Excerpt from the manuscript of the alto part for cantata 33 (copied out by Bach’s student Johann Andreas Kuhnau), Leipzig Bach-Archive.
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 probably moves 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 working on how 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 this alto aria on the moving text. Click on the 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 “love duet,” completely with parallel thirds and sixths that were used for 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 🙂
Listen to the entire cantata, performed by Bach Collegium Japan (with Robin Blaze, countertenor; Gerd Türk, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass), here on Spotify. Find the text here, and the score here.
Wieneke Gorter, September 8, 2017
*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.
In my effort to follow Bach’s compositions in the order in which he wrote them in 1724, I sometimes get a bit confused, because in 2017 the Sundays of the church year are exactly one week later than in 1724. Where it gets tricky is around the Feast days of St. John and the Visitation of Mary, which are always on the same date: June 24 and July 2 respectively.
See how the dates of 1724 compare to the dates of 2017 in this table here below, and you’ll understand my dilemma for today: in Bach’s time, if the feast of the Visitation fell on a Sunday, it would cancel out the theme and thus the cantata for that Sunday. That is why there is no cantata for Trinity 4 from 1724, and why Weekly Cantata will be on break next week.
So officially, I should present you only with the cantata for the feast of the Visitation today, but since we are listening in order of 1724, I give you some highlights of cantata 135 Ach Herr mich armen Sünder first. My favorite recording of this cantata is by Bach Collegium Japan with countertenor Pascal Bertin, tenor Gerd Türk and bass Peter Kooij.
While the boy sopranos have a bit more work in the opening chorus (as was the case the last two weeks), there is again no soprano aria in this cantata. The Leipzig congregations haven’s heard a soprano solo since Trinity Sunday.
But then, on July 2, 1724, they get to hear the cantata for the feast of the Visitation: cantata 10 Meine Seel erhebt den Herren. With a soprano aria directly after the opening chorus, and a virtuoso one too. It might be that a talented new student had enrolled in the school, or Bach was finally ready training one, or there is a talented boy visiting for the holiday.* There is a very nice live video of Ton Koopman performing this in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig during the Bach Festival there in 2003, with Deborah York singing the soprano aria.
Wieneke Gorter, July 1, 2017, updated March 26, 2020.
*Read more about the possibility of musicians visiting for this feast day in my post from last year about the Visitation. Read more about the soprano problem in this post.
Pietà (It is enough) / Pietà (Es ist genug), plate 11 from a series of 11 lithographs O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort by Oskar Kokoschka, 1914/1916. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In Vienna, they were all talking about Bach’s cantata 60 O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort. The astonishing harmonization in the closing chorale as well as the structure of a “dialogue” between Fear (alto) and Hope (tenor) made it one of the most unusual among his cantatas, and apparently something worth discussing. In the first half of the 20th century, that is. In 1935 Alban Berg used the “modern” harmonization from the closing chorale Es ist genug in the final movement of his violin concerto To the Memory of an Angel–an instrumental Requiem for Manon Gropius, daughter of Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and Mahler’s widow, Alma Schindler.
Several years before, the same Alma Schindler had a short-lived affair with Czech painter Oskar Kokoschka. After they broke up, Kokoschka processed his torment by making a series of 11 lithographs to illustrate the cantata. The dialogue between Fear (the alto) and Hope (the tenor) in the cantata became a dialogue between Alma and himself, in pictures only: click here to see the entire series. Many thanks to Eduard van Hengel for pointing this out.
Listen to Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of this cantata on Spotify, with countertenor Robin Blaze and tenor Gerd Türk. Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
Bach wrote this cantata 60 O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort for the 24th Sunday after Trinity in 1723, the Sunday normally linked to the Gospel story of the Raising of Jairus’ Daughter. However, in 1723–as now in 2016–this day fell on the first Sunday in November: All Hallows Sunday, All Saints Sunday, however you want to call it, but the Sunday on which the congregation would have commemorated all who had passed away that year. None of the commentaries I have read mention this, but I think it is important, because I feel this cantata is much more about how horrible it might be to die, or the thoughts one has when sitting at a loved one’s deathbed, than it is about the Raising of Jairus’ Daughter.
Of all the recordings I listened to, I like Bach Collegium Japan’s the best, because of Robin Blaze’s interpretation of the alto part. I always love his voice, but he is usually quite understated in his singing. He explains this well in this interview on San Francisco Classical Voice. I sometimes wish he would indeed sing with Kate Bush and “let go” a little, so I was thrilled to hear that in this cantata he actually does go a bit wild, for his standards at least, and that Suzuki lets him do it. His conviction in the opening chorale is already terrific (also note the wonderful blend with the horn doubling his part), but the way he sings the text “Und martert diese Glieder” (and tortures these limbs) in movement 2 is amazing, spot-on, and unrivaled by any others I listened to.
As we have seen before in the course of these 1723 Trinity Season cantatas (read for example my post on cantata 105) there are elements of Bach’s passions already present in this cantata. The agitated singing of the tenor in the stunningly beautiful duet (movement 3) resembles the Ach, mein Sinn! tenor aria from the St. John Passion. The repeated tremolo in the violins in movement 1 is something Bach often uses to illustrate fear, and this will show up again in the tenor arioso O Schmerz! Hier zittert das gequälte Herz in his St. Matthew Passion.
For further reading, including all the amazing harmonies in this piece which impressed the Viennese composers of the early 20th century, as well as other insights, I can highly recommend Gardiner’s journal entry about this cantata (start reading on page 5).
Sleeping girl in a landscape, after Bernhard Keil, 17th century. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany.
In the first version of this post, I argued that cantata 148 Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens for the 17th Sunday after Trinity was written in 1723, dismissing the statements of several scholars it was probably written in 1725. I agreed with them that this cantata is a bit “out of place” between the somber but extremely beautiful and compelling cantatas of Trinity 16 and Trinity 19, and that the text looks very similar to a poem by Picander, the librettist with whom Bach did not collaborate before 1725. However, I was not convinced by their third argument that Bach’s writing in the opening chorus would be too “new” for 1723, and at first I didn’t see how Bach could have practically written the cantata in 1725.
I suggested that Bach was too busy in 1725, coming back from a trip to Dresden right before this cantata had to be performed on September 23 of that year. But when I discussed this idea with Eduard van Hengel, he reminded me that Bach would have had plenty of time to compose a cantata well ahead of his trip to Dresden, since–as far as we know–he had not written a new cantata since August 26. So that was argument number 4 for placing this cantata in 1725 instead of 1723.
Argument number 5 presented itself to me while I did my research for cantata 83, reading Pieter Dirksen’s article on Bach’s writing for violin in his first Leipzig cycle of cantatas. Dirksen points out that Bach’s new compositions from 1723 don’t feature virtuoso parts for violin at all. He suggests the reason for this is that Bach’s orchestra in Leipzig (including Bach himself*) was missing a violinist who could play technically challenging music.
After reading Dirksen’s article on Bach’s connection with the Dresden violinist Pisendel, and knowing that soon after Trinity 17 it would be Michaelmas, I got excited: the cantata 148 story was coming full circle! So now I no longer see Bach juggling ink and parchment on the coach back from Dresden to Leipzig on Saturday September 22, 1725, but instead I see a friend in that coach with him: Pisendel. If it is true that Pisendel visited Leipzig for the Purification of Mary holiday in 1724, as Dirksen suggests, it is not far-fetched to assume he would do so again for the feast of Michaelmas in 1725 (on September 29, so only six days after Trinity 17 in 1725). St. Michael’s Fair was a huge event in Leipzig, drawing visitors from as far as England and Poland, increasing the city’s population to 30,000, and thus also increasing the “audiences” for Bach’s music in the churches.
For this cantata, I prefer the recording by Bach Collegium Japan, with soloists Robin Blaze (countertenor), Gerd Türk (tenor), Toshio Shimada (trumpet), and Natsumi Wakamatsu (violin). Listen to this recording on Spotify or support the artists and purchase the album on Amazon.com, Amazon.de, or Amazon.fr. Find the score here.
The text of cantata 148 Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens talks about the importance of coming to church on Sunday, and listening to the music in the church (tenor recitative and aria), but it also talks about taking a day of rest (alto aria).
While the opening chorus is exceptional, it doesn’t sound very polished or “finished.” Gardiner, while otherwise excited about it, is not satisfied with the ending, and suggests that “perhaps Anna Magdalena called from the kitchen that dinner was on the table and the soup was getting cold.” What can I say? Only a male writer would say this!
The virtuoso violin part shows up in the tenor aria. On this recording of Bach Collegium Japan, played by Natsumi Wakamatsu, it moves me to tears. Whoever played this in 1725, this person was not resting on Sunday …
Wieneke Gorter, originally written September 18, 2016; revised February 4, 2017.
*In his article Dirksen explains in details how Bach went through the trouble of making the violin solo of cantata 76 relatively easy to play for an intermediate violinist, and suggests Bach was a good violinist, but perhaps not such a virtuoso as many believe him to be. (Dirksen’s article appears on pages 135-156 of “Bachs 1. Leipziger Kantantenjahrgang: Bericht über das 3. Dortmunder Bach-Symposion 2000” — Dortmund: Klangfarben Musikverlag, 2002)
On July 2, eight days after Johannis(St. John, the birthday of John the Baptist), the churches in Leipzig celebrated Mariä Heimsuchung (or Visitation of Mary, celebrating the story of a newly pregnant Mary going “back home” to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was six months further along, carrying John the Baptist). It is one of the few Marian feast days the Lutheran Church kept on their calendar, and which is still celebrated on July 2.*
For this holiday in 1723, Bach reworked a short Advent cantata from Weimar into a longer, two-part cantata, with a chorale at the end of each half. This cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben is a truly beautiful and memorable cantata, and for many more reasons than just the famous closing chorale Jesus bleibet meine Freude. What actually stands out the most for me is the incredible trumpet part in the opening chorus and the bass aria, and the beautiful violin accompaniment of the gorgeous soprano aria. All these movements are from the original Weimar composition, which contained only the arias, the opening chorus, and a different closing chorale (we don’t know which one). For the Leipzig performance, Bach changed the order of the arias, added recitatives to reflect the Gospel reading of the story of the visitation and Mary’s praise to God (the Magnificat), and added a new closing chorale at the end of each half of the cantata.
I recommend the recording by Bach Collegium Japan of this cantata 147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, with wonderful singing by soprano Yukari Nohoshita, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Gerd Türk, an excellent performance by bass Peter Kooy, and fabulous playing by Toshio Shimada (trumpet) and Ryo Terakado (violin). Listen to this recording on Spotify.
Support the artists and purchase this CD on Amazon.
If you don’t have access to Spotify, or would love to watch a live performance, I recommend the YouTube video by the J.S. Bach Foundation (Bach Stiftung), with with Hana Blažiková, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Follow the German text with English translations here.
Continuing on the path of the wild hypothesis I made last week, that many of Bach’s colleagues and students would be in town for these two weeks of holidays, let’s now imagine that many of these visitors were playing in the orchestra for this week’s cantata, thus creating a situation where all orchestra seats were filled, and the musically gifted among the choir boys could actually sing in the choir. Of course I don’t know if this is what happened, and if Bach maybe even planned it this way, but I hope you’ll allow me this indulgence. (We do know from later letters that choir members often had to fill the many vacancies in the orchestra).
Several scholars have suggested that Bach recycled/reworked so many of his Weimar cantatas in the first months in Leipzig because he was overwhelmed. But what if he just really wanted to show off these Weimar cantatas to the Leipzig congregation? Especially the ones originally written for Advent, since he knew he would not be able to perform those in Leipzig at all. (No figural music was allowed during Advent in Leipzig). What if he hadn’t found a librettist yet in Leipzig who matched the talent of Weimar court poet Salomo Franck? What if he wanted to show off the talent and skills of his first trumpet player in Leipzig, the famous Gottfried Reiche, to all the visitors who were in town for this holiday? When we see cantata movements returning in the form of movements of his Lutheran Masses, his Mass in B minor, and repeat performances in Leipzig, we say “he must have been proud of that piece.” Well, when I hear the opening chorus and the arias of Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, I can understand why the Duke in Weimar didn’t want to let Bach go. Those movements already composed in Weimar are exciting and deeply moving at the same time. Definitely something to be proud of.
We don’t know who the librettist of the new recitatives was, but he or she did a good Lutheran job of teaching the congregation that even though they were celebrating a Marian feast day, they should really not praise her too much, but praise Jesus instead. Bach did an even better job setting these recitatives to music. Listen to all the word painting in the bass recitative, and the musical illustration of the text Er wird bewegt, er hüpft und springet(he is moved, he leaps and jumps) in the alto recitative, describing how John moved in Elizabeth’s womb upon hearing Mary talk of Jesus. The other remarkable thing about this alto recitative is that it has an accompaniment by two oboi da caccia, as Bach would later use in his St. Matthew Passion.
Wieneke Gorter, July 2, 2016.
*In 1969, the Catholic Church moved this day to May 31, after they realized that it is strange to celebrate a mother (Elizabeth) being pregnant after celebrating the birth of her son (John the Baptist), but the Lutheran Church has kept the feast day on July 2.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, 1568
Previously on Weekly Cantata: For his first three Sundays in Leipzig, Bach presented ambitious, two-part cantatas, the first part before the sermon, the second part after. On this Trinity 4, June 20 1723, the congregation and the musicians in Leipzig may still have had the trumpets and timpani from the impressive closing chorus of last week’s Ich hatte viel Bekümmernisgoing through their heads.
Up until now, it seems to all have been part of a plan: Bach probably wrote his cantatas for Trinity 1 (cantata 75) and Trinity 2 (cantata 76) while still living in Köthen, and most likely had also been planning all along to perform cantata 21 on Trinity 3. *
But now what to do for Trinity 4? In his stack of Weimar cantata manuscripts there was a nice one, very closely referring to the Gospel for the day (Luke 6: 36-42), but it was too short, and not very impressively scored.
So, it was time to write a new cantata that could function as Part I, the part before the sermon, and then present the one from Weimar after the sermon, as part II. This newly composed piece became cantata 24 Ein ungefärbt Gemüte. Only four weeks into his new post at Leipzig, and possibly up to his ears in getting things organized at the St. Thomas School, Bach had not had the time (or the social intelligence, we don’t know) to find a librettist, so for this cantata he used a pre-existing text by Erdmann Neumeister, a Leipzig-trained theologian, who was preaching at the St. Jacob church in Hamburg from 1715 to 1756. Bach may very well have met him there, since this was the same church where he applied for the post of cantor and organist in 1720. Neumeister’s many volumes of cantata texts were published in the early 1700s, and through the excellent library at the castle in Weimar Bach might have had access to these too, as he already used a Neumeister text for his Weimar Advent cantata 61 from 1714.
The recording of cantata 24 Ein ungefärbt Gemüte I like the best is Bach Collegium Japan’s recording, with beautiful singing by countertenor Robin Blaze and tenor Gerd Türk in the arias. Listen to this cantata on Spotify, or purchase the album on Amazon. Read the German texts with English translations here.
Though on a much smaller scale than cantata 75 from three weeks ago, this cantata 24 again displays a wonderful symmetry: Bach emphasizes that the main message “Everything that you want other people to do to you, you should do yourself for them” is at the center of the cantata text. He sets that part of the text to an intricate choral piece with the fullest instrumentation of the entire cantata, including trumpet, and scores the arias and recitatives around this main message much more soberly. In the two recitatives, Bach accentuates the words at the end of each by letting the music blossom out into an arioso in those spots. This happens on this text in the tenor recitative:
Mach aus dir selbst ein solches Bild (Make yourself such an image)
Wie du den Nächsten haben willt! (As you want your neighbour to have)
and in the bass recitative on these words:
So geht es dort, so geht es hier. (These things go on here, there and everywhere.)
Der liebe Gott behüte mich dafür! (That the dear God preserve me from this!)
Then comes Part Two, cantata 185 Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe, written in Weimar in 1715. For this 1723 Leipzig re-creation of it, Bach transposed it from F sharp minor to G minor, since the tuning in Weimar was different than in Leipzig, and had a trumpet play the chorale tune in the opening duet, instead of an oboe.
Of all the recordings I listened to, only Gardiner brings to life the opening duet of this Leipzig version of cantata 185, with a trumpet playing instead of an oboe. Listen to a recording of that first movement by Gardiner, with soprano Magdalena Kozena and tenor Paul Agnew, on YouTube. However, for the wonderful alto rectitative and aria that come next, as well as the bass recitative and aria, I feel the need to switch to Koopman’s recording, with countertenor Kai Wessel and bass Klaus Mertens. Listen to this recording on YouTube, starting with the alto recitative (when you click on this link, it starts at 4m1s into the cantata).
I am too much of a countertenor lover to pass up this heavenly singing by Kai Wessel for Nathalie Stutzmann on the Gardiner recording, but I realize others might prefer it the other way around. I’m also not completely convinced by Gardiner’s argument that Bach is imitating an irritating Weimar preacher in the bass recitative and aria, so while Gardiner’s bass soloist Nicolas Testé very skillfully portrays this interpretation, it is a bit overdone to my taste.
So why not listen to the entire Koopman recording of this cantata? Well, there’s the strange opening duet: Koopman makes the surprising choice to have the choir sopranos sing the chorale melody with text instead of having an oboe (per the Weimar version) or a trumpet (per the Leipzig version) play that part. This decision is not explained in their liner notes. And while I like soprano Barbara Schlick’s and tenor Guy de Mey’s individual voices, I feel that Schlick’s voice outbalances De Mey’s on this recording.
One wonders: was the new job as teacher at the St. Thomas School and director of the choir a bit overwhelming for Bach, or was he by this time already getting frustrated with the lack of skill and talent among the choir boys? A few years later, he would complain to the council that there weren’t enough strong voices, and that he needed the good instrumentalists among them to fill the many vacant seats in the orchestra, and could thus not use them in the choir. It is interesting to see how, after the many challenging choral pieces in cantata 21 last week, there is only one polyphonic chorus part in the combined cantatas for today, and only an embellished chorale in the cantata for the feast of St. John the Baptist Bach was preparing for June 24.
Wieneke Gorter, June 18, 2016
*Please note: the numbers we use now for these cantatas are a product of the 19th and 20th century. Bach never gave his compositions numbers, and he must have referred to the cantatas by title only.
The title page of cantata 183 in Bach’s handwriting: Dominica Exaudi // Sie werden eüch in den Bann tun // à 4 Voci, 2 Hautb d’Amore, 2 Hautb da Caccia, 2 Violini, Viola, Violoncello piccolo e Continuo // di Joh. Sebas. Bach. Staatsbibiothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
There are two cantatas for this Sunday Exaudi, aka the Sunday after Ascension, or in the practical reality of the man who had to write the music and rehearse the choir: the Sunday in between Ascension and the three-day-long feast of Pentecost. Because they refer to the same Gospel text, the cantatas share the title Sie werden euch in den Bann tun, but except for the fact that they each contain a glorious soprano aria, they have nothing in common.
I discuss both cantatas in this blog post. Keep reading for Cantata 183, but let’s first look at the one Bach wrote in 1724: Cantata 44 Sie werden euch in den Bann tun.
The soprano aria from this cantata, Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost, sung by the amazing Peter Jelosits on the Harnoncourt recording from 1975 is among the most happiest music memories of my childhood. I suspect my mom loved it so much that she played it more often than just on this Sunday. I didn’t realize how well this aria is engraved in my brain until I surprised myself during a choir carpool, singing the entire thing from memory, illustrating a story about how some of these boy sopranos could sing very complicated arias.
Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost, The consolation of Christians is and remains Dass Gott vor seine Kirche wacht. God’s watchful care over his church. Denn wenn sich gleich die Wetter türmen, For even though at times the clouds gather, So hat doch nach den Trübsalstürmen yet after the storms of affliction Die Freudensonne bald gelacht. the sun of joy has soon smiled on us.
If you would like to listen to the entire cantata, I recommend Herreweghe’s recording from 2013. The opening tenor/bass duet is the best here, with bass Peter Kooij singing out much more than on their 1993 recording of this same cantata, and his and Thomas Hobbs’ voice matching better than his and Christoph Prégardien’s (as much as I love Prégardien’s voice!).
Also, Herreweghe’s interpretation of the soprano aria on this 2013 recording is the most musical and the most cheerful, not in the least because it has the highest tempo of all recordings I listened to. That this proves a bit of a challenge for the always fabulous soprano Dorothee Mields is only audible in the text: after she comes out of the expertly executed but super tricky long runs, she slips back into the edition she probably studied from, which uses the more modern “für seine Kirche” instead of the edition they’re performing from, which uses the archaic “vor seine Kirche,” so it ends up being a mix of the two texts. While this bugs me a little bit, a retake of the recording would probably have been at the expense of the magic that happens in this aria, so it is probably a good thing that they left it in.
Purchase the Herreweghe recording of cantata 44 on Amazon or on iTunes. (This album also features the beautiful recording of cantata 73 discussed here).
Find the entire German text of cantata 44 with English translations here, and the score here.
Cantata 183 from 1725 is noteworthy because it uses a text by Christiane Mariana von Ziegler and features a striking instrumentation: two oboi d’amore and two oboi da caccia in the bass recitative; a violoncello piccolo in the tenor aria; again the two oboe pairs in the alto recitative; two oboi da caccia in the soprano aria; all these instruments in the closing chorale.
My absolute favorite recording of this cantata is the one by Bach Collegium Japan. They struck gold with this recording, thanks to the combination of Badiarov playing the violoncello piccolo da spalla, fabulous oboe players, and terrific vocal soloists: soprano Carolyn Sampson, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Gerd Türk, and bass Peter Kooij. I think the entire album (also featuring the recording of cantata 85 discussed here) is very inspired, and it has become one of my favorite Bach cantata CDs.
Listen to this Bach Collegium Japan recording of cantata 183 on Spotify.
Purchase this Bach Collegium Japan recording of cantata 183 (and 85!) on Amazon or on iTunes.
Find the German text with English translation of Cantata 183 here, and the score here.
Why is this scoring for the oboes so unusual? In Bach’s time there were “regular” oboes (to the right on this photo), oboes d’amore (with a bell-like widening in the wood at the end, second from left), and oboes da caccia (or “hunting” oboes, completely curved, and with a trumpet-like brass bell at the end, far left).
Bach often used the oboe da caccia, but only on a handful of occasions would he write for two da caccias. And even if he would write for two da caccias or two d’amores and “regular” oboes in the same cantata (or passion) they would not all be playing at the same time. On most occasions there were between one or two oboe players in the orchestra, sometimes three, alternating between the different instruments from one movement to the next. The only times Bach needed four oboists in one cantata, playing two da caccias and two d’amores at the same time, was in cantata 2 of the Christmas Oratorio (1734) and in this cantata 183. So there must have been some good oboe playing visitors in town around this time of Ascension and Pentecost in 1725.
The four oboes can be heard clearly in the alto recitative, where Bach has each of them repeat the four-note theme from the “ich bin bereit”-text in the vocal part:
When I hear this, I immediately have to think of the tenor recitative in Bach’s beautiful Trauer Ode, cantata 198, this time reduced to a 3-note theme and without the da caccias:
Or listen to this recitative from cantata 198 on YouTube
It is of course not exactly the same composition, but I wonder if Bach had to think back of this cantata from 1725 when he wanted to illustrate life and death in one and the same piece of music in the Trauer Ode of 1727.
After this alto recitative comes the most glorious soprano aria, richly scored with the two oboes da caccia playing the oboe part in unisono, as well as parts for violin 1, violin 2, and viola. Harnoncourt says that even though both da caccia have this aria written in, he says it is “clearly not intended to be chorally played” and on their recording they decide to have this part covered by only one oboe da caccia. Perhaps the original full score was not available to Harnoncourt at the time he made that decision, because it clearly says: “tutti gli Oboi in unisono:”
One would almost think Bach dreamt of allfour oboes playing this, also the d’amores, but when his copyists double-checked with him, he decided that was just silly, it would overpower the poor boy who had to sing this, and they only wrote it into the parts for the da caccias (it says “Arie Tacet” in the parts for the oboi d’amore).
To learn more about Cantata 183, I wholeheartedly recommend you study with Rudolf Lutz of the J.S. Bach Foundation a little bit. Find a link to his fabulous (English spoken!) lecture and improvisation about this cantata in my blog post from May 24, 2020.
Wieneke Gorter, May 8, 2016, updated May 23, 2020.
There are three beautiful cantatas for this second Sunday after Easter, or “Misericordias Domini” Sunday: BWV 104, 85, and 112. Illustrating the “good shepherd” scripture for this Sunday (John 10, verse 12-16), Bach incorporated pastoral themes or orchestration in each of these cantatas.*
I’ve decided to focus on cantata 85 Ich bin ein guter Hirt, written for April 15, 1725. Of all three cantatas, this is the one I remember the best from my childhood, because of the tenor aria “Seht, was die Liebe tut.” Also: Last week, I already mentioned the similarities between cantata 6 (for Easter Monday 1725), and cantata 42 (for the first Sunday after Easter 1725). This cantata 85 is the culmination of that “sub group” within the cantatas from 1725.
Which recording to listen to?
While I have good memories of hearing Kurth Equiluz sing the tenor aria on the Harnoncourt recording from 1977, I am enamored by Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of this cantata, and I think this is the best “overall” recording, featuring fabulous soloists Carolyn Sampson, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk, and Peter Kooij. It is also one of the most noteworthy because of the use of a violoncello da spalla, played by Dmitry Badiarov.
Listen to Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of cantata 85 Ich bin ein guter Hirt on Spotify. Or better yet, if you can afford to financially support the artists (especially important now, while they have no income from performances!) please consider purchasing the digital versions of Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of cantata 85 on Amazon or on iTunes.
If you prefer to watch a live recording, there is a wonderful recording available on YouTube by the J.S. Bach Foundation. Soloists are Gerlinde Sämann, soprano; Terry Wey, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Markus Volpert, bass; and Martin Zeller, violoncello piccolo.
Back to the Bach Collegium Japan recording: After lovely and convincing singing by bass Peter Kooij in the opening arioso (Jesus saying “I am a good shepherd”), we get a sublime performance by countertenor Robin Blaze of the alto aria “Jesus ist ein guter Hirt,” which also features the unusual violoncello piccolo da spalla. Someone could probably write an entire PhD thesis on the difference between the violoncello piccolo “da spalla” (held on the shoulder, like a violin), and the violoncello piccolo “da gamba” (held between the legs, like a cello), and whether Bach meant the one or the other when he wrote a part for “violoncello piccolo.” Most recordings (Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Coin, Koopman, and J.S. Bach Foundation) feature the one held between the legs, but Bach Collegium Japan’s recording features the “da spalla” variety, played by the same person who built it in 2004, Dmitry Badiarov.
Following this, we hear a radiant soprano solo chorale with oboe accompaniment (which makes me think back to the soprano solo chorale from cantata 6, in that case with the violoncello piccolo “da gamba”), beautifully sung by soprano Carolyn Sampson and expertly played by oboists Masamitsu San’nomiya and Atsuko Ozaki.
And when you didn’t think it could get any better, here comes a tenor recitative which in text and string accompaniment strongly refers to Jesus’ recitative from the St. Matthew Passion “Ich werde den Hirten schlagen, und die Schafe der Herde werden sich zerstreuen.” (Christ, having arrived at the Mount of Olives, reminds his disciples of the prophecy that the shepherd will be slain and the sheep will scatter).
With this only recitative in cantata 85, Bach has gotten everyone’s attention, so now we’re ready for the jewel in the crown of this cantata: the tenor aria “Seht, was die Liebe tut.” It is one of the most lyrical and lovely among all Bach’s tenor arias.
Seht, was die Liebe tut. See, what love does. Mein Jesus hält in guter Hut My Jesus in his own safekeeping Die Seinen feste eingeschlossen keeps those who are his own firmly enclosed Und hat am Kreuzesstamm vergossen and on the beam of the cross he hasshed Für sie sein teures Blut. for them his own precious blood.
Again there is a strong association with the St. Matthew Passion both in text and music. In his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven Gardiner makes a very convincing case for his theory that Bach had wanted to perform the St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday 1725, only one year after the St. John Pasion. This didn’t happen because either the council disapproved, or Bach wasn’t ready composing the piece. If Bach had indeed been working on the St. Matthew Passion before Easter 1725, it is no wonder we’re getting glimpses of that monumental work in his cantatas after Easter 1725.
Wieneke Gorter, April 9, 2016, updated April 26, 2020
*I wrote about Cantata 104 for the Second Sunday after Easter in 1724 in this blog post.
