It is now the 24th Sunday after Trinity. Depending on the year, this Sunday can fall anywhere in the month of November, from the 1st to the 26th day of the month.
In 1723, during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, this day fell on November 7, with two more Sundays to go before Advent. For that day Bach wrote the apocalyptic Cantata 60, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort! I have the best memories of doing the research about this cantata, from finding out how Bach’s music had inspired a lithographer in 1914 as well as Alban Berg in 1935, to being pleasantly surprised by Robin Blaze’s marvelous singing on the Bach Collegium Japan recording. Read it all in my post from 2016.
The next year, in 1724, this Sunday fell November 19, the penultimate Sunday before Advent that year. For that Sunday Bach wrote Cantata 26 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig. When I first listened to this cantata in 2017, I labeled it “The Water Cantata” in my head, because there is moving water in both the tenor aria and the bass aria, from a rushing brook to a stormy white water river. The combination of bass voice with the three oboes and bassoon even made me think of Hades in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. I remember finding it special, all that water, especially since I had just come back from a short visit to Yosemite National Park with my family, where I had admired waterfalls and rivers. There is now an excellent J.S. Bach Foundation video of this cantata available on YouTube. You can really hear the water move, especially in their terrific rendition of the tenor aria. Find it here. Soloists are Susanne Frei soprano; Antonia Frey, alto; Daniel Johannsen; tenor; Klaus Häger, bass.
Find the score for Cantata 26 here, and the texts & translations here.
I always write about bass arias around this time of year (see this post). But let’s not forget about the tenor arias. As I’ve said before, I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. Wonderful examples of this are the following tenor arias from the Fall of 1724:
from Cantata 78, sung here by Howard Crook on the Herreweghe recording from 1988
from Cantata 5, sung here by Raphael Höhn with the J.S. Bach Foundation
from Cantata 38, sung here by Johannes Kaleschke with the J.S. Bach Foundation — this is the “consolation” aria I mentioned in my previous blog post.
And for today, the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, the fabulous tenor aria from Cantata 139 Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, sung here by Johannes Kaleschke with the J.S. Bach Foundation. When I looked at the text of this aria again today, I realized that if Cantata 139 were an opera, this aria would be Joe Biden’s:
Gott ist mein Freund; was hilft das Toben, So wider mich ein Feind erhoben! Ich bin getrost bei Neid und Hass. Ja, redet nur die Wahrheit spärlich, Seid immer falsch, was tut mir das? Ihr Spötter seid mir ungefährlich.
God is my friend; what use is all the raging that an enemy has raised against me! I am consoled in the midst of envy and hate. Yes, though you speak the truth only rarely, though you are always false, what is that to me? You scoffers are to me no danger.
When I wrote this post three days ago, I had been feeling pretty sad. I missed connections, I was once again shocked by how people in this world can behave towards one another, and baffled as always by the lack of empathy shown by the leader of my adopted country and his enablers. So I wrote:
“A word, or token of consolation amidst all the suffering. Don’t we all need that this year, this month, this week? I do. Maybe Bach did too during this week in October 1724.”
This is still true of course, but over the past two days my spirits were lifted in such a way that it felt strange to just post my somewhat somber message from Thursday. So now I’m typing again on a Sunday when I really wanted to be done writing before the weekend 🙂
Over the past two days I was inspired by creativity in my family, in my neighborhood, and in photos I saw posted by friends in other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and the United States. It has to do with how many of us found new ways of celebrating Halloween. From contraptions for sliding candy down a rain gutter, outdoor movie screenings, extensive decorations in front yards and on front windows (so people just going for a walk would have something to look at), individually wrapped goody bags clipped to a laundry line, to treasure hunts for small groups, it was all there. And because of the email and text conversations with the neighbors beforehand, our family needing to work as a team for part of the day to execute our own plans, and my husband and I sitting by the fire pit in our front yard in the evening (to make sure our goody bags wouldn’t get swiped and to see some costumes), I think I felt a deeper connection to my community here than I have at some other times on this holiday.*
Back to Bach: my favorite cantata for this 21st Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir (Out of the depths I cry to Thee). In my post from 2017 I recommended Herreweghe’s recording, and I still prefer that one for Peter Kooij’s singing of the bass part in the penultimate movement. But for all the other movements, I’m quite taken by the interpretation of the J.S. Bach Foundation. Find it here on YouTube. Soloists are: Guro Hjemli, soprano; Ruth Sandhoff, alto; and Johannes Kaleschke, tenor.
