This 17th Sunday after Trinity has been connected to more discoveries than any other so far for me, and I keep making new ones:
In 2016, I wrote a post about Cantata148 Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, then learned a lot of new information during the months that followed, which led me to completely revise the post in February 2017. It talks about Dresden concertmaster Johann Georg Pisendel and his influence on the violin solos Bach wrote in Leipzig. Read it here.
In 2017, I realized that at least two arias Bach wrote for this Sunday make me cry, not because of the singers, but because of the instrumental solos that accompany those arias. Read it here, in a post that introduces Cantata 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost. At that time, the best recording I could find was a live radio registration of a performance led by Gustav Leonhardt in 1988. All this because of the tenor aria.* I knew who the tenor was (John Elwes), but could only make an educated guess about the extraordinary flute player, probably Marc Hantaï. That recording also had my first countertenor love, Gérard Lesne, singing the alto aria.
At the last gathering of the Berkeley Bach Cantata Group I attended before the Shelter In Place started (and all rehearsals and performances stopped) here in the SF Bay Area, I got to discuss Bach’s “Pisendel style” violin solos a bit with the first violinist of that group. In an email-exchange that followed, he pointed out a countertenor he liked, but who I had never heard of before: David Erler.
Then this week, while checking if any new recordings of cantatas 148 or 114 had come out since I wrote those blog posts, I discovered to my great delight that in September 2018 the J.S. Bach Foundation recorded Cantata 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrostwith … Marc Hantaï playing flute in the tenor aria! (I now for sure know it was him in that 1988 Leonhardt recording) and … David Erler singing the alto aria (and doing an excellent job). While it doesn’t rival the energy of the soprano solo on the Gardiner recording (for this, please read my blog post from 2017 about this cantata), nor Peter Kooij’s solo on the Leonhardt recording, it is a fabulous and very moving performance, and you can see Marc Hantaï play. Find this live video recording by the J.S. Bach foundation here on YouTube. Soloists are: David Erler, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; and Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Find the German texts with English translations of Cantata 114 here, and the score here.
In 2018, I realized that Bach reworked the incredibly moving tenor aria with flute from Cantata 114 into a faster tenor aria with oboe for Cantata 124, and that nobody else seemed to have noticed this yet. Read that here.
In Leipzig, Bach wrote cantatas not just for Sundays, but also for major feast days. One of those was the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas, or “Michaelistag,” as Bach would have called it. That day is today, September 29.
Thanks to the “Cantata of the Week” series by Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras, two of the four cantatas Bach wrote for this day* are available on YouTubethis week only. This week’s video is especially wonderful because it has an excellent introductory talk by trumpet player Michael Harrison.
Another timely announcement I would like to make, is that you can join my fellow singers of California Bach Society, Bach lovers from all over the world, professional soloists (singing the solos from their homes), our director Paul Flight (who will teach us about the cantata), and myself on Zoom this Saturday, October 3 at 11 am Pacific Time,** for an interactive online workshop on Cantata 78, Jesu der du meine Seele. All Bach lovers are welcome, whether you are a singer or just a listener. All participants will be muted during the event.
Read more and sign up here. Registration is free but we hope you’ll support us with a donation of $10 or more. I hope to see you there!
Wieneke Gorter, September 29, 2020.
* The video includes Cantata 50 Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft (1723?) and Cantata 19 Es erhub sich ein Streit (1726). The two other cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday are Cantata 130 Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (1724) and Cantata 149 Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg (1729). All four are on Vol. 7 of Gardiner’s Bach Cantata series from 2000, available for streaming here on iTunes, here on Spotify, or here on Amazon.
** 2 pm Eastern Time / 7 pm UK Time / 8 pm European Time.
One of the three cantatas Bach wrote for this 15th Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!, the famous solo-cantata for soprano and trumpet. In a world that values athletes above artists, attending or discussing a performance of this cantata can sometimes feel as if we’re all judging a tennis match instead of a work of art: will the soprano hit that high C? and how virtuoso is that trumpet player? I have always been a bit frustrated by this.
