Since I most recently wrote about Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day (Cantata 110), and the Third Day of Christmas (Cantata 151) from 1725, I had thought it would be nice to write about the two cantatas Bach performed directly after that: Cantata 28 for the Sunday after Christmas 1725, and Cantata 16 for New Year’s Day 1726.
But I don’t like them. I was listening to them yesterday and today together with my adolescent daughter, who’s pretty well versed in Baroque composers, and she said: “the first one doesn’t even sound like Bach!” I agree with her. Or at least it doesn’t sound that inspired to me. I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but sometimes I don’t like what Bach wrote.
So, for this Sunday after Christmas in 2019, I’m again playing Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, which I’ve already discussed twice on this blog, most elaborately in 2017. You can find that post here.
Sometime in the first decade of this century, after I had already moved to the USA, my mother acquired Gardiner’s Christmas Cantatas CD from 2000 (Volume 15 of the Cantata Pilgrimage CD series). I remember that every time a Bach lover came to visit they were urged to listen to the soprano aria from this CD. Among my mother, her sisters, and my grandma, this CD became known as “the one with the dirty baby.” (or as they said in Dutch “die met het vieze kindje”). At some point my mother allegedly said to them that this particular recording should be played at her funeral. Listen a bit to that Gardiner recording of Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt with Gillian Keith, soprano, and Rachel Beckett, flute, here on YouTube. Just listen for a little bit, because a much better recording of this cantata is coming up in this post! When the time came (much sooner than anyone in the early 2000s could have thought) to plan my mother’s funeral, we were blessed with a live performance, not a recording, I personally didn’t remember the “dirty baby” story that vividly, and we opted for another aria instead (read more about that here).
I don’t remember ever hearing anything more from the CD with the dirty baby than this one aria, and I never ever realized it was from a cantata for the Third Day of Christmas. (Read here why I didn’t know any other cantatas for the Third Day of Christmas than the third cantata from the Christmas Oratorio.)
Fast forward to last week, when I was researching new live video recordings for Cantata 110 for Christmas Day, and discovered that the Christmas concert by the Netherlands Bach Society from 2015 also featured this Cantata 151, and that Maria Keohane does an absolutely beautiful job singing that opening movement. I also enjoy all the other soloists. Watch this live recording here on YouTube. Soloists are Frank Theuns, flute; Maria Keohane, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; and Matthias Winckhler, bass. Interestingly, Maria Keohane has recorded this cantata on video with two other ensembles: Concerto Copenhagen and Ricercar Consort. Those other performances are good too, but I very much prefer the performance and the camera work on this one with the Netherlands Bach Society.
Find the text of Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmthere, and the score here.
While in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio the Second Christmas Day is all about the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus, in some other cantatas for this Day Bach further explores why Jesus came on earth. That is also the case in Cantata 40 Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes. While it is full of references to snake-like evil in the text, that cantata still means Christmas holiday to me. Read about it in my blog post from 2016, now with updated YouTube links.
Please check back here tomorrow for a beautiful live recording of a cantata not previously discussed on this blog for Third Christmas Day.
On this blog I have shared only two of Bach’s compositions for Christmas Day so far: Cantata 91 from 1724 here, and of course the first cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (our family’s “wake-up call” on Christmas morning) from 1734 here. But Bach wrote at least three more cantatas for this day, as well as his Magnificat.
Today I’d love to share Cantata 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter) from 1725. Find The Netherlands Bach Society’s live recording of this cantata here on YouTube.
Find the text with English translations here, and the score here.
This live video registration has an abundance of Christmas presents for me: the festive setting of the Grote Kerk in Naarden; soprano Maria Keohane in a Scandinavian Christmas dress and truly enjoying herself; tenor Charles Daniels, always a delight; a promising new young bass, Matthias Winckhler, who can actually sing every note of the enormously challenging bass aria in this cantata; and the best gift of all: Alex Potter singing the alto aria, which to me is the most moving part of this cantata, and also the core message Bach wanted to communicate to his fellow believers on this Christmas Day in 1725.
