In German-speaking countries, people wish each other either a “schönen” (beautiful, pleasant), “lieblichen” (lovely, love-filled), or a “besinnlichen” (thoughtful, contemplative) Advent. I wish you all of that: beauty, love, and contemplation for the next four weeks.
On this first Sunday of Advent, I present to you again the J.S. Bach Foundation (J.S. Bachstiftung) with soprano Núria Rial, this time in Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor. In 1731, Bach transformed a secular birthday cantata from 1725 into this work for Advent. Enjoy watching these two videos by the J.S. Bach Foundation to get better acquainted with this composition:
If you would like to read, listen, or watch more, here’s a little overview of my previous posts for the first Sunday of Advent:
In Weimar, in 1714, Bach wrote Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This one I remember the best from my childhood, because my mother loved Seppi Kronwitter’s singing of the soprano aria on the Harnoncourt recording. Read about it here. More about Bach’s prolific Advent cantata writing in Weimar next week.
In Leipzig, in 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 62 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. My most recent writing about this cantata is from 2020, not for this blog, but for that of California Bach Society. Find it here. My post from 2017 about this cantata is here.
Read my post about Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch emporhere.
Wieneke Gorter, November 28, 2021.
By the way: the video of the J.S. Bach Foundation’s 15th Anniversary concert with Núria Rial is still available here on YouTube. It is a registration of the performance in Trogen, held one day after the one I attended in Basel.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. I continue to recommend La Festa Musicale’s beautiful series of Advent Chorales on YouTube. Their offering for this Sunday is Johann Crüger’s 1640 setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star). With an almost overwhelming number of performances appearing online over the past weeks, I really wanted to offer some new writing today. There is so much to tell about this particular chorale and all the ways Bach used it in his cantatas. And it helps that today is a rainy Sunday here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When Crüger wrote his setting in 1640, the chorale melody already existed. The chorale is generally attributed to Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), but the melody of Nicolai’s hymn might have been based on an existing hymn (with different text) from Wolff Köphel’s 1538 Psalter hymnal. Nicolai wrote the hymn in 1597, when the town where he preached was ravaged by the plague. During that time, as Eduard van Hengel suggests, Nicolai must have had to bury dozens of members of his congregation each day. He published it two years later, as part of a hymnal meant to provide comfort in those trying times, called Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebens (Mirror of Joy of the Life Everlasting). This publication also featured the famous Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls us).
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern was most likely a compelling chorale for Bach. He used it in many cantatas (see below), but the melody first appears in an organ work. In fact, the score of this organ fantasia on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 739) is the oldest surviving manuscript by Bach. Paper analysis has shown that the piece must have been notated between 1703 and 1709. (Thanks to the Netherlands Bach Society for providing this information on their website).
After that, in cantata movements, Bach would either use the original melody (Nicolai’s, see picture above), or Crüger’s version of it. The difference appears in the third line of text, and can be seen in this image, at superscript number 6. Green is Nicolai’s version, blue is Crüger’s.
In these two cantatas, Bach used Crüger’s version:
Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, written for the Annunciation of Mary, March 25, in 1725. It is one of my favorites because of the two French horns in the opening chorus. This was the last of Bach’s 1724/1725 continuous series of chorale cantatas, and to me, it communicates a similar Advent sparkle as Cantata 62 from that same series.* Per the standard format for these cantatas, Bach featured the first verse of the chorale in the opening movement, and the last verse in the final movement. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here. Soloists are Eva Oltiványi, soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; and Manuel Walser, bass. To understand why it might make sense that the theme of Advent is celebrated on the feast of the Annunciation, please find my blog post from 2018 about Cantata 1 here.
Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully up), an extra-long cantata in two parts, written for the first Sunday of Advent in 1731. The cantata was based on a secular cantata from 1725** but for this First Advent occasion, Bach included several movements based on two Advent chorales: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come now, Savior of the Gentiles) in the soprano-alto duet, the second tenor aria, and the closing chorale; and the sixth verse of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the chorale at the end of Part I of the cantata.
Bach used Nicolai’s version of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the following cantata movements, each time in a different way:
The penultimate movement of Cantata 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (Ring out, you songs, resound, you strings!) for Pentecost in 1714 (verse 4)
The closing chorus from Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland for the First Sunday of Advent in 1714 (last 4 lines of verse 7)
The chorale for soprano and alto (3rd movement) from Cantata BWV 37 Wer da gläubet und getauft wird (Whoever believes and is baptized) for the feast of Ascension in 1724 (verse 5)
As far as we know, Bach wrote only one cantata for this Third Sunday of Advent. It is the one listed in the BWV catalog as Cantata 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, first performed in Weimar on Sunday December 13, 1716. Read my blog post from 2016 and 2017 about this cantata here.
Wieneke Gorter, December 13, 2020.
*Find my first blog post about Cantata 62 here and a more detailed explanation of how it fits into the series of chorale cantatas here.
**Read more about the history of Cantata 36 in my post from 2017 here.
Hello everyone. I hope you are all safe and well. Thank you for reading this blog, and a warm welcome to all of you who started following recently. Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday:
In Weimar, in 1714, Bach wrote Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This one I remember the best from my childhood, because my mother loved Seppi Kronwitter’s singing of the soprano aria on the Harnoncourt recording. Read about it here.
In Leipzig, in 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 62 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. My most recent writing about this cantata is from last week, not for this blog, but for that of California Bach Society. Find it here.
Since the release of Herreweghe’s recording in 1997 I have been in love with the opening chorus of Cantata 62. For me, nothing says “Christmas is coming” more strongly to me than this music. And yes, Bach wrote two Advent cantatas with the same title. You better not mix them up when you have been engaged to sing the bass solos. Read a story about that here. If you would like to learn more about this opening chorus, or even sing along to it yourself, I encourage you to sign up for California Bach Society’s free workshop on this cantata this coming Saturday, December 5, at 11 am Pacific Time, on Zoom.
In 1731, Bach transformed a secular birthday cantata from 1725 into Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor. Read about it here. My favorite interpretation of the soprano aria is by Nuria Rial. I first heard Nuria Rial sing on the German radio station WDR3, exactly one month after my mother passed away in 2010. I was staying at my parents’ house in the Netherlands with my kids. My mother had always preferred the German classical music station over the Dutch one, especially for their Early music programming, so WDR3 was pre-programmed into my parents’ fancy equipment. The radio host played a piece from this album, and I was mesmerized. After it was over I went on Facebook and told all my singer friends (that’s why I still know what day it was). But I didn’t find out about her live recording of the soprano aria from Cantata 36 with the J.S. Bach Foundation until 2014.
To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.
Several people have asked me what made me start writing for this blog again. The answer is simple: Shunske Sato’s violin playing in the “Mein Verlangen” tenor aria from Cantata 161 Komm, du süsse Todesstunde. I had already heard that Sato was “a good one” from people with authority on the matter, and had enjoyed listening to his recordings, but it took these live concerts to experience the magic that happens when he is a soloist in a Bach aria.
During a visit to my home country, the Netherlands, I attended the Netherlands Bach Society’s “All Souls” concerts on October 31 in the Grote Kerk in Naarden and on November 3 in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague. I had been unsure how to talk about these concerts in the framework of this blog, especially now that it’s more than a month ago and we’re in Advent already (yes there is Advent music in this post, please keep reading) and there is no recording of these concerts.
Solo sonatas and partitas on All of Bach
But it turns out that this week is the perfect time for a spotlight on Shunske Sato, because this Thursday December 5, 2019, the Netherlands Bach Society will publish the final episode of his series of solo violin sonatas and partitas on All of Bach, their online video archive of Bach performances. Just click on this link and the entire series is right there, under “recently added.”
Sato was appointed concertmaster of the Netherlands Bach Society in 2013, and became their artistic director in June 2018. For the concerts I attended, he was concertmaster only, having invited alto Alex Potter to program and lead this production. (Alex Potter deserves a blog post too, but that will come later). By inviting a different guest director for each program, Sato has breathed fresh air into the he group of musicians I feel.
Instead of the standard biographies, the program booklet featured personal stories from Sato and the four vocal soloists. As a person who’s produced many program books in her lifetime, I felt this was a breath of fresh air too. And as a mom of two teenagers who are finding their way through school and life, I especially liked this part from Sato’s story:
“Things got tricky in my teens: I began spending lots of time away from school playing concerts, and my grades at school were impressively low (except for French and Maths). Giving up on school, I often spent my weekdays at my favorite bookstore instead and read about history, computer programming and linguistics, and composed string quartets. Saturdays always came as a relief: classes and lessons at the Juilliard School in New York, where hung out with my “real” friends.”
