As far as we know, Bach wrote two cantatas for this Sunday, the third after Trinity: Cantata 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis and Cantata 135 Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder.
Read my post from 2017 about Cantata 135 here. Since I wrote that post, a beautiful live video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation has been released on YouTube. Find it here.
But now about Cantata 21. It is one of Bach’s most well-known cantatas and it gets programmed often because it features several exciting choruses. The version most of us know is with three soloists: a soprano, a tenor, and a bass. Bach first wrote it like that in Weimar and later performed a similar version in Leipzig in 1723, as part of his first year there. However, in 1720, he created a different version, which he performed in Köthen as well as in Hamburg. It is likely that this version was created for a special soprano soloist (possibly Anna Magdalena?), because in this version, Bach assigns all three tenor solos to the soprano as well, thus featuring the soprano in every solo movement. The bass joins her for two duets.
It turns out that the J.S. Bach Foundation decided to perform this 1720 version for their live video series, with soprano Dorothee Mields and bass Peter Kooij. If I had been at that concert in person, I would have joined the whooping and clapping at the end, because it is an outstanding performance by both soloists but also by the chorus. I only discovered this video recording by accident tonight. I had completely missed it when it was released earlier this month. I meant to write a very short blog post today, quickly giving you some links to previous posts and then go to sleep, but I was completely mesmerized by Dorothee Mields’ singing and was unable to close my computer.
In my post from 2016 about Cantata 21, I show how similar the duet from this cantata is to the duet from Cantata 172 (also written in Weimar). When I watched the J.S. Bach Foundation video of Cantata 21 and witnessed Mields’ art of being in sync with her duet partner, I remembered there’s another wonderful video I have wanted to share. It is Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter singing the duet from Cantata 172 in this video by the Bach Akademie Stuttgart that came out at the end of May. I enjoy very much how sensitive Mields and Potter both are to the music and the text, and how beautifully and naturally their voices move together.
A little over 22 years ago, my husband and I moved from the Netherlands to California. My husband is a Jazz bass player in his spare time, so for him the music was another aspect to “living in Paradise.” There are many more Jazz performances and festivals here than in Europe, and there are lots of people here to do jam sessions with.
But for me it was a different story. I found a wonderful voice teacher and a good choir to sing in, but I missed the strong Dutch tradition of hearing and performing Bach’s Passions in the weeks before Easter. I used to have my biggest bouts of homesickness around that time of year. The heartache was softened only by it being my most favorite blooming season in California: the few weeks when two native trees, the purple Western Redbud (Cercis Occidentalis) and the blue-violet wild lilac (Ceanothus) bloom at the same time. The photos here don’t really capture how beautiful those colors are and how stunning it is when you see them together in the landscape, but it is something that makes me very happy.
Last year I didn’t have any homesickness, because all Passions in the Netherlands or Belgium I could have attended or participated in were canceled, so I didn’t feel I was missing anything. And while the world locked down, at the same time it became more accessible to me, because performances were now being moved to the internet. This meant I could watch the dress rehearsal of Herreweghe’s St. John Passion without the 11-hour plane ride or the struggle with jet lag. (That video registration is still available: find it here – scroll a bit down to where it says “Passions 2020”).
This year there were so many online St. Matthew or St. John Passion offerings from the Netherlands it was almost overwhelming. I didn’t have time to listen to all of them before writing this today, because most of the videos didn’t go live until yesterday, Good Friday. So I’ll just focus on a few that stood out to me.
Find the English translations of the St. John Passion here; the St. Matthew Passion here.
In the category “most interactive creation” I would like to mention the St. John Passion by Zing als vanZelf. An initiative of online singing instructor Bert van de Wetering, this organization invited thousands of singers to record themselves singing the chorales at home in the weeks leading up to Good Friday. They then recorded a performance with professional soloists singing the arias and the choruses with the excellent Combattimento Consort (Cynthia Miller Freivogel, concertmaster) as the orchestra, this all under the direction of Pieter Dirksen. Then they edited all this together into a video where you see the performance from a pretty church in a small town in the Netherlands, but every time there is a chorale you see the “choir” of individual volunteer singers pieced together on the screen. A really clever and touching solution. Watch it here. If you enjoy it, please consider making a donation, similar to what you would have paid if you would have attended this in person. The link for that is right there under the video.