Paolo Veronese: Jesus Among the Doctors, circa 1560, oil on canvas
Lutherans in the 18th century knew very well that on this Sunday, the first after Epiphany, they should fast-forward twelve years in Jesus’ life, to the story of his parents losing him on a trip to Jerusalem, and then finding him in the temple, conversing with the Doctors. This story often appeared on paintings from the 15th century onward, and the text from Luke was probably as familiar to the Leipzig congregation as the Christmas story :
48. Und da sie ihn sahen, entsetzten sie sich. Und seine Mutter sprach zu ihm: Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns das getan? Siehe, dein Vater und ich haben dich mit Schmerzen gesucht.
 And when they saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him : ‘My son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have looked for you with anxiety.’
49. Und er sprach zu ihnen: Was ist’s, daß ihr mich gesucht habt? Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß in dem, was meines Vaters ist?
 And he said to them : ‘How is it that you looked for me?Did you not know that I must be in that which is my father’s?’
In cantata 154 Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren (from 1724, written 3 days after Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen) Bach doesn’t set the scripture literally, except for one of Jesus’ lines of text. He doesn’t let Jesus’ parents talk (as for example Schütz had done 75 years before in his Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns das getan? from Symphoniae Sacrae III) but instead it is “man” in general who thinks he has lost Jesus, and is later happy to have found him again. However, the loss of a child as well as the fear of it happening is something that Bach could relate to, and that drama is palpable in the opening tenor aria.
Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
For the rest this cantata feels almost like a little opera, with the very pretty alto aria asking Jesus to please not hide in the clouds, followed by the appearance of Jesus speaking “Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß in dem, was meines Vaters ist?” and then the exuberant alto/tenor duet rejoicing in the fact that Jesus has been found. Bach uses two special and wonderful orchestrations in this cantata. In the alto aria he uses a “high continuo” with violins and harpsichord to accompany the voice and the oboes, most probably to illustrate purity and innocence. And in the alto/tenor duet Bach brings both the violins of the tenor aria and the oboes from the alto aria together, the first violin and first oboe playing the same part, the second violin and the second oboe also playing the same part, as an additional illustration of the happy reunion and the last two lines of text of the duet:
Ich will dich, mein Jesu, nun nimmermehr lassen, I want never again to abandon you, my Jesus,
Ich will dich im Glauben beständig umfassen. I want to embrace you constantly in faith.
John Eliot Gardiner, in his terrific liner notes with his recording (scroll down to page 6), states that on the text “O Donnerwort in meinen Ohren” (O thunderous word in my ears) in the opening tenor aria, the orchestra should evoke “ear drumming.” (If you would like to listen to this Gardiner interpretation with tenor James Gilchrist, you can find that here on YouTube). Gardiner also points out that this tenor aria is a cousin to Peter’s Ach, mein Sinn! aria from the St. John Passion. That passion would not be performed until Good Friday of that year, 1724, but in his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven Gardiner suggests that Bach was probably working on the passion, and might have been preparing the people in Leipzig for it. This included introducing them to Jesus (even a twelve-year-old one) as a bass voice. This might explain why Bach somewhat unnaturally “interjects” Jesus’ text “Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß in dem, was meines Vaters ist?” in between the alto aria and the tenor recitative in this cantata.
With cantata 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (from 1726), Bach steps even further away from the literal story of this Sunday. It is now not even “man” anymore who has lost Jesus and then finds him again, but the “soul” in the form of a soprano voice, and Jesus. Herreweghe’s first oboist, Marcel Ponseele, recorded a handful cantatas with his own ensemble Il Gardellino and I was excited to find out that they also recorded cantata 32. Beautiful job by soprano Caroline Weynants and of course Marcel Ponseele himself in the pretty opening aria.
In closing, some food for thought: Bach incorporates the text of Psalm 84 Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen in the fourth movement of Cantata 32 in the soprano voice. Knowing that Schütz also used that same Psalm text at the end of his Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns das getan?, I wonder if Bach knew that particular Schütz piece and used it as inspiration for this cantata and, who knows, perhaps also for cantata 154, since that one is so operatic, shall we say Schütz-like, in nature and structure …
Wieneke Gorter, January 10, 2016, links updated January 11, 2020.