It is now the 24th Sunday after Trinity. Depending on the year, this Sunday can fall anywhere in the month of November, from the 1st to the 26th day of the month.
In 1723, during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, this day fell on November 7, with two more Sundays to go before Advent. For that day Bach wrote the apocalyptic Cantata 60, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort! I have the best memories of doing the research about this cantata, from finding out how Bach’s music had inspired a lithographer in 1914 as well as Alban Berg in 1935, to being pleasantly surprised by Robin Blaze’s marvelous singing on the Bach Collegium Japan recording. Read it all in my post from 2016.
The next year, in 1724, this Sunday fell November 19, the penultimate Sunday before Advent that year. For that Sunday Bach wrote Cantata 26 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig. When I first listened to this cantata in 2017, I labeled it “The Water Cantata” in my head, because there is moving water in both the tenor aria and the bass aria, from a rushing brook to a stormy white water river. The combination of bass voice with the three oboes and bassoon even made me think of Hades in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. I remember finding it special, all that water, especially since I had just come back from a short visit to Yosemite National Park with my family, where I had admired waterfalls and rivers. There is now an excellent J.S. Bach Foundation video of this cantata available on YouTube. You can really hear the water move, especially in their terrific rendition of the tenor aria. Find it here. Soloists are Susanne Frei soprano; Antonia Frey, alto; Daniel Johannsen; tenor; Klaus Häger, bass.
Find the score for Cantata 26 here, and the texts & translations here.
I always write about bass arias around this time of year (see this post). But let’s not forget about the tenor arias. As I’ve said before, I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. Wonderful examples of this are the following tenor arias from the Fall of 1724:
from Cantata 78, sung here by Howard Crook on the Herreweghe recording from 1988
from Cantata 5, sung here by Raphael Höhn with the J.S. Bach Foundation
from Cantata 38, sung here by Johannes Kaleschke with the J.S. Bach Foundation — this is the “consolation” aria I mentioned in my previous blog post.
And for today, the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, the fabulous tenor aria from Cantata 139 Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, sung here by Johannes Kaleschke with the J.S. Bach Foundation. When I looked at the text of this aria again today, I realized that if Cantata 139 were an opera, this aria would be Joe Biden’s:
Gott ist mein Freund; was hilft das Toben, So wider mich ein Feind erhoben! Ich bin getrost bei Neid und Hass. Ja, redet nur die Wahrheit spärlich, Seid immer falsch, was tut mir das? Ihr Spötter seid mir ungefährlich.
God is my friend; what use is all the raging that an enemy has raised against me! I am consoled in the midst of envy and hate. Yes, though you speak the truth only rarely, though you are always false, what is that to me? You scoffers are to me no danger.
My absolute favorite recording of Cantata 180 Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele(Adorn yourself, beloved soul, from October 22, 1724) is the video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2009. I love how the entire ensemble truly brings luster into the opening chorus and the soprano aria, and how the instrumentalists illustrate the “knocking” in the tenor aria. Also: Rudolf Lutz’s lecture about this cantata is in my top five of all his lectures I’ve watched so far.
When I first wrote about this cantata, in 2017, only the soprano aria from this video registration was available on YouTube, and Lutz’s lecture didn’t have English subtitles yet. However, this has all changed, and the entire cantata is now available here on YouTube, and Lutz’s lecture, now with English subtitles, can be found here. Soloists in the performance: Maria Christina Kiehr, soprano; Jan Börner, counter-tenor; Julius Pfeifer, tenor; and Fabrice Hayoz, bass.
Find the German text with English translation here, and the score here.
When I listened to Lutz’s lecture again this week, I noticed some things I had missed when listening to it in 2017. For example, around 2 minutes into the lecture, when talking about the opening chorus, Lutz says:
“I like to compare it to a flowing wedding garment of the noblest kind.”