For readers who understand Dutch and would like to learn more about the St. Matthew Passion, I highly recommend the video program from the organization that every year brings performances of this masterpiece to the beautiful Bergkerk in the city of Deventer. This year they recorded four arias from the St. Matthew Passion, in the order they appear in the second half of the work: “Erbarme dich” (sung by countertenor Maarten Engeltjes), “Aus Liebe” (sung by soprano Renate Arends), “Komm, süßes Kreuz” (sung by bass Florian Just), and “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (sung by bass Marc Pantus). What I liked best about this video is the conversations director Klaas Stok has with each soloist before they sing their aria. Through these conversations, I gained a lot of new insights into the meaning of the different arias. I especially loved what Klaas Stok had to say about the architecture of the piece, the role each aria plays in the overall structure, and how different movements are connected. Of all the talks, I particularly enjoyed bass Marc Pantus’ take on “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,” the final aria on the program. You can watch this until April 14. Just click here. But please note, it is all in Dutch. Again, a link to donate is right there under the video.
Last but not least, the most impressive performance I listened to yesterday and today: The St. John Passion (1725 version) by the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of René Jacobs. This was shown on Dutch television on Good Friday, so if you don’t understand Dutch, you’ll have to sit through a confusing excerpt from the St. Matthew Passion and a few ads at first, but then you can forward the video 14 minutes, to skip the pre-concert interview with René Jacobs. Soloists are Daniel Johannsen, tenor (Evangelist); Johannes Kammler, bass (Christ); Robin Johannsen, soprano; Alberto Miguélez Rouco, countertenor; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Arttu Kataja, bass. There is so much fluidity and phrasing in the orchestra, such a good blend in the choir, as well as excellent enunciation from the choir, it is extraordinary. All the choral movements are extremely transparent, I enjoyed that very much. Jacobs takes some risks with considerably slower tempi in the chorales than is usual in the Historical Performance Practice world, stretching out the pauses in the Evangelist’s recitatives, and taking long fermatas on ending notes, but it is never old-fashioned or too Romantic. It makes for a very engaging, one of a kind performance. All soloists are wonderful, but I would like to give a shout-out to the two tenors: Daniel Johannsen for being an excellent Evangelist, and Thomas Hobbs for his fabulous “Zerschmettert mich” aria (one of the arias that is not in the better known, 1724 version). Donate to the Netherlands Bach Society here.
If you don’t feel like listening to any Passion music anymore, please find my three Easter blog posts from previous years through the following links:
On January 31, 2021, Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent performed three cantatas at the beautiful concert hall “De Singel” in Antwerp, Belgium. In my humble opinion, this was a very moving and inspired performance, and my hat is off to everyone on stage, that they were able to find this energy and inspiration in Bach’s music, in the texts, and in making music together, because they were performing without an audience. Please find the live video recording here on YouTube. Soloists are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Guy Cutting, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
I provide a bit of a review and a bit of a listening guide here, with links to my blog posts from previous years about these three cantatas. I did not grow up with any of these cantatas, they weren’t part of the repertoire my mother played on the turntable at home. I learned about them in the process of doing research and writing for this blog (and through other people, in the case of Cantata 127).
Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott
This cantata, written for today, the last Sunday before Lent, is a great choice for the start of a concert, because it immediately grabs you and draws you in. I already hold a special place in my heart for this music because of the soprano aria (beautifully sung here by Dorothee Mields) being performed at my mother’s funeral service in The Hague in 2010. But even without that, the work is in my all-time top 10. And I am not alone: Bach biographer Spitta called it “perhaps the most important” cantata, and it received “the most beautiful” qualification by Arnold Schering as well as Ton Koopman.
The cantata is part of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of chorale cantatas, and compared to all previous compositions in that cycle, this opening chorus is the most complex and intricate. Click on the link at the end of this paragraph to read why. I love hearing Collegium Vocale sing this. Dorothee Mields and Peter Kooij are fabulous in their arias, and I enjoy hearing and watching tenor Guy Cutting sing. He’s a new star in the Herreweghe firmament. The soprano aria is of course stunning, but what about that bass aria? Whether a foreshadowing of the St. Matthew Passion or a dramatic end to the series of chorale cantatas, Bach had clearly made “studies” for it in his previous three cantatas of that year. Read all about it in my blog post from 2018.
