Mendelssohn’s sketch of the Thomasschule (St. Thomas School) and, behind it, the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig.
I’ve been away for more than a month of traveling with my family and spending time with our relatives in Europe. That’s why some posts have been late, and why this one is a whole week late. But I’m back now, and lots of good stories are coming up in this special 1723 Trinity series. Thank you for following this blog, and thank you for reading this long post all the way to the end!
For Trinity 11, which was last Sunday (August 7 in 2016, August 8 in 1723) we’re listening to cantata 179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, with a supberb opening chorus and one of the most beautiful soprano arias Bach ever wrote.
I prefer the recording of Bach Collegium Japan of this cantata. It’s a special recording, with Miah Persson singing the soprano aria. She’s having quite a career now, recently starring in Michel van der Aa’s opera Blank Out, singing Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at the Scala in Milan in September and October, and going on an all-Schumann recital tour in the USA with Florian Boesch later this season, so I think we’re lucky to have her beautiful voice and sensitive interpretation on this recording from 1999.
Listen to this recording on Spotify.
The BBC recorded a DVD of John Eliot Gardiner working on three cantatas for Trinity 11. Purchase the DVD on Amazon.
Find the score here (it’s fun to read along with the recording, especially in the opening chorus, to see what Bach does with the fugue).
Find the German text with English translation here.
It is now more than two months since Bach started his new job in Leipzig, and he is about three weeks into writing a brand new composition every week, and I’m sorry if I sound too casual here, but he’s on a roll. He must now have a vision of what it is he really wants to do for these churches (see the tiny preludes to his Passions he incorporates in cantatas 105 and 46), and he must have the classes at the St. Thomas School organized, and his singers sufficiently trained, so that he can now have them sing a new and challenging opening chorus every week. Just listening to the opening choruses alone, starting with the one of cantata 136 for Trinity 8, I marvel at what he comes up with every time. Every single one of them is stunning, but at the same time completely different from the one of the previous Sunday. This time Bach chooses to write a perfect “old style” (Palestrina-style) motet fugue as opening chorus.
As always, to fully understand the cantata and not miss any of Bach’s hidden messages, it is important to look at the Gospel reading for the day. In this case it is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Pharisee and the Tax Collector), a story Jesus tells as an illustration on how to pray: the Pharisee is full of himself, telling God how good he is, while the Publican in his own prayer merely asks for mercy, and tells God how bad he is. This concept of “how to be a good Christian before God” was very important to Bach and apparently his librettist got the message loud and clear. He or she uses the opportunity to first write a strong protest against fake religion and hypocrisy in “Christianity today” in movements 1 to 3 (probably having certain people in Leipzig in mind), after which he/she states that all Christians should take the humbleness of the publican as example in movements 4 to 6.
The most special feature of the fugue in the opening chorus is that since the text talks about beautiful outer appearance versus a bad character, Bach uses a mirror-fugue, which he used as well in fugues 5-7 from the Art of the Fugue (the theme of six bars is first introduced by the basses, and then is answered by the tenors in an “inversion:” every step up from the basses becomes a step down in the tenor part.)
For an excellent visualization of how Bach built this intricate fugue I would like to refer to the very helpful music example and diagram on the website of Dutch Bach writer Eduard van Hengel. Even though the text here is in Dutch, the diagram speaks for itself, with this quick explanation of the numbers and symbols:
1 = The theme (or first half-sentence of the text: Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei). Note the ascending line on the word “Gottesfurcht” (fear of God/love of God) and the descending line on the word “Heuchelei” (hypocrisy).
2 = The counter-subject (or second half-sentence of this text: und diene Gott nicht mit falschem Herzen). Note here that there is a chromatic line every time the word “falschem” appears in the text: for the chromatic line the composers needs accidentals that are not part of the key the piece is written in, which in the “old polyphony” would be seen as “falsch” (not right, off-key).
Upward arrow = fugue theme regular
Downward arrow = fugue theme inversed (mirror fugue)
2* = a more compact (only 4 bars instead of 6 bars long) theme which is derived from the first counterpoint/counter-subject on the words und diene Gott nicht mit falschem Herzen, still with the chromatic line on falschem Herzen.
The numbers at the top are measure (“maat”) numbers.
Bach himself must have greatly valued this cantata. About 15 years later, he used no less than three movements from this cantata for use in his short masses, or Lutheran masses.**
The opening chorus was later “recycled” as the first movement (Kyrie) in the Mass in G Major, BWV 236. Keep listening, or scroll to 19:00 and you’ll discover that the tenor aria Quoniam (sung here by Christophe Prégardien) was, with some changes and a much slower tempo, recycled from the tenor aria in this cantata 179. In cantata 179 the tenor aria gets a colorful accompaniment of two oboes and first violins in unison. The second violins and violas fill in the meaningless middle part (representing the “nothingness, emptiness”). When recycling this later for the Quoniam in the Mass in G Major, Bach uses only one solo oboe for the accompaniment, and completely leaves out all strings (confirming that with a different text, the meaningless middle part is not relevant anymore).
This cantata’s wonderful soprano aria (with two oboi da caccia and basso continuo) was later reworked into the Qui Tollis for the Mass in A Major, BWV 234 (with two flutes and only high strings as continuo). This was actually how I first knew and loved this soprano aria, I didn’t know cantata 179 until I started listening to it for this blog. Please click on this link and listen to the amazing Agnès Mellon sing the Qui Tollis from the Mass in A Major.
Wieneke Gorter, August 14, 2016.
** These are called “short” or “Lutheran” masses because they consisted of only the Kyrie and Gloria part of the traditional Catholic mass. Bach wrote four of them (BWV 233-236), and they are all made up of existing movements from cantatas, but reworked and compiled in a very smart way and they are all absolutely beautiful. You can purchase an album with Herreweghe’s recording of all of them on Amazon.