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.
Since January 2020, when I heard that Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent were recording BWV 45, 118, and 198 with my favorite soloists, I have been eager to listen to that new album, “Meins Lebens Licht.” The release date, March 19, is now almost here, and there are some excellent previews available that I would love to share today.
There is a wonderful “making of” video of this CD recording. Find it here. In this video, soprano Dorothee Mields and bass Peter Kooij talk about how much working with Herreweghe means to them, you see a glimpse of how Herreweghe works with his choir and orchestra, and … you get to hear the exhilirating opening chorus of Cantata 45 in its entirety, part of the beautiful motet “O, Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht,” and several excerpts of the choral movements of Cantata 198. Some of my all-time favorite music, performed by some of the most sensitive interpreters of this repertoire today: it’s a bit of heaven for me.
On the record label’s website, you can hear a bit of each track. Find that here. If you like all of this, please consider supporting the artists by pre-ordering this album. That way you can also start listening right away on March 19. Pre-order here on iTunes, or here on Amazon.
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).
For me, December 27 is always the Third ChristmasDay , whether it falls on that other cantata day, the Sunday after Christmas, or not. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, there are two days on which people celebrate Christmas: December 25 and 26. Special meals are eaten on both days. And because the country is so small, you can visit one part of your family on the 25th and then see the other part on the 26th. Most relatives expect you to do this. So, when I was a child, Third Christmas Day was always our first “free” day during the Christmas break, without church visits, meal prep, having to dress up (even though I liked that), or commitments to family.
We had a standing arrangement with friends for this day: if there was enough snow on the ground, and if we were in town, we would go cross-country skiing together on the only hill in our region. It was a half-joke, because the Netherlands isn’t very snowy, and it would take an extraordinary winter for there to be enough snow on the ground for cross-country skiing. When I was 16 we moved away from that region, so it maybe happened only once that we actually did this together with the other family, but just the idea was fun, and it didn’t feel like something we “had” to do to any of us.
This was a long introduction to justify why I am sharing a cantata for Third Christmas Day on this blog today, when I should be sharing cantatas for the Sunday after Christmas instead, as that day officially overrides the other.
Ever since I found out this video of Cantata 133 Ich freue mich in dir(I rejoice in you) existed, on November 1st of this year, I had been planning to share it today. It features two absolutely gorgeous tender arias by some of my favorite soloists and the wonderful ambiance Concerto Copenhagen always manages to convey in their Christmas videos. So here your are: Cantata 133 Ich freue mich in dir, written in 1724, by Concerto Copenhagen, from their 2011 Christmas concert, starring Alex Potter in the alto aria and Maria Keohane and her beautiful berry-red dress in the soprano aria. Find the video here, the text and translations here, and the score here.
Cantatas for Third Christmas Day have all been discoveries for me since I started writing this blog. None of these were cantatas my mother played on the turn table at home, probably for two reasons: 1. It was the day for the third cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (and this one was my sister’s favorite); 2. After playing the one cantata, we were usually off doing other things afterwards (see above), and my mother must have felt the “freedom” of this day too.
I will take a break for the next two weeks, and not post again until Sunday, January 17. Our first-born is flying the nest exactly two weeks from today, to go live on a college campus on the other side of the country, and we won’t see him in person again until May. So I would like to spend my time these next two weeks cooking, hiking, and laughing with the family, and helping my son get ready.
Here are some links for further reading and listening during those two weeks:
More cantatas for today:
Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, written for Third Christmas Day in 1725. I recommended the performance by Maria Keohane (wearing a white and gold Christmas dress) with the Netherlands Bach Society in my post from 2019. Find it here.
Cantata Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, written for the Sunday after Christmas in 1724. In addition to recommending the Herreweghe recording, in my blog post from 2017 I share my research as to why the word “Jubeljahr” (Jubilee) appears in this cantata.
Cantata 64 Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, written for Third Christmas Day in 1723. I recommended the recording by Harnoncourt and Bach Collegium Japan in my post from 2016. Find that here.
Or watch the cantata for the Third Christmas Day from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio following my links in this post.
Cantatas for New Year’s Day:
Watch the fourth cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by the J.S. Bach Foundation. You can find it here. The fourth cantata is my favorite part of the Christmas Oratorio, and soprano Miriam Feuersinger is absolutely fabulous in this performance.
Read my blog post from 2017 about Cantata 41 Jesu, nun sei gepreiset. Or explore on your own: Bach wrote several other cantatas for this day which I haven’t discussed on this blog yet: BWV 190 in 1724, BWV 16 in 1726, and BWV 171 in 1729.
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.
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.
We don’t have any letters in which Bach writes about his own compositions, so we officially don’t know which ones were his own favorites. But when we see which cantatas he gave a “second life” in another work, and which cantatas were performed by his sons, we can make an educated guess.
Two of these cantatas, Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei (from 1723) and Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! (from 1726), were written for this Sunday, the 10th after Trinity.
Bach gave the opening chorus from Cantata 46Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei a second life in the Qui Tollis in his Mass in B minor. Find a YouTube video of just that opening chorus, from Herreweghe’s performance at the 2013 Saintes Festival in France, here. Find my post from 2016 about this cantata, with links to translations, score, and my favorite recording here.
Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! received even more second lives (see table below), and was performed at least twice in Hamburg by Bach’s second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. My favorite performance of this cantata was the one by Herreweghe I attended in January 2018 at the Bruges Bach Festival, with Dorothee Mields, Alex Potter, Thomas Hobbs, and Peter Kooij. Alas there is no recording of this. Of all recordings currently available, my favorite is here on YouTube, by oboist Marcel Ponseele’s Ensemble Il Gardellino, with Damien Guillon, countertenor; Marcus Ullman, tenor; and Lieven Termont, bass. Especially the Aria Weh der Seele, die den Schaden by countertenor Damien Guillon and oboist Marcel Ponseele (both pictured at the top of this post) is to die for, and this combination of singer and oboist is simply unrivaled by any other recordings.
Find the texts & translations of Cantata 102 here, and the score here.
Movement from Cantata 102
Movement in later work
Opening chorus of the Missa Brevis in g minor, BWV 235
Soprano aria “Qui tollis peccata mundi” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
Alto aria “Quoniam to solus sanctus” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
A little more about the early “revival” of this cantata by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. In 1768, C.Ph.E. Bach succeeded Telemann as music director of the five largest churches in Hamburg, and remained in that position until his death in 1788. As such, he performed a handful of his father’s cantatas, albeit with adaptations. In 1776 or 1777 as well as in 1781, he performed Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!
These early “promotions” of this cantata must have inspired more performances or at least discussions about them, and eventually this composition along with some other cantatas likely reached the circle around Mendelssohn. In 1830, shortly after Mendelssohn’s Berlin revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, Adolf Bernhard Marx published three Bach cantatas BWV nrs 101, 102, and 103. It was the firsts time since 1709 that a Bach cantata appeared in print.
In my opinion, one of the absolute best background videos on AllofBach is the one in which countertenor Alex Potter explains the different layers of solo cantata 170 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust from 1726. I remember how happy and impressed I was when I first found this video. So instead of offering you my own discussion, I suggest you watch Alex Potter’s here on YouTube.
Then watch the excellent and moving live performance of this cantata by Alex Potter with the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube.
A lot more information, including the German text with English translations, a list of all participating instrumentalists, the staff that made this beautiful document possible, and a short but insightful interview (in text only) with organist Leo van Doeselaar, can be found here on AllofBach.
Bach’s first two cycles in Leipzig didn’t include a cantata for this Sunday (the 6th after Trinity). My speculations for why this might have happened in 1723 are mentioned in this blog post. For 1724, it is very likely that Bach never wrote a cantata that year for this Sunday. Because later in his life, Bach most probably wrote Cantata 9 Es ist das Heil uns kommen her for this moment in the church year, in an effort to fill the gaps within his 1724/1725 chorale cantata cycle.
There’s a wonderful live performance of Cantata 9 on YouTube, by the J.S. Bach Foundation under direction of Rudolf Lutz. Watch it here. My favorite part of this cantata is the glorious duet Herr, du siehst statt guter Werke, beautifully sung by soprano Julia Doyle and alto Alex Potter. I love how well their voices and singing style match for this! This performance also features exquisite music-making by flutist Marc Hantaï, violinist Amandine Beyer, and tenor Charles Daniels.
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:
Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano (find my blog post about this cantata here)
Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto (the cantata discussed here)
Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor. (find my blog post about this cantata here)
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:
Back to this Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Please God, look down from Heaven), and what to listen for.
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.
When 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.
Bach alto and tenor arias are at their prettiest, I find, when they are written as a trio sonata, and the alto ariaTilg, 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].
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.
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.
**The best examples of this are cantatas 2, 25, 38, and 121.
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.
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.