The Parable of the Great Supper / the Great Banquet, by anonymous Dutch painter “the Braunschweig (Brunswick) Monogrammist,” ca. 1525
Trinity season in the Lutheran Church year means no feast days until Christmas, no stories about Jesus’ life in the Gospel texts, and no Vox Christi bass recitatives. To still keep this blog exciting for myself and you loyal readers, I decided to make it into a true weekly series, and will be following all of Bach’s 1723 Leipzig cantatas until Advent, without taking any detours to his Weimar cantatas or later Leipzig cantatas.
A few things that make it irresistible for me to try this: Bach started working in Leipzig on the first Sunday after Trinity in 1723 (see last week’s blog post); the dates of the Lutheran Church year in 2016 are practically the same as in 1723 – off by only one day; and I believe that by following this 1723 sequence, we can better imagine how it must have been for the Leipzig audiences (congregation) to hear one cantata after the other, and perhaps get a little insight in how it must have been for Bach himself to write one after the other.
So, here we go with season 1, episode 2:
Previously on Weekly Cantata: Bach arrived in Leipzig on Saturday May 22, 1723,, and made his debut with cantata 75 Die Elenden sollen essen in the Nicolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) on Sunday May 30, the first Sunday after Trinity.
The second Sunday after Trinity in 1723 marked Bach’s debut in the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church). On Sunday June 6, he performed cantata 76 Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes there, and this one is even more impressive than 75, and includes a festive opening chorus which makes me think of Bach’s later Ascension Oratorio.
There are many similarities between cantata 75 and 76, the most obvious one being that they share the ambitious length of 14 movements in total, divided over two parts. From a superficial point of view, both cantatas start with a psalm text in the opening chorus, have challenging soprano arias, feature bass arias with trumpet, and -never seen again in later cantatas- an instrumental sinfonia at the start of the second part (after the sermon). However there are more (hidden) similarities and cross-references between the two, so that one could almost think about these two first cantatas of the 1723/1724 cycle as a diptych.
I appreciate Gardiner’s interpretation of cantata 76 the most of all recordings I listened to. And the universe will have it that this one was recorded in the Basilique de Saint-Denis (directly north of Paris), which was my subway stop for four fabulous music-filled months in 1994. In his journal from 2000, Gardiner writes that they were very concerned about the enormous size of this Gothic cathedral, and feared that a large audience (needed to balance out the acoustics) wouldn’t show up because it was the night of the France-Italy final in the Euro soccer competition. But everything turned out fine: there were more than 1200 people in the audience, and France won.
Listen to Gardiner’s recording of cantata 76 Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes on Spotify or on YouTube, or buy this recording on Amazon.
Cantata 76 starts with a text about heaven: the first and third verse of Psalm 19, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes. To illustrate this, the heavenly trumpet (in cantata 75 not introduced until the start of the second half) is heard right away. The fugue on the text “Es ist keine Sprache noch Rede, da man nicht ihre Stimme höre” is fantastic, Bach at his best in my opinion.
After this, the text of the cantata refers to the Gospel reading of the day: the parable of the Great Supper from Luke 14: 16-24 about a man who has invited many guests to a Dinner/Supper/Banquet, receives one cancellation after the other, after which he decides to invite all the beggars and cripples his servant can find, and serves them the dinner instead, not leaving one place open for any of the previously invited guests. All this combined with the “Brotherly love” theme from the Epistle reading of the day: 1 John 3: 13-18.
Another example, though through a completely opposite story as the one from cantata 75, of why it is good to share food and love with others.
Besides the incredible opening chorus, the highlights of this cantata for me are: the soprano aria with violin/cello accompaniment (no. 3), the bass aria with trumpet (no. 5), the incredible sinfonia for oboe d’amore and viola da gamba at the start of the second half (no. 8), the dramatic, operatic tenor aria (no. 10, fabulously performed by James Gilchrist, including the “shake” Bach wrote on the word “Hasse”), and the alto recitative with viola da gamba (no. 11).
For those who have extra time: listen to the violin/cello duet in the soprano aria accompaniment in an unrivaled (as far as I am concerned) interpretation by Alice and Nikolaus Harnoncourt on their recording from 1976 (scroll to 06:11)
Nikolaus & Alice Harnoncourt, 1951, before they were married, on tour with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra
Read the German text with English translations of this cantata here, and find the score here.
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Wieneke Gorter, June 4, 2016, links updated June 12, 2021.