided to have this be the only art we would go see in Florence, and save the rest for another trip. It was a good decision, because this way I could really let it sink in that I was seeing these frescos in real life, and this way we had some time left to eat ice cream, rest, see the sun set over the city, and enjoy a good meal.
In my blog post from 2016, I recommended Herreweghe’s recording of Cantata 48Ich elender Mensch. (from 1723), and I still stand by that choice. Find all the links to the recording, a comparison with the St. Matthew Passion, and my explanation of the silver lining in the opening chorus here.
One year later, in 2017, I wrote about Cantata 5, Wo soll ich fliehen hin? which Bach wrote for this same 19th Sunday after Trinity, in 1724. Since then, I have a new favorite recording of this cantata: the excellent 2018 performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation that was released to YouTube in April 2019. You can find that video here. Soloists are: Soprano: Mirjam Berli; Alto: Jan Börner; Tenor: Raphael Höhn; Bass: Manuel Walser; Violin: Eva Borhi; Tromba da tirarsi: Patrick Henrichs.
Find the German text with English translation of Cantata 5 here, and the score here.
For a list of the bass arias with trumpet the Leipzig congregations would have heard between June 1723 (when Bach started working in Leipzig) and October 1724 (when he wrote Cantata 5), including links for listening, read my blog post from 2017 here.
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.
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.
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!
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!)***
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.
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 73, 8, 95, 105, 127, and 198.
While my family is not in any direct danger of the fires here in California, and we are lucky in many ways, it has been hard for me to avoid going into serious flight mode this week. What has kept me sane are yoga classes on Zoom, but also a daily gratitude practice, where I write down specific examples of things that went well or that I enjoyed, and count my blessings.
I was comforted to discover this week that Bach also focused on gratitude and joy in the third cantata he wrote for this 14th Sunday after Trinity. The Bible story for this Sunday is the miracle of Jesus healing ten lepers, from Luke 17: 11-19. While Bach’s first two cantatas for this Sunday talk about salvation from sickness, the third one, Cantata 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich (He who gives thanks, he praises me), from 1726, focuses on the second part of the story (as well as the second part in the painting above): the one man who comes forward to thank Jesus for healing him.
Of all the recordings I listened to, I prefer the live video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation, released in March 2020. Watch that recording here on YouTube or, if you prefer to listen on Spotify, you can find my playlist here. Soloists are: Noëmi Sohn-Nad, soprano; Jan Börner; alto; Sören Richter; tenor; and Daniel Pérez, bass. I enjoyed listening to all of them.
Find the German texts with English translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
There are two unique aspects to this cantata, especially when you compare it to other cantatas for “regular” Sundays. First, there is no hardship to overcome, no sin to be absolved in this cantata. It is all one big song of praise for God’s benevolence. Quite unusual, but a nice change. Second, Bach writes an “Evangelist” part for the tenor at the start of part II, directly quoting the Bible text:
Einer aber unter ihnen, da er sahe, dass er gesund worden war, But one of them, when he saw that he was healed, kehrete um und preisete Gott mit lauter Stimme turned back and praised God with a loud voice und fiel auf sein Angesicht zu seinen Füßen and fell on his face at his feet und dankte ihm, und das war ein Samariter. and thanked him, and this man was a Samaritan.
There are only a handful of other cantatas in which this happens, but most of those are very meaningful (Cantata 22 and 42 come to mind). So I don’t think Bach is experimenting. He probably again wants to educate his fellow believers, and perhaps make them see that that part of the story is what the whole cantata is about.
I have to leave it at that, because the other two cantatas for this Sunday are not to be missed either and I don’t want this post to become too long.
Cantata 25 Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (Nothing healthy is to be found in my body), from 1723, starts out with an incredible opening chorus with trombones playing a chorale that begs for salvation. That salvation then appears towards the end of the cantata, in the form of a jubilant soprano aria. Read my blog post from 2016, not only to find links to Herreweghe’s fabulous recording of this cantata (with Hana Blažíková singing the soprano aria), but also to learn why Bach must have felt like a kid in a candy store that particular Sunday.
