For a period of nine months, starting on June 11, 1724, Bach wrote a brand-new cantata for every Sunday and feast day. It became his “chorale cantata cycle,” the second cycle of cantatas he composed in Leipzig, for the 1724/1725 season. After Bach’s death in 1750, this collection of cantatas was considered the most important part of his cantata legacy, and there are several indications that he truly meant for this collection to survive him. For example, for the twelve Sundays or feast days that had not occurred in the 1724/1725 season, he would write a chorale cantata later in his life, in order to fill the gaps in the cycle.
Cantata 14 Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeitis the very last one of those added chorale cantatas, composed in 1735, exactly 10 years after the missed Sunday in 1725. Listen to it here in a live video recording from 2017 by Cantus Cölln. Soloists are Magdalene Harer, soprano; Elisabeth Popien, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; and Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Please find the text and translations here, and the score here.
When Bach uses one of Luther’s original hymns as the basis for a chorale cantata, he often writes the opening chorus in the form of a motet, using a composition style from the Renaissance, which was considered very old-fashioned in his time. See for example my blog posts about Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein here, and Cantata 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dirhere. It is his way of paying his respects to Luther and his hymns, which were 200 years old at the time. So it is only fitting that the very last chorale cantata he ever wrote also opens with such a motet.
However, the soprano aria and the bass aria from Cantata 14 make it clear that Bach is not in 1525 or even 1725 anymore, but firmly in 1735, the year of his Christmas Oratorio and Ascension Oratorio.
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.