Trombones and altos from heaven (a guide to BWV 2)


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Ceiling painting installed around 1700 in Christian V’s Hall in Rosenborg Castle, Denmark. Possibly by Reinhold Timm, ca. 1620, originally for for a music pavilion in Kongens Have. *

Yesterday, Wednesday March 25, 2020, the J.S. Bach Foundation published their live video recording of Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Please God, look down from Heaven) on their YouTube channel. I thought it might be nice to provide a listening guide to go with this performance.

I love this cantata because it has trombones in the orchestra, doubling the choir parts, and because the altos have the cantus firmus (=they sing the chorale melody in long notes) in the opening chorus, which sounds incredibly good, and is unique within Bach’s writing.

Find the video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists are Alex Potter, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; and Markus Volpert, bass.

Find the German texts with English translations here, and the full score here.

This cantata was the second in Bach’s 1724 series of Chorale Cantatas. He most probably intended for the first four cantatas in that series to form a set, or at least to present some kind of order,  if you look at the composition form of the opening movement, and which voice has the cantus firmus of the chorale tune in that chorus:

  1. Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano (find my blog post about this cantata here)
  2. Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto (the cantata discussed here)
  3. Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor. (find my blog post about this cantata here)
  4. Cantata 135 : Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder: Chorale fantasia, cantus firmus in bass. (find my blog post about this cantata here)

We know that Bach liked to use order and symmetry when he wanted to impress other people with a composition. But perhaps he was also thinking of his legacy. When he started composing cantatas at the Weimar court in 1714, albeit on a monthly instead of weekly basis, his first four cantatas formed a similar portfolio of composition styles in the opening choral movements:

  1. Cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen: Choral fugue
  2. Cantata 12 Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen: Passacaglia
  3. Cantata 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!: Concerto
  4. Cantata 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis: Motet.

Back to this Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Please God, look down from Heaven), and what to listen for.

Opening chorus:

The chorale, based on Psalm 12, is by Luther. For an idea what Luther’s original song would have sounded like, you can watch this video. For readers who understand German: Eduard van Hengel’s website (in Dutch) has a very insightful overview of the original German text of Psalm 12, the text of Luther’s chorale, and how Bach’s librettist changed that into the text for the cantata.  You can find it here.

Whenever Bach uses a chorale by Luther in a cantata, he often demonstrates his reverence for the father of his faith by using the archaic form of chorale motet as opening chorus combined with the equally archaic trombone quartet (1 cornetto and 3 trombones) to double the choir parts.

Giving the cantus firmus to the altos is however not something Bach does very often. If only he had! In this case it is especially wonderfully orchestrated, with doubling by one trombone, two oboes, and all second violins. Both on this video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation as well on the Herreweghe audio recording I recommended back in 2017, Alex Potter’s voice significantly enhances this winning blend of alto voices and instruments, and on this J.S. Bach Foundation video recording he also sings the beautiful alto aria. It definitely made my day yesterday.

Alto aria:

Bach alto and tenor arias are at their prettiest, I find, when they are written as a trio sonata, and the alto aria Tilg, o Gott in this cantata is a beautiful example of that. Wonderful singing and playing by alto Alex Potter and violinist Renate Steinmann. The aria is a plea for help in fighting the “Rottengeister,” or the sectarians amidst the Lutherans. When the alto starts singing the word “Rottengeistern,” we realize we had heard this word already many times in the triplets of the violin part. As Eduard van Hengel says, it is the “popular easy talk of the sectarians, and that is also the reason why the other two parts don’t have this motive” [to further illustrate the schism].

Bass recitative:

Definitely keep the text & translations handy for this one, because this movement contains a wealth of text illustrations in the music. On the word Armen  (the poor) sounds a sorrowful diminished seventh, the word seufzend (sighing) has a rest/sigh in the middle of the word, and more such things happening on the words Ach (sighing) and Klagen (complaining). In contrast to this, a few lines later, the chord on the word Gott (God) sounds open and liberating, after which God himself gets to speak, and the music turns to an arioso (similarly to how Bach does that in his much earlier Cantata 18 when God speaks). At the word heller Sonnenschein (bright sunshine) the light gets turned on in the music too: the harmony changes to C Major.