What a breath of fresh air it was then to discover Maria Keohane’s interpretation of this cantata. There are two live registrations of her singing this on YouTube, one with the European Union Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Lars Ulrik Mortensen, with Sebastian Philpott on trumpet. Then there is a newer one, from 2015, with the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of Jos van Veldhoven, with Robert Vanryne on trumpet. That one is my favorite, and you can find it here.
Find the German texts with English translations here (click on “Text”), and the score here.
I noticed how Maria Keohane masters every aspect of this composition, not because she’s the most virtuoso soprano on earth, but because she completely understands the music. She radiates joy, but also brings a great Calm over everything and everyone. In this wonderful interview (with English subtitles here, with Dutch subtitles here) she explains how this cantata has been with her all her music-making life, how she sees her interaction with the trumpet as a symbiosis instead of a competition, and how she believes that “in allen Landen” (in all lands) means that we share the same joy of being together on this earth.
While almost all soprano solos in Bach’s church cantatas were intended for a boy soprano (no female musicians allowed in the churches of Leipzig), it remains a big question whether this one was ever sung by a boy. Under the “Story” tab on this website, the Netherlands Bach Society explains that Bach composed this cantata around 1730 for either the Weissenfels court (where his wife Anna Magdalena, an accomplished singer who had family there, might have performed it) or for one of the Italian opera singers who settled in Dresden that year. Even Gustav Leonhardt chose an adult female soprano (Marianne Kweksilber) for his recording of this cantata.
If you’d like to hear the perfect “boy soprano voice” sing this cantata, I invite you to listen to Emma Kirkby on the Gardiner recording from 2000, here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. While she doesn’t move me the way Maria Keohane does, her voice is an unbelievably amazing instrument.
To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.
As I mentioned last week, when Bach worked in Weimar, he wrote a cantata for each of the 4 Sundays in Advent. For Sunday December 13, 1716, the third Sunday of Advent, he wrote the one listed in the BWV catalog as Cantata 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht. No original music score is left of this cantata. However, thanks to Bach’s librettist, Weimar court poet Salomo Franck, who published the full libretto for this cantata in a poetry volume in 1717, we do have the original text of 186a.
To listen to a beautiful soprano/alto duet that appeared for sure in the Weimar and the Leipzig versions of this cantata, click here. Katharine Fuge, soprano, and Richard Wyn Roberts, alto, with the English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (Live recording. Ansbach, 2000).
Wieneke Gorter, December 11, 2019.
To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.
The Ascension of Our Lord by Giotto di Bondone, 1305. Fresco in the Capella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.
In the Netherlands, where I grew up, most people have a four-day weekend for Ascension Day (Thursday May 10 this year as well as in 1725). The traditional thing to do was go for a long bike ride very early in the morning on the Thursday, and then spend the rest of the weekend doing the first serious gardening of the season, putting annuals in the ground, filling window boxes, etc.
Here in the United States, Ascension Day goes by unnoticed, nobody gets that Thursday day off, never mind the four-day weekend. And here in California we already started gardening a while ago. So, while still digging out from an extremely busy several weeks/months, I forgot about it. I only remembered when my sister, who lives in France, told me they were away for the long weekend.
Following Bach’s writing in 1725, the cantata for Ascension Day 1725 is Cantata 128 Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein. It has a fantastic bass solo with trumpet (the designated instrument to illustrate “heaven”) and a beautiful alto-tenor duet.
My favorite recording of this cantata is from 1993 by Gardiner, with Robin Blaze, countertenor; Christoph Genz, tenor; and Reinhard Hagen, bass. Unfortunately the name of the trumpet player is not published. Listen to it here on Spotify. This recording is not available on YouTube. Please note that this is a completely different interpretation than Gardiner’s crazy high tempo recording from 2012 (a “make-up” recording for the missing one from the Cantata Pilgrimage cycle from 2000).
If you don’t have access to Spotify, you can listen to Harnoncourt’s 1983 recording here on YouTube, with soloists René Jacobs, coutertenor; Kurt Equiluz, tenor; Max van Egmond, bass; and Friedemann Immer, natural trumpet.
Find the text of Cantata 128 Auf Christi Himmelfahrt alleinhere, and the score here.
While the opening chorus is very similar to the great chorale fantasias from January 1725, this cantata is not a true “chorale cantata” anymore. By this time, after Easter 1725, Bach doesn’t follow the same structure that he religiously adhered to for all his cantatas from Trinity, June 11, 1724 to the Annunciation, March 25, 1725. None of the cantatas after March 25 have the chorale tune or text throughout the entire cantata: the closing chorale is a different one than the chorale in the opening chorus, and the inner recitatives and arias are no longer based on the text of the chorale from the opening chorus either.
This cantata is the fourth in the series of nine consecutive cantatas on poetry by Christiana Mariana von Ziegler (103, 108, 87, 128, 183, 74, 68, 175, and 176). Because Von Ziegler’s texts were published, we can see how many changes Bach made to her texts. In the case of this cantata, the most striking change is Bach deleting the planned recitative between the bass aria and the alto-tenor duet. It seems that Bach wanted to increase the musical contrast between the two movements, while at the same time clarifying the connection of the text from one movement (bass aria) to the next (alto-tenor) duet.
Thus he adds Von Ziegler’s original recitative text to the text of the bass aria, starting with an extra line “wo mein Erlöser lebt.” The line doesn’t rhyme with anything, and Von Ziegler must not have been happy with this. However, this way Bach can repeat the instrumental opening of the aria after what was originally the recitative text, and create more contrast between the movements.
He also adds two more lines at the end of that bass aria:
So schweig, verwegner Mund,
Und suche nicht dieselbe zu ergründen!
Thus making it more clear how the text of this movement is related to the next movement.
Below is an overview of all the changes Bach made in this particular libretto, courtesy of Eduard van Hengel.
Wieneke Gorter, May 13, 2018.
1. Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein
Ich meine Nachfahrt gründe
Und allen Zweifel, Angst und Pein
Hiermit stets überwinde;
Denn weil das Haupt im Himmel ist,
Wird seine Glieder Jesus Christ
Zu rechter Zeit nachholen.
2. Ich bin bereit, komm, hole mich!
Hier in der Welt
Ist Jammer, Angst und Pein;
Hingegen dort, in Salems Zelt,
Werd ich verkläret sein.
Da seh ich Gott
von Angesicht zu Angesicht,
Wie mir sein heilig Wort verspricht.
3. Auf, auf, mit hellem Schall
Mein Jesus sitzt zur Rechten!
Wer sucht mich anzufechten?
Ist er von mir genommen,
Ich werd einst dahin kommen,
Wo mein Erlöser lebt.
Mein Augen werden ihn
in größter Klarheit schauen.
O könnt ich im voraus
mir eine Hütte bauen!
Wohin? Vergebner Wunsch!
Er wohnet nicht auf Berg und Tal,
Sein Allmacht zeigt sich überall;
So schweig, verwegner Mund,
Und suche nicht dieselbe zu ergründen!
4. Sein Allmacht zu ergründen,
Wird sich kein Mensche finden,
Mein Mund verstummt und schweigt.
Ich sehe durch die Sterne,
Dass er sich schon von ferne
Zur Rechten Gottes zeigt.
5. Alsdenn so wirst du mich
Zu deiner Rechten stellen
Und mir als deinem Kind
Ein gnädig Urteil fällen,
Mich bringen zu der Lust,
Wo deine Herrlichkeit
Ich werde schauen an
In alle Ewigkeit.
Christiana Mariana von Ziegler
1. Auf Christi Himmelfarth allein
ich meine Nachfarth gründe
und allen Zweifel, Angst und Pein,
hiermit stets überwinde:
Denn weil das Haupt im Himmel ist,
wird seine Glieder JEsus Christ
zu rechter Zeit nachhohlen.
2. Ich bin bereit, komm hohle mich.
Hier in der Welt
Ist nicht, als Jammer, Angst und Pein;
Hingegen dort in Salems Zelt
Wird ich verklähret seyn. Da seh ich dich von Angesicht,
Wie mir dein heilges Wort verspricht.
3. Auf! Jubiliert mit hellen Schall,
Verkündiget nun überall,
Mein JEsus sitzt zur Rechten,
Wer sucht mich anzufechten? Wird er mir gleich weggenommen, Wird ich doch dahin auch kommen. ………………………………………..
Mein Auge wird ihn einst
in gröster Klarheit schauen.
O! könt ich schon allda
mir eine Hütte bauen; Jedoch vergebner Wunsch,
Er wohnet nicht auf Berg und Thal.
Sein Allmacht zeigt sich überall. ……………………………………………….. ………………………………………………….
4. Dein Allmacht zu ergründen,
Wird sich kein Mensche finden,
Mein Mund verstummt und schweigt
Ich sehe durch die Sterne,
daß er sich schon von ferne
Zur Rechten seines Vaters zeigt.
5. Alsdenn so wirst du mich
zu deiner Rechten stellen,
und mir als deinen Kind
ein gnädig Urtheil fällen,
mich bringen zu der Lust,
wo deine Herrlichkeit
ich werde schauen an
in alle Ewigkeit.
2020 update: If can afford to financially support the artists, please consider purchasing your favorite recording. Just click on the Amazon or iTunes link at the end of the paragraph that describes the recording.
In 1725, between Easter and Pentecost, Bach set nine cantatas in a row to beautiful poetry by Christiane Mariana von Ziegler: Cantatas 103, 108, 87, 128, 183, 74, 68, 175, and 176. Read more about this multi-talented female librettist, arts benefactor, and fellow Lutheran “preacher” in this post.
The first cantata in this series is Cantata 103: Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, for the third Sunday after Easter in 1725.
My favorite overall recording of this cantata is by Herreweghe, with vocal soloists Damien Guillon, Thomas Hobbs, and Peter Kooij, and Jan Van Hoecke on flauto piccolo. Listen to their opening chorus here on YouTube. Listen to the entire recording by Herreweghe here on Spotify. If you like this recording, please purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.
However for the best energy and intensity in the tenor aria, I prefer Mark Padmore on the Gardiner recording. Listen to their interpretation of the tenor aria here on Spotify. If you like this recording, please purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.
Robin Blaze’s singing and Dan Laurin’s playing in the alto aria on the Bach Collegium Japan recording is exceptional, and perhaps more moving than Damien Guillon’s on the Herreweghe recording. Listen to that aria here on Spotify. And it is a good problem for me, not being able to choose between countertenors 🙂 If you like this recording, please purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.
Find the texts & translations here, and the score here.
Two noteworthy things about this cantata are the dramatic change from sadness to joy, and the use of the sopranino recorder, or “flauto piccolo” in the opening chorus and the alto aria.
The sadness on this “Jubilate” Sunday is because of the Gospel story for this Sunday: Jesus announces to his disciples that he is going to leave them, and that they will go through a period of hardship during which the rest of the world will mock them. Other cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday are Cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and Cantata 146 Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal. But in the alto recitative (fourth movement), the turning point is announced: “dass meine Traurigkeit in Freude soll verkehret werden” (that my sorrow will be turned to joy). Bach makes a big deal here of illustrating the word “Freude” and then does that again, even more exuberantly in the tenor aria that follows: there the illustration of the word “Freude” is six measures and almost 100 notes long.
In both cases, Bach used the sopranino part to illustrate the word “Morgenstern” (Morning Star) in the text, creating an extra constellation over the highest notes of the sopranos with the even higher notes of the recorder. It is not completely clear why Bach uses the sopranino this time, in Cantata 103. There are theories that the instrument is meant to illustrate the “mocking” of the outside world. But, as Bach always paints the entire story of a cantata already in the opening chorus, I think he perhaps might have used the recorder to convey the message of “there will be joy at the end” in the otherwise very sad opening chorus. But who knows, his reason for using the instrument might simply have been that the virtuoso player was in town again, since it was around the time of the big Easter Trade Fair that Bach was writing this music.
Whatever the reason, it is very likely that there was only one person in 1725 among Bach’s colleagues who could play this. When Bach performed the piece again in later years, he changed the accompanying instrument in the alto aria to violin. There are also parts for a transverse flute. Herreweghe, Koopman, and Suzuki use a sopranino recorder in the alto aria, while Gardiner uses violin, and Ponseele (on the Il Gardellino recording) uses transverse flute.
To learn more about this cantata, you can now (2020) watch the excellent introduction (“Workshop”) by Rudolf Lutz of the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. The J.S. Bach Foundation just added English subtitles this video, so it is now also accessible to those who don’t understand German.
On the left the rebuilt Thomas School Anno 1732. The apartment of the Bach family was on the left of the building. On the right is “a part of the Cather(ine) Street”. Zimmermann’s Café which hosted Bach’s Collegium Musicum was located in the center building labeled “2”.
Around this time in 1725, Bach was still on a break from writing cantatas (they were not to be performed in Leipzig during the 40 days before Easter), but was by no means resting. On the contrary, he was likely rather stressed out about his passion music for Good Friday 1725.
We know that on Good Friday 1725, Bach performed a revised version of his St. John Passion from 1724. We don’t know why he revised it, and some scholars such as John Elliot Gardiner even suggest that Bach had been planning to perform a St. Matthew Passion instead.*
If we could only travel back in time and find out what happened. If it was indeed Bach’s plan to perform a completely new composition, why did he not perform it until 1727? Did he simply run out of time, or did the Leipzig city council not approve of the piece? And why exactly did he revise the St. John Passion? Did he want to change it himself, or had the presentation of Jesus as victor** in the original 1724 version irked the city council?
Now for some music, related to my previous blog post, but completely unrelated to the passion stress story above:
Following up on my post from two weeks ago, there are two more cantata movements that show up in Bach’s “Schübler” organ chorales:
The fifth movement of Cantata 10 Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (live performance in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig by alto Bogna Bartosz, tenor Jörg Dürmüller, and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Ton Koopman) disguised as organ chorale BWV 648 (Ton Koopman on the historic Müller organ (1724) of the Grote Kerk in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands) with the same title. Click on the links to watch and listen on YouTube.
*In his book Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Elliot Gardiner makes a strong case that Bach might have initially planned to have the St. Matthew Passion ready for Good Friday 1725. Read this blog post to find out why that is not an unlikely scenario at all.
Six weeks ago, I noticed that Bach’s cantatas for the 11th Sunday after Trinity all give me a good kind of stomach ache. This week, it seems that all instrumental solos for the 17th Sunday after Trinity make me cry. It happened last year when I was listening to the violin solo in cantata 148, and it happened to me again this year with the hauntingly beautiful flute solo in the tenor aria of cantata 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, from 1724.
It is an exceptional aria, ten minutes long, and extremely demanding for the tenor as well as the flutist. Bach must have been proud of it, because later, in January 1725, he turned this composition into a much faster paced, condensed piece of drama for tenor and oboe d’amore in Cantata 124 Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht.
The first recording I listened to set the standard for the rest: a fabulous flutist, most probably Marc Hantaï, and tenor John Elwes on a live audio recording from 1988 by La Chapelle Royale under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt. I absolutely adore Frans Brüggen’s flute playing on the Leonhardt recording from 1980, but don’t enjoy Kurt Equiluz’ singing as much. Mark Padmore’s singing on the Gardiner recording is to die for, but flutist Rachel Beckett’s decisions on where to breathe are not as sensitive as Marc Hantaï’s, and with Hantaï’s interpretation already in my head, I found it distracting. The same goes for Wilbert Hazelzet’s playing on the Koopman recording, with tenor Christoph Prégardien.
This La Chapelle Royale/Gustav Leonhardt recording is also a nice monument from the past for me, since it has all the soloists I was in love with at the time: soprano Agnès Mellon, countertenor Gérard Lesne, and bass Peter Kooy. When you watch the YouTube recording on a screen, you can read along in the score. And that is interesting in this case, especially in the opening chorus and the soprano aria.
Find the German text with English translation of this cantata here.
Starting at the beginning, reading along with the opening chorus, you can see that the joyful figure that is at first only in the continuo (orchestra bass) part, spreads through all the other parts, a message from Bach that the consolation in the text of the chorale is more important than the punishment. The punishment is still present though, in the repeated staccato notes in some of the instrumental parts, and, at 2 minute 24 seconds, visually only, in the score: there are the three whip lashes diagonally from top to bottom over the page in the instrumental parts, illustrating the word “Straf” (punishment) the chorus sings there. Or see this image, courtesy of Eduard van Hengel:
When reading along with the soprano aria, at 15 minutes 5 seconds, you can see or hear how in the continuo part, Bach illustrates the flick of the wrist of the farmer who sows the seeds. If you have time, I encourage you to also listen to Gardiner’s remarkable take on this soprano aria. In his notes accompanying his live recording, he explains that the text “The grain of wheat will bear no fruit unless it fall into earth” can be seen as a warning to the farmer to get his timing right when sowing his winter cereals. Gardiner, a sheep farmer in his spare time and always eager to point out connections to the seasons in Bach’s music, is obviously really excited to bring out this text: he has the entire soprano section sing it, with much more fervor and much better enunciation than Agnès Mellon on the Chapelle Royale/Leonhardt recording. He also explains in his notes that they took Bach’s indication “continuo unisono” to mean that the organ should double the cello part. Since they always use church organs for their recordings, it sounds impressive. I truly appreciate hearing this movement performed this way.
Then go back to the Chapelle Royale/Leonhardt recording, and listen to Gérard Lesne, my first countertenor love*, spookily illustrating the approach of death, with similar chromatic lines as in last week’s arias.
In 1723, Bach wrote an exceptional cantata for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity. I liked that cantata 179 so much that I gave my blog post last year the title “Bach on a roll” and I’ve been listening to it again this week. In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut for this same Sunday. Both these cantatas truly move me. I feel as if Bach was especially humbled by this particular Sunday.
The only recording that does Cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut justice and gives me the good kind of stomachache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan, because of Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s terrific singing, beautiful oboe and flute playing, and the fact that Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music (instead of struggling through it, the way it seems to be on some other recordings). Listen to this recording by Bach Collegium Japan on Spotify, or through a playlist on YouTube I created. Soloists on this recording are: Yukari Nonoshita, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Gerd Türk, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass. Please consider supporting the artists by purchasing this recording on jpc.de, iTunes, or Amazon.
There is also a BBC recording on YouTube of Gardiner’s live performance of this cantata from 2000. You can find that here. Soloists in this performance are Magdalena Kožená, soprano; William Towers, alto; Mark Padmore, tenor; and Stephan Loges, bass.
Find the text and translation here, and the score here.
That Bach might have might have felt a special touch or inspiration on this 11th Sunday after Trinity makes sense when you look at the Gospel reading for the day. It is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Pharisee and the Tax Collector), a story Jesus tells as an illustration on how to pray: the Pharisee is full of himself, telling God how good he is, while the Publican in his own prayer merely asks for mercy, and tells God how bad he is.* This concept of how to be a good Christian before God, to be true, not fake, was very important to Bach.
In cantata 113 the chorale melody turns up much more often than in most of the other 1724/1725 chorale cantatas. It is even present in some of the arias that don’t have the chorale text. For the first time since starting this series of chorale cantatas, Bach doesn’t use the chorale melody as a cantus firmus in the opening chorus. Instead, he writes a simple four-part harmonized setting of the chorale melody. But, then there’s the unusual twist: Bach changes the usual 4/4 beat in which a chorale is normally sung to a 3/4, which allows him to write long suspensions in the vocal lines, thus intensifying the pleading character of the music (and the good stomach ache I get when I listen to it).
In the aria that follows, Bach makes up for the missing cantus firmus from the opening chorus. Any late-comers to that church service on Sunday August 20, 1724 would not have missed what chorale this cantata was based on: the alto sings the text as well as the melody of the chorale’s second stanza in long notes, against strings playing in unison.
Singing a chorale melody like this is not easy, and most recordings were unsatisfying to me because of this aria (as well as the duet). But Robin Blaze knows how to do it: sing with a brilliant sound, clearly placing each note, but also sustaining the sound throughout every note, and keeping it moving, while not forgetting word accents. It is a special art, and he masters it. I can listen to that five times in a row and not tire of it.
(photo of Robin Blaze by Dorothea Heise)
The bass aria could -as far as the music is concerned- easily have been inserted into the Christmas Oratorio, with the pretty oboe accompaniment. Note the word illustrations on “Zittern” (trembling) and “zerbräche” (would break), expertly sung by Peter Kooij. If this is all not pretty enough, Bach presents his talented flute player again, and gives him a beautiful but unbelievably challenging part, more virtuoso than ever before, in the tenor aria “Jesus nimmt die Sünder an.” And then there is the duet.
I don’t write this blog for religious reasons, nor do I generally support Bach’s dogmas, but on this Sunday in 2017 I will try to be a good Christian. When I moved to the USA in 1999 I never thought it would come to this, that people in this country would want to move the clock back 50 years or more. On the morning after the 2016 presidential election I promised my kids that we would go into the streets when I would feel that equality, justice, and tolerance would be in danger. So while it stresses me out for several reasons, I strongly feel that we do have to go to the peaceful counter-protest, to help make the crowd as large as possible, and that my children need to be there too. Inspired by pictures of the rally in San Francisco on Saturday, we wrote our messages of love, tolerance, inclusion, and equality on balloons — easier to carry than signs and obviously not symbols of hate.
Wieneke Gorter, August 27, 2017, updated August 22, 2020.
* for a painting of this parable, visit the website of The Clark Art Institute here.
On this First Sunday after Trinity (or “Trinity 1” for short) in 1724, Bach started his second cycle of cantatas in Leipzig.* He was well aware of the importance of this occasion, and wrote one of his most dramatic cantatas for this day: cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort. The cantata features a wealth of opera-style writing for the soloists, and such a stately French overture, that one wonders if the use of this style was ironic: see, if you behave in this rich, arrogant way, things will end horribly for you. A lesson like this would be fitting for this cantata, because the Gospel reading for this Trinity 1 Sunday was that of Lazarus and Dives: The poor leper Lazarus lies in front of the rich man Dives’ house, asking him for food every day. Dives ends up in hell when he dies because he didn’t share his blessings/wealth with those in need.
Over the course of writing this blog, whenever a cantata contains significant operatic writing, I tend to give the prize for best recording/interpretation to Gardiner, because he and Harnoncourt seem to be the only ones not shy to “overdo” it in these cases. This time it is no different. I especially love Paul Agnew in the tenor aria and Wilke te Brummelstoete and Paul Agnew together in the duet, where they illustrate the “chattering of teeth” perfectly. Bass Dietrich Henschel does a good job too, though I’m not sure I prefer him over Peter Kooy on the Herreweghe recording. Listen to Gardiner’s recording of cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort : hereon YouTube
Bach marked this “second beginning” in Leipzig in several different ways, for himself as well as for others:
First of all, on this Sunday he starts an entire series of new** cantatas, which we now call his chorale cantatas. For nine and a half months, including the entire Christmas season, he would write every cantata according to this same template: the opening movement is a chorale fantasia on the first stanza of an existing Lutheran hymn or chorale, with the tune appearing as a cantus firmus. The last movement has the last stanza of the same hymn as text, in a four-part harmonization of the tune. The text of those choral, outer movements was used verbatim, while the text of the solo, inner movements was paraphrased, but still based on the inner stanzas of the same hymn.
If you believe in the theory that Bach lost his soprano soloist sometime in the spring of 1724, and was having trouble training a new one, this concept of a chorale cantata would have been a brilliant move to solve this problem. This way, Bach still presented a series of impressive cantatas (arguably more impressive than his 1723/1724 cycle), while limiting the rehearsal hours needed with the choir boys. In many of these cantatas, as is the case for today’s cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, the choir boys would only have to sing the chorale melody in the opening chorus, and there would be no soprano recitative or aria among the inner movements at all. If in later cantatas in this series the boys would get assigned something a bit more complicated, it would still be based on the chorale melody they already knew by heart, so it would require much less rehearsal time with them.
As if with this dramatic cantata 20 Bach didn’t already make enough of a splash, he most probably intended for the first four chorale cantatas of this 1724 Trinity season to form a set, or at least to present some kind of order, if you look at the composition form of the opening movement, and which voice has the cantus firmus of the chorale tune in that chorus:
Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano
Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto.
Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor.
Cantata 135 : Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder: Chorale fantasia, cantus firmus in bass.
We know that Bach liked to use order and symmetry when he wanted to impress other people with a composition. But perhaps he was also thinking of his legacy. When he started composing cantatas at the Weimar court in 1714, albeit on a monthly instead of weekly basis, his first four cantatas formed a similar portfolio of composition styles in the opening choral movements:
This symmetry with his Weimar days must have been lost on others, even his fellow musicians, since they heard all these Weimar cantatas in Leipzig over the course of the 1723/1724 cycle, but not in this order they were created in Weimar.
In today’s cantata, cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, there are more links to other compositions nobody or only a few fans would have noticed: In the music as well as the text, Bach makes some pretty strong references to the first and the last cantata of the 1723 Trinity season. References to the first one (cantata 75, discussed here on this blog) appear in the decision to go back to this long, two-part format, the use of the trumpet as symbol for the heavens, and the illustration in the music of the word “Flammen” (flames). References to the last one (cantata 70, discussed here on this blog) present themselves in the selection of the chorale that talks about the Day of Judgement, and the operatic writing for the soloists, especially the bass and tenor.
After having followed Bach’s weekly compositions during the Trinity season of 1723, I feel it could be interesting to see this cantata 20, the first of the 1724 Trinity season, as the immediate successor of cantata 70, the last of the 1723 Trinity season. I realize that by doing so, I would ignore a few gems from early 1724, and an entire St. John Passion, but I do believe that as educator of his fellow Lutherans, Bach found Trinity season the most important part of the church year, and perhaps sometimes in his mind indeed ignored all the other stuff in between.
During the Trinity season, the theology moves away from the stories about the life of Christ, and instead focuses on the Lutheran doctrine, how one behaves before God, and on doing good deeds. So with this cantata, and the series that was to come, I think Bach wanted to make sure the Leipzig congregations were fully aware that the Trinity season was starting. The text “Wacht auf, wacht auf” (Wake up, wake up!) in the bass aria is testament to this, but also the writing of the opening chorus and the alto-tenor duet: it all makes you sit up and pay attention.
Wieneke Gorter, June 19, 2017.
*Bach had made his Leipzig debut on Trinity 1, 1723, with cantata 75 Die Elenden sollen essen. Read more about that fabulous cantata in this blog post.
**During this period, there will be no repeats of existing cantatas at all. It is stunning to realize that Bach made this huge commitment to himself, knowing how often during the 1723/1724 cycle he “recycled” music from Köthen and cantatas from Weimar.