Since January 2020, when I heard that Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent were recording BWV 45, 118, and 198 with my favorite soloists, I have been eager to listen to that new album, “Meins Lebens Licht.” The release date, March 19, is now almost here, and there are some excellent previews available that I would love to share today.
There is a wonderful “making of” video of this CD recording. Find it here. In this video, soprano Dorothee Mields and bass Peter Kooij talk about how much working with Herreweghe means to them, you see a glimpse of how Herreweghe works with his choir and orchestra, and … you get to hear the exhilirating opening chorus of Cantata 45 in its entirety, part of the beautiful motet “O, Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht,” and several excerpts of the choral movements of Cantata 198. Some of my all-time favorite music, performed by some of the most sensitive interpreters of this repertoire today: it’s a bit of heaven for me.
On the record label’s website, you can hear a bit of each track. Find that here. If you like all of this, please consider supporting the artists by pre-ordering this album. That way you can also start listening right away on March 19. Pre-order here on iTunes, or here on Amazon.
On January 31, 2021, Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent performed three cantatas at the beautiful concert hall “De Singel” in Antwerp, Belgium. In my humble opinion, this was a very moving and inspired performance, and my hat is off to everyone on stage, that they were able to find this energy and inspiration in Bach’s music, in the texts, and in making music together, because they were performing without an audience. Please find the live video recording here on YouTube. Soloists are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Guy Cutting, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
I provide a bit of a review and a bit of a listening guide here, with links to my blog posts from previous years about these three cantatas. I did not grow up with any of these cantatas, they weren’t part of the repertoire my mother played on the turntable at home. I learned about them in the process of doing research and writing for this blog (and through other people, in the case of Cantata 127).
Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott
This cantata, written for today, the last Sunday before Lent, is a great choice for the start of a concert, because it immediately grabs you and draws you in. I already hold a special place in my heart for this music because of the soprano aria (beautifully sung here by Dorothee Mields) being performed at my mother’s funeral service in The Hague in 2010. But even without that, the work is in my all-time top 10. And I am not alone: Bach biographer Spitta called it “perhaps the most important” cantata, and it received “the most beautiful” qualification by Arnold Schering as well as Ton Koopman.
The cantata is part of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of chorale cantatas, and compared to all previous compositions in that cycle, this opening chorus is the most complex and intricate. Click on the link at the end of this paragraph to read why. I love hearing Collegium Vocale sing this. Dorothee Mields and Peter Kooij are fabulous in their arias, and I enjoy hearing and watching tenor Guy Cutting sing. He’s a new star in the Herreweghe firmament. The soprano aria is of course stunning, but what about that bass aria? Whether a foreshadowing of the St. Matthew Passion or a dramatic end to the series of chorale cantatas, Bach had clearly made “studies” for it in his previous three cantatas of that year. Read all about it in my blog post from 2018.
Cantata 138 Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz
I am so happy with the video recording from January 31, because it eliminates a dilemma for me. When I first wrote about this cantata (written for the 15th Sunday after Trinity in 1723), I wasn’t able to choose between Herreweghe’s recordings from 1992 and 2013, but I feel the video recording from this year is the clear winner! I love the inspired singing by all four soloists, but find Alex Potter’s singing in this cantata especially stunning. In his recitative (starting at 26:23), the combination of his understanding of the text and what he can do with his voice moves me deeply. So much that when the choir basses then follow with their beautiful entrance, I am close to tears. If you feel I’m getting too sentimental here, don’t worry. My blog post from 2016 is about completely different things: a European children’s animation, a possible, “movie script scenario,” explanation of the relatively simple text in this cantata, and Bach’s recycling of the bass aria.
Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde
What a wonderful surprise that Herreweghe included this cantata (written for the 16th Sunday after Trinity but also for the Purification of Mary/Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which was February 2) in this program. It is such a beautiful and moving composition. In my blog post from this past fall I could only describe how in 2019, when programming the All Souls program for the Netherlands Bach Society, Alex Potter had the brilliant idea to combine the recorders from the Weimar version of this cantata with the sung chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End from the Leipzig version. What a delight to see that Herreweghe had adopted this exact idea for this performance in Antwerp, and that we can thus hear and see Alex Potter and Dorothee Mields perform this opening movement together. I love all the singing and playing in this cantata very much, but for me, the tenor aria can’t rival the magic of Shunske Sato accompanying Thomas Hobbs in those All Souls concerts by the Netherlands Bach Society in 2019 (as described 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.
Another St. John Passion to watch today! Available until April 13, 2020: Collegium Vocale Gent’s / Herreweghe’s dress rehearsal of the St. John Passion from Bruges, March 13.
After this rehearsal, their entire St. John tour as well as St. Matthew tour was canceled. For Baroque musicians in Europe, this time of year, with the Bach passions, is when they earn most of their money. The link to the video also includes info on how to donate to Collegium Vocale Gent, who will make sure the money is divided equally over the musicians who are otherwise not getting paid for this long period.
Julian Prégardien, tenor-evangelist Krezimir Strazanac, bass-Christ Dorothee Mields, soprano Alex Potter, countertenor Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor Peter Kooij, bass
Romina Lischka, viola da gamba
Find the German texts with English translations here, and the score, in two parts: part 1 here, and part 2 here.
Again, I urge you to support all musicians suffering enormous loss of income during this difficult time. Donate at least the money you would otherwise have spent on tickets to their performances, but if you can, give more. Take care of each other, please take social distancing seriously, keep going for walks if allowed, check in on your elderly neighbors, and wash. your. hands.
Wieneke Gorter, March 15, 2020, updated March 21, 2020.
Two weeks ago I ran out of time writing this post, but I had discovered so much about Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen (1726), that I would still very much like to share that cantata here. So I hope you don’t mind going back in time a little bit, to the Second Sunday after Epiphany, which fell on January 19 this year (2020), and on January 20 in 1726.
Before I prepare a new post, I always like to revisit previous posts I wrote about this same Sunday, and listen to those cantatas again. And it always thrills me when during this process I discover that Bach must have done this too: going back, either in his memory or in the physical stack of manuscripts, to the music he previously wrote for this same Sunday. Sometimes I only get a feeling that he did this, but other times, there’s an obvious quote either in the text or in the music.
This time I was excited to find Bach quoting music from Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? in Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen. Bach had written Cantata 155 already in Weimar in 1716, but performed it again in Leipzig in 1724, also on the Second Sunday after Epiphany.
I invite you to listen to/watch the wonderful alto-tenor duet with bassoon from Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?here, in a performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with alto Margot Oitzinger and tenor Julius Pfeifer. Note this theme in the voices:
After that duet is over, I would suggest turning off that recording for now. *
Now listen to/watch the entire recording of Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, also by the J.S. Bach Foundation here, with soprano Susanne Seitter, alto Jan Börner, tenor Jakob Pilgram, and bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich.
Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here. Please note that the English translation of the bass aria’s first line is incorrect: the translation of the German word “Sorgen” should be “worries” or “worrying”, not “care.” The correct translation is something like this:
Groaning and pitiful weeping are no help to the sickness of worrying
Pay attention to the recorder parts in the opening movement. The music has a slower tempo, and a more drawn out rhythm, but the theme is the same as in that duet from Cantata 155 you just heard:
There is more in this opening chorus of Cantata 13 that gives us a peek into Bach’s referencing process. Bach often uses recorders to introduce sorrow. Early in his career he had done this in the opening movements of Cantata 106 Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (written in 1707) and Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde(1716). Even during his first year in Leipzig, in 1723, he used this “tool” in the opening chorus of Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei(which would later form the basis for the Qui tollis from the Mass in B minor). And while from the mid 1720s most Baroque composers, including Bach himself, favored the more fashionable French transverse flutes over recorders, Bach still uses recorders to illustrate impending sorrow or death’s slumber in his Easter Oratorio (1725) and his St. Matthew Passion (1727). Click on the links to hear/watch recordings of all these examples on YouTube. Names of performers in all these are listed at the very end of this post.**
If, after listening to / watching Cantata 13 in its entirety, you are wondering why Bach’s illustration of a miracle (Jesus turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana) is so incredibly sorrowful, read my blog post about Cantata 3 here.
Wieneke Gorter, January 31, 2020, updated January 16, 2021.
* read my blog post about Cantata 155, which now includes a link to the J.S. Bach Foundation recording, here.
** Performers in the YouTube recordings of cantata/oratorio movements with recorders are:
Credits for YouTube recordings linked above:
Opening movement of Cantata 106: Netherlands Bach Society; Jos van Veldhoven, conductor; Heiko ter Schegget and Benny Aghassi, recorders; Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass.
Opening movement of Cantata 161: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; Bart Coen and Koen Dieltiens, recorders; Matthew White, alto; Herman Stinders, organ.