In 1724 Bach wrote Cantata 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, you [who saved] my soul). After a completely different, but equally beautiful and poignant opening chorus, joy presents itself much earlier, in the music of the second movement: the cute soprano-alto duet that is nowadays probably Bach’s most beloved duet. In my blog post from 2017 I recommend a Rifkin and a Herreweghe recording and I still stand by those choices today. In that post, I praised the opening chorus and the duet, but I completely forgot to discuss an often overlooked movement from this cantata: the tenor aria. I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. About two years ago I started dreaming of a podcast about this underrated aspect of Bach’s compositions, and when I finally have the time and the guts to create it, this aria will definitely be in it.
Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, the 13th after Trinity, all more or less related to the story of the Good Samaritan. In 1723 he writes the incredibly beautiful Cantata 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben (You must love God, your Lord). Read about it in my post from 2016. Along with many fellow members of California Bach Society I had the pleasure of singing this cantata earlier this summer, each of us sitting in front of our computer in our own home. Even though we could only see each other on a computer screen and not hear each other sing, it was a beautiful and meaningful experience. And while I tend to focus on the opening chorus and the alto aria when thinking about this cantata, several of my friends pointed out that the texts are still, or again, very appropriate today. Take for example the text of the tenor recitative:
Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz, For this purpose, my God, give me the Samaritan’s heart Dass ich zugleich den Nächsten liebe so that I can at once love my neighbor Und mich bei seinem Schmerz and in his sorrow Auch über ihn betrübe, feel concern for him Damit ich nicht bei ihm vorübergeh so that I shall not pass him by Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse. and leave him in his distress. Gib, dass ich Eigenliebe hasse, Grant that I may hate self-love, So wirst du mir dereinst das Freudenleben then you will grant me one day a joyous life Nach meinem Wunsch, jedoch aus Gnaden geben according to my desire, from your grace.
In 1724, within the framework of the 1724/1725 series of chorale cantatas (his second year of cantata compositions in Leipzig)* Bach writes Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (Solely towards you, Lord Jesus Christ). Because the libretto is based much more on the chorale text than on the Gospel text, it includes only one quote from the Bible story: “I may love my neighbour as myself.” But while it is just one line of text, Bach doesn’t let it go unnoticed, and turns that fifth verse of the libretto into a duet that has all the characteristics of a love duet from the Venetian operas of the time. At least the instrumentalists in the orchestra must have gotten the reference loud and clear. This also proves that the oh-so-cute soprano-alto duet from Cantata 78 (which Bach wrote one week later) didn’t come out of the blue. Here is the artists’ study for it, albeit written for tenor and bass. Read all this and more in my post from 2017.
From Trinity Sunday 1723 to Trinity Sunday 1725, Bach had provided the Leipzig churches with a cantata for almost every Sunday and Feast day. But for the Sundays between Trinity and Christmas 1725, we have only a handful of his cantatas left.** Cantata 164 Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet (You, who take your name from Christ) is among these. Bach saw his church music as a means to “educate his neighbor” about Christian theology, and it seems that in this case, a third cantata for this Sunday was needed: he was not done educating his neighbors about the story of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, the priest and the Levite pass the wounded man without showing mercy. In the libretto of this cantata, this example is turned onto the Christian believers themselves:
You, who take your name from Christ, where is to be found the mercyby which people recognize members of Christ?
It is far, far away from you.Your hearts should be rich in love,but they are harder than a stone.
Because of the preaching character of that first text, it seems only fitting that Bach doesn’t set this as a chorus, but as a tenor aria, as if to better scold the congregation. The use of two flutes (in the alto aria) is unusual for a cantata, and makes me think of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach must have wanted to stress the loveliness of the text in that aria. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists in this performance are Monika Mauch, soprano; Jan Börner, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Markus Volpert, Bass.
Find the texts & translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
Wieneke Gorter, September 5, 2020.
A little more about the painting:
At a distance, on the left, behind a tree, we see the Levite retreating. Still further away, reading a book, is the priest. This is the only known work of this painter, Balthasar van Cortbemde. It was most probably commissioned by the guild of surgeons in Antwerp in 1647, because it was displayed in their Chamber from 1647 to 1798. It became property of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in 1810.
*to learn more about Bach’s series of chorale cantatas, start reading here
**we don’t know if the missing cantatas were composed but then were lost, or if they were simply never composed because Bach started to focus on other things.