For the joyous opening of this cantata, Bach re-uses his Orchestral Suite no. 4 in D major (BWV 1069) to grandly illustrate the “arrival” of Jesus. In the center of the cantata, after the festivities of the opening chorus, but before the very pretty Christmas-y “Glory to God in the highest” soprano-tenor duet, and an impressive bass aria with trumpet, the music goes into a minor key, and also turns inward, in the alto aria. The text of that alto aria is as follows:
Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind, Ah, Lord, what is a child of man Dass du sein Heil so schmerzlich suchest? that you should seek his salvation with so much pain? Ein Wurm, den du verfluchest, A worm whom you curse Wenn Höll und Satan um ihn sind; when hell and Satan are around him; Doch auch dein Sohn, den Seel und Geist but also your son, whom soul and spirit Aus Liebe seinen Erben heißt. Through love call their inheritance.
Of course this text refers to the believers in general, that on the one hand they are worms, and on the other hand will be saved by Jesus. but I feel the choice of the word “Menschenkind” is not a coincidence. It definitely also refers to the the fact that Jesus can’t just stay in the godly realm, but in order to be a true savior, he has to come to earth, become man, and go through all the rotten reality that might imply. This theme appears more or less prominently in all Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day, and in this cantata 110 it is already announced in the tenor aria:
Er wird Mensch, und dies allein, He has become man, and this only Dass wir Himmels Kinder sein. so that we may become children of heaven.
Nine years later, in the first cantata of his Christmas Oratorio, Bach also stresses this “coming to earth” and “becoming man” of Jesus on this first Christmas Day, in what is also the most moving and inward-looking part of that particular cantata: the soprano-bass duet. The text Bach gives to the bass in that duet is as follows. Note the last line.
Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn, Who will rightly extol the love Die unser Heiland vor uns hegt? that our Saviour cherishes for us? Ja, wer vermag es einzusehen, Indeed, who is able to realise Wie ihn der Menschen Leid bewegt? how he is moved by human suffering? Des Höchsten Sohn kömmt in die Welt, The highest’s son came into the world Weil ihm ihr Heil so wohl gefällt, because its salvation pleases him so well So will er selbst als Mensch geboren werden. that he himself is willing to be born as a man.
For the fourth Sunday of Advent, Bach wrote two cantatas in Weimar: Cantata 132 Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn in 1715, and Cantata 147a Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben in 1716.
Bach rewrote Cantata 147, the same way he did that with cantatas 70 and 186, into a cantata for another time of the year in Leipzig, in this case the feast of the Visitation on July 2, 1723. Read more about that here in my post from 2016. I have now updated that post with a link to the wonderful live performance of Cantata 147 by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with with Hana Blažiková, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Cantata 132 was not transformed into a cantata for another time in the church year in Leipzig, so today’s performances of this cantata still reflect the Advent cantata from Weimar. Watch a beautiful live performance of this cantata by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soloists are Julia Doyle, soprano; Tim Mead, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; and Dominik Wörner, bass.
Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
As I already pointed out in my Advent Calendar earlier this week, the text of the joyful opening aria refers to the story of John the Baptist, who was believed to have come to prepare the way for Jesus, and includes the Isaiah quote as it appears in the scripture: “Messias kömmt an!” (The Messiah is coming). Bach gives this text to the soprano three times, and to give it extra emphasis, each time omits all instrumental accompaniment on those three words.
The rest of the cantata stays close to the story of John the Baptist. The bass aria refers to the Pharisees interrogating John, but then Bach’s text writer (Salomo Franck, who was also the Weimar court librarian) projects the question “Wer bist du?” (Who are you?) onto the believer: ask your conscience: are you a true person or a false person?