Please find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
It is the tenor aria that brings the consolation, in text as well as in music. On this recording this exquisite piece of chamber music is beautifully performed by Johannes Kaleschke, tenor, and Meike Güldenhaupt and Gilles Vanssons, oboes.
To read more about this cantata in the context of Bach’s reverence for Martin Luther (just as this year, in 1724 Reformation Day, October 31, almost coincided with the 21st Sunday after Trinity), and understand why there are four trombones standing amidst the choir, find my blog post from 2017 here. In that post, I compare the opening chorus of this cantata with the one from Cantata 2, which is for a different Sunday, but also celebrates a chorale by Luther. Since 2017, the J.S. Bach Foundation has released a very compelling video registration of that cantata as well. Find my listening guide for that specific recording here.
Wieneke Gorter, November 1, 2020.
*Last year I wasn’t even in California on Halloween, but attending concerts in the Netherlands. Read about that here and here.
My absolute favorite recording of Cantata 180 Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele(Adorn yourself, beloved soul, from October 22, 1724) is the video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2009. I love how the entire ensemble truly brings luster into the opening chorus and the soprano aria, and how the instrumentalists illustrate the “knocking” in the tenor aria. Also: Rudolf Lutz’s lecture about this cantata is in my top five of all his lectures I’ve watched so far.
When I first wrote about this cantata, in 2017, only the soprano aria from this video registration was available on YouTube, and Lutz’s lecture didn’t have English subtitles yet. However, this has all changed, and the entire cantata is now available here on YouTube, and Lutz’s lecture, now with English subtitles, can be found here. Soloists in the performance: Maria Christina Kiehr, soprano; Jan Börner, counter-tenor; Julius Pfeifer, tenor; and Fabrice Hayoz, bass.
Find the German text with English translation here, and the score here.
When I listened to Lutz’s lecture again this week, I noticed some things I had missed when listening to it in 2017. For example, around 2 minutes into the lecture, when talking about the opening chorus, Lutz says:
“I like to compare it to a flowing wedding garment of the noblest kind.”
The title of the cantata is “Schmücke dich” (Adorn yourself) and the 20th Sunday after Trinity was a Communion Sunday in Leipzig. As I mentioned in my post from 2017, it was normal in Bach’s time to compare the Communion between Jesus and the believer, or Jesus and the soul, to the marriage between groom and bride. So it makes sense to use this image of a bride dressing up for her wedding. In addition, the reading for this Sunday mentions wedding guests being sent away because they are not dressed for the occasion. So on this 20th Sunday after Trinity, we can pay a bit more attention to clothing.
Lutz being Lutz, a talented improvisor, and often one to throw in some local folklore to make his Swiss audience laugh, makes a joke about that “wedding garment of the noblest kind,” and adds: “Perhaps by Akris, or so.” I had to Google that one, and it turns out that Akris is a Swiss fashion house that still has its headquarters in St. Gallen (the same town where the J.S. Bach Foundation resides), and has been owned by the same family continuously. There’s a nice New York Times article about its current creative director Albert Kriemler here.
I started thinking: if Bach also paid more attention to clothing for this Sunday, what would he have had in mind on the words “Schmücke dich”?
