Since I arrived in Arnstadt yesterday (Easter Sunday) around 5 pm, I have had so many experiences and met so many people that I cannot believe it’s only been 30 hours. Tonight I am exhausted from all the driving and the busy program I made for myself, but everything has been going splendidly, see the highlights here below.
I got to hear Elina Albach’s adaptation of Bach’s Mass in B Minor for six singers, seven instrumentalists, and one narrator on Sunday evening in Arnstadt. It was inspiring, captivating, and just simply fabulous. This concert and Elina’s ideas behind it (as shared in an interview with me last week) will get its own article later this week.
I cannot quite believe it yet that I actually got to attend concerts in two of the churches where Bach used to work, in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen.
I loved visiting the Bach House in Eisenach. From attending an excellent presentation of all the keyboard instruments in the instrument room, to seeing the books Bach had in his library, to meeting the museum’s generous director and discussing plans for next year with him, it was all better than I had expected.
I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful landscape in this region. There’s also quite a bit of variety in the landscape. Between Arnstadt and Eisenach there are hilltops that seem to pop out of the otherwise much flatter landscape, and many have fortresses on them. The route from Eisenach to Mühlhausen is extremely scenic, with beautiful rolling hills, meadows, forests, a river, and truly picturesque towns. Driving here is easy because it’s not busy on the roads. But I look forward to next year when we’ll have a professional driver and I will only have to keep my eyes on the schedule instead of on the road.
At the first concert I attended, on Sunday night in Arnstadt, I met so many people that I felt immediately confirmed and strengthened in my idea to plan a group trip for next year. It is a pretty exciting feeling.
And one random fact: the number of Bach merchandise items (including those made out of chocolate!) one can buy at the Bachhaus in Eisenach is mind boggling. If you follow @weeklycantata on Instagram, keep an eye on my stories and highlights — I will post all the chocolate there in the next few days!
These are exciting times for me. I just finished participating in a typical Dutch thing to do this time of year: I sang Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as a choir member. I was lucky to get into a choir of lovely people, work with an amazing conductor, make some new friends, and even come out of it with an engagement for a different choral singing project that will take me to Leipzig in June.
But, Leipzig is the town of the last part of Bach’s life, and I have always wanted to see the towns where he spent his youth first. So today I’m on my way to Thuringia, the region where Bach spent the first 32 years of his life.
The next four days are going to be packed with concerts of the Thüringer Bachwochen (a fantastic festival of several weeks with performances in historic Bach churches) a visit to Bach’s birth place Eisenach, and a tour of the Bach locations in Weimar.
Today we drive from Frankfurt to Arnstadt, where we attend a concert in the church where Bach held his first position as organist. In his time it was called the “Neue Kirche” (New Church), but it was renamed in the 1980s, and is now the Johann Sebastian Bach Church. Photos in the next post!
I invite you to travel with me! This week you can travel with me virtually, by following me here, on Instagram at @weeklycantata, or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/weeklycantata. I will try to post every day. Next year, you can join me in person on a trip from Frankfurt to all these Bach towns, as well as Leipzig.
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.
For a period of nine months, starting on June 11, 1724, Bach wrote a brand-new cantata for every Sunday and feast day. It became his “chorale cantata cycle,” the second cycle of cantatas he composed in Leipzig, for the 1724/1725 season. After Bach’s death in 1750, this collection of cantatas was considered the most important part of his cantata legacy, and there are several indications that he truly meant for this collection to survive him. For example, for the twelve Sundays or feast days that had not occurred in the 1724/1725 season, he would write a chorale cantata later in his life, in order to fill the gaps in the cycle.
Cantata 14 Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeitis the very last one of those added chorale cantatas, composed in 1735, exactly 10 years after the missed Sunday in 1725. Listen to it here in a live video recording from 2017 by Cantus Cölln. Soloists are Magdalene Harer, soprano; Elisabeth Popien, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; and Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Please find the text and translations here, and the score here.
When Bach uses one of Luther’s original hymns as the basis for a chorale cantata, he often writes the opening chorus in the form of a motet, using a composition style from the Renaissance, which was considered very old-fashioned in his time. See for example my blog posts about Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein here, and Cantata 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dirhere. It is his way of paying his respects to Luther and his hymns, which were 200 years old at the time. So it is only fitting that the very last chorale cantata he ever wrote also opens with such a motet.
However, the soprano aria and the bass aria from Cantata 14 make it clear that Bach is not in 1525 or even 1725 anymore, but firmly in 1735, the year of his Christmas Oratorio and Ascension Oratorio.
For this third Sunday after Epiphany, Bach wrote four cantatas: 73, 111, 72, and 156. The Bible story for this Sunday is about the miracle of Christ healing a leper. Last year I mentioned that I had a hard time finding the corresponding art for that story. My readers immediately came to the rescue, and pointed me to the two images featured in today’s post. Thank you again!
My favorite of all these cantatas is Cantata 73 Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir, especially in the 2013 recording by Herreweghe. Please find that recording here on Spotify. Soloists are Dorothee Mields (soprano), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), and Peter Kooij (bass). If you don’t have access to Spotify, you can find their 1990 recording here on YouTube. Soloists on this older recording are: Barbara Schlick (soprano), Howard Crook (tenor), and Peter Kooij (bass).
I had been planning to attend a live performance by Herreweghe of this cantata as well as another one of my favorites, Cantata 198, on January 29 in Brussels, but unfortunately the programming of that concert was changed to the Mass in B Minor. I completely understand the reasoning behind this, and I am absolutely thrilled for the musicians of Collegium Vocale Gent that they get to perform for an audience after all (until earlier this week, it looked as if all concerts in Belgium would be canceled until the end of this month), but I’m so sad about the cantatas!