The title of the cantata is “Schmücke dich” (Adorn yourself) and the 20th Sunday after Trinity was a Communion Sunday in Leipzig. As I mentioned in my post from 2017, it was normal in Bach’s time to compare the Communion between Jesus and the believer, or Jesus and the soul, to the marriage between groom and bride. So it makes sense to use this image of a bride dressing up for her wedding. In addition, the reading for this Sunday mentions wedding guests being sent away because they are not dressed for the occasion. So on this 20th Sunday after Trinity, we can pay a bit more attention to clothing.
Lutz being Lutz, a talented improvisor, and often one to throw in some local folklore to make his Swiss audience laugh, makes a joke about that “wedding garment of the noblest kind,” and adds: “Perhaps by Akris, or so.” I had to Google that one, and it turns out that Akris is a Swiss fashion house that still has its headquarters in St. Gallen (the same town where the J.S. Bach Foundation resides), and has been owned by the same family continuously. There’s a nice New York Times article about its current creative director Albert Kriemler here.
I started thinking: if Bach also paid more attention to clothing for this Sunday, what would he have had in mind on the words “Schmücke dich”?
We know that the Rhine wine was flowing at Bach’s own wedding to Anna Magdalena in 1721, but for the rest it would probably have been a simple affair, since it was held at home. There are no paintings of the weddings of his employers, nor of the weddings that would have taken place in Leipzig at the time. However there are paintings of noble dresses Bach might have seen on official occasions, worn by the Princess his employer in Köthen married a little later in December 1721*, and by the consorts of dignitaries Bach would have visited in Dresden and Berlin. See pictures at the top of this post. This would then also be the style in which the noblewomen of Leipzig would have dressed up to go attend church, especially on an important Sunday such as this one.
Read more about all the luster in this cantata, and about an impatient groom/Jesus in my blog post from 2017. I’m apparently always late in posting for this Sunday, whether there are choir performances going on in my life or not.
Wieneke Gorter, October 25, 2020.
*In a rare letter to a friend, Bach mentioned Friederike Henriette and the absence of her interest in music as one of his reasons for leaving Köthen in 1723. However it was probably for financial demands by the Prussian military that the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen had less and less funds to spend on music. Henriette died in April of 1723, 14 months after her marrying Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Bach moved to Leipzig in May 1723.
At the end of a two-week trip to Italy in the summer of 2018 (my family’s first visit to that country), we would have only one afternoon and night in Florence. After booking our hotel in a neighborhood a good friend had recommended, I saw on Google maps that the hotel was around the corner from a church called Santa Maria del Carmine.
The name rang a bell, but I didn’t immediately realize why. Then I started searching my blog, and yes: there it was, the fresco of TheHealing of the Cripple, from the Brancacci Chapel in that church, in my blog post from 2016 about Cantata 48. After seeing a lot of art in other cities in Italy and with a big train trip ahead of us, we decided to have this be the only art we would go see in Florence, and save the rest for another trip. It was a good decision, because this way I could really let it sink in that I was seeing these frescos in real life, and this way we had some time left to eat ice cream, rest, see the sun set over the city, and enjoy a good meal.
In my blog post from 2016, I recommended Herreweghe’s recording of Cantata 48Ich elender Mensch. (from 1723), and I still stand by that choice. Find all the links to the recording, a comparison with the St. Matthew Passion, and my explanation of the silver lining in the opening chorus here.
One year later, in 2017, I wrote about Cantata 5, Wo soll ich fliehen hin? which Bach wrote for this same 19th Sunday after Trinity, in 1724. Since then, I have a new favorite recording of this cantata: the excellent 2018 performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation that was released to YouTube in April 2019. You can find that video here. Soloists are: Soprano: Mirjam Berli; Alto: Jan Börner; Tenor: Raphael Höhn; Bass: Manuel Walser; Violin: Eva Borhi; Tromba da tirarsi: Patrick Henrichs.
Find the German text with English translation of Cantata 5 here, and the score here.
For a list of the bass arias with trumpet the Leipzig congregations would have heard between June 1723 (when Bach started working in Leipzig) and October 1724 (when he wrote Cantata 5), including links for listening, read my blog post from 2017 here.
On Sunday October 8, 1724, Bach introduced a new instrument to his Leipzig cantata audiences: the flauto piccolo, or sopranino recorder, in Cantata 96 Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn. He did this to illustrate the word “Morgenstern” (Morning Star) in the text of the opening chorus, creating a constellation over the highest notes of the choir sopranos with the even higher notes of the recorder.
Thanks to a videoby the J.S. Bach Foundation that was released to YouTube in 2018, you can now watch an excellent recorder player, Maurice Steger, in action on this instrument in this cantata.
Go to my blog post from 2017 (updated with the new recording and a few other things), to read why Bach needed a chorale with the word “Gottessohn” (son of God) for this cantata.
This 17th Sunday after Trinity has been connected to more discoveries than any other so far for me, and I keep making new ones:
In 2016, I wrote a post about Cantata148 Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, then learned a lot of new information during the months that followed, which led me to completely revise the post in February 2017. It talks about Dresden concertmaster Johann Georg Pisendel and his influence on the violin solos Bach wrote in Leipzig. Read it here.
In 2017, I realized that at least two arias Bach wrote for this Sunday make me cry, not because of the singers, but because of the instrumental solos that accompany those arias. Read it here, in a post that introduces Cantata 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost. At that time, the best recording I could find was a live radio registration of a performance led by Gustav Leonhardt in 1988. All this because of the tenor aria.* I knew who the tenor was (John Elwes), but could only make an educated guess about the extraordinary flute player, probably Marc Hantaï. That recording also had my first countertenor love, Gérard Lesne, singing the alto aria.
At the last gathering of the Berkeley Bach Cantata Group I attended before the Shelter In Place started (and all rehearsals and performances stopped) here in the SF Bay Area, I got to discuss Bach’s “Pisendel style” violin solos a bit with the first violinist of that group. In an email-exchange that followed, he pointed out a countertenor he liked, but who I had never heard of before: David Erler.
Then this week, while checking if any new recordings of cantatas 148 or 114 had come out since I wrote those blog posts, I discovered to my great delight that in September 2018 the J.S. Bach Foundation recorded Cantata 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrostwith … Marc Hantaï playing flute in the tenor aria! (I now for sure know it was him in that 1988 Leonhardt recording) and … David Erler singing the alto aria (and doing an excellent job). While it doesn’t rival the energy of the soprano solo on the Gardiner recording (for this, please read my blog post from 2017 about this cantata), nor Peter Kooij’s solo on the Leonhardt recording, it is a fabulous and very moving performance, and you can see Marc Hantaï play. Find this live video recording by the J.S. Bach foundation here on YouTube. Soloists are: David Erler, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; and Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Find the German texts with English translations of Cantata 114 here, and the score here.
In 2018, I realized that Bach reworked the incredibly moving tenor aria with flute from Cantata 114 into a faster tenor aria with oboe for Cantata 124, and that nobody else seemed to have noticed this yet. Read that here.
This is an extended lesson, in several steps, but please bear with me, it’s worth it and you get to watch or listen to some excellent videos. Happy learning and listening!
This 16th Sunday after Trinity seems to be “chorale Sunday” for Bach. His cantatas for this Sunday (161, 95, 8, and 27) either contain a high number of chorales, or are centered around an important chorale. Read for example about the four (!) chorales in Cantata 95 Christus, der ist mein Leben from 1723 in this blog post. Already in 1716, in Weimar, Bach put great emphasis on the chorale in the first cantata he ever wrote for this Sunday, Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde.
Why this stress on chorales? In his book about Anna Magdalena Bach, David Yearsley suggests it has something to do with widows. The Bible story for this Sunday is the Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s son. Based on contemporary sermons, Yearsley concludes that this 16th Sunday after Trinity was seen as some sort of National Widow Day, and wonders why no Bach scholar ever discusses this in relation to these cantatas. On page 207 of his book, he says: “Even by Bachian standards, this group of cantatas is dense with chorales, the singing of which was one crucial way for widows to make their lives bearable; melodies and texts buttressed single women’s emotional well-being and held off melancholy.”
