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.
For me, December 27 is always the Third ChristmasDay , whether it falls on that other cantata day, the Sunday after Christmas, or not. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, there are two days on which people celebrate Christmas: December 25 and 26. Special meals are eaten on both days. And because the country is so small, you can visit one part of your family on the 25th and then see the other part on the 26th. Most relatives expect you to do this. So, when I was a child, Third Christmas Day was always our first “free” day during the Christmas break, without church visits, meal prep, having to dress up (even though I liked that), or commitments to family.
We had a standing arrangement with friends for this day: if there was enough snow on the ground, and if we were in town, we would go cross-country skiing together on the only hill in our region. It was a half-joke, because the Netherlands isn’t very snowy, and it would take an extraordinary winter for there to be enough snow on the ground for cross-country skiing. When I was 16 we moved away from that region, so it maybe happened only once that we actually did this together with the other family, but just the idea was fun, and it didn’t feel like something we “had” to do to any of us.
This was a long introduction to justify why I am sharing a cantata for Third Christmas Day on this blog today, when I should be sharing cantatas for the Sunday after Christmas instead, as that day officially overrides the other.
Ever since I found out this video of Cantata 133 Ich freue mich in dir(I rejoice in you) existed, on November 1st of this year, I had been planning to share it today. It features two absolutely gorgeous tender arias by some of my favorite soloists and the wonderful ambiance Concerto Copenhagen always manages to convey in their Christmas videos. So here your are: Cantata 133 Ich freue mich in dir, written in 1724, by Concerto Copenhagen, from their 2011 Christmas concert, starring Alex Potter in the alto aria and Maria Keohane and her beautiful berry-red dress in the soprano aria. Find the video here, the text and translations here, and the score here.
Cantatas for Third Christmas Day have all been discoveries for me since I started writing this blog. None of these were cantatas my mother played on the turn table at home, probably for two reasons: 1. It was the day for the third cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (and this one was my sister’s favorite); 2. After playing the one cantata, we were usually off doing other things afterwards (see above), and my mother must have felt the “freedom” of this day too.
I will take a break for the next two weeks, and not post again until Sunday, January 17. Our first-born is flying the nest exactly two weeks from today, to go live on a college campus on the other side of the country, and we won’t see him in person again until May. So I would like to spend my time these next two weeks cooking, hiking, and laughing with the family, and helping my son get ready.
Here are some links for further reading and listening during those two weeks:
More cantatas for today:
Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, written for Third Christmas Day in 1725. I recommended the performance by Maria Keohane (wearing a white and gold Christmas dress) with the Netherlands Bach Society in my post from 2019. Find it here.
Cantata Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, written for the Sunday after Christmas in 1724. In addition to recommending the Herreweghe recording, in my blog post from 2017 I share my research as to why the word “Jubeljahr” (Jubilee) appears in this cantata.
Cantata 64 Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, written for Third Christmas Day in 1723. I recommended the recording by Harnoncourt and Bach Collegium Japan in my post from 2016. Find that here.
Or watch the cantata for the Third Christmas Day from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio following my links in this post.
Cantatas for New Year’s Day:
Watch the fourth cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by the J.S. Bach Foundation. You can find it here. The fourth cantata is my favorite part of the Christmas Oratorio, and soprano Miriam Feuersinger is absolutely fabulous in this performance.
Read my blog post from 2017 about Cantata 41 Jesu, nun sei gepreiset. Or explore on your own: Bach wrote several other cantatas for this day which I haven’t discussed on this blog yet: BWV 190 in 1724, BWV 16 in 1726, and BWV 171 in 1729.
It has been hard to read the newspapers this week and not be touched or even completely floored by human suffering. That’s why Cantata 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (from 1724) is like a warm bath to me. The two horns in the orchestra already make my day, but there is also a strong presence of angels in the text and music of this cantata.
Watch a wonderful live registration of this cantata on YouTube by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with Monika Mauch, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Bernhard Berchtold, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Find the text and translations here, and the score here.
In the opening chorus (with the ascending scale of fast notes), Bach illustrates the “host of angels” singing, or, as Eduard van Hengel says, even “flapping their wings.”
Last year I already talked about how in most of his cantatas for Christmas Day, Bach focuses on Jesus’ journey from the godly realm, the heavenly glory, to being a struggling man on earth. It is very moving then to hear this following text in the bass solo. And it is a true Christmas present to me that it is Peter Kooij who is singing this on the J.S. Bach Foundation video, because he is one of the best to interpret texts like these. Note how Bach illustrates the “Jammertal” (vale of sorrow) at the end.
O Christenheit! Wohlan, so mache die bereit, Bei dir den Schöpfer zu empfangen. Der grosse Gottessohn Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen. Ach, lass dein Herz durch diese Liebe rühren; Er kömmt zu dir, um dich for seinen Thron Durch dieses Jammertal zu führen.
O Christendom! Come now, prepare yourself to welcome the creator amongst you. The mighty Son of God has descended and comes to you as a guest. Ah, let your heart be moved by this love; He comes to you, in order to lead you through this vale of sorrow to his throne.
In the beautiful soprano-alto duet (arguably the best part of this cantata), Bach brilliantly illustrates the contrast between the human suffering and the heavenly angels. He sets the suffering parts of the text to chromatic lines, similar to those just introduced on that word “Jammertal” in the bass solo. To the heavenly angels he gives happy, dotted rhythms.
While I grew up waking up to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Christmas Day (read more about this tradition here), these days I much prefer listening to all the other, earlier cantatas Bach wrote for the period between from December 25 to January 6. However, there are two new video projects of the Christmas Oratorio just out or about to be launched this year that I don’t wish to ignore, so for those of you eager to watch and listen to any of that, here’s my one-paragraph overview:
Bach never intended this oratorio to be performed on one day. The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were each meant to be performed on a different Sunday or holiday: First Christmas Day, Second Christmas Day, Third Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany. The J.S. Bach Foundation in Switzerland recently released all six cantatas for free on their YouTube channel. You can find the list of videos, one for each cantata, here. If you enjoy watching these videos, please consider donating to the organization so they can continue to pay their musicians and produce these wonderful registrations. Voces8’s excellent “Live from London Christmas” paid programming features all six cantatas performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh. Appropriately, each cantata will go live on the day for which it was intended. You can purchase this series here.
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.”