The mirror-hall, now called “Bach hall” in Köthen, where Bach worked from 1717 to 1723.
A concert weekend, successful, but fueled almost exclusively by adrenaline; the overwhelming fatigue thus following; my favorite breakfast cook/violin practice coach/morning chauffeur/bedtime enforcer away on a business trip all week; much needed family hike on Saturday; me not being superwoman: It sometimes leads to a late blog post 🙂 Thank you for understanding.
The 1724 cantata for yesterday, Cantata 180 Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Adorn yourself, beloved soul) is full of luster, with an opening chorus, a tenor/flute aria and a soprano/orchestra aria that make me think of the orchestral suites Bach wrote at the court of Köthen between 1717 and 1723. With all this joy already from the beginning, it sounds like a wedding cantata.
The recording I appreciate most is the one by the Swiss J.S. Bach Foundation from 2009, because I feel they bring the most light into the opening chorus and the soprano aria, illustrate the “knocking” the best in the tenor aria, and the singers do a great job bringing out the text. Soloists: Maria Christina Kiehr, soprano; Jan Börner, counter-tenor; Julius Pfeifer, tenor; and Fabrice Hayoz, bass. Update from 2020: When I first wrote about this cantata, in 2017, only the soprano aria from this recording was available on YouTube, but in 2018 they made it available in full length. You can find it here.
Find the German text with English translation here, and the score here.
Why all this luster in this cantata? In Bach’s time, the Gospel reading for this Sunday, the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22: 1-14) was seen in relation to the union of the faithful with Christ, both during communion as well as during the heavenly banquet in the afterlife. If you then realize that that union between the soul of the faithful and Christ was in that time often compared to the marriage between bride and groom, it was not unusual to present something that sounds like wedding music on this communion Sunday. Expressing the love-like relationship of Jesus and the soul was not a foreign concept for Bach. He did it beautifully in the duet in Cantata 21 from Weimar (read my post about that cantata here) and later also in Cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.**
In addition to this important link to the Bible texts, I think Bach might have an ulterior motive to bring so much splendor in a cantata for a Communion Sunday. On those Sundays, the congregations in the Leipzig churches would have been larger, and more prominent (read: wish-to-be-seen) families would have been present. Having followed Bach’s cantata compositions in the order he wrote them in Leipzig for almost two years now, I am seeing this pattern around large events in Leipzig: important audience = time to show off his star players and singers and his composition skills.
In his lecture (2020 update: now with English subtitles!), Rudolf Lutz, the director of the J.S. Bach Foundation, points out all the musical elements that make the opening chorus so utterly joyful and full of splendor. If you start watching at 19 minutes, you can see/hear how he shows that the bass notes are already signs of happiness, similar to the way how Bach expresses that in his Magnificat from 1723 and his Cantata 140. He then goes on to explain how the recorders build a “dome” over all of it, and the unisono violins and viola express the utter pleasure of lovers, or as Lutz says: “I love you, I love you, I say it to you again! Oh! Ah!”
In the tenor aria Christ is knocking on the door of the believer. This is a reference to the Revelations chapter from the Bible. When Bach received the libretto for this cantata, he must have thought back to an earlier cantata in which this Bible text was quoted literally: Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland from Weimar. In that cantata, the “Vox Christi” bass sings:
Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür und klopfe an.
So jemand meine Stimme hören wird und die Tür auftun,
zu dem werde ich eingehen
und das Abendmahl mit ihm halten und er mit mir.
See, I stand before the door and knock.
If anyone will hear my voice
and open the door
I shall go in
and have supper with him and he with me.
This recitative/arioso is accompanied by staccato continuo, illustrating the knocking. Bach uses this feature again in the continuo for this tenor aria from Cantata 180. Except this Christ is more impatient than the one from Cantata 61. For the rest it is pure blissful music, again putting Bach’s fabulous flute player in the spotlight. The theme of the flute part is likely based on the first three notes of the chorale melody. Julius Pfeifer does a great job singing this on the J.S. Bach Foundation recording.***
Note Christophe Coin on violoncello piccolo in the soprano chorale. My most favorite part of this recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation is the soprano aria. Sublime interpretation by all, with levity, freedom, and abandon in the orchestra and superb singing by Maria Christina Kiehr. If you wonder where you know her voice from: she appears on many Savall recordings alongside Montserrat Figueras.
Wieneke Gorter, October 30, 2017, updated October 25, 2020.
** Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme was really also a Trinity, almost Advent, cantata, but is nowadays better known as “The Wedding Cantata” (incorrectly suggesting that Bach wrote only one Wedding cantata) because of that subject matter.
***Another fabulous recording of this aria is the one by Cristoph Prégardien on the Christophe Coin CD. Listen to it here.