The crucial role the chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End (My heart is filled with longing to pass away in peace) plays in Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde from 1716 brings me to Part II of my review of the All Souls production by the Netherlands Bach Society in the Fall of 2019, guest-directed by Alex Potter. (Part I is here). That program included the absolute best performance of Cantata 161 I have ever heard. Unfortunately, none of the performances were recorded.
I will discuss two good alternatives for recordings later, but first I would like to introduce* Alex Potter with this video by the Netherlands Bach Society. In this video, Potter talks about the countertenor voice, and explains how he came to be a countertenor. It’s a lovely and very accessible interview. But for me, the best are the snippets of rehearsals for the All Souls program. It’s cold comfort for the absence of a complete All of Bach recording, but for a few seconds, you can see Potter perform the alto recitative from Cantata 161 with the superb band he had put together for this : the dramatic so schlage doch section around 1’38” and the start of the recitative around 7’12”. Other singers in this recording are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Stephan McLeod, bass.
The chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End features prominently in the opening movement of Cantata 161, is referred to in the tenor aria, and then comes back in the final movement. It was an important chorale for Bach, and he used it often. Watch this 3-minute explanation by organist Matthias Havinga on how earthly misery gets replaced by heavenly paradise in the chorale prelude (BWV 727) of the same name, also written in Weimar. **
Potter wanted to make absolutely sure that the Netherlands Bach Society audience members, who all have St. Matthew Passion running through their veins, would not hear this tune as O Haupt voll Blut und wunden:
“It is NOT ‘O Haupt’ – indeed in hymnals from the time, ‘O Haupt’ is often listed to be sung to the melody of ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’,” he explained a few days after the concerts, when I had written him to ask about some of his choices.
By the time Bach repeated this cantata in Leipzig, probably sometime in the late 1720s or in the 1730s, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden had become much better known, and Bach might have had a similar concern as Alex Potter had in 2019: he wanted to make sure the congregation would have the correct chorale, and thus the correct message in mind.
In the original Weimar version from 1716, the chorale melody in the opening chorus was played, without words, on the organ. Listeners would have heard the words in their heads. For a wonderful example of this version, listen to Herreweghe’s recording here on YouTube, or here on Spotify. Soloists on this recording are Matthew White, countertenor, and Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor.
Bach’s later Leipzig solution: He replaced the organ part with a soprano part, using the first verse of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. For an example of this version, with all sopranos singing the chorale, watch the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Please note another typical Leipzig change here: recorders were replaced by the more fashionable transverse flutes. Soloists in this recording are Alex Potter, countertenor, and Daniel Johanssen, tenor.
It makes that you hear these two texts at the same time, which is very special:
Komm, du süße Todesstunde, Da mein Geist Honig speist Aus des Löwen Munde; Mache meinen Abschied süße, Säume nicht, Letztes Licht, Dass ich meinen Heiland küsse.
Come, sweet hour of death, when my spirit feeds on honey from the lion’s mouth; make my departure sweet, do not delay, last light so that I may kiss my saviour.
Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End; weil ich hie bin umfangen mit Trübsal und Elend. Ich hab Lust abzuscheiden von dieser argen Welt; sehn mich noch ew’gen Freuden: o Jesu, komm nur bald.
My heart is filled with longing To pass away in peace; For woes are round me thronging, And trials will not cease. O fain would I be hasting From thee, dark world of gloom, To gladness everlasting; O Jesus, quickly come!
Alex Potter’s 2019 solution: Use the soprano part from the Leipzig version, sung solo by the incomparable Dorothee Mields, but keep the recorders from the Weimar version.