Playing Weimar style
Back to what happened in the concert in Naarden on October 31. For this entire program, the violinists were playing one-on-a-part, the same way it was probably done in Weimar, where Bach first performed Cantata 161 on the small organ loft in 1716. This meant that Sato was thus the instrumental soloist in the tenor aria “Mein Verlangen,” and with the rest of the ensemble completely in sync with him, he could truly do his own thing.
And then there was light
And boy, did he do that! Every time he played the “Mein Verlangen” theme, he stretched the tempo just a little bit, every time slightly differently. It created a halo over the entire aria. Even though the tenor wasn’t singing yet, the text was already there: the longing (“Verlangen”) but also the pure radiance (“reiner Schein”) of the soul and the image of angels. He truly brought light into the music, and also for me personally into my heart and mind. It made all my frustrations and worries melt away, and it made the other instrumentalists play and tenor Thomas Hobbs sing with even more inspiration than they already had in this concert.
“The more I let go, the more I risk, the more I dare to really tell the story”
Witnessing Sato communicate the text of the aria before the singing started, I was immediately reminded of this wonderful interview with him for All of Bach. It is specifically about the “Erbarme dich” aria from the St. Matthew Passion, but his message “The more I let go and the more I risk, the more I dare to really tell the story…” applies just as well to this aria that I saw him play.
I went to the “All Souls” concert again three days later in the beautiful concert venue the Nieuwe Kerk has become. Sato’s playing there was possibly even more moving and the effect on those on stage and in the audience possibly stronger too. Several people had tears in their eyes.
Watch for yourself in this Advent aria
See the “Sato magic” happen in the soprano aria from Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor on All of Bach, with soprano Zsuzsi Tóth. Never did I enjoy a “da capo” this much. To read more about this cantata, the third one Bach wrote (or adapted) for the first Sunday of Advent, read my blog post from 2017 here.
With special thanks to Marloes Biermans and Annelie Bulsing of the Netherlands Bach Society for their generosity in providing photos and copy for me to use,
Wieneke Gorter, December 3, 2019.
To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.
In Leipzig in Bach’s time, the period between the first Sunday of Advent and Christmas was a “tempus clausum,” when no figural music was allowed in the churches. So if I would follow Bach’s cantata writing in 1724 very strictly, I would not have any music for you today.
So let’s take a detour to 1725. Sometime in that year, Bach wrote a congratulatory cantata for a teacher at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig. The cantata, with the title Schwingt freudig euch empor, had nine movements: an opening chorus, four recitatives and three arias. The cantata also featured a closing chorus alternated with recitatives for all the soloists, the way Bach would also use that in the before-last movement of his St. Matthew Passion. For the text of this cantata, please see this entry on Eduard van Hengel’s website. Scroll all the way down to find a table with all the different texts for the different cantatas.
In the fall of 1726, Bach received a request from his previous employer, prince Leopold of Köthen, to write a cantata for this birthday of his second wife, princess Charlotte Friederike Wilhelmine, on November 26 of that year. Scholars think that at the same time Bach was reworking this cantata from 1725 into this Birthday cantata, he was also reworking it into an Advent cantata. However the music of that particular cantata has not survived.
In 1731 Bach again, or finally, was able to make the original of 1725 into an Advent cantata, by replacing all the recitatives with chorales. This is cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor, one of three cantatas for the first Sunday of Advent that have survived. (The other two are Cantata 61 I discussed last year, and Cantata 62 I discussed last week). Again please see Eduard van Hengel’s table of the different texts of all the various cantatas here. Find the English translations of Cantata 36 here, and find the score of Cantata 36 here.
My favorite recording of the entire cantata is the one by Herreweghe from 1997 (from the same album I discussed last week). I like this recording the best because of the most sparkling interpretation of the opening chorus, gorgeous singing by Christoph Prégardien in the tenor solos and by Peter Kooy in the bass aria, and a wonderful soprano/alto duet by Sybilla Rubens and Sarah Connolly. Find this recording here on YouTube. Or follow the links in my post from last week to purchase the entire album of Advent cantatas by Herreweghe. It is a great Christmas gift 🙂 !
If you prefer to watch a live recording, I recommend the one by the J.S. Bach Foundation. They just released the entire video recording of this cantata this week, and this performance contains my absolute favorite interpretation of the soprano aria by Nuria Rial.
Wieneke Gorter, December 9, 2017, links updated and photo added December 3, 2019.