We know that the Rhine wine was flowing at Bach’s own wedding to Anna Magdalena in 1721, but for the rest it would probably have been a simple affair, since it was held at home. There are no paintings of the weddings of his employers, nor of the weddings that would have taken place in Leipzig at the time. However there are paintings of noble dresses Bach might have seen on official occasions, worn by the Princess his employer in Köthen married a little later in December 1721*, and by the consorts of dignitaries Bach would have visited in Dresden and Berlin. See pictures at the top of this post. This would then also be the style in which the noblewomen of Leipzig would have dressed up to go attend church, especially on an important Sunday such as this one.
Read more about all the luster in this cantata, and about an impatient groom/Jesus in my blog post from 2017. I’m apparently always late in posting for this Sunday, whether there are choir performances going on in my life or not.
Wieneke Gorter, October 25, 2020.
*In a rare letter to a friend, Bach mentioned Friederike Henriette and the absence of her interest in music as one of his reasons for leaving Köthen in 1723. However it was probably for financial demands by the Prussian military that the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen had less and less funds to spend on music. Henriette died in April of 1723, 14 months after her marrying Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Bach moved to Leipzig in May 1723.
At the end of a two-week trip to Italy in the summer of 2018 (my family’s first visit to that country), we would have only one afternoon and night in Florence. After booking our hotel in a neighborhood a good friend had recommended, I saw on Google maps that the hotel was around the corner from a church called Santa Maria del Carmine.
The name rang a bell, but I didn’t immediately realize why. Then I started searching my blog, and yes: there it was, the fresco of TheHealing of the Cripple, from the Brancacci Chapel in that church, in my blog post from 2016 about Cantata 48. After seeing a lot of art in other cities in Italy and with a big train trip ahead of us, we decided to have this be the only art we would go see in Florence, and save the rest for another trip. It was a good decision, because this way I could really let it sink in that I was seeing these frescos in real life, and this way we had some time left to eat ice cream, rest, see the sun set over the city, and enjoy a good meal.
In my blog post from 2016, I recommended Herreweghe’s recording of Cantata 48Ich elender Mensch. (from 1723), and I still stand by that choice. Find all the links to the recording, a comparison with the St. Matthew Passion, and my explanation of the silver lining in the opening chorus here.
One year later, in 2017, I wrote about Cantata 5, Wo soll ich fliehen hin? which Bach wrote for this same 19th Sunday after Trinity, in 1724. Since then, I have a new favorite recording of this cantata: the excellent 2018 performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation that was released to YouTube in April 2019. You can find that video here. Soloists are: Soprano: Mirjam Berli; Alto: Jan Börner; Tenor: Raphael Höhn; Bass: Manuel Walser; Violin: Eva Borhi; Tromba da tirarsi: Patrick Henrichs.
Find the German text with English translation of Cantata 5 here, and the score here.
For a list of the bass arias with trumpet the Leipzig congregations would have heard between June 1723 (when Bach started working in Leipzig) and October 1724 (when he wrote Cantata 5), including links for listening, read my blog post from 2017 here.
Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, the 13th after Trinity, all more or less related to the story of the Good Samaritan. In 1723 he writes the incredibly beautiful Cantata 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben (You must love God, your Lord). Read about it in my post from 2016. Along with many fellow members of California Bach Society I had the pleasure of singing this cantata earlier this summer, each of us sitting in front of our computer in our own home. Even though we could only see each other on a computer screen and not hear each other sing, it was a beautiful and meaningful experience. And while I tend to focus on the opening chorus and the alto aria when thinking about this cantata, several of my friends pointed out that the texts are still, or again, very appropriate today. Take for example the text of the tenor recitative:
Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz, For this purpose, my God, give me the Samaritan’s heart Dass ich zugleich den Nächsten liebe so that I can at once love my neighbor Und mich bei seinem Schmerz and in his sorrow Auch über ihn betrübe, feel concern for him Damit ich nicht bei ihm vorübergeh so that I shall not pass him by Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse. and leave him in his distress. Gib, dass ich Eigenliebe hasse, Grant that I may hate self-love, So wirst du mir dereinst das Freudenleben then you will grant me one day a joyous life Nach meinem Wunsch, jedoch aus Gnaden geben according to my desire, from your grace.