Please find the German texts with English translations of Cantata 73 here, and the score here.
Especially the bass aria makes Herreweghe’s recording of this cantata tower above all others. It is so well done by Peter Kooij and the orchestra; it moves me every time I listen to it.
The best part for me is the illustration of “Leichenglocken” (death bells) by pizzicato strings and a somewhat “tolling” movement in the vocal part. Bach used this feature in many other cantatas, for example in (cantata number/movement number): 8/1, 95/5, 105/4, 127/3, 161/4, 198/4.
To know what else to listen for in this cantata, please read my post from 2016 . There I also explain how this cantata is connected to Cantata 72.
Exactly 23 years ago today, on January 15, 1999, my husband and I moved from the Netherlands to California. Friends and family thought we would stay there forever, but this past summer we moved back.
We see it as a new adventure and it is for all good reasons. I am thrilled to be in Europe, and feel blessed that we had the opportunity to make this change. Since we moved, I have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with relatives and old friends, attending live concerts, walking and cycling through Amsterdam, and having super fresh flowers in my house every week. I also love the fact that I can hop on a train to another country, the way I did for my trip to Switzerland in November..
At the same time, moving house is stressful for any family, and being an expat in one’s own country can be quite unsettling at times. So it has been hard to focus my energy on this blog. But the New Year brings me new inspiration and new ideas, so I fully intend to post here more often and further explore some plans for other ways to share my love for Bach cantatas. Thanks for bearing with me as I figure it all out!
Now for some music: the Bach cantata I enjoyed most of everything I listened to over the holiday season was Part V of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, performed by the J.S. Bach Foundation. The excellent soloists are Marie Luise Werneburg, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Daniel Johannsen, tenor; and Matthias Helm, bass. Bach extended the story of The Three Kings over two parts of his Christmas Oratorio: this one, written for the Sunday after New Year (January 2 in 1735), and Part VI for Epiphany.
Of course by this weekend we are already two weeks past Epiphany. Here’s an overview of my posts for this particular Sunday:
In Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange from Weimar, 1715 (and performed again during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, 1724), Bach illustrates the hand-wringing and desperation expressed by Jesus’ mother Mary in several different ways, including a Monteverdi-like “lamento bass.” Read it in my blog post from 2017, titled Mary’s Lament, now with a link to a subtitled lecture by Rudolf Lutz of the J.S. Bach Foundation in which he explains this extremely well.
Cantata 3 Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, from 1725, takes up a special place within Bach’s 1724/1725 chorale cantata cycle, because the chorale melody appears in the bass part of the opening chorus. It gets doubled by a trombone, and this gives me the good kind of stomachache. But much more is happening in this cantata. Read it all in my blog post from 2016, titled Hidden messages.
When writing about Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen in 2020, I realized that Bach must have been inspired by Cantata 155 when writing this one. Read it here.
Merry Christmas! My sincere apologies if you are somewhere in the world where it is not Christmas Morning anymore.
I have two new videos for you today, that will last you until January 6, just in case I don’t manage to write another blog post between now and then.
The J.S. Bach Foundation has released all six cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to YouTube. They released these on CD and DVD for purchase last year, but have now made them available to everyone. You can find that video recording here.
What is even better: they also made the effort to provide English subtitles for Rudolf Lutz’ lecture about Part I of the Oratorio, for Christmas Day. You can find that video here. I highly recommend watching this to better understand the meaning of the music, to learn how Bach reworked some of his secular cantatas into this Oratorio, and that he perhaps planned to do that all along.
There is also a good video of parts I, II, III, and VI of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by Bach Akademie Stuttgart. The setting in which they perform is less festive looking than the beautiful Baroque church of the J.S. Bach Foundation, but it’s also well done. You can find it here.
If you would like to read and listen more, here’s an overview of my previous blog posts for this First Christmas Day:
Our Christmas Morning, from 2016, talks about how my mother used to wake my sister and me up with Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Three Days of Christmas, from 2017, gives you the three cantatas Bach wrote in 1724, all three brand-new, no reworking there.
In German-speaking countries, people wish each other either a “schönen” (beautiful, pleasant), “lieblichen” (lovely, love-filled), or a “besinnlichen” (thoughtful, contemplative) Advent. I wish you all of that: beauty, love, and contemplation for the next four weeks.
On this first Sunday of Advent, I present to you again the J.S. Bach Foundation (J.S. Bachstiftung) with soprano Núria Rial, this time in Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor. In 1731, Bach transformed a secular birthday cantata from 1725 into this work for Advent. Enjoy watching these two videos by the J.S. Bach Foundation to get better acquainted with this composition:
If you would like to read, listen, or watch more, here’s a little overview of my previous posts for the first Sunday of Advent:
In Weimar, in 1714, Bach wrote Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This one I remember the best from my childhood, because my mother loved Seppi Kronwitter’s singing of the soprano aria on the Harnoncourt recording. Read about it here. More about Bach’s prolific Advent cantata writing in Weimar next week.
In Leipzig, in 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 62 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. My most recent writing about this cantata is from 2020, not for this blog, but for that of California Bach Society. Find it here. My post from 2017 about this cantata is here.
Read my post about Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch emporhere.
Wieneke Gorter, November 28, 2021.
By the way: the video of the J.S. Bach Foundation’s 15th Anniversary concert with Núria Rial is still available here on YouTube. It is a registration of the performance in Trogen, held one day after the one I attended in Basel.