Tenor aria:

Here we have arrived at the solution/salvation part of the cantata, and so this music is more pleasant, easier to listen to. But Bach is still preaching: there are some crossing (!) lines in the music, and in the middle section, which tells the listeners to be patient (sei geduldig) and Bach stresses the words Kreuz und Not.

With many thanks to Eduard van Hengel and Rudolf Lutz for their explanations of this cantata,

Wieneke Gorter, March 26, 2020.

*more information about this painting and the other objects in Christian V’s Hall in Rosenborg Castle can be found here.

Community and Creativity


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My front window, creation by my daughter. It is one of 28 rainbows created in the span of one day on our street in the San Francisco Bay Area, after a neighbor with young children made a request by email in the morning, so they could go on a “rainbow hunt” in the afternoon

Hello dear readers all over the world. I wanted to share a bit more than my quick message of Saturday. All of a sudden most of us are in the same boat: sheltering in place or on full lockdown. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are now on day 7 of “shelter in place”, and starting week 2 of school closures.

While I’m sad, frustrated, and stressed out on a regular basis, I have also felt extremely comforted and very inspired this past week by expressions of beautiful community and wonderful creativity that have come out of this crisis already.

I’ve seen neighborhoods come together to identify who needs help and who can help; I’ve felt how uplifting it can be to share “silver linings” in a private Facebook group; I’ve experienced the power of a Zoom video conference meeting with a group of people who normally gather in person. Even if you can’t physically be in the same room with your classmates, members of your yoga studio, or extended family, it is actually extremely calming for the nervous system to see and hear people you know, and to be there for each other.

In the spirit of community and creativity, I’d love to share the video created by the Malaysia Bach Festival last week: they assembled videos of different people all over the world, singing and playing the chorale “Befiehl du deine Wege” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and combined it into one video. You can find that video here. Keep your tissues handy.

In case you would like to sing along, you can find the PDF of this chorale here.

Wieneke Gorter, March 23, 2020.

Virtual walk through Bach's Leipzig on his 335th Birthday

In honor of Bach’s 335th Birthday today, the Bach Archives in Leipzig created this wonderful online tool. You can do a virtual walk through Bach’s Leipzig. If you happen to have cardboard VR glasses in your house, you can explore Bach’s Leipzig even deeper by using the VR function of your smartphone.

In the coming weeks, whenever I find the time, I’ll be sharing live video performances to watch online, with some extra information whenever I can.

In the meantime, the links from my previous two posts, with a different live performance of the St. John Passion in each, are still available online.

Wieneke Gorter, March 21, 2020.

One more St. John Passion to watch today, available until April 13, 2020


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Pilate washing his hands by Bernhard Strigel, circa 1500. The Walters Museum, Baltimore, USA.

Another St. John Passion to watch today! Available until April 13, 2020: Collegium Vocale Gent’s / Herreweghe’s dress rehearsal of the St. John Passion from Bruges, March 13.

After this rehearsal, their entire St. John tour as well as St. Matthew tour was canceled. For Baroque musicians in Europe, this time of year, with the Bach passions, is when they earn most of their money. The link to the video also includes info on how to donate to Collegium Vocale Gent, who will make sure the money is divided equally over the musicians who are otherwise not getting paid for this long period.

This starts with French text on the website, but rest is in English.

Julian Prégardien, tenor-evangelist
Krezimir Strazanac, bass-Christ
Dorothee Mields, soprano
Alex Potter, countertenor
Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor
Peter Kooij, bass

Romina Lischka, viola da gamba

Find the German texts with English translations here, and the score, in two parts: part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Again, I urge you to support all musicians suffering enormous loss of income during this difficult time. Donate at least the money you would otherwise have spent on tickets to their performances, but if you can, give more. Take care of each other, please take social distancing seriously, keep going for walks if allowed, check in on your elderly neighbors, and wash. your. hands.

Wieneke Gorter, March 15, 2020, updated March 21, 2020.

Bach Collegium Japan’s St. John Passion live-stream of March 15, 2020


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Pilate washing his hands by Hendrick ter Brugghen, circa 1617. Lublin Museum, Poland.

Bach Collegium Japan’s live stream from March 15, 2020 is still available online. You can find it here:

with Aki Matsui, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor (Evangelist); Zachary Wilder, tenor (arias); and Christian Immler, bass.

Aki Matsui replaced Hana Blazikova, who had to return that morning to her home in the Czech Republic, before that country would close its borders.

Already 1/3 into their European tour with Bach’s Passion according to St. John, Bach Collegium Japan was faced with cancellations due to European countries trying to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. With a live stream from Cologne, Germany, already on their schedule, they decided to go ahead with the live-stream, without audience, and stay in Cologne for a few more days, and record a CD of the St. John Passion there for BIS records.

Via the same link, you can also download the PDF of the German-language program book for this performance.

Find the German texts with English translations here, and the score, in two parts: part 1 here, and part 2 here.

I urge you to support all musicians suffering enormous loss of income during this difficult time. Donate at least the money you would otherwise have spent on tickets to their performances, but if you can, give more. Take care of each other, please take social distancing seriously, keep going for walks if allowed, check in on your elderly neighbors, and wash. your. hands.

Also: please realize that these musicians were already on tour, but at this point, please don’t copy their idea, and keep your musicians and staff safe by letting them stay home and practice true social distancing.

Wieneke Gorter, March 15, 2020, updated March 21, 2020.

Memorable for at least 47 days. Leave it to Alex Potter.


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Between Estomihi Sunday (or the last Sunday before Lent) and Good Friday, there were 47 days in 1729. During that entire time the Leipzig congregations would hear no music in the churches, except for chorales. So Bach’s last music had to be as memorable as possible, had to give them hope, and ideally also prepare them for the St. Matthew Passion they would get to hear on Good Friday.

Bach successfully checked all these boxes with Cantata 159 Sehet! wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem. And leave it to alto Alex Potter to bring all this out in a performance. Opera-like drama, heart-breaking emotion, the promise of hope and redemption, it is all there in his singing, and in that voice with the beautiful variety of colors.

Listen to / watch the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soprano: Miriam Feuersinger; Alto: Alex Potter; Tenor: Thomas Hobbs; Bass: Stephan MacLeod. Read some comments by Alex Potter on this cantata here on the AllofBach website. Find the German texts with English translations here.

The Herreweghe recording deserves a mention here too. Dorothee Mields’ singing in the duet with Matthew White is very moving, and Peter Kooij’s interpretation of the bass aria “Es ist vollbracht” on this recording is unrivaled. Find that recording here on YouTube, but better yet, support the artists and purchase the entire album Jesu, deine Passion here on Amazon or here on iTunes. It contains all four cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday, and they are all excellent. Read more about Cantatas 127, 22, and 23 in my blogpost from 2018 here.

Wieneke Gorter, February 22, 2020.

Pelting rain, growing crops, it is the low instruments that do it


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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.

Bach looking back (Belated 2nd Sunday after Epiphany)


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Wedding at Cana by Duccio di Buoninsegna, tempera on wood, between 1308 and 1311. Museo dell’ Opera dell’ Duomo, Siena, Italy. The “scene” from this story that Bach and his librettists prefer to focus on in all his cantatas for this Sunday, is also illustrated here: Jesus telling his anxious mother “Mine hour is not yet come.”

Two weeks ago I ran out of time writing this post, but I had discovered so much about Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen (1726), that I would still very much like to share that cantata here. So I hope you don’t mind going back in time a little bit, to the Second Sunday after Epiphany, which fell on January 19 this year (2020), and on January 20 in 1726.

Before I prepare a new post, I always like to revisit previous posts I wrote about this same Sunday, and listen to those cantatas again. And it always thrills me when during this process I discover that Bach must have done this too: going back, either in his memory or in the physical stack of manuscripts, to the music he previously wrote for this same Sunday. Sometimes I only get a feeling that he did this, but other times, there’s an obvious quote either in the text or in the music.

This time I was excited to find Bach quoting music from Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? in Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen. Bach had written Cantata 155 already in Weimar in 1716, but performed it again in Leipzig in 1724, also on the Second Sunday after Epiphany.

I invite you to listen to/watch the wonderful alto-tenor duet with bassoon from Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? here, in a performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with alto Margot Oitzinger and tenor Julius Pfeifer. Note this theme in the voices:

After that duet is over, I would suggest turning off that recording for now. *

Now listen to/watch the entire recording of Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, also by the J.S. Bach Foundation here, with soprano Susanne Seitter, alto Jan Börner, tenor Jakob Pilgram, and bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich.

Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here. Please note that the English translation of the bass aria’s first line is incorrect: the translation of the German word “Sorgen” should be “worries” or “worrying”, not “care.” The correct translation is something like this:

Groaning and pitiful weeping
are no help to the sickness of worrying

Pay attention to the recorder parts in the opening movement. The music has a slower tempo, and a more drawn out rhythm, but the theme is the same as in that duet from Cantata 155 you just heard:

There is more in this opening chorus of Cantata 13 that gives us a peek into Bach’s referencing process. Bach often uses recorders to introduce sorrow. Early in his career he had done this in the opening movements of Cantata 106 Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (written in 1707) and Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde (1716). Even during his first year in Leipzig, in 1723, he used this “tool” in the opening chorus of Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei (which would later form the basis for the Qui tollis from the Mass in B minor). And while from the mid 1720s most Baroque composers, including Bach himself, favored the more fashionable French transverse flutes over recorders, Bach still uses recorders to illustrate impending sorrow or death’s slumber in his Easter Oratorio (1725) and his St. Matthew Passion (1727). Click on the links to hear/watch recordings of all these examples on YouTube. Names of performers in all these are listed at the very end of this post.**

If, after listening to / watching Cantata 13 in its entirety, you are wondering why Bach’s illustration of a miracle (Jesus turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana) is so incredibly sorrowful, read my blog post about Cantata 3 here.

Wieneke Gorter, January 31, 2020.

* read my blog post about Cantata 155, which now includes a link to the J.S. Bach Foundation recording, here.

** Performers in the YouTube recordings of cantata/oratorio movements with recorders are:

Opening movement of Cantata 106: Netherlands Bach Society; Jos van Veldhoven, conductor; Heiko ter Schegget and Benny Aghassi, recorders; Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass.

Opening movement of Cantata 161: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; Bart Coen and Koen Dieltiens, recorders; Matthew White, alto; Herman Stinders, organ.

Opening movement of Cantata 46: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Live recording from the Festival of Saintes, France, July 15, 2013. Recorder players not specified.

Tenor aria “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” from Easter Oratorio, BWV 249: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Mark Padmore, tenor.

Tenor recitative with choir “O Schmerz, hier zittert das gequälte Herz” from St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Colin Balzer, tenor.

Four cantatas to choose from

For this Sunday, the third after Epiphany, Bach wrote four cantatas, and I’ve written about all four of them already in previous years. I’ve updated the links to the recordings in all the posts. You can find them here:

Cantatas 72 and 73, favorite recordings by Bach Collegium Japan and Herreweghe:

Cantata 156, favorite recording by American Bach Soloists:

Cantata 111, despite many newer ones, my favorite recording still Harnoncourt:

Wieneke Gorter, January 25, 2020

First Sunday after Epiphany, first three years in Leipzig

Jesus among the Doctors, by Quinten Matsijs (1456/1466-1530), oil on canvas, created 1509-1511. National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Portugal.

For this Sunday, the first after Epiphany, Bach wrote a new cantata every year during his first three years in Leipzig. All three cantatas are beautiful, and all three are more or less based on the story of Mary and Joseph dealing with the angst of not being able to find their 12-year-old son.

Whether you’d like to learn about all the different ways Bach illustrates this story in his writing, or just listen to the beautiful music, or see how Veronese or Dürer painted this subject, you can find it all in two previous posts on this blog. In 2016 I wrote about Cantata 154 from 1724 and Cantata 32 from 1726. In 2018 I wrote about Cantata 124 from 1725. I’ve updated all the links for recordings in all those posts, so it should all work, and these are all great cantatas. Happy listening!

Wieneke Gorter, January 11, 2020.