Opening movement of Cantata 46: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Live recording from the Festival of Saintes, France, July 15, 2013. Recorder players not specified.
Tenor aria “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” from Easter Oratorio, BWV 249: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Mark Padmore, tenor.
Tenor recitative with choir “O Schmerz, hier zittert das gequälte Herz” from St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Colin Balzer, tenor.
Jesus and Nicodemus, by Dutch painter Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn
Today’s Cantata 176 Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding,written for Trinity Sunday in 1725, marks the end of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of cantatas as well as the end of his series of nine cantatas on texts by Leipzig poet Christiana Mariana von Ziegler.
My favorite recording of this cantata is by Gustav Leonhardt, with the Leonhardt Consort, Knabenchor Hannover, and Collegium Vocale Gent. Vocal soloists are Matthias Echternach (boy soprano, soloist of the Knabenchor Hannover); Paul Esswood, countertenor; and Max van Egmond, bass. Find it here on YouTube.
Find the texts & translations here, and the score here.
The Gospel story for this day is the story Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, stating that only those who are reborn through water baptism and the Spirit (or Holy Ghost) can reach eternal life, hence the reference to Trinity. Find the text of that part of the Gospel of John here.
However, Von Ziegler doesn’t talk about the water baptism or any other aspects of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus at all, but instead focuses, four movements long, on the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. The highlight of the cantata is the soprano aria “Dein sonst hell beliebter Schein,” which very poetically embellishes on Nicodemus’ wish for the sun to go under.
Only in the last aria do the words “was Jesus verspricht” (what Jesus promises) turn up, and is there a short reference to the Holy Trinity. To make the reference more clear, the closing chorale ends with the following text, almost as a Roman doxology, so that everyone is clear that it is indeed Trinity today:
Gott Vater, Sohn und Heilger Geist,
Der Frommen Schutz und Retter,
Ein Wesen drei Personen.
(God the Father, son and holy spirit
protector and saviour of the devout
one being, three persons.)
Detail of The Arrest of Christ by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1515. San Diego Museum of Art.
As I’ve mentioned over the past few months, Bach might have initially been planning to perform a St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday in 1725 in Leipzig.
If he was indeed planning that, he didn’t finish it in time. Did he run out of time, did he have a conflict with the Leipzig City Council, or did he change his mind? We don’t know. Fact is that on Good Friday 1725 he performed a new version of his St. John Passion from the year before. The most notable difference is the new opening chorus: O, Mensch, bewein dein Sünden groß instead of the Herr, unser Herrscher from the year before.
Find Herreweghe’s recording from 2001 of that 1725 St. John Passion here on YouTube.
Soloists are: Tenor [Evangelist, Arias]: Mark Padmore; Bass [Jesus]: Michael Volle; Soprano: Sibylla Rubens; Counter-tenor: Andreas Scholl; Bass [Arias, Pilatus]: Sebastian Noack; Bass [Petrus]: Dominik Wörner; Tenor [Servus]: Malcolm Bennett; Soprano [Ancilla]: Cecile Kempenaers
But let’s just leave the St. Matthew / St. John discussion for what it is, and just look at that opening chorus. Having followed Bach’s 1724/1725 chorale cantatas in the order he wrote and performed them, it is not a stretch to consider that Bach might have been working up to this elaborate chorale fantasia since February 2. I mentioned in my post for that day that it felt as if something new was coming.
When you look at Cantatas 125, 126, 127, and 1, the four cantatas Bach wrote and performed between February 2 and March 25, you see a beautiful line-up of chorale fantasias, one even more special than the other. So perhaps there was no stress or doubt at all in Bach’s mind about what to write for Good Friday 1725, at least not as far as the opening chorus was concerned. He might have been planning for O, Mensch to open his Good Friday passion since the end of January, and might have been doing studies for it in Cantatas 125, 126, 127, and 1.
What are your five favorite cantatas? This question was asked this week on Facebook by the Residentie Bach Ensembles, the choirs and orchestra of the monthly cantata services in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague, the Netherlands. A hard question to answer, and I would probably have a different Top Five every month. However, Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, today’s cantata from 1725, will probably always be in it. The soprano aria from this cantata is forever linked in my heart and mind with the funeral service for my mother in this same Kloosterkerk in The Hague (read a bit more about that in this post), but having carefully listened to about 120 cantatas over the past two years I am struck by how special this cantata is within Bach’s oeuvre.
I’m not alone in my appreciation of Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott. Eduard van Hengel calls it an “exceptionally inspired cantata,” 19th century Bach biographer Spitta called it “perhaps the most important” cantata, and it received “the most beautiful” qualification by Arnold Schering as well as Ton Koopman.
My favorite recording of this cantata is now [update from 2021] Herreweghe’s live recording from January 31, 2021. Find it here on YouTube.
Find the text of Cantata 127 here, and the score here.
There are several reasons why this last Sunday before Lent, or Quinquagesima Sunday or Estomihi Sunday, was such an important day for Bach, and maybe especially in 1725:
This was the day, in 1723, on which he had auditioned for his job in Leipzig, with Cantatas 22 and 23, his first performance ever for the Leipzig congregation and city council. In 1724 he would repeat the same cantatas on this same Sunday.
After this Sunday, his audience (=the Leipzig congregations of the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches) would not hear any of Bach’s music until March 25, on the feast of the Annunciation of Mary. No figural music (only chorale singing) was allowed in the Lutheran churches in Leipzig during Lent (the approximately 40 days before Easter), with the exception of the Annunciation. In 1724 this period was 33 days, but in 1725 it was 41 days (from February 11 to March 25). So Bach might have wished to leave his audience with something special, something they would remember for 41 days.
If it is true that Andreas Stübel had been Bach’s librettist for his entire chorale cantata cycle, Bach would have now known that this was the last regular chorale cantata of the cycle for now: Stübel died on January 31, 1725. So perhaps Bach wanted to “go out with a bang” for that reason. It is striking to me that he chooses a bass recitative/arioso with trumpet talking about the Day of Judgement, a similar combination of voice, instrument, and subject matter he uses at the end of the Trinity period in 1723, and again (though less dramatically) at the end of the Trinity period in 1724. Is this Bach’s way of saying: this is the end of an important series?
Compared to all opening choruses that had come before, this opening chorus is the most complex and intricate. It is the same as chorale fantasias in previous chorale cantatas in the sense that the six lines of text of the chorale Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott appear in six sections, with the chorale melody (the cantus firmus) in the soprano and trumpet part. However the orchestra greatly enhances the meaning of Bach’s message by referring to this chorale plus two others. The instrumental groups (recorders, oboes, strings, and continuo) represent four musical themes referring to these chorales. Eduard van Hengel illustrates this extremely well with two diagrams on his website, which I am copying here with his permission:
(a) The recorders play a dotted rhythm which in both the St. John and St. Matthew Passions illustrates punishment and suffering. (b) The oboes introduce the “Leitmotiv” that will sound 78 times throughout the entire movement, and stands for the Herr Jesu Christ, wahr Mensch und Gott chorale. Jesus was a true (“wahr”) man and God. Probably Bach’s most important message here. (c) The strings quote the chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes, or Luther’s Agnus Dei. It would show up again in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, which Bach might already have been working on around this time, see my post about Cantata 125 last week. (d) In the continuo we hear six times the first seven notes of Ach Herr mich armen Sünder, nowadays better known as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, one of the main building stones of the St. Matthew Passion. In the seventh section of the opening chorus, when the sopranos are already done singing the chorale melody, Bach repeats this particular theme in the vocal bass line in the choir, as if to make sure that even those who might have missed the quotation earlier would now hear it loud and clear.
Van Hengel adds this extra diagram to show in which measures of the opening chorus the different themes appear:
At this point Bach might still have been planning to prepare his audiences for a first St. Matthew Passion, not abandoning that plan until much closer to March 30, Good Friday, 1725. Not only are the references in this opening chorus a striking example of that, but also in the extraordinary bass recitative/aria do we see the theme of the SindBlitze, sind Donner chorus from the St. Matthew Passion appear on the text “Ich breche mit starker und helfender Hand.”
Regular followers of this blog will notice that Bach had been making a study for this bass recitative/aria in the previous three cantatas: combining lines of the chorale text with “free” text in the bass solo of Cantatas 92 and 125, and then using SindBlitze, sind Donner material and trumpet accompaniment in the bass solo in Cantata 126.
Wieneke Gorter, February 10, 2018, updated February 22, 2020 and February 13, 2021.
* Herreweghe’s album “Jesu, deine Passion” features cantatas 22, 23, 127, and 159. Cantata 23 has exceptionally beautiful choruses and Cantata 22 represents the first introduction of Bach’s version of the “Vox Christi”(voice of Christ) to the Leipzig congregations, considered by some as an intentional preparation for the listeners of what would be to come in the Passions. Cantata 159 on this album is fantastic too, with an unrivaled interpretation by Peter Kooij of the fourth movement, the bass aria “Es ist vollbracht.”
“Adoration of the Magi” triptych of Jan Floreins by Hans Memling, 1479. Memling Museum (Old St. John’s Hospital), Bruges, Belgium. The right-hand panel features “The Presentation at the Temple,” with the Temple really being the former St. Donaas church in Bruges.
If you are reading this in the email you received from WordPress, please click on the title of this post to enjoy the paintings and the formatting 🙂
This post is almost two days late, as it was for Friday February 2, the feast of the Purification of Mary, or Candle Mass, or Presentation at the Temple. If you have time, please read how this holiday was strongly connected to folk culture in my post from last year. In Lutheran reality, this was the day when Simeon’s song of praise Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren or Nunc Dimittis was celebrated. With his chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin Luther turned Simeon’s song of praise into a message of “Now I can die in peace.” This is why all five cantatas (The famous Ich habe genug 82, 83, 125, 157, and 158) Bach wrote for this holiday are mostly about the joy of dying.
Since I’m following Bach’s chorale cantata writing in Leipzig in 1725, I’m featuring Cantata 125 Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, written for February 2 of that year, and based on that same chorale by Luther.
My favorite overall recording of this cantata is Herreweghe’s recording from 1998, with Ingeborg Dantz, alto; Mark Padmore, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass. You can find it here on YouTube. Please consider supporting the artists by purchasing the album on Amazon or on iTunes. It also includes the stunning Cantata 8 (Herreweghe’s personal favorite!) and the beautiful Cantata 138.
Please find the German text with English translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
There are some similarities with last week’s cantata, such as the bass solo that is made up of bits of recitative and bits of chorale melody, but already in the opening chorus a new day is dawning. If you read the history of today’s holiday in my post from last year, you know that Candle Mass was a natural time of year to start with something new.
Could the new inspiration in Bach’s brain be the St. Matthew Passion? It is not unlikely at all. Van Hengel suggests that the opening chorus has elements of the St. Matthew opening chorus, but then argues that that piece was not written yet in 1725. However, Gardiner (in his book Music in the Castle of Heaven) makes a strong case that Bach might have initially planned to have the St. Matthew Passion ready for Good Friday 1725. I’ve pointed out before that we can find preludes to the “Great Passion” in Bach’s cantatas as far back as the fall of 1723 (see posts about cantatas 105 and 46), so it is not unlikely that Bach was working on this in January 1725.
Keeping all this in mind, it is striking that the first aria after the opening chorus is an alto aria in St. Matthew style, full of pietism. Watch a very young Alex Potter (keep reading to find out more about him) sing this aria with the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. The instrumentation resembles the “Aus Liebe” soprano aria from the St. Matthew Passion: there are no organ chords in the bass, only repeated cello notes, and for the rest it is just flute and oboe da caccia, an unusual combination.
Because of the many connections with this Cantata 125 I’m now going to sneak in a mini review of the Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale concerts I attended in Europe this past week.
Applause at the end of the concert in the Eglise St. Roch in Paris, January 30, 2018. From left to right in front row: Peter Kooij, Thomas Hobbs, Philippe Herreweghe, Alex Potter, Dorothee Mields. Photo by Aube Neau/Luc Barrière, published with permission.
Let’s take the alto aria from Cantata 125. I call this type of aria a “floating aria” because it has no real basso continuo: there is no melodic line in the cello or chords in the organ, i.e. no foundation for the singer to stand on. These floating arias are incredibly beautiful and the stuff of goose bumps, but also incredibly challenging for the vocal soloist. In the terrific concert in Paris on Tuesday January 30, soprano Dorothee Mields had two such arias: the “Qui tollis” from the Mass in A Major (BWV 234)* and the “Wir zittern und wanken” from Cantata 105. She did an absolutely marvelous job in both of them, but her singing was the most mesmerizing in the “Wir zittern und wanken” aria. Cantata 105 stood out during that Paris performance anyway in my humble opinion. It simply has the best opening chorus of all cantatas Collegium Vocale performed in the three concerts I attended. On top of that, the group (including soloists Thomas Hobbs and Peter Kooij) recorded this in 2012, and you could tell it was still in everyone’s bones and it was a pleasure to see Herreweghe direct the strings as well as the soloists. One of my favorite bass ariosos occurs in that cantata (it makes me think of the “Am Abend da es kühle war” from the St. Matthew) and Peter Kooij’s strong rendition almost made me cry.
Detail of right-hand wing of the “Adoration of the Magi” Jan Floreins triptych by Hans Memling, showing the Presentation at the Temple, or Mary presenting Jesus to Simeon
And then on to countertenor Alex Potter. It was in Bruges’ St. John’s Hospital museum that I saw the Memling painting featured in this post, and this is also where I ran into Alex Potter and was able to tell him how much I enjoyed his singing on Friday January 26. During the concert in Paris on January 30 he even sang a soprano recitative, in that wonderful cantata 105, and did an excellent job at it. But his most impressive performance was the “Quoniam” aria from the Mass in A Major (BWV 234)**, which I heard in Bruges on Sunday January 28 and again in Paris on Tuesday January 30. He had a clear understanding of the text, made the music soar, and seemed to passionately enjoy what he was doing. It was a joy to watch and listen to.
Since I was a very small child, the word “Jubeljahr” (Year of Jubilee) has stood out to me when listening to Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein. I already mentioned this a bit in my post from last year. So on the second to last day of 2017, I did some research into this concept of Jubeljahr, and realized that perhaps Bach might have liked the word too. Keep reading to find out why.
My favorite recording of this cantata is the one by Herreweghe from 1995 with soprano Vasiljka Jezovsek, alto Sarah Connolly, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooij. Find it here on YouTube. Find the text of cantata 122 here, and the score here.
In 1724, there was a Sunday in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, (a first for Bach in Leipzig*) and it fell exactly on New Year’s Eve. The upcoming New Year was not just any year. For the Catholic church 1725 was going to be a Holy Year, Year of Jubilee, or “Jubeljahr” as they called it in German.** While Bach was Lutheran, chances are high that he was aware of the Catholic tradition and thus of the extra importance of this last Sunday of the calendar year. The nearby court of Dresden was Catholic, most of the Marian feast days were still celebrated, only a year before Bach had written a Magnificat (Mary’s song of praise) for Christmas, and many medieval customs were still present.
Because of all this, I would like to think that Bach wanted to mark this special occasion, and might have chosen the chorale Das neugeborne Kindelein from 1597 on purpose for his cantata for this day, because of the mention of “Jubeljahr” in the last verse. Whether the original writer of the chorale might have alluded to the Lutheran belief that the union of God with people makes every year a Jubilee, or to the then upcoming Jubilee and turn of the century in 1600, I don’t know. But nowhere else in Bach’s cantata oeuvre is do we see the word “Jubeljahr.”
The text of the chorale builds on the early medieval tradition of melting the story of Jesus’ birth with the celebration of the New Year, talking about the newborn baby Jesus at the same time as announcing that the year has ended and this is a true Jubilee.
However Bach and his librettist don’t go all the way with the medieval world view: They change the original text of the third verse of the chorale, used for the fourth movement of the cantata, Trotz Türken, Papst und Höllen Pfort (Despite Turks,the Pope and the gates of hell) into Trotz Teufel und der Höllen Pfort (Despite the devil and the gates of hell). In 1725 the fear for a Turkish invasion was probably not as palpable as it had been in 1597, when the chorale was originally written.
Other things to listen for in cantata 122: The amazing high c in the soprano recitative. The leap of a fifth from f to c and then the octave back to c in the soprano recitative on the words “Die Engel” (the angels) had actually just occurred one movement earlier, two octaves lower, in the bass aria, on the words “O Menschen” (Oh people). Gardiner says this musical illustration that heaven/angels (high voice and highest instruments: recorders) and earth/people (low voice and cello) become one makes him think of the angels and men hugging in the forefront of Mystic Nativity by Botticelli, and this is why I decided to feature that as the illustration for today’s blog post.
Wieneke Gorter, December 30, 2017
*In 1723, Bach’s first year in Leipzig, the Sunday after Christmas was December 26, Second Christmas Day.
** The concept of “Jubeljahr” comes from the Old Testament, where Leviticus describes that after 7×7 years, you sould celebrate a Year of Jubilee, the 50th year. However in1470 Pope Paul II issued a Bull to fix the Jubilee for every twenty-five years, starting in 1475, so that every generation could have a Jubilee.