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.
In Leipzig, Bach wrote cantatas not just for Sundays, but also for major feast days. One of those was the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas, or “Michaelistag,” as Bach would have called it. That day is today, September 29.
Thanks to the “Cantata of the Week” series by Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras, two of the four cantatas Bach wrote for this day* are available on YouTubethis week only. This week’s video is especially wonderful because it has an excellent introductory talk by trumpet player Michael Harrison.
Another timely announcement I would like to make, is that you can join my fellow singers of California Bach Society, Bach lovers from all over the world, professional soloists (singing the solos from their homes), our director Paul Flight (who will teach us about the cantata), and myself on Zoom this Saturday, October 3 at 11 am Pacific Time,** for an interactive online workshop on Cantata 78, Jesu der du meine Seele. All Bach lovers are welcome, whether you are a singer or just a listener. All participants will be muted during the event.
Read more and sign up here. Registration is free but we hope you’ll support us with a donation of $10 or more. I hope to see you there!
Wieneke Gorter, September 29, 2020.
* The video includes Cantata 50 Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft (1723?) and Cantata 19 Es erhub sich ein Streit (1726). The two other cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday are Cantata 130 Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (1724) and Cantata 149 Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg (1729). All four are on Vol. 7 of Gardiner’s Bach Cantata series from 2000, available for streaming here on iTunes, here on Spotify, or here on Amazon.
** 2 pm Eastern Time / 7 pm UK Time / 8 pm European Time.
While my family is not in any direct danger of the fires here in California, and we are lucky in many ways, it has been hard for me to avoid going into serious flight mode this week. What has kept me sane are yoga classes on Zoom, but also a daily gratitude practice, where I write down specific examples of things that went well or that I enjoyed, and count my blessings.
I was comforted to discover this week that Bach also focused on gratitude and joy in the third cantata he wrote for this 14th Sunday after Trinity. The Bible story for this Sunday is the miracle of Jesus healing ten lepers, from Luke 17: 11-19. While Bach’s first two cantatas for this Sunday talk about salvation from sickness, the third one, Cantata 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich (He who gives thanks, he praises me), from 1726, focuses on the second part of the story (as well as the second part in the painting above): the one man who comes forward to thank Jesus for healing him.
Of all the recordings I listened to, I prefer the live video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation, released in March 2020. Watch that recording here on YouTube or, if you prefer to listen on Spotify, you can find my playlist here. Soloists are: Noëmi Sohn-Nad, soprano; Jan Börner; alto; Sören Richter; tenor; and Daniel Pérez, bass. I enjoyed listening to all of them.
Find the German texts with English translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
There are two unique aspects to this cantata, especially when you compare it to other cantatas for “regular” Sundays. First, there is no hardship to overcome, no sin to be absolved in this cantata. It is all one big song of praise for God’s benevolence. Quite unusual, but a nice change. Second, Bach writes an “Evangelist” part for the tenor at the start of part II, directly quoting the Bible text:
Einer aber unter ihnen, da er sahe, dass er gesund worden war, But one of them, when he saw that he was healed, kehrete um und preisete Gott mit lauter Stimme turned back and praised God with a loud voice und fiel auf sein Angesicht zu seinen Füßen and fell on his face at his feet und dankte ihm, und das war ein Samariter. and thanked him, and this man was a Samaritan.
There are only a handful of other cantatas in which this happens, but most of those are very meaningful (Cantata 22 and 42 come to mind). So I don’t think Bach is experimenting. He probably again wants to educate his fellow believers, and perhaps make them see that that part of the story is what the whole cantata is about.
I have to leave it at that, because the other two cantatas for this Sunday are not to be missed either and I don’t want this post to become too long.
Cantata 25 Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (Nothing healthy is to be found in my body), from 1723, starts out with an incredible opening chorus with trombones playing a chorale that begs for salvation. That salvation then appears towards the end of the cantata, in the form of a jubilant soprano aria. Read my blog post from 2016, not only to find links to Herreweghe’s fabulous recording of this cantata (with Hana Blažíková singing the soprano aria), but also to learn why Bach must have felt like a kid in a candy store that particular Sunday.