A pragmatic solution, as Potter explained partly in the program book: recorder player Benny Aghassi was available; partly in his message to me: “I think that for a modern audience having the voice cut through a bit more makes it clearer – also with the text. I also think that any opportunity to hear more Dorothee Mields is worth it, and I got to sing with her as an added bonus.”
It turned out to be a brilliant one. If you have ever watched and heard Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter sing a duet, you know that that is pure heaven. I also truly prefer the somewhat more penetrating sound of recorders over the sweet tones of the flutes in all the movements of this cantata that they appear in (alto aria, alto recitative, chorus, and closing chorale), but especially in the illustration of the death bells in the text “so schlage doch, du letzter Stundenschlag!” (therefore sound, stroke of the last hour!)***
And, in those concerts in the Netherlands in 2019, we got to hear even more Dorothee Mields. In an extra effort to set the audience up with the correct chorale, Alex Potter had her sing Johann Hermann Schein’s setting of Herzlich tut mich verlangen right before the cantata started. Especially in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague on Sunday November 3 this was an event: She stood in a very humble location behind the stage, almost tucked into a corner next to the stairs leading up to the pulpit, hidden from view for probably half the audience. Then, during the instrumental introduction to the Bach cantata, she very slowly climbed the stairs to the pulpit, and then sang the chorale from there during the opening aria. It was as Bach intended: to die for.
I mentioned before that Herzlich tut mich verlangen is also referenced in the tenor aria. It is not just with the word “Verlangen” in the text, but also with the “figura suspirans” (or longing in the music, as explained in the organ video of Matthias Havinga mentioned above) that is present here too, in the tenor part as well in the violin part. The effect Shunske Sato’s longing style of playing had on Thomas Hobbs’ singing in this aria was out of this world. Thomas Hobbs really needs a shout-out for his role in this All Souls production, even though I’m writing this so long after the fact. I’ve seen him several times in concerts with Herreweghe, and his stage presence has always been an inspiration to me, but I was especially impressed by his singing in these performances. The way he sang the sentence “Der blasse Tod ist meine Morgenröte” in the tenor recitative of Cantata 161 was unrivaled. And in the first half of the program, Hobbs and his laser-beam long notes were the star of Rosenmüller’s Dies Irae and the Gregorian Requiem that preceded it.
Wieneke Gorter, September 26, 2020.
* Since I first heard Alex Potter live in 2018, I have written many posts about his extraordinary interpretations of Bach’s music. You can find most of them by typing Alex Potter into the search bar at the top of this post. The top three, in my humble opinion, are here, here, and here.
** Find the video of the entire organ prelude (BWV 727) here.
***Bach illustrates death bells in instrumentation, often using flutes, but sometimes only pizzicato strings, in cantatas 73, 8, 95, 105, 127, and 198.
One of the three cantatas Bach wrote for this 15th Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!, the famous solo-cantata for soprano and trumpet. In a world that values athletes above artists, attending or discussing a performance of this cantata can sometimes feel as if we’re all judging a tennis match instead of a work of art: will the soprano hit that high C? and how virtuoso is that trumpet player? I have always been a bit frustrated by this.
What a breath of fresh air it was then to discover Maria Keohane’s interpretation of this cantata. There are two live registrations of her singing this on YouTube, one with the European Union Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Lars Ulrik Mortensen, with Sebastian Philpott on trumpet. Then there is a newer one, from 2015, with the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of Jos van Veldhoven, with Robert Vanryne on trumpet. That one is my favorite, and you can find it here.
Find the German texts with English translations here (click on “Text”), and the score here.
I noticed how Maria Keohane masters every aspect of this composition, not because she’s the most virtuoso soprano on earth, but because she completely understands the music. She radiates joy, but also brings a great Calm over everything and everyone. In this wonderful interview (with English subtitles here, with Dutch subtitles here) she explains how this cantata has been with her all her music-making life, how she sees her interaction with the trumpet as a symbiosis instead of a competition, and how she believes that “in allen Landen” (in all lands) means that we share the same joy of being together on this earth.
