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.
What are your five favorite cantatas? This question was asked this week on Facebook by the Residentie Bach Ensembles, the choirs and orchestra of the monthly cantata services in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague, the Netherlands. A hard question to answer, and I would probably have a different Top Five every month. However, Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, today’s cantata from 1725, will probably always be in it. The soprano aria from this cantata is forever linked in my heart and mind with the funeral service for my mother in this same Kloosterkerk in The Hague (read a bit more about that in this post), but having carefully listened to about 120 cantatas over the past two years I am struck by how special this cantata is within Bach’s oeuvre.
I’m not alone in my appreciation of Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott. Eduard van Hengel calls it an “exceptionally inspired cantata,” 19th century 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.
My favorite recording of this cantata, by … surprise, surprise … Herreweghe, can be found here on YouTube. Please support the artists and purchase the entire “Jesu, deine Passion” album by Herreweghe here on Amazon. It includes all four cantatas Bach wrote for this last Sunday before Lent*, and they are all excellent. Soloists are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Jan Kobow, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Find the text of Cantata 127 here, and the score here.
There are several reasons why this last Sunday before Lent, or Quinquagesima Sunday or Estomihi Sunday, was such an important day for Bach, and maybe especially in 1725:
This was the day, in 1723, on which he had auditioned for his job in Leipzig, with Cantatas 22 and 23, his first performance ever for the Leipzig congregation and city council. In 1724 he would repeat the same cantatas on this same Sunday.
After this Sunday, his audience (=the Leipzig congregations of the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches) would not hear any of Bach’s music until March 25, on the feast of the Annunciation of Mary. No figural music (only chorale singing) was allowed in the Lutheran churches in Leipzig during Lent (the approximately 40 days before Easter), with the exception of the Annunciation. In 1724 this period was 33 days, but in 1725 it was 41 days (from February 11 to March 25). So Bach might have wished to leave his audience with something special, something they would remember for 41 days.
If it is true that Andreas Stübel had been Bach’s librettist for his entire chorale cantata cycle, Bach would have now known that this was the last regular chorale cantata of the cycle for now: Stübel died on January 31, 1725. So perhaps Bach wanted to “go out with a bang” for that reason. It is striking to me that he chooses a bass recitative/arioso with trumpet talking about the Day of Judgement, a similar combination of voice, instrument, and subject matter he uses at the end of the Trinity period in 1723, and again (though less dramatically) at the end of the Trinity period in 1724. Is this Bach’s way of saying: this is the end of an important series?
Compared to all opening choruses that had come before, this opening chorus is the most complex and intricate. It is the same as chorale fantasias in previous chorale cantatas in the sense that the six lines of text of the chorale Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott appear in six sections, with the chorale melody (the cantus firmus) in the soprano and trumpet part. However the orchestra greatly enhances the meaning of Bach’s message by referring to this chorale plus two others. The instrumental groups (recorders, oboes, strings, and continuo) represent four musical themes referring to these chorales. Eduard van Hengel illustrates this extremely well with two diagrams on his website, which I am copying here with his permission:
(a) The recorders play a dotted rhythm which in both the St. John and St. Matthew Passions illustrates punishment and suffering. (b) The oboes introduce the “Leitmotiv” that will sound 78 times throughout the entire movement, and stands for the Herr Jesu Christ, wahr Mensch und Gott chorale. Jesus was a true (“wahr”) man and God. Probably Bach’s most important message here. (c) The strings quote the chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes, or Luther’s Agnus Dei. It would show up again in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, which Bach might already have been working on around this time, see my post about Cantata 125 last week. (d) In the continuo we hear six times the first seven notes of Ach Herr mich armen Sünder, nowadays better known as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, one of the main building stones of the St. Matthew Passion. In the seventh section of the opening chorus, when the sopranos are already done singing the chorale melody, Bach repeats this particular theme in the vocal bass line in the choir, as if to make sure that even those who might have missed the quotation earlier would now hear it loud and clear.
Van Hengel adds this extra diagram to show in which measures of the opening chorus the different themes appear:
At this point Bach might still have been planning to prepare his audiences for a first St. Matthew Passion, not abandoning that plan until much closer to March 30, Good Friday, 1725. Not only are the references in this opening chorus a striking example of that, but also in the extraordinary bass recitative/aria do we see the theme of the SindBlitze, sind Donner chorus from the St. Matthew Passion appear on the text “Ich breche mit starker und helfender Hand.”