In 1724 Bach wrote Cantata 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, you [who saved] my soul). After a completely different, but equally beautiful and poignant opening chorus, joy presents itself much earlier, in the music of the second movement: the cute soprano-alto duet that is nowadays probably Bach’s most beloved duet. In my blog post from 2017 I recommend a Rifkin and a Herreweghe recording and I still stand by those choices today. In that post, I praised the opening chorus and the duet, but I completely forgot to discuss an often overlooked movement from this cantata: the tenor aria. I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. About two years ago I started dreaming of a podcast about this underrated aspect of Bach’s compositions, and when I finally have the time and the guts to create it, this aria will definitely be in it.
Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, the 13th after Trinity, all more or less related to the story of the Good Samaritan. In 1723 he writes the incredibly beautiful Cantata 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben (You must love God, your Lord). Read about it in my post from 2016. Along with many fellow members of California Bach Society I had the pleasure of singing this cantata earlier this summer, each of us sitting in front of our computer in our own home. Even though we could only see each other on a computer screen and not hear each other sing, it was a beautiful and meaningful experience. And while I tend to focus on the opening chorus and the alto aria when thinking about this cantata, several of my friends pointed out that the texts are still, or again, very appropriate today. Take for example the text of the tenor recitative:
Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz, For this purpose, my God, give me the Samaritan’s heart Dass ich zugleich den Nächsten liebe so that I can at once love my neighbor Und mich bei seinem Schmerz and in his sorrow Auch über ihn betrübe, feel concern for him Damit ich nicht bei ihm vorübergeh so that I shall not pass him by Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse. and leave him in his distress. Gib, dass ich Eigenliebe hasse, Grant that I may hate self-love, So wirst du mir dereinst das Freudenleben then you will grant me one day a joyous life Nach meinem Wunsch, jedoch aus Gnaden geben according to my desire, from your grace.
In 1724, within the framework of the 1724/1725 series of chorale cantatas (his second year of cantata compositions in Leipzig)* Bach writes Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (Solely towards you, Lord Jesus Christ). Because the libretto is based much more on the chorale text than on the Gospel text, it includes only one quote from the Bible story: “I may love my neighbour as myself.” But while it is just one line of text, Bach doesn’t let it go unnoticed, and turns that fifth verse of the libretto into a duet that has all the characteristics of a love duet from the Venetian operas of the time. At least the instrumentalists in the orchestra must have gotten the reference loud and clear. This also proves that the oh-so-cute soprano-alto duet from Cantata 78 (which Bach wrote one week later) didn’t come out of the blue. Here is the artists’ study for it, albeit written for tenor and bass. Read all this and more in my post from 2017.
From Trinity Sunday 1723 to Trinity Sunday 1725, Bach had provided the Leipzig churches with a cantata for almost every Sunday and Feast day. But for the Sundays between Trinity and Christmas 1725, we have only a handful of his cantatas left.** Cantata 164 Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet (You, who take your name from Christ) is among these. Bach saw his church music as a means to “educate his neighbor” about Christian theology, and it seems that in this case, a third cantata for this Sunday was needed: he was not done educating his neighbors about the story of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, the priest and the Levite pass the wounded man without showing mercy. In the libretto of this cantata, this example is turned onto the Christian believers themselves:
You, who take your name from Christ, where is to be found the mercyby which people recognize members of Christ?
It is far, far away from you.Your hearts should be rich in love,but they are harder than a stone.
Because of the preaching character of that first text, it seems only fitting that Bach doesn’t set this as a chorus, but as a tenor aria, as if to better scold the congregation. The use of two flutes (in the alto aria) is unusual for a cantata, and makes me think of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach must have wanted to stress the loveliness of the text in that aria. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists in this performance are Monika Mauch, soprano; Jan Börner, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Markus Volpert, Bass.
Find the texts & translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
Wieneke Gorter, September 5, 2020.
A little more about the painting:
At a distance, on the left, behind a tree, we see the Levite retreating. Still further away, reading a book, is the priest. This is the only known work of this painter, Balthasar van Cortbemde. It was most probably commissioned by the guild of surgeons in Antwerp in 1647, because it was displayed in their Chamber from 1647 to 1798. It became property of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in 1810.
*to learn more about Bach’s series of chorale cantatas, start reading here
**we don’t know if the missing cantatas were composed but then were lost, or if they were simply never composed because Bach started to focus on other things.
Of this cantata 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele most people only know the soprano-alto duet Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten. The best rendition of this I have ever heard in my life is by Julianne Baird and Allan Fast on the Rifkin recording from 1988. Listen to it here. Fast passed away in 1995 at age 41.
Bach wrote this cantata for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, September 10, 1724. It was not the first time he wrote a “cute” duet — there are gorgeous examples in sacred and secular cantatas from his Weimar and Köthen years. However, at the start of his second Leipzig cycle, for the Trinity season of 1724, there are more and more duets in his cantatas. Alto-tenor duets appear in cantatas 20 and 10, spaced three weeks apart. A series of soprano-alto duets follows on July 9 in cantata 93, a month later in cantata 101, and the next week in cantata 113. Then there’s the terrific tenor-bass duet in cantata 33 on September 3, and this duet on September 10.
This is why I like it so much to listen to Bach’s cantatas in the order he wrote and performed them. I would never have noticed connections such as these otherwise.
The rest of the cantata is wonderful too, especially the opening chorus, which is among the most complex Bach ever wrote. For those who read Dutch, I encourage you to read Eduard van Hengel’s splendid article about this cantata here.
For the entire cantata I prefer Herreweghe’s recording, also from 1988. Soprano: Ingrid Schmithüsen; Alto: Charles Brett; Tenor: Howard Crook; Bass: Peter Kooy. Find the recording here on YouTube. Find the German text and English translations of the cantata here, and the score here.
More listening for this Sunday: cantata 25 from 1723. It has a much bigger orchestra, including many brass players. Find my explanation for that here.
Wieneke Gorter, September 17, 2017, updated September 10, 2020.
It is now the 13th Sunday after Trinity — time for the story of the Good Samaritan. For a sublime cantata that stays close to that Gospel text, read my earlier post about cantata 77 Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723.
When Bach receives the libretto for Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ in 1724, it is -except for one line- not related to the Bible story at all. Maybe he already knows this, since he himself was probably responsible for selecting the chorale to serve as the basis for this cantata: a hymn of penitence from 1540, asking Christ to be freed of the pressing burden of sins. The part of the libretto that might have moved him the most* is this:
Wie furchtsam wankten meine Schritte, Doch Jesus hört auf meine Bitte Und zeigt mich seinem Vater an. Mich drückten Sündenlasten nieder, Doch hilft mir Jesu Trostwort wieder, Dass er für mich genug getan.
How fearfully were faltering my footsteps, but Jesus listens to my entreaties and bears witness for me to his Father. The burden of my sins weighed down heavily on me, but Jesus’ word of comfort reassures me that he has done enough for me.
Wie zittern und wanken Der Sünder Gedanken, Indem sie sich untereinander verklagen Und wiederum sich zu entschuldigen wagen. So wird ein geängstigt Gewissen Durch eigene Folter zerrissen.
How tremble and waver the sinners’ thoughts while they bring accusations against each other and on the other hand dare to make excuses for themselves. In this way a troubled conscience is torn apart through its own torments.
Bach is in general also still exploring ways to get more drama and text illustration into the music of his cantatas without it coming across as too operatic. So after a delicate opening chorus (Gardiner describes this as “an antique ring” in which the ornate beauty of the orchestral setting almost eclipses the inner gem of the hymn setting) and a powerful bass recitative, he writes a heart-wrenching alto aria on the moving text.
Click on this link to hear the amazing interpretation by countertenor Damien Guillon and the instrumentalists of Belgian ensemble Il Gardellino. Nobody delivers such a fantastic combination of completely “getting” the text and wonderful, seemingly effortless singing. And listen to how he pronounces the consonants r-ch-t-s in the word “Furchtsam” without any concession to the vowel sounds.
When the libretto finally comes to the only quote of the Good Samaritan story: “I may love my neighbour as myself” in the fifth movement, Bach takes the opportunity to write a striking duet, including the parallel thirds and sixths characteristic of the amorous duets in Venetian operas of the time. If you thought that the famous soprano-alto duet from cantata 78 came out of the blue, here is the artist’s study for it, one week before 🙂
A wonderful live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation is available here on YouTube. Soloists in this video registration are Ruth Sandhoff, alto; Andreas Post, tenor; Markus Volpert, bass.
Wieneke Gorter, September 8, 2017, updated September 3, 2020.
*of course I don’t know for a fact that this was the part of the libretto that moved Bach most. It is the text that moves me most, and of course that is partly because of Bach’s beautiful setting of it.
**and of course I don’t know this for a fact either, but it is the first thing I wrote down when I listened to this cantata, without having read Gardiner’s notes, which state that this alto aria from cantata 33 “bears a striking kinship in mood, subject-matter, and even melodic outline” to the soprano aria from cantata 105. So I am not alone in noticing this.