This past October 31 marked the 500 anniversary of the Reformation: Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Without Luther making the Bible available in German and making music an integral part of faith, Bach would probably not have felt as driven to educate his fellow believers through his music. Without Luther, there might not be any Bach cantatas, and definitely not this special cycle of chorale cantatas I’ve been discussing on this blog since June of this year.
However I didn’t want to make a big fuss about Reformation Day because I’m not sure that is what Bach wanted himself. During his first two years in Leipzig, 1723 and 1724, he never wrote a Reformation Day cantata, nor are there any Reformation Day cantatas left to us from his years in Arnstadt, Muhlhausen, or Weimar. The two Reformation Day cantatas he wrote later (Cantatas 79 from 1725 and 80 from 1730) are full of (obligatory?) pomp and circumstance, with horns or trumpets, timpani, etc. However popular they might be today, to me they lack inspiration, in a similar way the Birthday cantatas from Bach’s Köthen years seem to lack inspiration. They are full of excellent music, but they don’t really move me. So I wonder: did the Leipzig City Council make Bach write a cantata for Reformation Day in 1725? Or was this his own choice?
It is interesting to me that when using one of Luther’s original chorales, Bach makes a big deal of it in his own way: he gives it an “old-fashioned” treatment, with the 16th-century brass quartet of one cornetto and three sackbutts (early trombones) doubling the vocal parts, as if wanting to confirm the timeless character of Luther’s chorales. A good example of this technique is Cantata 25 from 1723 and Cantata 2 from earlier in 1724. If this was Bach’s preferred way of honoring Luther, he did it again on October 29 in 1724, two days before Reformation day, with this Cantata 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir for the 21st Sunday after Trinity. Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir is on one of Luther’s very first chorales, and was also sung at his funeral.
I prefer Herreweghe’s recording of this cantata. It is available here on YouTube, or you can purchase the entire album “Weinen, Klagen …” here on Amazon. The album also contains my preferred recordings of Cantata 12 (see my post about that here) and Cantata 75 (see my post about that here). Soloists are Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Mark Padmore, tenor, and Peter Kooy, bass.
If you have time, it is worth it to first listen to the opening chorus of cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein from June 18, 1724, also based on one of Luther’s own chorales. Make sure you stop after the opening chorus, and then start listening to today’s Cantata 38 here, and hear how similar Bach’s setting of the chorale melody is. I don’t think it is a coincidence.
My favorite part of this cantata is the tenor aria: it is a beautiful piece of music, a quartet really, between the two oboe parts, the tenor voice, and the continuo, the way tenor arias often are with Bach, and I appreciate the text “Ich höre mitten in den Leiden
ein Trostwort, so mein Jesus spricht” (In the midst of my sufferings I hear
a word of consolation spoken by Jesus). I listened to this aria many times in the weeks after my mother passed away (seven years ago this month), Bach’s music being my “Trostwort.”
I also very much like the before-last movement of the cantata, the trio between soprano, countertenor, and bass. Excellent motet writing by Bach, and beautifully sung on the Herreweghe recording. Again this is a nod from Bach to older composition styles, linking back to the opening chorus, and perhaps an additional tribute to Luther.
Wieneke Gorter, November 4, 2017.