Regular followers of this blog will notice that Bach had been making a study for this bass recitative/aria in the previous three cantatas: combining lines of the chorale text with “free” text in the bass solo of Cantatas 92 and 125, and then using SindBlitze, sind Donner material and trumpet accompaniment in the bass solo in Cantata 126.
Wieneke Gorter, February 10, 2018, updated February 22, 2020.
* Herreweghe’s album “Jesu, deine Passion” features cantatas 22, 23, 127, and 159. Cantata 23 has exceptionally beautiful choruses and Cantata 22 represents the first introduction of Bach’s version of the “Vox Christi”(voice of Christ) to the Leipzig congregations, considered by some as an intentional preparation for the listeners of what would be to come in the Passions. Cantata 159 on this album is fantastic too, with an unrivaled interpretation by Peter Kooij of the fourth movement, the bass aria “Es ist vollbracht.”
my mother with my daughter, The Hague, summer of 2009
This year, on March 24, my mother would have turned 71. Sadly, she left us on November 19, 2010, after a tragic illness we only understood to be a terminal one on September 5 of that same year. To say that those months were an emotional roller coaster for all involved is an understatement. Normally very liberal and progressive in her Christianity, my mother turned very pious in her last weeks, and during that time she didn’t really let any persons in anymore, only music.
One of the major reasons I started this blog in January 2016 was to continue my mother’s legacy of playing the cantata for the appropriate Sunday every week, but also to remember the joy of going to concerts with my mother and listening to recordings together with her.
So I would like to think of this post as a short radio program with beautiful Bach music, featuring three soprano arias I strongly associate with my mother, sung by singers she and I adore(d).
A fond childhood memory is my mother, my sister, and I taking the bus from the little town we lived in to a town 15 kilometers (9 miles) away, where my mother was going to sing a solo in a wedding service. I remember what she wore: a light blue dress with tiny white and red flowers on it, a narrow red belt, and red sandals with heels. The solo she was singing was the aria “Sehet in Zufriedenheit” from cantata 202. I remember being in awe that she was standing there on the organ loft and singing it so beautifully. A gorgeous example of this aria, in the exact tempo in which my mother liked to perform it, is this recording of Nancy Argenta with Ensemble Sonnerie under the direction of Monica Huggett:
Sehet in Zufriedenheit See in contentment Tausend helle Wohlfahrtstage, a thousand bright and prosperous days, Dass bald bei der Folgezeit so that soon as time passes Eure Liebe Blumen trage! your love may bear its flower!
Much later, my parents had a subscription to the series of cantata performances by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra with Ton Koopman, and there they got to see and hear many different soprano soloists. I remember them being impressed with Caroline Stam. Hear her sing the aria “Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost” from cantata 44, one of my mother’s favorite Bach cantata arias of all time, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Ton Koopman.
Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost, The consolation of Christians is and remains Dass Gott vor seine Kirche wacht. God’s watchful care over his church. Denn wenn sich gleich die Wetter türmen, For even though at times the clouds gather, So hat doch nach den Trübsalstürmen yet after the storms of affliction Die Freudensonne bald gelacht. the sun of joy has soon smiled on us.
We felt extremely blessed that Caroline Stam agreed to sing at my mother’s funeral service. We asked her to sing Purcell’s “Evening Hymn,” since that had been in the top 5 on my mother’s iPod in her last weeks. But for the Bach aria, we let Caroline pick what she would like to sing. I am still very grateful for that decision. Always very conscious of texts, Caroline chose the hauntingly beautiful “Die Seele ruht” from cantata 127. For years, I have not been able to listen to this aria, but now I can again, though it still makes me cry a little. Hear Dorothee Mields sing this aria with Collegium Vocale Ghent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe:
Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen, My soul rests in the hands of Jesus, Wenn Erde diesen Leib bedeckt. Though earth covers this body Ach ruft mich bald, ihr Sterbeglocken, Ah, call me soon, you funereal bells, Ich bin zum Sterben unerschrocken, I am not terrified to die Weil mich mein Jesus wieder weckt. Since my Jesus will awaken me again.
If you would like to read more, here are five posts from 2016 in which I talk about my mother a lot or a little bit: