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).
This is an extended lesson, in several steps, but please bear with me, it’s worth it and you get to watch or listen to some excellent videos. Happy learning and listening!
This 16th Sunday after Trinity seems to be “chorale Sunday” for Bach. His cantatas for this Sunday (161, 95, 8, and 27) either contain a high number of chorales, or are centered around an important chorale. Read for example about the four (!) chorales in Cantata 95 Christus, der ist mein Leben from 1723 in this blog post. Already in 1716, in Weimar, Bach put great emphasis on the chorale in the first cantata he ever wrote for this Sunday, Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde.
Why this stress on chorales? In his book about Anna Magdalena Bach, David Yearsley suggests it has something to do with widows. The Bible story for this Sunday is the Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s son. Based on contemporary sermons, Yearsley concludes that this 16th Sunday after Trinity was seen as some sort of National Widow Day, and wonders why no Bach scholar ever discusses this in relation to these cantatas. On page 207 of his book, he says: “Even by Bachian standards, this group of cantatas is dense with chorales, the singing of which was one crucial way for widows to make their lives bearable; melodies and texts buttressed single women’s emotional well-being and held off melancholy.”
The crucial role the chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End (My heart is filled with longing to pass away in peace) plays in Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde from 1716 brings me to Part II of my review of the All Souls production by the Netherlands Bach Society in the Fall of 2019, guest-directed by Alex Potter. (Part I is here). That program included the absolute best performance of Cantata 161 I have ever heard. Unfortunately, none of the performances were recorded.
I will discuss two good alternatives for recordings later, but first I would like to introduce* Alex Potter with this video by the Netherlands Bach Society. In this video, Potter talks about the countertenor voice, and explains how he came to be a countertenor. It’s a lovely and very accessible interview. But for me, the best are the snippets of rehearsals for the All Souls program. It’s cold comfort for the absence of a complete All of Bach recording, but for a few seconds, you can see Potter perform the alto recitative from Cantata 161 with the superb band he had put together for this : the dramatic so schlage doch section around 1’38” and the start of the recitative around 7’12”. Other singers in this recording are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Stephan McLeod, bass.
The chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End features prominently in the opening movement of Cantata 161, is referred to in the tenor aria, and then comes back in the final movement. It was an important chorale for Bach, and he used it often. Watch this 3-minute explanation by organist Matthias Havinga on how earthly misery gets replaced by heavenly paradise in the chorale prelude (BWV 727) of the same name, also written in Weimar. **
Potter wanted to make absolutely sure that the Netherlands Bach Society audience members, who all have St. Matthew Passion running through their veins, would not hear this tune as O Haupt voll Blut und wunden:
“It is NOT ‘O Haupt’ – indeed in hymnals from the time, ‘O Haupt’ is often listed to be sung to the melody of ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’,” he explained a few days after the concerts, when I had written him to ask about some of his choices.
By the time Bach repeated this cantata in Leipzig, probably sometime in the late 1720s or in the 1730s, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden had become much better known, and Bach might have had a similar concern as Alex Potter had in 2019: he wanted to make sure the congregation would have the correct chorale, and thus the correct message in mind.
In the original Weimar version from 1716, the chorale melody in the opening chorus was played, without words, on the organ. Listeners would have heard the words in their heads. For a wonderful example of this version, listen to Herreweghe’s recording here on YouTube, or here on Spotify. Soloists on this recording are Matthew White, countertenor, and Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor.
Bach’s later Leipzig solution: He replaced the organ part with a soprano part, using the first verse of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. For an example of this version, with all sopranos singing the chorale, watch the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Please note another typical Leipzig change here: recorders were replaced by the more fashionable transverse flutes. Soloists in this recording are Alex Potter, countertenor, and Daniel Johanssen, tenor.
It makes that you hear these two texts at the same time, which is very special:
Komm, du süße Todesstunde, Da mein Geist Honig speist Aus des Löwen Munde; Mache meinen Abschied süße, Säume nicht, Letztes Licht, Dass ich meinen Heiland küsse.
Come, sweet hour of death, when my spirit feeds on honey from the lion’s mouth; make my departure sweet, do not delay, last light so that I may kiss my saviour.
Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End; weil ich hie bin umfangen mit Trübsal und Elend. Ich hab Lust abzuscheiden von dieser argen Welt; sehn mich noch ew’gen Freuden: o Jesu, komm nur bald.
My heart is filled with longing To pass away in peace; For woes are round me thronging, And trials will not cease. O fain would I be hasting From thee, dark world of gloom, To gladness everlasting; O Jesus, quickly come!
Alex Potter’s 2019 solution: Use the soprano part from the Leipzig version, sung solo by the incomparable Dorothee Mields, but keep the recorders from the Weimar version.
A pragmatic solution, as Potter explained partly in the program book: recorder player Benny Aghassi was available; partly in his message to me: “I think that for a modern audience having the voice cut through a bit more makes it clearer – also with the text. I also think that any opportunity to hear more Dorothee Mields is worth it, and I got to sing with her as an added bonus.”
It turned out to be a brilliant one. If you have ever watched and heard Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter sing a duet, you know that that is pure heaven. I also truly prefer the somewhat more penetrating sound of recorders over the sweet tones of the flutes in all the movements of this cantata that they appear in (alto aria, alto recitative, chorus, and closing chorale), but especially in the illustration of the death bells in the text “so schlage doch, du letzter Stundenschlag!” (therefore sound, stroke of the last hour!)***
And, in those concerts in the Netherlands in 2019, we got to hear even more Dorothee Mields. In an extra effort to set the audience up with the correct chorale, Alex Potter had her sing Johann Hermann Schein’s setting of Herzlich tut mich verlangen right before the cantata started. Especially in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague on Sunday November 3 this was an event: She stood in a very humble location behind the stage, almost tucked into a corner next to the stairs leading up to the pulpit, hidden from view for probably half the audience. Then, during the instrumental introduction to the Bach cantata, she very slowly climbed the stairs to the pulpit, and then sang the chorale from there during the opening aria. It was as Bach intended: to die for.
Update from 2021: there now is an extremely inspired Herreweghe recording with Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter singing this opening movement together, i.e. Herreweghe adopting Potter’s idea from 2019. I was so happy to see this. It was recorded live at De Singel in Antwerp on Sunday January 31, 2021 (during the Covid19 pandemic, so without audience). Find it here.
I mentioned before that Herzlich tut mich verlangen is also referenced in the tenor aria. It is not just with the word “Verlangen” in the text, but also with the “figura suspirans” (or longing in the music, as explained in the organ video of Matthias Havinga mentioned above) that is present here too, in the tenor part as well in the violin part. The effect Shunske Sato’s longing style of playing had on Thomas Hobbs’ singing in this aria was out of this world. Thomas Hobbs really needs a shout-out for his role in this All Souls production, even though I’m writing this so long after the fact. I’ve seen him several times in concerts with Herreweghe, and his stage presence has always been an inspiration to me, but I was especially impressed by his singing in these performances. The way he sang the sentence “Der blasse Tod ist meine Morgenröte” in the tenor recitative of Cantata 161 was unrivaled. And in the first half of the program, Hobbs and his laser-beam long notes were the star of Rosenmüller’s Dies Irae and the Gregorian Requiem that preceded it.
Wieneke Gorter, September 26, 2020, updated February 13, 2021.
* Since I first heard Alex Potter live in 2018, I have written many posts about his extraordinary interpretations of Bach’s music. You can find most of them by typing Alex Potter into the search bar at the top of this post. The top three, in my humble opinion, are here, here, and here.
** Find the video of the entire organ prelude (BWV 727) here.
***Bach illustrates death bells in instrumentation, often using flutes, but sometimes only pizzicato strings, in cantatas 73, 8, 95, 105, 127, and 198.
We don’t have any letters in which Bach writes about his own compositions, so we officially don’t know which ones were his own favorites. But when we see which cantatas he gave a “second life” in another work, and which cantatas were performed by his sons, we can make an educated guess.
Two of these cantatas, Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei (from 1723) and Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! (from 1726), were written for this Sunday, the 10th after Trinity.
Bach gave the opening chorus from Cantata 46Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei a second life in the Qui Tollis in his Mass in B minor. Find a YouTube video of just that opening chorus, from Herreweghe’s performance at the 2013 Saintes Festival in France, here. Find my post from 2016 about this cantata, with links to translations, score, and my favorite recording here.
Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! received even more second lives (see table below), and was performed at least twice in Hamburg by Bach’s second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. My favorite performance of this cantata was the one by Herreweghe I attended in January 2018 at the Bruges Bach Festival, with Dorothee Mields, Alex Potter, Thomas Hobbs, and Peter Kooij. Alas there is no recording of this. Of all recordings currently available, my favorite is here on YouTube, by oboist Marcel Ponseele’s Ensemble Il Gardellino, with Damien Guillon, countertenor; Marcus Ullman, tenor; and Lieven Termont, bass. Especially the Aria Weh der Seele, die den Schaden by countertenor Damien Guillon and oboist Marcel Ponseele (both pictured at the top of this post) is to die for, and this combination of singer and oboist is simply unrivaled by any other recordings.
Find the texts & translations of Cantata 102 here, and the score here.
Movement from Cantata 102
Movement in later work
Opening chorus of the Missa Brevis in g minor, BWV 235
Soprano aria “Qui tollis peccata mundi” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
Alto aria “Quoniam to solus sanctus” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
A little more about the early “revival” of this cantata by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. In 1768, C.Ph.E. Bach succeeded Telemann as music director of the five largest churches in Hamburg, and remained in that position until his death in 1788. As such, he performed a handful of his father’s cantatas, albeit with adaptations. In 1776 or 1777 as well as in 1781, he performed Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!
These early “promotions” of this cantata must have inspired more performances or at least discussions about them, and eventually this composition along with some other cantatas likely reached the circle around Mendelssohn. In 1830, shortly after Mendelssohn’s Berlin revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, Adolf Bernhard Marx published three Bach cantatas BWV nrs 101, 102, and 103. It was the firsts time since 1709 that a Bach cantata appeared in print.
In my humble opinion, the best cantata Bach wrote for this 9th Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 105 Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht. This cantata has one of the best opening choruses Bach ever wrote, and I find the soprano aria and the bass arioso very moving. And as far as interpretations and recordings of this cantata go, for me, Herreweghe’s always rises above all others. In my post from 2016 I discuss his 1992 and 2012 recordings of this cantata. Please find that post here. It has all the links for recordings, texts & translations, and score, it tells you what to listen for in the music, and also explains why this Cantata 105 was Bach’s first real Leipzig cantata.
In January 2018, I had the good fortune to attend three Bach cantata concerts by Herreweghe, the first two in Bruges, the third one in Paris.* The program in Paris featured Cantata 105, everyone was in top form, and it was terrific to see Herreweghe conduct this piece that he and his ensemble know so well. It made me wish for a third Herreweghe recording of this cantata, because Dorothee Mields (not singing on the 1992 or 2012 recording), was mesmerizing in the “Wir zittern und wanken” aria and Peter Kooij’s strong rendition of the bass arioso almost brought me to tears.
Wieneke Gorter, August 8, 2020.
*To read more about these concerts in Bruges and Paris, find my posts from January 2018 here and here.
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.
Between Estomihi Sunday (or the last Sunday before Lent) and Good Friday, there were 47 days in 1729. During that entire time the Leipzig congregations would hear no music in the churches, except for chorales. So Bach’s last music had to be as memorable as possible, had to give them hope, and ideally also prepare them for the St. Matthew Passion they would get to hear on Good Friday.
Bach successfully checked all these boxes with Cantata 159 Sehet! wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem. And leave it to alto Alex Potter to bring all this out in a performance. Opera-like drama, heart-breaking emotion, the promise of hope and redemption, it is all there in his singing, and in that voice with the beautiful variety of colors.
Listen to / watch the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soprano: Miriam Feuersinger; Alto: Alex Potter; Tenor: Thomas Hobbs; Bass: Stephan MacLeod. Read some comments by Alex Potter on this cantata here on the AllofBach website.
Find the German texts with English translations here, and the score here.
The Herreweghe recording deserves a mention here too. Dorothee Mields’ singing in the duet with Matthew White is very moving, and Peter Kooij’s interpretation of the bass aria “Es ist vollbracht” on this recording is unrivaled. Find that recording here on YouTube, but better yet, support the artists and purchase the entire album Jesu, deine Passion here on Amazon or here on iTunes. It contains all four cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday, and they are all excellent. Read more about Cantatas 127, 22, and 23 in my blogpost from 2018 here.
Wieneke Gorter, February 22, 2020, updated February 13, 2021.
On the Road to Emmaus by Duccio, 1308-1311. Museo del’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy.
After the rewritten St. John Passion on Good Friday (read more about this in my post from this past Friday) and the “recycled” birthday cantata with new recitatives for the Easter-Oratorio (read more about this in yesterday’s post), Bach was now, in 1725, getting ready for performances of three new cantatas that form a beautiful sub-group within the cantatas of the 1724/1725 cycle.
Cantata 6 Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden for Easter Monday (Bible story: Jesus appeared before two of his disciples while they were walking on the road to Emmaus).
Cantata 42 Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, for the first Sunday after Easter (Bible story: while a small group of his disciples are inside a house in Jerusalem, with all the doors and windows locked, Jesus appears in their midst).
Gardiner believes that in Bach’s ideal plan, these cantatas were actually meant for the Easter season in 1724, not in 1725. In his book “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” he explains why cantata 6, 42, 67 and 85 share more characteristics with other 1724 cantatas, and were thus probably planned for that year. When Bach got behind with cantata composing because of the Passion according to St. John in 1724, he must have tabled the ideas for 6, 42, and 85 for 1725, and only wrote 67 in 1724.
My favorite recording of Cantata 6 Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden is by Herreweghe, recorded live at a concert on June 12, 2014 in the Eglise Saint-Roch in Paris. Find the recording (audio only) here on YouTube.
Soloists are Dorothee Mields (soprano), Damien Guillon (countertenor), and Peter Kooij (bass).
There is no cantata for this Sunday, as no figural music was allowed in Leipzig in the 40 days before Easter, with the exception of the feast of the Annunciation (March 25).
For me this means I now finally have time to share some of what I learned during the Bach Festival in Bruges. On Friday January 26 I attended an all-day lecture by Professor Ignace Bossuyt about how Bach “reworked” his own music and the music of others in his compositions. The biggest eye-opener for me was that all Bach’s “Schübler Chorales” for organ (named after their publisher, Johann Georg Schübler) from 1747/1748 are actually arrangements of movements from Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of cantatas I have been discussing on this blog since June 2017.
While I am not an organist at all, I did grow up in the land of organs and miss hearing them. My mother comes from a family of organists on her mother’s side. When other little boys dreamed of cars, my father dreamed of being an organist and built organ keyboards from blocks at home and would pretend to play them (sadly because of class perception his parents didn’t deem it appropriate to send him for lessons). Thus my parents were extremely picky where we went to church – there had to be a good organist. So I heard my share of Bach chorale preludes and Schübler Chorales, even before I knew what they were.
Because of the funeral service for my mother in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague I already referred to last week, I also have a soft spot for Bach’s “Schübler Chorale” BWV 645, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, because the incomparable Jan Hage (now organist at the Dom Church in Utrecht) played this at the end of the service, as we were walking out behind the coffin. This music, together with smiles of dear friends we passed by, gave me great comfort at a moment that could otherwise have been unbearable. Listen to this chorale, played by Jan Hage on that same organ of the Kloosterkerk in The Hague, here on YouTube. Another wonderful, and historically significant, performance of this chorale by Ton Koopman, on the Silbermann organ* (1714) in the Freiberg Cathedral, Germany, can be found here on YouTube. Bach and Silbermann knew each other, and Bach might have played on this organ too.
What I didn’t know until Professor Bossuyt’s lecture is that this piece of music was taken from the fourth movement of Cantata 140 with the same title. This cantata is officially not part of the 1724/1725 cycle, but in Bach’s head in 1747 it probably was. Bach wrote Cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme in 1731, most likely in an attempt to leave a complete chorale cantata cycle for posterity. During the chorale cantata cycle of 1724/1725, there had been no 26th or 27th Sunday after Trinity (by that time it was already Advent and it is of course no coincidence that Bach uses an Advent chorale in this cantata). Watch the tenor solo from this Cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme by all the tenors and baritones of the Amsterdam Baroque Choir (on a live recording conducted by Ton Koopman) here on YouTube.
I have two more beautiful examples of how Bach arranged an existing chorale cantata movements into his “Schübler Chorales”:
Bach turned the fourth movement of Cantata 93 Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten into the Schübler Chorale with the same title, BWV 647. Watch the duet from Cantata 93 by the J.S. Bach Foundation with soprano Miriam Feuersinger and alto Jan Börner here on Youtube. Watch the Schübler chorale played by Michael Schultheis on the organ of the Basilica in Seligenstadt, Germany, here on YouTube.
The last example is from a cantata that is nowadays not considered a true chorale cantata, but if Bach used it for the Schübler chorales, we can assume that he himself did regard it as such. It is Cantata 6 Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden for Easter Monday in 1725. Hear Dorothee Mields sing the third movement from Cantata 6 live here on YouTube. Then listen here on YouTube to Dutch organist Wim van Beek play the Schübler Chorale with the same title, BWV 549, on the historic Schnitger-Hinsz organ (1740) in the Martini church in Groningen, The Netherlands.
Wieneke Gorter, February 17, 2018, links updated December 2, 2019
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.”