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.
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.
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.
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.
2020 update: If can afford to financially support the artists, please consider purchasing your favorite recording. Just click on the Amazon or iTunes link at the end of the paragraph that describes the recording.
In 1725, between Easter and Pentecost, Bach set nine cantatas in a row to beautiful poetry by Christiane Mariana von Ziegler: Cantatas 103, 108, 87, 128, 183, 74, 68, 175, and 176. Read more about this multi-talented female librettist, arts benefactor, and fellow Lutheran “preacher” in this post.
The first cantata in this series is Cantata 103: Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, for the third Sunday after Easter in 1725.
My favorite overall recording of this cantata is by Herreweghe, with vocal soloists Damien Guillon, Thomas Hobbs, and Peter Kooij, and Jan Van Hoecke on flauto piccolo. Listen to their opening chorus here on YouTube. Listen to the entire recording by Herreweghe here on Spotify. If you like this recording, please purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.
However for the best energy and intensity in the tenor aria, I prefer Mark Padmore on the Gardiner recording. Listen to their interpretation of the tenor aria here on Spotify. If you like this recording, please purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.
Robin Blaze’s singing and Dan Laurin’s playing in the alto aria on the Bach Collegium Japan recording is exceptional, and perhaps more moving than Damien Guillon’s on the Herreweghe recording. Listen to that aria here on Spotify. And it is a good problem for me, not being able to choose between countertenors 🙂 If you like this recording, please purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.
Find the texts & translations here, and the score here.
Two noteworthy things about this cantata are the dramatic change from sadness to joy, and the use of the sopranino recorder, or “flauto piccolo” in the opening chorus and the alto aria.
The sadness on this “Jubilate” Sunday is because of the Gospel story for this Sunday: 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. Other cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday are Cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and Cantata 146 Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal. But in the alto recitative (fourth movement), the turning point is announced: “dass meine Traurigkeit in Freude soll verkehret werden” (that my sorrow will be turned to joy). Bach makes a big deal here of illustrating the word “Freude” and then does that again, even more exuberantly in the tenor aria that follows: there the illustration of the word “Freude” is six measures and almost 100 notes long.
In both cases, Bach used the sopranino part to illustrate the word “Morgenstern” (Morning Star) in the text, creating an extra constellation over the highest notes of the sopranos with the even higher notes of the recorder. It is not completely clear why Bach uses the sopranino this time, in Cantata 103. There are theories that the instrument is meant to illustrate the “mocking” of the outside world. But, as Bach always paints the entire story of a cantata already in the opening chorus, I think he perhaps might have used the recorder to convey the message of “there will be joy at the end” in the otherwise very sad opening chorus. But who knows, his reason for using the instrument might simply have been that the virtuoso player was in town again, since it was around the time of the big Easter Trade Fair that Bach was writing this music.
Whatever the reason, it is very likely that there was only one person in 1725 among Bach’s colleagues who could play this. When Bach performed the piece again in later years, he changed the accompanying instrument in the alto aria to violin. There are also parts for a transverse flute. Herreweghe, Koopman, and Suzuki use a sopranino recorder in the alto aria, while Gardiner uses violin, and Ponseele (on the Il Gardellino recording) uses transverse flute.
To learn more about this cantata, you can now (2020) watch the excellent introduction (“Workshop”) by Rudolf Lutz of the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. The J.S. Bach Foundation just added English subtitles this video, so it is now also accessible to those who don’t understand German.
For this third Sunday after Easter, I’m jumping back in time to Weimar, 1714, and Bach’s monthly cantata cycle there. Cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen was the second cantata Bach wrote in Weimar after having been promoted to Konzertmeister in 1714.*
There are several very good recordings of this cantata, but I would recommend listening to the one by Collegium Vocale/Herreweghe, or to the one by Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel, and then listen again to the tenor aria on the American Bach Soloists recording (keep reading until the end to learn why).
2020 update: if you can afford to financially support the artists (especially important now, while they have no income from performances!) please consider purchasing their recordings instead of just listening on YouTube.
Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel’s recording is one on a part, more similar to what it would have sounded like from the small organ loft in the Himmelsburg, and soprano Johanna Koslowsky’s singing always gives me goose bumps, no matter how many times I’ve listened to it. Listen to cantata 12 by Cantus Cölln.
Find the German texts with English translation of this cantata here and the score here.
The beautiful but sad openingsinfonia would probably have served as an “entrada” for the Duke and his entourage. It is very similar to the one of cantata 21 Ich hatte viel bekümmernis, also written in Weimar.
Several of Bach’s Weimar cantatas were lost when the castle’s chapel burnt down in 1774. Most of the Weimar cantatas we still have today “survived” only because Bach performed those again in Leipzig, sometimes several times. If he did this because he was proud of these cantatas, then Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen must have been his greatest pride, since he later transformed its opening chorus into the Crucifixus for his Mass in B Minor.
Both the sinfonia and opening chorus convey enormous sadness, while it is “Jubilate” Sunday, and only three weeks after Easter. This has to do with the Gospel reading for this Sunday: Jesus’ speech to his disciples explaining that he will leave them, that they will go through immense suffering, but that their sorrow will turn into joy, comparing it to a woman going through childbirth.
So this cantata first conveys the feelings of the disciples, knowing they will soon be without Jesus, and the “tribulations” Jesus predicts for them. But then it explores the journey “from sadness to joy.”
First of all, the entire score can be seen as uplifting, even though the general atmosphere is downcast. As many scholars have pointed out, the score ascends, movement by movement, in intervals of a third, alternating a minor key with its relative major: f, A flat, c, E flat, g, B flat. Gardiner says that this is the “escape ladder” Bach lowers into the pit of sorrow.
The “sorrow to joy”-theme is also cleverly portrayed in the texts, thanks to Salomo Franck, the Duke’s librarian, acting as librettist for all cantatas Bach wrote in Weimar. Many consider Franck’s poetry superior to most of the texts Bach had to work with in his Leipzig years. 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 ariaSei getreu.
The text of the tenor part refers to the Gospel text “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father” and plays on that concept of “little while” – Franck decided it was not any longer than a period of rainy weather (which in Germany can be a few weeks in a row of course) …
Sei getreu, alle Pein Be faithful, all pain
Wird doch nur ein Kleines sein. will only be a little while.
Nach dem Regen After the rain
Blüht der Segen, blessing blossoms, Alles Wetter geht vorbei. all bad weather passes by. Sei getreu, sei getreu! Be faithful, be faithful!
And it gets better! Bach offers additional consolation by way of his music: through this aria, a trumpet plays the melody of “Jesu, meine Freude.” Everyone in attendance in the Himmelsburg would immediately have recognized the melody, and would have heard these words in their head:
Jesu, meine Freude, Jesus, my joy,
Meines Herzens Weide, My heart’s delight
Jesu, meine Zier, Jesus, my treasure
Ach wie lang, ach lange Ah how long,ah how long
Ist dem Herzen bange must my heart be anxious
Und verlangt nach dir! And full of longing for you!
Gottes Lamm, mein Bräutigam, Lamb of God, my bridegroom
Außer dir soll mir auf Erden, Besides you there is in on earth
Nichts sonst Liebers werden. Nothing else that is dearer to me.
My all-time favorite recording of this particular aria is the one by American Bach Soloists, with Benjamin Butterfield singing tenor, and Stephen Escher playing the chorale melody on a cornetto. On most recordings (Herreweghe, Cantus Cölln, Gardiner) the part is played on a Baroque trumpet, on some (Koopman) on a Baroque oboe. The softer, more human sound of the cornetto combined with Escher’s fabulous playing makes this the most moving interpretation of this aria I’ve ever heard. Listen for yourself: find American Bach Soloists’ recording of Sei getreu on YouTube.
2020 update: Since I wrote this in 2016, Vox Luminis released a wonderful recording of this cantata. They use a slide trumpet in the tenor aria, which is a beautiful middle between the Baroque trumpets of the Herreweghe, Cantus Cölln, and Gardiner recordings and the cornetto of the American Bach Soloists recording.