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.
We’re on Day 20 of “shelter in place” here in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re counting our blessings, trying to figure out how we can be most helpful to others while also taking good care of ourselves, and trying to wean ourselves off spending too much time on social media. I definitely need my “church” of regular check-ins with family and friends, daily mindfulness exercises, and lots of yoga classes to stay sane through all of this.
Back to Bach’s church. Today is Palm Sunday! Bach never officially wrote a cantata for this Sunday, since no music was to be performed in the churches during Lent. However, in 1714, Palm Sunday fell on the same day as the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, March 25. This way, while specifying “for the feast of the Annunciation of Mary” on the title page of the cantata manuscript, Bach could still write music for Palm Sunday with cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen! (Welcome, King of Heaven!)
If you’re not in the mood for a long story and would just like to listen to a short piece of calming music, I recommend the live performance of the opening sinfonia of this cantata on the YouTube channel of Voices of Music, with two fabulous soloists: Hanneke van Proosdij on recorder and Rachel Podger on violin. You can find that video here.
Many of Bach’s Weimar cantatas start with an elaborate instrumental ouverture or sinfonia.* There are two possible reasons for this. First of all, it was in Weimar that Bach studied lots of French and Italian compositions, and he might have wanted to “show off” that he could also write such a fashionable ouverture. But there might have also been a more practical reason: such an opening movement was the perfect piece of music during which the Duke and his entourage would slowly walk into the chapel and take their seats, and not miss anything of the cantata itself.
For the entire cantata, my all-time favorite still is the recording by Montreal Baroque. Listen here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. Their one-on-a-part performance is similar to how this would have sounded from the small organ loft in Weimar, and features fabulous singing all around (soprano Monika Mauch, countertenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, bass Harry van der Kamp).
Find the text of cantata 182 here, and the score here.
If you would like to learn more about Bach’s time in Weimar, please visit my post about Bach in Weimar I wrote in 2016. I’ve just updated it with some new photos, including a picture of the organ loft, and it has all the same links for the recording, text, and score as mentioned here.
In Leipzig in 1724, Bach performed this cantata again, on the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, which that year fell eight days before Palm Sunday.
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.
The mirror-hall, now called “Bach hall” in Köthen, where Bach worked from 1717 to 1723.
A concert weekend, successful, but fueled almost exclusively by adrenaline; the overwhelming fatigue thus following; my favorite breakfast cook/violin practice coach/morning chauffeur/bedtime enforcer away on a business trip all week; much needed family hike on Saturday; me not being superwoman: It sometimes leads to a late blog post 🙂 Thank you for understanding.
The 1724 cantata for yesterday, Cantata 180 Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Adorn yourself, beloved soul) is full of luster, with an opening chorus, a tenor/flute aria and a soprano/orchestra aria that make me think of the orchestral suites Bach wrote at the court of Köthen between 1717 and 1723. With all this joy already from the beginning, it sounds like a wedding cantata.
The recording I appreciate most is the one by the Swiss J.S. Bach Foundation from 2009, because I feel they bring the most light into the opening chorus and the soprano aria, illustrate the “knocking” the best in the tenor aria, and the singers do a great job bringing out the text. Soloists: Maria Christina Kiehr, soprano; Jan Börner, counter-tenor; Julius Pfeifer, tenor; and Fabrice Hayoz, bass. Update from 2020: When I first wrote about this cantata, in 2017, only the soprano aria from this recording was available on YouTube, but in 2018 they made it available in full length. You can find it here.
Find the German text with English translation here, and the score here.
Why all this luster in this cantata? In Bach’s time, the Gospel reading for this Sunday, the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22: 1-14) was seen in relation to the union of the faithful with Christ, both during communion as well as during the heavenly banquet in the afterlife. If you then realize that that union between the soul of the faithful and Christ was in that time often compared to the marriage between bride and groom, it was not unusual to present something that sounds like wedding music on this communion Sunday. Expressing the love-like relationship of Jesus and the soul was not a foreign concept for Bach. He did it beautifully in the duet in Cantata 21 from Weimar (read my post about that cantata here) and later also in Cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.**
In addition to this important link to the Bible texts, I think Bach might have an ulterior motive to bring so much splendor in a cantata for a Communion Sunday. On those Sundays, the congregations in the Leipzig churches would have been larger, and more prominent (read: wish-to-be-seen) families would have been present. Having followed Bach’s cantata compositions in the order he wrote them in Leipzig for almost two years now, I am seeing this pattern around large events in Leipzig: important audience = time to show off his star players and singers and his composition skills.
In his lecture (2020 update: now with English subtitles!), Rudolf Lutz, the director of the J.S. Bach Foundation, points out all the musical elements that make the opening chorus so utterly joyful and full of splendor. If you start watching at 19 minutes, you can see/hear how he shows that the bass notes are already signs of happiness, similar to the way how Bach expresses that in his Magnificat from 1723 and his Cantata 140. He then goes on to explain how the recorders build a “dome” over all of it, and the unisono violins and viola express the utter pleasure of lovers, or as Lutz says: “I love you, I love you, I say it to you again! Oh! Ah!”