As a child, I was enormously impressed by this bass aria, even more than by the wonderful soprano aria at the beginning of the piece. I loved how Max van Egmond sings the “Wer bist du?” text on the Leonhardt recording from 1983. You can find that recording, and read more about those childhood memories, in this blog post from 2016. I had no idea at the time that in those very cool opening notes Bach is quoting this organ piece by Buxtehude. I only learned that this week, by watching the “extra videos” the Netherlands Bach Society provides along with their live recordings on All of Bach.
If you are not following this blog yet, please consider signing up (on the left of this text if you are on a desktop computer, at the bottom of this post when you are reading on a smartphone). This way you won’t miss any posts about the many cantatas Bach wrote for all three Christmas Days (yes there were three in his time), New Year’s Day, and the Sundays after those feast days.
I created an Advent Calendar for you, so you can easily find my posts about Bach’s Advent cantatas, enjoy some more videos that have come out since I originally wrote these posts, and get recommendations for Christmas gifts.
Happy New Year! It’s still 2017 in California as I am writing this, always a bit strange, this time difference, but it is so great to know that I have readers all over the world, from New Zealand to India to France to Brazil to Canada.
Today’s Cantata 41 Jesu, nun sei gepreiset still has a bit of Christmas in it, especially in the soprano aria with the pastoral accompaniment of the three oboes, and with an orchestration worthy of a feast day: timpani, 3 trumpets, 3 oboes, violoncello piccolo, plus the regular strings and organ. But that’s about the only relation this cantata has with the Christmas story.
The best recording of this cantata available on YouTube is the one by Koopman. You can listen to it here. Soloists are Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Annette Markert, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; and Klaus Mertens, bass.
Find the German texts with English translations of Cantata 41 here, and the score here.
Normally, on New Year’s Day, it would be time to talk about the name-giving of Jesus (the day of the circumcision), see my New Year’s Day post from last year. While Bach clearly indicates on the first page of this cantata’s manuscript that it is intended “For the “Feast of the Circumcision,” nothing in the text or music of this cantata refers to this.
This year, Bach and his librettist have chosen to focus on the old year / new year theme instead, the same way they did that yesterday for the more intimate Cantata 122. Is this perhaps another indication that this particular New Year’s, 1725, the time on the calendar was more important than the time in the Lutheran church year?
While yesterday Bach was inspired by the early medieval tradition of conflating Christmas with New Year, today it is all about the “Alpha and Omega,” the beginning and the end, in Bach’s time seen as a symbol for God’s extended care of the people. Eduard van Hengel gives the following examples for this:
The closing chorale has as much musical “fanfare” in it as the opening chorus, which is rather unusual for a Bach cantata.
The main key of the cantata is C Major, which is at the beginning as well as at the end of the sequence of key signatures.
In the alto recitative, which is not in they key of C at all, Bach does move to that key just for the text “A und O,” so that A sounds on a high C and O on a low C.
The violoncello piccolo part in the tenor aria requires the full range of the instrument, symbolizing the full extent of God’s care.
Also listen for the brilliant illustrations of Satan in the music of the bass aria: Bach uses “forbidden” intervals, also called “diabolus in musica” (the devil in the music), and writes a very unusual “insert” for the choir in the bass aria on the text “Den Satan unter unsre Füsse treten.”
Since I was a very small child, the word “Jubeljahr” (Year of Jubilee) has stood out to me when listening to Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein. I already mentioned this a bit in my post from last year. So on the second to last day of 2017, I did some research into this concept of Jubeljahr, and realized that perhaps Bach might have liked the word too. Keep reading to find out why.
My favorite recording of this cantata is the one by Herreweghe from 1995 with soprano Vasiljka Jezovsek, alto Sarah Connolly, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooij. Find it here on YouTube. Find the text of cantata 122 here, and the score here.
