When I wrote this post three days ago, I had been feeling pretty sad. I missed connections, I was once again shocked by how people in this world can behave towards one another, and baffled as always by the lack of empathy shown by the leader of my adopted country and his enablers. So I wrote:
“A word, or token of consolation amidst all the suffering. Don’t we all need that this year, this month, this week? I do. Maybe Bach did too during this week in October 1724.”
This is still true of course, but over the past two days my spirits were lifted in such a way that it felt strange to just post my somewhat somber message from Thursday. So now I’m typing again on a Sunday when I really wanted to be done writing before the weekend 🙂
Over the past two days I was inspired by creativity in my family, in my neighborhood, and in photos I saw posted by friends in other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and the United States. It has to do with how many of us found new ways of celebrating Halloween. From contraptions for sliding candy down a rain gutter, outdoor movie screenings, extensive decorations in front yards and on front windows (so people just going for a walk would have something to look at), individually wrapped goody bags clipped to a laundry line, to treasure hunts for small groups, it was all there. And because of the email and text conversations with the neighbors beforehand, our family needing to work as a team for part of the day to execute our own plans, and my husband and I sitting by the fire pit in our front yard in the evening (to make sure our goody bags wouldn’t get swiped and to see some costumes), I think I felt a deeper connection to my community here than I have at some other times on this holiday.*
Back to Bach: my favorite cantata for this 21st Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir (Out of the depths I cry to Thee). In my post from 2017 I recommended Herreweghe’s recording, and I still prefer that one for Peter Kooij’s singing of the bass part in the penultimate movement. But for all the other movements, I’m quite taken by the interpretation of the J.S. Bach Foundation. Find it here on YouTube. Soloists are: Guro Hjemli, soprano; Ruth Sandhoff, alto; and Johannes Kaleschke, tenor.
Please find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
It is the tenor aria that brings the consolation, in text as well as in music. On this recording this exquisite piece of chamber music is beautifully performed by Johannes Kaleschke, tenor, and Meike Güldenhaupt and Gilles Vanssons, oboes.
To read more about this cantata in the context of Bach’s reverence for Martin Luther (just as this year, in 1724 Reformation Day, October 31, almost coincided with the 21st Sunday after Trinity), and understand why there are four trombones standing amidst the choir, find my blog post from 2017 here. In that post, I compare the opening chorus of this cantata with the one from Cantata 2, which is for a different Sunday, but also celebrates a chorale by Luther. Since 2017, the J.S. Bach Foundation has released a very compelling video registration of that cantata as well. Find my listening guide for that specific recording here.
Wieneke Gorter, November 1, 2020.
*Last year I wasn’t even in California on Halloween, but attending concerts in the Netherlands. Read about that here and here.
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.
Bach’s Calov Bible after Luther, with Bach’s comment in the right margin of 2 Chronicles 5,13: “NB. Bey einer andächtigen Musiq ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart” (NB. Where there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present.)
This past October 31 marked the 500 anniversary of the Reformation: Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Without Luther making the Bible available in German and making music an integral part of faith, Bach would probably not have felt as driven to educate his fellow believers through his music. Without Luther, there might not be any Bach cantatas, and definitely not this special cycle of chorale cantatas I’ve been discussing on this blog since June of this year.
It is interesting to me that when using one of Luther’s original chorales, Bach gives it an “old-fashioned” treatment: he writes the opening chorus in the “old style,” almost like a 16th century motet, and has the equally ancient brass quartet of one cornetto and three sackbutts (early trombones) doubling the vocal parts, as if wanting to confirm the timeless character of Luther’s chorales. A good example of this technique is Cantata 25 from 1723 and Cantata 2 from earlier in 1724, and Cantata 121 for Second Christmas Day 1724. If this was Bach’s preferred way of honoring Luther, he did this also on October 29 in 1724, two days before Reformation day, with this Cantata 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir for the 21st Sunday after Trinity. Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir is on one of Luther’s very first chorales, and was also sung at his funeral.
I prefer Herreweghe’s recording of this cantata. It is available here on YouTube, or please consider supporting the artists by purchasing the entire album “Weinen, Klagen …” here on Amazon. The album also contains my preferred recordings of Cantata 12 (see my post about that here) and Cantata 75 (see my post about that here). Soloists are Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Mark Padmore, tenor, and Peter Kooij, bass.
Please find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
If you have time, it is worth it to first listen to the opening chorus of cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein from June 18, 1724, also based on one of Luther’s own chorales. Make sure you stop after the opening chorus, and then start listening to today’s Cantata 38here, and hear how similar Bach’s setting of the chorale melody is. I don’t think it is a coincidence.
My favorite part of this cantata is the tenor aria: it is a beautiful piece of music, a quartet really, between the two oboe parts, the tenor voice, and the continuo, the way tenor arias often are with Bach, and I appreciate the text “Ich höre mitten in den Leiden ein Trostwort, so mein Jesus spricht” (In the midst of my sufferings I hear a word of consolation spoken by Jesus). I listened to this aria many times in the weeks after my mother passed away (seven years ago this month), Bach’s music being my “Trostwort.”
I also very much like the before-last movement of the cantata, the trio between soprano, countertenor, and bass. Excellent motet writing by Bach, and beautifully sung on the Herreweghe recording. Again this is a nod from Bach to older composition styles, linking back to the opening chorus, and perhaps an additional tribute to Luther.
Wieneke Gorter, November 4, 2017, links updated October 29, 2020.