While almost all soprano solos in Bach’s church cantatas were intended for a boy soprano (no female musicians allowed in the churches of Leipzig), it remains a big question whether this one was ever sung by a boy. Under the “Story” tab on this website, the Netherlands Bach Society explains that Bach composed this cantata around 1730 for either the Weissenfels court (where his wife Anna Magdalena, an accomplished singer who had family there, might have performed it) or for one of the Italian opera singers who settled in Dresden that year. Even Gustav Leonhardt chose an adult female soprano (Marianne Kweksilber) for his recording of this cantata.
If you’d like to hear the perfect “boy soprano voice” sing this cantata, I invite you to listen to Emma Kirkby on the Gardiner recording from 2000, here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. While she doesn’t move me the way Maria Keohane does, her voice is an unbelievably amazing instrument.
While my family is not in any direct danger of the fires here in California, and we are lucky in many ways, it has been hard for me to avoid going into serious flight mode this week. What has kept me sane are yoga classes on Zoom, but also a daily gratitude practice, where I write down specific examples of things that went well or that I enjoyed, and count my blessings.
I was comforted to discover this week that Bach also focused on gratitude and joy in the third cantata he wrote for this 14th Sunday after Trinity. The Bible story for this Sunday is the miracle of Jesus healing ten lepers, from Luke 17: 11-19. While Bach’s first two cantatas for this Sunday talk about salvation from sickness, the third one, Cantata 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich (He who gives thanks, he praises me), from 1726, focuses on the second part of the story (as well as the second part in the painting above): the one man who comes forward to thank Jesus for healing him.
Of all the recordings I listened to, I prefer the live video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation, released in March 2020. Watch that recording here on YouTube or, if you prefer to listen on Spotify, you can find my playlist here. Soloists are: Noëmi Sohn-Nad, soprano; Jan Börner; alto; Sören Richter; tenor; and Daniel Pérez, bass. I enjoyed listening to all of them.
Find the German texts with English translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
There are two unique aspects to this cantata, especially when you compare it to other cantatas for “regular” Sundays. First, there is no hardship to overcome, no sin to be absolved in this cantata. It is all one big song of praise for God’s benevolence. Quite unusual, but a nice change. Second, Bach writes an “Evangelist” part for the tenor at the start of part II, directly quoting the Bible text:
Einer aber unter ihnen, da er sahe, dass er gesund worden war, But one of them, when he saw that he was healed, kehrete um und preisete Gott mit lauter Stimme turned back and praised God with a loud voice und fiel auf sein Angesicht zu seinen Füßen and fell on his face at his feet und dankte ihm, und das war ein Samariter. and thanked him, and this man was a Samaritan.
There are only a handful of other cantatas in which this happens, but most of those are very meaningful (Cantata 22 and 42 come to mind). So I don’t think Bach is experimenting. He probably again wants to educate his fellow believers, and perhaps make them see that that part of the story is what the whole cantata is about.
I have to leave it at that, because the other two cantatas for this Sunday are not to be missed either and I don’t want this post to become too long.
Cantata 25 Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (Nothing healthy is to be found in my body), from 1723, starts out with an incredible opening chorus with trombones playing a chorale that begs for salvation. That salvation then appears towards the end of the cantata, in the form of a jubilant soprano aria. Read my blog post from 2016, not only to find links to Herreweghe’s fabulous recording of this cantata (with Hana Blažíková singing the soprano aria), but also to learn why Bach must have felt like a kid in a candy store that particular Sunday.
In 1724 Bach wrote Cantata 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, you [who saved] my soul). After a completely different, but equally beautiful and poignant opening chorus, joy presents itself much earlier, in the music of the second movement: the cute soprano-alto duet that is nowadays probably Bach’s most beloved duet. In my blog post from 2017 I recommend a Rifkin and a Herreweghe recording and I still stand by those choices today. In that post, I praised the opening chorus and the duet, but I completely forgot to discuss an often overlooked movement from this cantata: the tenor aria. I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. About two years ago I started dreaming of a podcast about this underrated aspect of Bach’s compositions, and when I finally have the time and the guts to create it, this aria will definitely be in it.
Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, the 13th after Trinity, all more or less related to the story of the Good Samaritan. In 1723 he writes the incredibly beautiful Cantata 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben (You must love God, your Lord). Read about it in my post from 2016. Along with many fellow members of California Bach Society I had the pleasure of singing this cantata earlier this summer, each of us sitting in front of our computer in our own home. Even though we could only see each other on a computer screen and not hear each other sing, it was a beautiful and meaningful experience. And while I tend to focus on the opening chorus and the alto aria when thinking about this cantata, several of my friends pointed out that the texts are still, or again, very appropriate today. Take for example the text of the tenor recitative:
Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz, For this purpose, my God, give me the Samaritan’s heart Dass ich zugleich den Nächsten liebe so that I can at once love my neighbor Und mich bei seinem Schmerz and in his sorrow Auch über ihn betrübe, feel concern for him Damit ich nicht bei ihm vorübergeh so that I shall not pass him by Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse. and leave him in his distress. Gib, dass ich Eigenliebe hasse, Grant that I may hate self-love, So wirst du mir dereinst das Freudenleben then you will grant me one day a joyous life Nach meinem Wunsch, jedoch aus Gnaden geben according to my desire, from your grace.
In 1724, within the framework of the 1724/1725 series of chorale cantatas (his second year of cantata compositions in Leipzig)* Bach writes Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (Solely towards you, Lord Jesus Christ). Because the libretto is based much more on the chorale text than on the Gospel text, it includes only one quote from the Bible story: “I may love my neighbour as myself.” But while it is just one line of text, Bach doesn’t let it go unnoticed, and turns that fifth verse of the libretto into a duet that has all the characteristics of a love duet from the Venetian operas of the time. At least the instrumentalists in the orchestra must have gotten the reference loud and clear. This also proves that the oh-so-cute soprano-alto duet from Cantata 78 (which Bach wrote one week later) didn’t come out of the blue. Here is the artists’ study for it, albeit written for tenor and bass. Read all this and more in my post from 2017.
From Trinity Sunday 1723 to Trinity Sunday 1725, Bach had provided the Leipzig churches with a cantata for almost every Sunday and Feast day. But for the Sundays between Trinity and Christmas 1725, we have only a handful of his cantatas left.** Cantata 164 Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet (You, who take your name from Christ) is among these. Bach saw his church music as a means to “educate his neighbor” about Christian theology, and it seems that in this case, a third cantata for this Sunday was needed: he was not done educating his neighbors about the story of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, the priest and the Levite pass the wounded man without showing mercy. In the libretto of this cantata, this example is turned onto the Christian believers themselves:
You, who take your name from Christ, where is to be found the mercyby which people recognize members of Christ?
It is far, far away from you.Your hearts should be rich in love,but they are harder than a stone.
Because of the preaching character of that first text, it seems only fitting that Bach doesn’t set this as a chorus, but as a tenor aria, as if to better scold the congregation. The use of two flutes (in the alto aria) is unusual for a cantata, and makes me think of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach must have wanted to stress the loveliness of the text in that aria. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists in this performance are Monika Mauch, soprano; Jan Börner, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Markus Volpert, Bass.
Find the texts & translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
Wieneke Gorter, September 5, 2020.
A little more about the painting:
At a distance, on the left, behind a tree, we see the Levite retreating. Still further away, reading a book, is the priest. This is the only known work of this painter, Balthasar van Cortbemde. It was most probably commissioned by the guild of surgeons in Antwerp in 1647, because it was displayed in their Chamber from 1647 to 1798. It became property of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in 1810.
*to learn more about Bach’s series of chorale cantatas, start reading here
**we don’t know if the missing cantatas were composed but then were lost, or if they were simply never composed because Bach started to focus on other things.