Cantata 138 Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz
I am so happy with the video recording from January 31, because it eliminates a dilemma for me. When I first wrote about this cantata (written for the 15th Sunday after Trinity in 1723), I wasn’t able to choose between Herreweghe’s recordings from 1992 and 2013, but I feel the video recording from this year is the clear winner! I love the inspired singing by all four soloists, but find Alex Potter’s singing in this cantata especially stunning. In his recitative (starting at 26:23), the combination of his understanding of the text and what he can do with his voice moves me deeply. So much that when the choir basses then follow with their beautiful entrance, I am close to tears. If you feel I’m getting too sentimental here, don’t worry. My blog post from 2016 is about completely different things: a European children’s animation, a possible, “movie script scenario,” explanation of the relatively simple text in this cantata, and Bach’s recycling of the bass aria.
Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde
What a wonderful surprise that Herreweghe included this cantata (written for the 16th Sunday after Trinity but also for the Purification of Mary/Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which was February 2) in this program. It is such a beautiful and moving composition. In my blog post from this past fall I could only describe how in 2019, when programming the All Souls program for the Netherlands Bach Society, Alex Potter had the brilliant idea to combine the recorders from the Weimar version of this cantata with the sung chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End from the Leipzig version. What a delight to see that Herreweghe had adopted this exact idea for this performance in Antwerp, and that we can thus hear and see Alex Potter and Dorothee Mields perform this opening movement together. I love all the singing and playing in this cantata very much, but for me, the tenor aria can’t rival the magic of Shunske Sato accompanying Thomas Hobbs in those All Souls concerts by the Netherlands Bach Society in 2019 (as described here).
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. I continue to recommend La Festa Musicale’s beautiful series of Advent Chorales on YouTube. Their offering for this Sunday is Johann Crüger’s 1640 setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star). With an almost overwhelming number of performances appearing online over the past weeks, I really wanted to offer some new writing today. There is so much to tell about this particular chorale and all the ways Bach used it in his cantatas. And it helps that today is a rainy Sunday here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When Crüger wrote his setting in 1640, the chorale melody already existed. The chorale is generally attributed to Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), but the melody of Nicolai’s hymn might have been based on an existing hymn (with different text) from Wolff Köphel’s 1538 Psalter hymnal. Nicolai wrote the hymn in 1597, when the town where he preached was ravaged by the plague. During that time, as Eduard van Hengel suggests, Nicolai must have had to bury dozens of members of his congregation each day. He published it two years later, as part of a hymnal meant to provide comfort in those trying times, called Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebens (Mirror of Joy of the Life Everlasting). This publication also featured the famous Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls us).
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern was most likely a compelling chorale for Bach. He used it in many cantatas (see below), but the melody first appears in an organ work. In fact, the score of this organ fantasia on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 739) is the oldest surviving manuscript by Bach. Paper analysis has shown that the piece must have been notated between 1703 and 1709. (Thanks to the Netherlands Bach Society for providing this information on their website).
After that, in cantata movements, Bach would either use the original melody (Nicolai’s, see picture above), or Crüger’s version of it. The difference appears in the third line of text, and can be seen in this image, at superscript number 6. Green is Nicolai’s version, blue is Crüger’s.
In these two cantatas, Bach used Crüger’s version:
Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, written for the Annunciation of Mary, March 25, in 1725. It is one of my favorites because of the two French horns in the opening chorus. This was the last of Bach’s 1724/1725 continuous series of chorale cantatas, and to me, it communicates a similar Advent sparkle as Cantata 62 from that same series.* Per the standard format for these cantatas, Bach featured the first verse of the chorale in the opening movement, and the last verse in the final movement. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here. Soloists are Eva Oltiványi, soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; and Manuel Walser, bass. To understand why it might make sense that the theme of Advent is celebrated on the feast of the Annunciation, please find my blog post from 2018 about Cantata 1 here.
Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully up), an extra-long cantata in two parts, written for the first Sunday of Advent in 1731. The cantata was based on a secular cantata from 1725** but for this First Advent occasion, Bach included several movements based on two Advent chorales: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come now, Savior of the Gentiles) in the soprano-alto duet, the second tenor aria, and the closing chorale; and the sixth verse of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the chorale at the end of Part I of the cantata.
Bach used Nicolai’s version of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the following cantata movements, each time in a different way:
The penultimate movement of Cantata 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (Ring out, you songs, resound, you strings!) for Pentecost in 1714 (verse 4)
The closing chorus from Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland for the First Sunday of Advent in 1714 (last 4 lines of verse 7)
The chorale for soprano and alto (3rd movement) from Cantata BWV 37 Wer da gläubet und getauft wird (Whoever believes and is baptized) for the feast of Ascension in 1724 (verse 5)
As far as we know, Bach wrote only one cantata for this Third Sunday of Advent. It is the one listed in the BWV catalog as Cantata 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, first performed in Weimar on Sunday December 13, 1716. Read my blog post from 2016 and 2017 about this cantata here.
Wieneke Gorter, December 13, 2020.
*Find my first blog post about Cantata 62 here and a more detailed explanation of how it fits into the series of chorale cantatas here.
**Read more about the history of Cantata 36 in my post from 2017 here.
Hello everyone. I hope you are all safe and well. Thank you for reading this blog, and a warm welcome to all of you who started following recently. Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday:
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.
In Leipzig, in 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 62 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. My most recent writing about this cantata is from last week, not for this blog, but for that of California Bach Society. Find it here.
Since the release of Herreweghe’s recording in 1997 I have been in love with the opening chorus of Cantata 62. For me, nothing says “Christmas is coming” more strongly to me than this music. And yes, Bach wrote two Advent cantatas with the same title. You better not mix them up when you have been engaged to sing the bass solos. Read a story about that here. If you would like to learn more about this opening chorus, or even sing along to it yourself, I encourage you to sign up for California Bach Society’s free workshop on this cantata this coming Saturday, December 5, at 11 am Pacific Time, on Zoom.
In 1731, Bach transformed a secular birthday cantata from 1725 into Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor. Read about it here. My favorite interpretation of the soprano aria is by Nuria Rial. I first heard Nuria Rial sing on the German radio station WDR3, exactly one month after my mother passed away in 2010. I was staying at my parents’ house in the Netherlands with my kids. My mother had always preferred the German classical music station over the Dutch one, especially for their Early music programming, so WDR3 was pre-programmed into my parents’ fancy equipment. The radio host played a piece from this album, and I was mesmerized. After it was over I went on Facebook and told all my singer friends (that’s why I still know what day it was). But I didn’t find out about her live recording of the soprano aria from Cantata 36 with the J.S. Bach Foundation until 2014.
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.
Update from 2021: there now is an extremely inspired Herreweghe recording with Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter singing this opening movement together, i.e. Herreweghe adopting Potter’s idea from 2019. I was so happy to see this. It was recorded live at De Singel in Antwerp on Sunday January 31, 2021 (during the Covid19 pandemic, so without audience). Find it here.
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, updated February 13, 2021.
* 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.
The reading for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax Collector) from the Gospel of Luke. In the parable, these two men come into the temple to pray around the same time, but talk to God in very different ways. While the Pharisee puts on a fake show about how good he is, the tax collector is very humble, “wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven” and asks for forgiveness.
“There’s something with this Sunday,” I wrote three years ago, and I still feel that way when I listen to the cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723 and 1724.
In 1723, his first year in Leipzig, Bach performed two cantatas on this Sunday: Cantata 179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht kein Heuchelei sei(See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy) before the sermon, and his solo cantata for soprano Cantata 199 Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut (from his early years in Weimar) afterwards. Cantata 199 is only loosely related to the Gospel story, and was probably never written with this story in mind. Because of its multi-layered history and the many different recordings, I will discuss that composition some other time.
Cantata 179 focuses on the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and just like cantatas 46 and 102 I discussed last week, it must have been one of Bach’s own favorites, because he re-used three movements in later works. Read all about it in my post from 2016, which I have updated with better images and new video links.
In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, which, surprise, surprise, focuses on the Publican asking for mercy. The only recording that does this cantata justice and gives me the good kind of stomachache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan. Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s singing is outstanding, and Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music, which is–judging from a lot of other recordings–not an easy thing to do. I updated my blog post from 2017 with all the correct links to stream or purchase this recording. Please find it here.
In John 16:20, Jesus announces to his disciples that he is going to leave them, and that they will go through a period of hardship during which the rest of the world will mock them. For this 3rd Sunday after Easter, this is the story on which Bach and his librettists had to base their cantatas.
In 1714 in Weimar, Bach made this into a true lament, that he would later rewrite into the Crucifixus of his Mass in B Minor: Cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.
The librettist of this cantata (and of all other cantatas Bach wrote in Weimar) was Salomo Franck, librarian to the Duke of Weimar. Franck very cleverly portrays the “sorrow to joy”-theme of this cantata. The alto aria is a good example: after the Gospel quote in the recitative “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal” (we have to go through tribulation) comes an upbeat aria illuminating how “Kreuz und Krone” (cross and crown) and “Kampf and Kleinod” (conflict and jewel) are always connected.
While I love everything about this cantata, my absolute favorite part is the tenor aria Sei getreu. Find out why in my blog post from 2016, where you can also find links to my favorite recordings of this cantata.
Most of the texts Bach had to work with in Leipzig were not nearly as good as Franck’s libretti. But there arguably was one exception: in 1725, between Easter and Pentecost, Bach set nine cantatas in a row to beautiful poetry by Christiane Mariana von Ziegler. Von Ziegler was a single woman who had known much sadness in her life already: her father was in prison, she was twice widowed, and had also lost all her four children. However, her family fortune was still intact and at her disposal, and the sad circumstances meant that she didn’t have to answer to a father or a husband. She thus enjoyed much more freedom than any other woman in Leipzig at the time, and could publish under her own name.
For the third Sunday in 1725, Bach wrote Cantata 103: Ihr werdet weinen und heulen on a libretto by Von Ziegler. This cantata also starts out very sad, but there is much “Freude” (joy) in the music. A sopranino recorder illustrates the “mocking” Jesus predicted, or does it? Read it all in my blog post from 2018, which also includes a link to the excellent introduction to this cantata (now with English subtitles!) by Rudolf Lutz of the J.S. Bach Foundation in Switzerland.
We’re on Day 20 of “shelter in place” here in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re counting our blessings, trying to figure out how we can be most helpful to others while also taking good care of ourselves, and trying to wean ourselves off spending too much time on social media. I definitely need my “church” of regular check-ins with family and friends, daily mindfulness exercises, and lots of yoga classes to stay sane through all of this.
Back to Bach’s church. Today is Palm Sunday! Bach never officially wrote a cantata for this Sunday, since no music was to be performed in the churches during Lent. However, in 1714, Palm Sunday fell on the same day as the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, March 25. This way, while specifying “for the feast of the Annunciation of Mary” on the title page of the cantata manuscript, Bach could still write music for Palm Sunday with cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen! (Welcome, King of Heaven!)
If you’re not in the mood for a long story and would just like to listen to a short piece of calming music, I recommend the live performance of the opening sinfonia of this cantata on the YouTube channel of Voices of Music, with two fabulous soloists: Hanneke van Proosdij on recorder and Rachel Podger on violin. You can find that video here.
Many of Bach’s Weimar cantatas start with an elaborate instrumental ouverture or sinfonia.* There are two possible reasons for this. First of all, it was in Weimar that Bach studied lots of French and Italian compositions, and he might have wanted to “show off” that he could also write such a fashionable ouverture. But there might have also been a more practical reason: such an opening movement was the perfect piece of music during which the Duke and his entourage would slowly walk into the chapel and take their seats, and not miss anything of the cantata itself.
For the entire cantata, my all-time favorite still is the recording by Montreal Baroque. Listen here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. Their one-on-a-part performance is similar to how this would have sounded from the small organ loft in Weimar, and features fabulous singing all around (soprano Monika Mauch, countertenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, bass Harry van der Kamp).