In 1724, within the framework of the 1724/1725 series of chorale cantatas (his second year of cantata compositions in Leipzig)* Bach writes Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (Solely towards you, Lord Jesus Christ). Because the libretto is based much more on the chorale text than on the Gospel text, it includes only one quote from the Bible story: “I may love my neighbour as myself.” But while it is just one line of text, Bach doesn’t let it go unnoticed, and turns that fifth verse of the libretto into a duet that has all the characteristics of a love duet from the Venetian operas of the time. At least the instrumentalists in the orchestra must have gotten the reference loud and clear. This also proves that the oh-so-cute soprano-alto duet from Cantata 78 (which Bach wrote one week later) didn’t come out of the blue. Here is the artists’ study for it, albeit written for tenor and bass. Read all this and more in my post from 2017.
From Trinity Sunday 1723 to Trinity Sunday 1725, Bach had provided the Leipzig churches with a cantata for almost every Sunday and Feast day. But for the Sundays between Trinity and Christmas 1725, we have only a handful of his cantatas left.** Cantata 164 Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet (You, who take your name from Christ) is among these. Bach saw his church music as a means to “educate his neighbor” about Christian theology, and it seems that in this case, a third cantata for this Sunday was needed: he was not done educating his neighbors about the story of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, the priest and the Levite pass the wounded man without showing mercy. In the libretto of this cantata, this example is turned onto the Christian believers themselves:
You, who take your name from Christ, where is to be found the mercyby which people recognize members of Christ?
It is far, far away from you.Your hearts should be rich in love,but they are harder than a stone.
Because of the preaching character of that first text, it seems only fitting that Bach doesn’t set this as a chorus, but as a tenor aria, as if to better scold the congregation. The use of two flutes (in the alto aria) is unusual for a cantata, and makes me think of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach must have wanted to stress the loveliness of the text in that aria. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists in this performance are Monika Mauch, soprano; Jan Börner, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Markus Volpert, Bass.
Find the texts & translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
Wieneke Gorter, September 5, 2020.
A little more about the painting:
At a distance, on the left, behind a tree, we see the Levite retreating. Still further away, reading a book, is the priest. This is the only known work of this painter, Balthasar van Cortbemde. It was most probably commissioned by the guild of surgeons in Antwerp in 1647, because it was displayed in their Chamber from 1647 to 1798. It became property of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in 1810.
*to learn more about Bach’s series of chorale cantatas, start reading here
**we don’t know if the missing cantatas were composed but then were lost, or if they were simply never composed because Bach started to focus on other things.
Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, and since my favorite recordings (for now)* of two of those feature my first and second countertenor loves, Gérard Lesne and Kai Wessel, I thought it might be nice to talk a bit about how I came to appreciate these singers.
Because I grew up listening to Bach cantatas from the cantata recording project by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, hearing these every Sunday from when I was a small child, I was completely used to alto arias being sung by countertenors. I have become better at it, but sometimes I still feel as if I have to consciously switch something in my brain before I can listen to a female alto sing Bach and take it seriously.
However, none of the alto arias from that Leonhardt/Harnoncourt project (1970-1989), stayed with me the way many of the soprano, tenor, and bass arias did. The voices of René Jacobs or Paul Esswood just never blew me away nor did their singing truly move me. I remember enjoying Michael Chance’s singing on recordings of English Baroque composers and in the arias he sang in the live performance of Bach’s St. John Passion with Harnoncourt I mentioned in this post. But still, not blown away.
That all changed the summer of 1988 or 1989. Still a teenager, I had started volunteering for the Utrecht Early Music Festival in 1987. I did that for several years and then was on the summer staff for a few years as well, all this in the team that managed the Exhibition. The booth right around the corner from our own information booth was staffed by the best CD curator I’ve ever met, Joost. He went to all the concerts, and knew all the Early Music recordings, and I LOVED the recordings he recommended. It was through him that I learned about Gérard Lesne. The second or third year I was there, Joost was selling Lesne’s Vivaldi CD from 1988 to everyone with the words “Buy this. Listen to it. If you come back to me, look me in the eye, and can tell me without any sign of emotion that you didn’t like it, I’ll take it back.” (or, as he literally said in Dutch: “Als je me met droge ogen kunt vertellen dat je het niks vond, dan neem ik hem terug.”) I became a fan, and will never forget hearing Lesne live, singing Charpentier, in the Chapelle Royale of Versailles in the Holy Week of 1994.
Gérard Lesne is featured on a live audio recording from 1988 of Cantata 45 Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist which you can find here on YouTube. It is from a concert on October 25, 1988, in the Notre Dame du Travail church in Paris, by La Chapelle Royale (one of Herreweghe’s ensembles), conducted by Gustav Leonhardt. Other soloists are John Elwes, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Bach wrote this Cantata 45 in 1726 for the 8th Sunday after Trinity. Please find the score here, and the texts & translations here.
My blog post from 2016 about Cantata 136 Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz spotlights my second countertenor love: Kai Wessel. His voice and interpretation was nothing short of a sensation for me when Ton Koopman’s recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion came out in 1993. That a countertenor could also have such a beautiful tenor quality to his voice was new to me, and I found his singing incredibly moving. Thanks to this, I gained new appreciation for the “Erbarme dich” aria. Because of Kai Wessel singing the alto aria, the Bach Collegium Japan recording I recommended in 2016 is still my favorite interpretation of Cantata 136, though the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2011 is very well done too, and that video is exciting because you can see the corno da tirarsi** in action in the amazing opening chorus.
Wieneke Gorter, August 2, 2020.
*This might change soon, because Herreweghe recorded this cantata program, including BWV 45, at the end of January 2020. I will let you know when this recording comes out. It is the first time they have recorded BWV 45 and 118, and I can’t wait to hear Alex Potter in BWV 198, and look forward to hearing BWV 78 with Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter in the famous duet, and Thomas Hobbs in the gorgeous but often overlooked tenor aria.
In my opinion, one of the absolute best background videos on AllofBach is the one in which countertenor Alex Potter explains the different layers of solo cantata 170 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust from 1726. I remember how happy and impressed I was when I first found this video. So instead of offering you my own discussion, I suggest you watch Alex Potter’s here on YouTube.
Then watch the excellent and moving live performance of this cantata by Alex Potter with the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube.
A lot more information, including the German text with English translations, a list of all participating instrumentalists, the staff that made this beautiful document possible, and a short but insightful interview (in text only) with organist Leo van Doeselaar, can be found here on AllofBach.
Bach’s first two cycles in Leipzig didn’t include a cantata for this Sunday (the 6th after Trinity). My speculations for why this might have happened in 1723 are mentioned in this blog post. For 1724, it is very likely that Bach never wrote a cantata that year for this Sunday. Because later in his life, Bach most probably wrote Cantata 9 Es ist das Heil uns kommen her for this moment in the church year, in an effort to fill the gaps within his 1724/1725 chorale cantata cycle.
There’s a wonderful live performance of Cantata 9 on YouTube, by the J.S. Bach Foundation under direction of Rudolf Lutz. Watch it here. My favorite part of this cantata is the glorious duet Herr, du siehst statt guter Werke, beautifully sung by soprano Julia Doyle and alto Alex Potter. I love how well their voices and singing style match for this! This performance also features exquisite music-making by flutist Marc Hantaï, violinist Amandine Beyer, and tenor Charles Daniels.
