I always write about bass arias around this time of year (see this post). But let’s not forget about the tenor arias. As I’ve said before, I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. Wonderful examples of this are the following tenor arias from the Fall of 1724:
from Cantata 78, sung here by Howard Crook on the Herreweghe recording from 1988
from Cantata 5, sung here by Raphael Höhn with the J.S. Bach Foundation
from Cantata 38, sung here by Johannes Kaleschke with the J.S. Bach Foundation — this is the “consolation” aria I mentioned in my previous blog post.
And for today, the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, the fabulous tenor aria from Cantata 139 Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, sung here by Johannes Kaleschke with the J.S. Bach Foundation. When I looked at the text of this aria again today, I realized that if Cantata 139 were an opera, this aria would be Joe Biden’s:
Gott ist mein Freund; was hilft das Toben, So wider mich ein Feind erhoben! Ich bin getrost bei Neid und Hass. Ja, redet nur die Wahrheit spärlich, Seid immer falsch, was tut mir das? Ihr Spötter seid mir ungefährlich.
God is my friend; what use is all the raging that an enemy has raised against me! I am consoled in the midst of envy and hate. Yes, though you speak the truth only rarely, though you are always false, what is that to me? You scoffers are to me no danger.
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.
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.