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.
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.