The reading for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax Collector) from the Gospel of Luke. In the parable, these two men come into the temple to pray around the same time, but talk to God in very different ways. While the Pharisee puts on a fake show about how good he is, the tax collector is very humble, “wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven” and asks for forgiveness.
“There’s something with this Sunday,” I wrote three years ago, and I still feel that way when I listen to the cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723 and 1724.
In 1723, his first year in Leipzig, Bach performed two cantatas on this Sunday: Cantata 179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht kein Heuchelei sei(See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy) before the sermon, and his solo cantata for soprano Cantata 199 Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut (from his early years in Weimar) afterwards. Cantata 199 is only loosely related to the Gospel story, and was probably never written with this story in mind. Because of its multi-layered history and the many different recordings, I will discuss that composition some other time.
Cantata 179 focuses on the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and just like cantatas 46 and 102 I discussed last week, it must have been one of Bach’s own favorites, because he re-used three movements in later works. Read all about it in my post from 2016, which I have updated with better images and new video links.
In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, which, surprise, surprise, focuses on the Publican asking for mercy. The only recording that does this cantata justice and gives me the good kind of stomachache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan. Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s singing is outstanding, and Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music, which is–judging from a lot of other recordings–not an easy thing to do. I updated my blog post from 2017 with all the correct links to stream or purchase this recording. Please find it here.
We don’t have any letters in which Bach writes about his own compositions, so we officially don’t know which ones were his own favorites. But when we see which cantatas he gave a “second life” in another work, and which cantatas were performed by his sons, we can make an educated guess.
Two of these cantatas, Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei (from 1723) and Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! (from 1726), were written for this Sunday, the 10th after Trinity.
Bach gave the opening chorus from Cantata 46Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei a second life in the Qui Tollis in his Mass in B minor. Find a YouTube video of just that opening chorus, from Herreweghe’s performance at the 2013 Saintes Festival in France, here. Find my post from 2016 about this cantata, with links to translations, score, and my favorite recording here.
Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! received even more second lives (see table below), and was performed at least twice in Hamburg by Bach’s second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. My favorite performance of this cantata was the one by Herreweghe I attended in January 2018 at the Bruges Bach Festival, with Dorothee Mields, Alex Potter, Thomas Hobbs, and Peter Kooij. Alas there is no recording of this. Of all recordings currently available, my favorite is here on YouTube, by oboist Marcel Ponseele’s Ensemble Il Gardellino, with Damien Guillon, countertenor; Marcus Ullman, tenor; and Lieven Termont, bass. Especially the Aria Weh der Seele, die den Schaden by countertenor Damien Guillon and oboist Marcel Ponseele (both pictured at the top of this post) is to die for, and this combination of singer and oboist is simply unrivaled by any other recordings.
Find the texts & translations of Cantata 102 here, and the score here.
Movement from Cantata 102
Movement in later work
Opening chorus of the Missa Brevis in g minor, BWV 235
Soprano aria “Qui tollis peccata mundi” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
Alto aria “Quoniam to solus sanctus” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
A little more about the early “revival” of this cantata by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. In 1768, C.Ph.E. Bach succeeded Telemann as music director of the five largest churches in Hamburg, and remained in that position until his death in 1788. As such, he performed a handful of his father’s cantatas, albeit with adaptations. In 1776 or 1777 as well as in 1781, he performed Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!
These early “promotions” of this cantata must have inspired more performances or at least discussions about them, and eventually this composition along with some other cantatas likely reached the circle around Mendelssohn. In 1830, shortly after Mendelssohn’s Berlin revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, Adolf Bernhard Marx published three Bach cantatas BWV nrs 101, 102, and 103. It was the firsts time since 1709 that a Bach cantata appeared in print.
In my humble opinion, the best cantata Bach wrote for this 9th Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 105 Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht. This cantata has one of the best opening choruses Bach ever wrote, and I find the soprano aria and the bass arioso very moving. And as far as interpretations and recordings of this cantata go, for me, Herreweghe’s always rises above all others. In my post from 2016 I discuss his 1992 and 2012 recordings of this cantata. Please find that post here. It has all the links for recordings, texts & translations, and score, it tells you what to listen for in the music, and also explains why this Cantata 105 was Bach’s first real Leipzig cantata.
In January 2018, I had the good fortune to attend three Bach cantata concerts by Herreweghe, the first two in Bruges, the third one in Paris.* The program in Paris featured Cantata 105, everyone was in top form, and it was terrific to see Herreweghe conduct this piece that he and his ensemble know so well. It made me wish for a third Herreweghe recording of this cantata, because Dorothee Mields (not singing on the 1992 or 2012 recording), was mesmerizing in the “Wir zittern und wanken” aria and Peter Kooij’s strong rendition of the bass arioso almost brought me to tears.
Wieneke Gorter, August 8, 2020.
*To read more about these concerts in Bruges and Paris, find my posts from January 2018 here and here.
In my opinion, one of the absolute best background videos on AllofBach is the one in which countertenor Alex Potter explains the different layers of solo cantata 170 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust from 1726. I remember how happy and impressed I was when I first found this video. So instead of offering you my own discussion, I suggest you watch Alex Potter’s here on YouTube.
Then watch the excellent and moving live performance of this cantata by Alex Potter with the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube.
A lot more information, including the German text with English translations, a list of all participating instrumentalists, the staff that made this beautiful document possible, and a short but insightful interview (in text only) with organist Leo van Doeselaar, can be found here on AllofBach.
Bach’s first two cycles in Leipzig didn’t include a cantata for this Sunday (the 6th after Trinity). My speculations for why this might have happened in 1723 are mentioned in this blog post. For 1724, it is very likely that Bach never wrote a cantata that year for this Sunday. Because later in his life, Bach most probably wrote Cantata 9 Es ist das Heil uns kommen her for this moment in the church year, in an effort to fill the gaps within his 1724/1725 chorale cantata cycle.
There’s a wonderful live performance of Cantata 9 on YouTube, by the J.S. Bach Foundation under direction of Rudolf Lutz. Watch it here. My favorite part of this cantata is the glorious duet Herr, du siehst statt guter Werke, beautifully sung by soprano Julia Doyle and alto Alex Potter. I love how well their voices and singing style match for this! This performance also features exquisite music-making by flutist Marc Hantaï, violinist Amandine Beyer, and tenor Charles Daniels.
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).
The least gruesome detail of Hans Memling’s “The Last Judgment”, a triptych painted between 1467 and 1471. National Museum, Gdansk, Poland.
This week I’ve been trying harder than ever in my life to find islands of beauty in a sea of ugliness. I found some: I witnessed communities coming together, had a very uplifting choir rehearsal, attended a concert at my daughter’s music school where the director gave a heart-felt speech, and the choir director had included We Shall Overcome in their part of the program. I have talked with my children about what it means to “stand up” for the millions who will suffer discrimination in the next four years in this country. I realize I have many different readers of this blog, and that some of you might not share my political opinion. But I would urge you to be there for each other. And whomever you had been meaning to contact, whether it is a friend you should have apologized to four weeks ago, someone you know who is having a hard time, a relative you haven’t called in too long, or your representative in the House or Senate, write that letter, make that phone call. Don’t put it off.
In today’s cantata 90 Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende (A terrible end shall sweep you away), written for November 14, 1723, the 25th Sunday after Trinity, it is not easy to find beauty either, at least not the soul-soothing kind, since it is based on the Bible story of The Last Judgement, which is an ugly concept in my opinion. However this story was important in Bach’s time, and it was thus appropriate to let the Trinity season go out with a bang: two weeks in a row of impressive cantatas, including some of the most magnificent (and difficult!) arias for bass and trumpet in all of his work.
While Bach’s audience (the congregations of the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches in Leipzig) got plenty of tenor drama in the fall of 1723, it had been a long time (August 1, 1723 to be exact) since they had last heard an operatic aria for bass, with the majestic trumpet as accompanying instrument.
Since this emotional week also calls for some nostalgia, I’m going with the Leonhardt recording of this cantata, because I grew up listening to Max van Egmond sing these bass arias. The trumpet player on that recording however barely makes it, so if you would like to listen to a better player in that particular aria, and also see a close-up of the instrument, watch this video (of the bass aria only) by the Bach Foundation, with Patrick Henrichs on trumpet.