Light in Dark Times (and a compelling melody for Bach)

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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)
  • The aria for bass with chorale for soprano (6th movement) from Cantata 49 Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen for the 20th Sunday after Trinity in 1726 (verse 7)

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.

Advent Goodies, Part I

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Today is the Second Sunday of Advent

Again this blog has several new followers this week. Welcome!

If you joined after December 2019, you might like to read my post about the Second Sunday of Advent here. Also, today, December 6, Nikolaus Harnoncourt would have turned 91. His recordings, his cello playing, and his conducting were a great source of inspiration to my mother. Read more about that here.

For those of you who have been following this blog for a while, I have two beautiful new recordings for you today. They are not by Bach, because Bach wrote only one cantata for this Sunday. But they do give an idea of the chorales that would have been sung in the Leipzig churches during the sober, cantata-free time between the First Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day. (Though they wouldn’t have been accompanied by the pretty instruments featured in the videos I’m sharing here.)

The German ensemble La Festa Musicale has created four videos, one for each Sunday in Advent, each featuring an Advent chorale by Johann Crüger (1598-1662). They have been releasing one video per week. Start with Wie soll ich dich empfangen (O Lord, how shall I meet Thee), in a fabulous and very moving performance by Alex Potter. Then listen to Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come, Savior of the Gentiles). There are only two singers in this second one (soprano Magdalene Harer and countertenor Alex Potter), but in the final movement it sounds as if an entire choir is singing, thanks to instruments doubling the voice parts and excellent acoustics.

This was exactly the kind of music I needed this week. For me, this week, La Festa Musicale wins the Internet.

Wieneke Gorter, December 6, 2020

I didn’t create an Advent calendar this year, but the J.S. Bach Foundation has a nice one. You can find it here.

The First Sunday of Advent

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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.

Nuria Rial

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.

Wieneke Gorter, November 28, 2020

The Modern Cantata and the Water Cantata for the 24th Sunday after Trinity

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A Waterfall in a Rocky Landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael, probably 1660-70. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London, UK.

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.

Wieneke Gorter, November 22, 2020

Biden’s Aria

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Apollo and the Python by Cornelis de Vos, 1636 – 1638. Oil on Canvas, after a sketch by Rubens. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain (not on display).

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.

Wieneke Gorter, November 14, 2020

Consolation and creativity

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When I wrote this post three days ago, I had been feeling pretty sad. I missed connections, I was once again shocked by how people in this world can behave towards one another, and baffled as always by the lack of empathy shown by the leader of my adopted country and his enablers. So I wrote:

“A word, or token of consolation amidst all the suffering. Don’t we all need that this year, this month, this week? I do. Maybe Bach did too during this week in October 1724.”

This is still true of course, but over the past two days my spirits were lifted in such a way that it felt strange to just post my somewhat somber message from Thursday. So now I’m typing again on a Sunday when I really wanted to be done writing before the weekend 🙂

Over the past two days I was inspired by creativity in my family, in my neighborhood, and in photos I saw posted by friends in other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and the United States. It has to do with how many of us found new ways of celebrating Halloween. From contraptions for sliding candy down a rain gutter, outdoor movie screenings, extensive decorations in front yards and on front windows (so people just going for a walk would have something to look at), individually wrapped goody bags clipped to a laundry line, to treasure hunts for small groups, it was all there. And because of the email and text conversations with the neighbors beforehand, our family needing to work as a team for part of the day to execute our own plans, and my husband and I sitting by the fire pit in our front yard in the evening (to make sure our goody bags wouldn’t get swiped and to see some costumes), I think I felt a deeper connection to my community here than I have at some other times on this holiday.*

Back to Bach: my favorite cantata for this 21st Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir (Out of the depths I cry to Thee). In my post from 2017 I recommended Herreweghe’s recording, and I still prefer that one for Peter Kooij’s singing of the bass part in the penultimate movement. But for all the other movements, I’m quite taken by the interpretation of the J.S. Bach Foundation. Find it here on YouTube. Soloists are: Guro Hjemli, soprano; Ruth Sandhoff, alto; and Johannes Kaleschke, tenor.

Please find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.

It is the tenor aria that brings the consolation, in text as well as in music. On this recording this exquisite piece of chamber music is beautifully performed by Johannes Kaleschke, tenor, and Meike Güldenhaupt and Gilles Vanssons, oboes.

To read more about this cantata in the context of Bach’s reverence for Martin Luther (just as this year, in 1724 Reformation Day, October 31, almost coincided with the 21st Sunday after Trinity), and understand why there are four trombones standing amidst the choir, find my blog post from 2017 here. In that post, I compare the opening chorus of this cantata with the one from Cantata 2, which is for a different Sunday, but also celebrates a chorale by Luther. Since 2017, the J.S. Bach Foundation has released a very compelling video registration of that cantata as well. Find my listening guide for that specific recording here.

Wieneke Gorter, November 1, 2020.

*Last year I wasn’t even in California on Halloween, but attending concerts in the Netherlands. Read about that here and here.

Getting all Dressed Up in the Opening Chorus.

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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.

A new photo and a new video (BWV 48 and 5 for Trinity 19)

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Fresco’s in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy, by Masolino, 1424-25. One of the miracles pictured is The Healing of the Cripple, which was the Gospel story for the 19th Sunday after Trinity. Photo by the author.

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 The Healing 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 48 Ich 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.

Wieneke Gorter, October 17, 2020

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The debut of the “flauto piccolo” in a Leipzig cantata

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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 video by 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.

Wieneke Gorter, October 8, 2020

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Deeply moving arias and a new video of Cantata 114

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Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) in Leipzig

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 Cantata 148 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.

Marc Hantaï

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.

David Erler. Photo by Björn Kowalewsky

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 getrost with … 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.

©Wieneke Gorter, October 4, 2020.

Read more:

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.

Read more about my first countertenor loves here.