Cantata 93 Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten from 1724 is one of my favorite Bach cantatas, but because this one always falls in the summer vacation, I have never actually discussed it. I don’t have time to get into it this year either, but I have some interesting links for you.
In July 2017, I shared my favorite recording (Herreweghe) of this cantata along with some pictures of Greece where I was at the time. You can find that post here. Update: one day after I posted this, the J.S. Bach Foundation Made their full-length video of this cantata available on YouTube, and it’s a very good one. You can find it here: https://youtu.be/in5XDlJnrB8
Bach recycled the most splendid movement from this cantata, the soprano-alto duet, into one of his “Schübler Chorales” for organ. How exactly that works, you can read in my post from February 2018.
And if you understand a little German, watch Rudolf Lutz of the J.S. Bach Foundation explain everything about this Cantata 93 in this workshop on YouTube.
Wieneke Gorter, July 10, 2020, updated July 19, 2020.
In an effort to share some more personal thoughts with you, this has become quite a long post. If you prefer not to read it and go straight to the cantatas for this Exaudi Sunday, you can find my post about cantatas 44 and 183 here. It is a story with a wealth of information, gorgeous soprano arias, and recommendations for top-notch recordings. But since there’s always more to learn, I wanted to give some attention to Rudolf Lutz’ English spoken lecture about these cantatas. Find the link at the end of this post.
Over the past several months, while we’ve all been dealing with this global health crisis, I have often felt overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by piles of dishes, by potentially life changing decisions, by not knowing what my role is supposed to be in this crisis, but also by musicians and music organizations. While one is telling me to watch this YouTube video–available this week only!, another invites me to join a lecture on Zoom– please submit your questions ahead of time, yet another is showing me that singing while masked actually sounds pretty good (even though their images scare the * out of me), but wait … there’s a live Facebook Event STARTING NOW!
I understand the reasons behind it. An urge to share music with others, so strong they need to answer it or go insane. A fear of being forgotten by their patrons and thus losing even more income. Creative minds that keep exploring new possibilities. I also understand that there are probably millions of people for whom concert-going was their weekly bread, and that they are all eating this up. But it doesn’t calm me down.
My soul has been soothed much more by the images of sour dough rising, vegetable gardens being planned, blooming gardens, and nature. Two Instagram accounts I have especially enjoyed are those of Les Arts Florissants, who have been posting a wealth of pictures of William Christie’s gardens in France, and of Luc Barrière, a concert photographer who left Paris for the Alps before the strict lockdown happened in France. Yes, I know these are privileged people, and everyone can think of their living situations what they want. To me personally, these two accounts have given me examples of people taking care of themselves and slowing down, and that inspires me and calms me.
Of course stress is not caused by the acts of other people, but by your own reaction to these acts, and fortunately most of the live streams can be watched again at a later time. So I have watched some of them at my own pace (while doing those dishes, folding laundry, or cleaning vegetables) and have realized that amidst the overwhelm there are blessings, because every now and then something new and marvelous emerges that would not have happened without this crisis.
For me, the absolute best example of this has been the series of “one man shows” by Rudolf Lutz, the artistic director of the J.S Bach Foundation in Switzerland. Every month, on the day his choir and orchestra would otherwise have given a concert for an audience, recorded live on video, he has live streamed an excellent and very witty lecture about that same cantata, brilliantly combined with organ improvisations on the music in the cantata, and the meaning behind the cantata. Without the crisis, his international online audience of Bach lovers would never have known what a talented improvisor he is. Without the crisis, he would never have held his lectures in English. (Until now his excellent cantata lectures were only accessible to German speakers, with only a handful of them subtitled in English).
Find Rudolf Lutz’ wonderful lecture/improvisation about Cantata 44 and 183 (from May 19) here. Find my blog post about these same cantatas (highlighting completely different aspects of the pieces!) here.
To learn more about Rudolf Lutz, read his bio here. Find his lecture/improvisation about Cantata 106 (from March 20) here, and about Cantata 4 (from April 17) here.