The reading for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax Collector) from the Gospel of Luke. In the parable, these two men come into the temple to pray around the same time, but talk to God in very different ways. While the Pharisee puts on a fake show about how good he is, the tax collector is very humble, “wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven” and asks for forgiveness.
“There’s something with this Sunday,” I wrote three years ago, and I still feel that way when I listen to the cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723 and 1724.
In 1723, his first year in Leipzig, Bach performed two cantatas on this Sunday: Cantata 179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht kein Heuchelei sei(See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy) before the sermon, and his solo cantata for soprano Cantata 199 Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut (from his early years in Weimar) afterwards. Cantata 199 is only loosely related to the Gospel story, and was probably never written with this story in mind. Because of its multi-layered history and the many different recordings, I will discuss that composition some other time.
Cantata 179 focuses on the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and just like cantatas 46 and 102 I discussed last week, it must have been one of Bach’s own favorites, because he re-used three movements in later works. Read all about it in my post from 2016, which I have updated with better images and new video links.
In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, which, surprise, surprise, focuses on the Publican asking for mercy. The only recording that does this cantata justice and gives me the good kind of stomachache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan. Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s singing is outstanding, and Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music, which is–judging from a lot of other recordings–not an easy thing to do. I updated my blog post from 2017 with all the correct links to stream or purchase this recording. Please find it here.
In 1723, Bach wrote an exceptional cantata for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity. I liked that cantata 179 so much that I gave my blog post last year the title “Bach on a roll” and I’ve been listening to it again this week. In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut for this same Sunday. Both these cantatas truly move me. I feel as if Bach was especially humbled by this particular Sunday.
The only recording that does Cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut justice and gives me the good kind of stomachache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan, because of Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s terrific singing, beautiful oboe and flute playing, and the fact that Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music (instead of struggling through it, the way it seems to be on some other recordings). Listen to this recording by Bach Collegium Japan on Spotify, or through a playlist on YouTube I created. Soloists on this recording are: Yukari Nonoshita, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Gerd Türk, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass. Please consider supporting the artists by purchasing this recording on jpc.de, iTunes, or Amazon.
There is also a BBC recording on YouTube of Gardiner’s live performance of this cantata from 2000. You can find that here. Soloists in this performance are Magdalena Kožená, soprano; William Towers, alto; Mark Padmore, tenor; and Stephan Loges, bass.
Find the text and translation here, and the score here.
That Bach might have might have felt a special touch or inspiration on this 11th Sunday after Trinity makes sense when you look at the Gospel reading for the day. It is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Pharisee and the Tax Collector), a story Jesus tells as an illustration on how to pray: the Pharisee is full of himself, telling God how good he is, while the Publican in his own prayer merely asks for mercy, and tells God how bad he is.* This concept of how to be a good Christian before God, to be true, not fake, was very important to Bach.
In cantata 113 the chorale melody turns up much more often than in most of the other 1724/1725 chorale cantatas. It is even present in some of the arias that don’t have the chorale text. For the first time since starting this series of chorale cantatas, Bach doesn’t use the chorale melody as a cantus firmus in the opening chorus. Instead, he writes a simple four-part harmonized setting of the chorale melody. But, then there’s the unusual twist: Bach changes the usual 4/4 beat in which a chorale is normally sung to a 3/4, which allows him to write long suspensions in the vocal lines, thus intensifying the pleading character of the music (and the good stomach ache I get when I listen to it).
In the aria that follows, Bach makes up for the missing cantus firmus from the opening chorus. Any late-comers to that church service on Sunday August 20, 1724 would not have missed what chorale this cantata was based on: the alto sings the text as well as the melody of the chorale’s second stanza in long notes, against strings playing in unison.
Singing a chorale melody like this is not easy, and most recordings were unsatisfying to me because of this aria (as well as the duet). But Robin Blaze knows how to do it: sing with a brilliant sound, clearly placing each note, but also sustaining the sound throughout every note, and keeping it moving, while not forgetting word accents. It is a special art, and he masters it. I can listen to that five times in a row and not tire of it.
(photo of Robin Blaze by Dorothea Heise)
The bass aria could -as far as the music is concerned- easily have been inserted into the Christmas Oratorio, with the pretty oboe accompaniment. Note the word illustrations on “Zittern” (trembling) and “zerbräche” (would break), expertly sung by Peter Kooij. If this is all not pretty enough, Bach presents his talented flute player again, and gives him a beautiful but unbelievably challenging part, more virtuoso than ever before, in the tenor aria “Jesus nimmt die Sünder an.” And then there is the duet.
I don’t write this blog for religious reasons, nor do I generally support Bach’s dogmas, but on this Sunday in 2017 I will try to be a good Christian. When I moved to the USA in 1999 I never thought it would come to this, that people in this country would want to move the clock back 50 years or more. On the morning after the 2016 presidential election I promised my kids that we would go into the streets when I would feel that equality, justice, and tolerance would be in danger. So while it stresses me out for several reasons, I strongly feel that we do have to go to the peaceful counter-protest, to help make the crowd as large as possible, and that my children need to be there too. Inspired by pictures of the rally in San Francisco on Saturday, we wrote our messages of love, tolerance, inclusion, and equality on balloons — easier to carry than signs and obviously not symbols of hate.
Wieneke Gorter, August 27, 2017, updated August 22, 2020.
* for a painting of this parable, visit the website of The Clark Art Institute here.
Thank you for following this blog, and thank you for reading this long post all the way to the end!
For Trinity 11, which was last Sunday (August 7 in 2016, August 8 in 1723) we’re listening to Cantata179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, with a superb opening chorus and one of the most beautiful soprano arias Bach ever wrote.
I prefer Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of this cantata. It’s a special recording, with Miah Persson singing the soprano aria. She’s having quite a career now, recently starring in Michel van der Aa’s opera Blank Out, singing Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at the Scala in Milan in September and October, and going on a recital tour in the USA later this season [2016/2017], so I think we’re lucky to have her beautiful voice and sensitive interpretation on this recording from 1999.
Listen to this recording on Spotify. Please consider purchasing this recording on jpc.de, ArkivMusic, Amazon, or iTunes. Soloists on this recording are Miah Persson, soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
The BBC recorded Gardiner’s live performance of this cantata in 2000, and you can watch that here on youTube. Soloists in this performance are Magdalena Kožená, soprano; Mark Padmore, tenor; and Stephan Loges, bass.
Find the score here (it’s fun to read along with the recording, especially in the opening chorus, to see what Bach does with the fugue).
Find the German text with English translation here.
It is now more than two months since Bach started his new job in Leipzig, and he is about three weeks into writing a brand new composition every week, and I’m sorry if I sound too casual here, but he’s on a roll. He must now have a vision of what it is he really wants to do for these churches (see the tiny preludes to his Passions he incorporates in cantatas 105 and 46), and he must have the classes at the St. Thomas School organized, and his singers sufficiently trained, so that he can now have them sing a new and challenging opening chorus every week. Just listening to the opening choruses alone, starting with the one of cantata 136 for Trinity 8, I marvel at what he comes up with every time. Every single one of them is stunning, but at the same time completely different from the one of the previous Sunday. This time Bach chooses to write a perfect “old style” (Palestrina-style) motet fugue as opening chorus.
As always, to fully understand the cantata and not miss any of Bach’s hidden messages, it is important to look at the Gospel reading for the day. In this case it is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Pharisee and the Tax Collector), a story Jesus tells as an illustration on how to pray: the Pharisee is full of himself, telling God how good he is, while the Publican in his own prayer merely asks for mercy, and tells God how bad he is. This concept of “how to be a good Christian before God” was very important to Bach and apparently his librettist got the message loud and clear. He or she uses the opportunity to first write a strong protest against fake religion and hypocrisy in “Christianity today” in movements 1 to 3 (probably having certain people in Leipzig in mind), after which he/she states that all Christians should take the humbleness of the publican as example in movements 4 to 6. For another example of how Bach interprets this Bible story, read my post about Cantata 113, written for this same 11th Sunday after Trinity, in 1724.
The most special feature of the fugue in the opening chorus is that since the text talks about beautiful outer appearance versus a bad character, Bach uses a mirror-fugue, which he used as well in fugues 5-7 from the Art of the Fugue (the theme of six bars is first introduced by the basses, and then is answered by the tenors in an “inversion:” every step up from the basses becomes a step down in the tenor part.)
To understand how Bach built this intricate fugue I am sharing the excellent music example and diagram by Dutch Bach writer Eduard van Hengel, with his permission:
Even though the text here is in Dutch, the diagram speaks for itself, with this quick explanation of the numbers and symbols:
1 = The theme (or first half-sentence of the text: Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei). Note the ascending line on the word “Gottesfurcht” (fear of God/love of God) and the descending line on the word “Heuchelei” (hypocrisy).
2 = The counter-subject (or second half-sentence of this text: und diene Gott nicht mit falschem Herzen). Note here that there is a chromatic line every time the word “falschem” appears in the text: for the chromatic line the composers needs accidentals that are not part of the key the piece is written in, which in the “old polyphony” would be seen as “falsch” (not right, off-key).
2* = a more compact (only 4 bars instead of 6 bars long) theme which is derived from the first counterpoint/counter-subject on the words und diene Gott nicht mit falschem Herzen, still with the chromatic line on falschem Herzen.
The numbers at the top are measure (“maat”) numbers.
Bach himself must have greatly valued this cantata. About 15 years later, he used no less than three movements from this cantata for use in his short masses, or Lutheran masses.**
The opening chorus was later “recycled” as the first movement (Kyrie) in the Mass in G Major, BWV 236. Keep listening, or scroll to 18:00 and you’ll discover that the tenor aria Quoniam (sung here by Thomas Hobbs) was, with some changes and a much slower tempo, recycled from the tenor aria in this cantata 179. In cantata 179 the tenor aria gets a colorful accompaniment of two oboes and first violins in unison. The second violins and violas fill in the meaningless middle part (representing the “nothingness, emptiness”). When recycling this later for the Quoniam in the Mass in G Major, Bach uses only one solo oboe for the accompaniment, and completely leaves out all strings (confirming that with a different text, the meaningless middle part is not relevant anymore).
This cantata’s wonderful soprano aria (with two oboi da caccia and basso continuo) was later reworked into the Qui Tollis for the Mass in A Major, BWV 234 (with two flutes and only high strings as continuo). This was actually how I first knew and loved this soprano aria, I didn’t know cantata 179 until I started listening to it for this blog. Please click on this link and listen to the amazing Agnès Mellon sing the Qui Tollis from the Mass in A Major.
Wieneke Gorter, August 14, 2016, updated August 21, 2020.
** These are called “short” or “Lutheran” masses because they consisted of only the Kyrie and Gloria part of the traditional Catholic mass. Bach wrote four of them (BWV 233-236), and they are all made up of existing movements from cantatas, but reworked and compiled in a very smart way and they are all absolutely beautiful. You can purchase an album with Herreweghe’s recording of all of them on jpc.de, iTunes, or Amazon.