In 1724, there was a Sunday in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, (a first for Bach in Leipzig*) and it fell exactly on New Year’s Eve. The upcoming New Year was not just any year. For the Catholic church 1725 was going to be a Holy Year, Year of Jubilee, or “Jubeljahr” as they called it in German.** While Bach was Lutheran, chances are high that he was aware of the Catholic tradition and thus of the extra importance of this last Sunday of the calendar year. The nearby court of Dresden was Catholic, most of the Marian feast days were still celebrated, only a year before Bach had written a Magnificat (Mary’s song of praise) for Christmas, and many medieval customs were still present.
Because of all this, I would like to think that Bach wanted to mark this special occasion, and might have chosen the chorale Das neugeborne Kindelein from 1597 on purpose for his cantata for this day, because of the mention of “Jubeljahr” in the last verse. Whether the original writer of the chorale might have alluded to the Lutheran belief that the union of God with people makes every year a Jubilee, or to the then upcoming Jubilee and turn of the century in 1600, I don’t know. But nowhere else in Bach’s cantata oeuvre is do we see the word “Jubeljahr.”
The text of the chorale builds on the early medieval tradition of melting the story of Jesus’ birth with the celebration of the New Year, talking about the newborn baby Jesus at the same time as announcing that the year has ended and this is a true Jubilee.
However Bach and his librettist don’t go all the way with the medieval world view: They change the original text of the third verse of the chorale, used for the fourth movement of the cantata, Trotz Türken, Papst und Höllen Pfort (Despite Turks,the Pope and the gates of hell) into Trotz Teufel und der Höllen Pfort (Despite the devil and the gates of hell). In 1725 the fear for a Turkish invasion was probably not as palpable as it had been in 1597, when the chorale was originally written.
Other things to listen for in cantata 122: The amazing high c in the soprano recitative. The leap of a fifth from f to c and then the octave back to c in the soprano recitative on the words “Die Engel” (the angels) had actually just occurred one movement earlier, two octaves lower, in the bass aria, on the words “O Menschen” (Oh people). Gardiner says this musical illustration that heaven/angels (high voice and highest instruments: recorders) and earth/people (low voice and cello) become one makes him think of the angels and men hugging in the forefront of Mystic Nativity by Botticelli, and this is why I decided to feature that as the illustration for today’s blog post.
Wieneke Gorter, December 30, 2017
*In 1723, Bach’s first year in Leipzig, the Sunday after Christmas was December 26, Second Christmas Day.
** The concept of “Jubeljahr” comes from the Old Testament, where Leviticus describes that after 7×7 years, you sould celebrate a Year of Jubilee, the 50th year. However in1470 Pope Paul II issued a Bull to fix the Jubilee for every twenty-five years, starting in 1475, so that every generation could have a Jubilee.
Adoration of the Shepherds, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1638
In Bach’s time, there were three Christmas days. Thanks to a beautiful album by Herreweghe, you can enjoy all cantatas Bach wrote for the consecutive days in 1724 in the order in which Bach wrote them. Or follow these YouTube links for the same recordings:
Christmas market in Berlin at the end of the 18th century. Leipzig had a Christmas market since the year 458. I don’t know if there was a market during the tempus clausum in 1724.
In Bach’s time in Leipzig, between the first Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day, there was no music allowed in the churches other than singing chorales. This tempus clausum (“closed” time) was also in effect during the 40 days before Easter, and was intended for introspection.
Bach’s employer in Weimar, where he worked from 1708 to 1717, did not impose a tempus clausum for Advent, so there are Advent cantatas from Bach’s Weimar time for the second, third, and fourth Sunday of Advent. For a reconstruction of the cantata that would have sounded in the ducal chapel in Weimar on the third Sunday of Advent in 1716, please read my updated post from last year.
In 1724 the tempus clausum was a welcome break for Bach, because he needed to work ahead and rehearse the choir. While the previous year he had sometimes “recycled” cantatas from Weimar, this year he could not do that. In the summer of 1724 he had started a series of chorale cantatas (read more about that here), and if he wanted to keep composing according to this template, he had to write a brand new work for every feast day.
For the 1724/1725 Christmas season, that schedule would look like this: