Between Estomihi Sunday (or the last Sunday before Lent) and Good Friday, there were 47 days in 1729. During that entire time the Leipzig congregations would hear no music in the churches, except for chorales. So Bach’s last music had to be as memorable as possible, had to give them hope, and ideally also prepare them for the St. Matthew Passion they would get to hear on Good Friday.
Bach successfully checked all these boxes with Cantata 159 Sehet! wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem. And leave it to alto Alex Potter to bring all this out in a performance. Opera-like drama, heart-breaking emotion, the promise of hope and redemption, it is all there in his singing, and in that voice with the beautiful variety of colors.
Listen to / watch the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soprano: Miriam Feuersinger; Alto: Alex Potter; Tenor: Thomas Hobbs; Bass: Stephan MacLeod. Read some comments by Alex Potter on this cantata here on the AllofBach website. Find the German texts with English translations here.
The Herreweghe recording deserves a mention here too. Dorothee Mields’ singing in the duet with Matthew White is very moving, and Peter Kooij’s interpretation of the bass aria “Es ist vollbracht” on this recording is unrivaled. Find that recording here on YouTube, but better yet, support the artists and purchase the entire album Jesu, deine Passion here on Amazon or here on iTunes. It contains all four cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday, and they are all excellent. Read more about Cantatas 127, 22, and 23 in my blogpost from 2018 here.
Two weeks ago I ran out of time writing this post, but I had discovered so much about Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen (1726), that I would still very much like to share that cantata here. So I hope you don’t mind going back in time a little bit, to the Second Sunday after Epiphany, which fell on January 19 this year (2020), and on January 20 in 1726.
Before I prepare a new post, I always like to revisit previous posts I wrote about this same Sunday, and listen to those cantatas again. And it always thrills me when during this process I discover that Bach must have done this too: going back, either in his memory or in the physical stack of manuscripts, to the music he previously wrote for this same Sunday. Sometimes I only get a feeling that he did this, but other times, there’s an obvious quote either in the text or in the music.
This time I was excited to find Bach quoting music from Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? in Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen. Bach had written Cantata 155 already in Weimar in 1716, but performed it again in Leipzig in 1724, also on the Second Sunday after Epiphany.
I invite you to listen to/watch the wonderful alto-tenor duet with bassoon from Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?here, in a performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with alto Margot Oitzinger and tenor Julius Pfeifer. Note this theme in the voices:
After that duet is over, I would suggest turning off that recording for now. *
Now listen to/watch the entire recording of Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, also by the J.S. Bach Foundation here, with soprano Susanne Seitter, alto Jan Börner, tenor Jakob Pilgram, and bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich.
Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here. Please note that the English translation of the bass aria’s first line is incorrect: the translation of the German word “Sorgen” should be “worries” or “worrying”, not “care.” The correct translation is something like this:
Groaning and pitiful weeping are no help to the sickness of worrying
Pay attention to the recorder parts in the opening movement. The music has a slower tempo, and a more drawn out rhythm, but the theme is the same as in that duet from Cantata 155 you just heard:
There is more in this opening chorus of Cantata 13 that gives us a peek into Bach’s referencing process. Bach often uses recorders to introduce sorrow. Early in his career he had done this in the opening movements of Cantata 106 Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (written in 1707) and Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde(1716). Even during his first year in Leipzig, in 1723, he used this “tool” in the opening chorus of Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei(which would later form the basis for the Qui tollis from the Mass in B minor). And while from the mid 1720s most Baroque composers, including Bach himself, favored the more fashionable French transverse flutes over recorders, Bach still uses recorders to illustrate impending sorrow or death’s slumber in his Easter Oratorio (1725) and his St. Matthew Passion (1727). Click on the links to hear/watch recordings of all these examples on YouTube. Names of performers in all these are listed at the very end of this post.**
If, after listening to / watching Cantata 13 in its entirety, you are wondering why Bach’s illustration of a miracle (Jesus turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana) is so incredibly sorrowful, read my blog post about Cantata 3 here.
Wieneke Gorter, January 31, 2020.
* read my blog post about Cantata 155, which now includes a link to the J.S. Bach Foundation recording, here.
** Performers in the YouTube recordings of cantata/oratorio movements with recorders are:
Opening movement of Cantata 106: Netherlands Bach Society; Jos van Veldhoven, conductor; Heiko ter Schegget and Benny Aghassi, recorders; Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass.
Opening movement of Cantata 161: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; Bart Coen and Koen Dieltiens, recorders; Matthew White, alto; Herman Stinders, organ.
Opening movement of Cantata 46: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Live recording from the Festival of Saintes, France, July 15, 2013. Recorder players not specified.
Tenor aria “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” from Easter Oratorio, BWV 249: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Mark Padmore, tenor.
Tenor recitative with choir “O Schmerz, hier zittert das gequälte Herz” from St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Colin Balzer, tenor.
Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio, 1435-1440. Pinacoteca Stuard, Parma, Italy.
Following Bach’s cantata writing in 1725, we have now come to Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, an oh so pretty composition with two horns in the orchestra, also the very last of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of chorale cantatas. And Bach probably knew that when he was writing it. It is based on the chorale about the Morning Star, a metaphor for Christ.
The recording of this cantata I like best is the one by Montreal Baroque, with soprano Monika Mauch, counter-tenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, and bass Stephan MacLeod. Please find it here in my playlist on Spotify. If you don’t have access to Spotify, you can purchase the album here on Amazon or listen to Harnoncourt’s recording on YouTube.
This cantata was the first I ever wrote about. It was in college, as an assignment for Frits de Haen: we had to compare a modern-instrument and a period-instrument recording of a piece of our choice. I don’t remember why I selected this cantata. At the time the only period-instrument recording I had was the one by Harnoncourt. Frits loved the review I wrote (in Dutch) and kept giving me nudges to write more. For several years in a row after that first review I wrote for his class, I would run into him at the Utrecht Early Music Festival or at another concert, and he would always ask “are you still writing?” or “why aren’t you writing?” and told me that I should really write every day or every week. His words have always stayed with me and are one of several reasons why I started writing this blog in January 2016.
You might think it is because of Palm Sunday that there was music in the Leipzig churches again on this Sunday. However, in Leipzig Palm Sunday was firmly part of Lent (the 40 days of introspection before Easter): no thinking beyond the crucifixion until Good Friday, and thus not celebrated with music. Or was it?
An exception was always made for the Annunciation of Mary: if that day, March 25, fell within Lent, it would still be celebrated, an thus Bach could write a cantata for that day.
The only surviving Bach cantatas for the Annunciation of Mary, Cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen from 1714** and Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern from 1725 were written for days when this holiday fell on Palm Sunday. And perhaps not surprisingly, both these cantatas are also very much Palm Sunday cantatas, or at least Bach’s librettist interprets the Annunciation as yet another announcement of the arrival of Christ. The references to the coming of Christ outnumber the references to Mary, in the text as well as in the music.
I think it is striking that in Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern Bach uses a chorale that was so strongly associated with the Christmas season, and writes music that is festive and perhaps even regal, but at the same time humble, with horns in the orchestra instead of the trumpets and timpani he would have used for a bigger holiday. Whether he was indeed illustrating the Palm Sunday story (a humble king entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey) I don’t know, but it is very well possible.
Some of us love to keep the tree and the lights for a few more days, others are (eagerly or not) looking ahead, facing reality (and finally starting that blog). The same two sentiments can be found in Bach’s music for this time of year. The cantata for January 6 (Epiphany) from 1724 is very Christmas-y, the one from 1725 absolutely not. Both are well worth a listen.
Let’s start with the one that is still in full Christmas swing, from 1724: cantata 65 Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, with a happy text incorporating the story of the Three Kings visiting the baby Jesus, and featuring 2 horns, 2 recorders, and 2 oboes da caccia in the orchestra. As a child I loved this cantata. It was mainly because of the special instrumentation, the horns prominent in the tenor aria, the oboes in the bass aria. But I also clearly remember it was so cool that the bass aria talks about the New Year!
I grew up with the Harnoncourt recording, and though that interpretation of the tenor aria (sung by Kurt Equiluz) is still one of the best, my “favorite overall” recording of this cantata today is that of Bach Collegium Japan. Tenor James Gilchrist and bass Peter Kooy do a fabulous and compelling job at their arias, and the horns sound beautiful.
The next year, in 1725, Bach wrote cantata 123 Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen. A gem of a cantata, with little strands of the chorale woven into the opening chorus, extremely beautiful. Both music and text are much more poignant than the Epiphany cantata of the year before. There are even references to the cross. And then there’s the bass aria. When you listen to this cantata for the first time, and you hear the flute start this aria, you will never guess it is going to be a bass aria! It is a very unusual combination of voice and instrument for Bach, and that usually means: pay attention! And yes, there it is in the text, the core of Bach’s 18th century Lutheran faith: even if society casts you out, you don’t belong, you are lonely, then you will still be saved by Jesus.
My favorite recording of this cantata is the one by Montréal Baroque, on which Dutch bass Harry van der Kamp and flutist Grégoire Jeay make something truly special out of that bass aria. I love the liveliness of this interpretation overall, including an opening chorus that immediately grabs my attention and moves me, and fabulous performances by countertenor Matthew White and tenor Charles Daniels in their arias as well.
The only downside for me of the Montréal Baroque recording is that the chorus pieces are all sung one-on-a-part, by the four soloists only. Not only do I have a personal (maybe not historically accurate, but so be it!) preference for 3-5 voices on a part, I also find that soprano Monika Mauch is outbalanced by the men in the opening chorus. I can hardly hear her, which is too bad because I’m sure she’s an equally great singer as the other three.