In the tenor aria Christ is knocking on the door of the believer. This is a reference to the Revelations chapter from the Bible. When Bach received the libretto for this cantata, he must have thought back to an earlier cantata in which this Bible text was quoted literally: Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland from Weimar. In that cantata, the “Vox Christi” bass sings:
Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür und klopfe an. So jemand meine Stimme hören wird und die Tür auftun, zu dem werde ich eingehen und das Abendmahl mit ihm halten und er mit mir.
See, I stand before the door and knock. If anyone will hear my voice and open the door I shall go in and have supperwith him and he with me.
This recitative/arioso is accompanied by staccato continuo, illustrating the knocking. Bach uses this feature again in the continuo for this tenor aria from Cantata 180. Except this Christ is more impatient than the one from Cantata 61. For the rest it is pure blissful music, again putting Bach’s fabulous flute player in the spotlight. The theme of the flute part is likely based on the first three notes of the chorale melody. Julius Pfeifer does a great job singing this on the J.S. Bach Foundation recording.***
Note Christophe Coin on violoncello piccolo in the soprano chorale. My most favorite part of this recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation is the soprano aria. Sublime interpretation by all, with levity, freedom, and abandon in the orchestra and superb singing by Maria Christina Kiehr. If you wonder where you know her voice from: she appears on many Savall recordings alongside Montserrat Figueras.
Wieneke Gorter, October 30, 2017, updated October 25, 2020.
** Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme was really also a Trinity, almost Advent, cantata, but is nowadays better known as “The Wedding Cantata” (incorrectly suggesting that Bach wrote only one Wedding cantata) because of that subject matter.
***Another fabulous recording of this aria is the one by Cristoph Prégardien on the Christophe Coin CD. Listen to it here.
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.
This post is about Cantata 42 Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, written for the 1st Sunday after Easter in 1725.
For Bach, Easter season in Leipzig was extremely busy. Immediately after the passion on Good Friday, he needed to have three to four cantatas ready to go: two cantatas for Easter Sunday, one for Easter Monday, and one for Easter Tuesday. And then five days later, again one for the Sunday after Easter, the one I am discussing here. If we imagine Bach having to work on most of these in the week before Easter, that same week in which he was rehearsing the Passion for Good Friday, and often adjusting the score still too, it is not so strange that he often re-used existing music at this time of year. It would either be a repeat performance of an Easter cantata from his time in Mühlhausen (Christ lag in Todesbanden) or Weimar (Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde Jubilieret!) or a new cantata, with new text, but largely based on existing secular music he had written for the Weimar or Köthen courts.
In 1725, the performance list looked like this:
Good Friday: St. John Passion, 2nd version, significantly rewritten from the year before.
Easter Sunday: Easter-Oratorio, largely based on existing court music from Köthen + a repeat of Christ Lag in Todesbanden (Bible story: Maria Magdalena and Maria Jacobi finding the empty tomb)
(If you have time, it is helpful to listen to cantata 6 (here on YouTube) before you listen to today’s cantata 42, because 42 refers to 6 in style and thought, and the use of the “two and three” in the text of the alto aria of cantata 42 might even be meant to “remind” us of these *two* disciples in that story of Easter Monday.
Easter Tuesday: we don’t know what was performed on this day in that year.
1st Sunday after Easter: Cantata 42 Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, opening sinfonia and alto aria based on existing court music from Köthen (Bible story: while a small group of his disciples are inside a house in Jerusalem, with all the doors and windows locked, Jesus appears in their midst).
Ever since I started this blog at the beginning of this year, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this first Sunday after Easter, so I can finally introduce you to cantata 42 from 1725. It is one of my favorites because of the many gems strung together: a Brandenburg concerto-like sinfonia (as if Bach wanted to continue the kind of instrumental opening he had written for the Easter Oratorio from last week), a bit of Evangelist recitative (which is missing from the Easter Oratorio, so is more a reference to the St. John Passion), a terrific alto aria, a pretty soprano-tenor duet, an impressive bass aria, and a wonderful closing chorale.
I discovered this cantata about fifteen years ago, on the Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis CD Herreweghe recorded in 2000.It took me a little while to listen past the well-known cantata 21, and thus get to know cantata 42, but then I fell in love with it, especially with the alto aria, so beautifully sung by Gérard Lesne. Later, in 2007, while watching the documentary DVDPhilippe Herreweghe by himself, it was a treatto find a couple of scenes showing Herreweghe rehearsing that same alto aria (though sadly not with Lesne).
Soloists on this Herreweghe recording are Barbara Schlick, Gérard Lesne, Howard Crook, and Peter Kooij.
Read the German text with English translation of cantata 42 here.
For a long time I thought that the gorgeous oboe parts at the start of the alto aria were based on the opening chorus of cantata 3 (and only found one other commentator ever to remark on this too) but thanks to Gardiner’s recent research, we know that the music for the aria as well as for the opening sinfonia of this cantata was copied from a (now lost) birthday serenata Bach wrote for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (BWV 66a).
We can only guess if Bach had always meant to use the birthday music from Köthen, and selected text that would fit on the music, or if he received the “Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind” (Where two or three are gathered together)text from his librettist and only then had to think of that composition he had written in Köthen, with the groups of two and three in the orchestration …
Wieneke Gorter, April 3, 2016, updated April 26, 2020.