Find the text of cantata 182 here, and the score here.
If you would like to learn more about Bach’s time in Weimar, please visit my post about Bach in Weimar I wrote in 2016. I’ve just updated it with some new photos, including a picture of the organ loft, and it has all the same links for the recording, text, and score as mentioned here.
In Leipzig in 1724, Bach performed this cantata again, on the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, which that year fell eight days before Palm Sunday.
Finally I get to write about Cantata 18 Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (“the same way rain and snow falls from heaven”), which Bach wrote for this Sunday (Sexagesima, or the 2nd Sunday before Lent) in Weimar in 1713 or 1714. I don’t remember this cantata from my childhood, but have been impressed with it since I purchased the American Bach Soloists’ CD in 2010.
Find the German text with English translations here, and the NBA score here (Neue Bach Ausgabe score, based on the original Weimar score, the same one used by the American Bach Soloists, without recorders in the orchestra).
There is so much happening in this cantata that I could write two or three blog posts about it. To start, I’d like to share three recordings that stand out to me.
My first love of this Cantata 18, the American Bach Soloists’ recording from 1994, can be found here on Spotify. Or purchase the CD or MP3 on Amazon USA, or on Amazon DE, or on iTunes. Soloists are: Julianne Baird, soprano; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor; James Weaver, bass. Violas: Anthony Marin, Lisa Grodin, Sally Butt, George Thomson; Violoncello: Warren Stewart; Bassoon: Andrew Schwartz; Archlute: Michael Eagan; Organ: John Butt.
Director Jeffrey Thomas chooses a slower tempo for the opening sinfonia than most others, which I like. It makes the music more dramatic, and it allows the instrumentalists to paint a truly cold, wintry rain, completely appropriate for this time of year in Germany. The sound of the four violas together is wonderful throughout, and I love Julianne Baird’s singing of Luther’s “litany” in the third movement.
The next two recordings use a later* version of the score, with the addition of recorders in the orchestra.
I highly recommend the recording by Ricercar Consort from 2004, available here on YouTube. With: Katharine Fuge (Soprano); Jan Kobow (Tenor); Stephan MacLeod (Bass); François Fernandez (Viola); Luis Otavio Santos (Viola); Philippe Pierlot (Viola da gamba); Kaori Uemura (Viola da gamba); Ageet Zweistra (Violoncello); Kees Boeke (Recorder); Gaëlle Lecoq (Recorder); Josep Borras I Rocca (Bassoon); Michele Zeoll (Double-bass); Francis Jacob (Organ).
What I like about this recording: the orchestration with two violas and two viola da gambas instead of four violas. The bass instruments do an absolutely fabulous and unrivaled job of bringing out Bach’s illustration of the text “und macht sie fruchtbar und wachsend” (and make it fruitful and fertile) in the second movement. You can truly hear plants growing and blossoming there. And bass Stephan MacLeod, whose singing I usually appreciate much more in Renaissance music than in Bach, is superb in that second movement. His voice is a beautiful “Voice of God” in the text from Isaiah 55: 10-12.
Final recommendation, for now: the live video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2009, available here on YouTube. With: Núria Rial, soprano; Makoto Sakurada; tenor; Dominik Wörner, bass; Recorders: Armelle Plantier, Gaëlle Volet; Bassoon: Nikolaus Broda; Violas: Susanna Hefti, Renate Steinmann, Martina Bischof, Joanna Bilger; Violoncello: Maya Amrein; Violone: Iris Finkbeiner; Organ: Norbert Zeilberger
What I enjoy most about this recording is Nuria Rial’s singing of the soprano aria (the fourth movement). The aria is incredibly difficult, but, as always, she makes it seem effortless, and her “Fort mit allen, fort, nur fort!” is the best of all recordings I have listened to. I also enjoy the choir sopranos’ singing of the “litany” in the third movement, and the mere fact that you can watch everyone make music, since this is a live video recording.
If you would like to read about another cantata for this Sunday, find my post about Cantata 126 here. Bach wrote that cantata also for Sexagesima Sunday, in 1725.
Wieneke Gorter, February 16, 2020.
*from 1724 in Leipzig, when Bach performed this cantata again.