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.
On this blog I have shared only two of Bach’s compositions for Christmas Day so far: Cantata 91 from 1724 here, and of course the first cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (our family’s “wake-up call” on Christmas morning) from 1734 here. But Bach wrote at least three more cantatas for this day, as well as his Magnificat.
Today I’d love to share Cantata 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter) from 1725. Find The Netherlands Bach Society’s live recording of this cantata here on YouTube.
Find the text with English translations here, and the score here.
This live video registration has an abundance of Christmas presents for me: the festive setting of the Grote Kerk in Naarden; soprano Maria Keohane in a Scandinavian Christmas dress and truly enjoying herself; tenor Charles Daniels, always a delight; a promising new young bass, Matthias Winckhler, who can actually sing every note of the enormously challenging bass aria in this cantata; and the best gift of all: Alex Potter singing the alto aria, which to me is the most moving part of this cantata, and also the core message Bach wanted to communicate to his fellow believers on this Christmas Day in 1725.
For the joyous opening of this cantata, Bach re-uses his Orchestral Suite no. 4 in D major (BWV 1069) to grandly illustrate the “arrival” of Jesus. In the center of the cantata, after the festivities of the opening chorus, but before the very pretty Christmas-y “Glory to God in the highest” soprano-tenor duet, and an impressive bass aria with trumpet, the music goes into a minor key, and also turns inward, in the alto aria. The text of that alto aria is as follows:
Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind, Ah, Lord, what is a child of man Dass du sein Heil so schmerzlich suchest? that you should seek his salvation with so much pain? Ein Wurm, den du verfluchest, A worm whom you curse Wenn Höll und Satan um ihn sind; when hell and Satan are around him; Doch auch dein Sohn, den Seel und Geist but also your son, whom soul and spirit Aus Liebe seinen Erben heißt. Through love call their inheritance.
Of course this text refers to the believers in general, that on the one hand they are worms, and on the other hand will be saved by Jesus. but I feel the choice of the word “Menschenkind” is not a coincidence. It definitely also refers to the the fact that Jesus can’t just stay in the godly realm, but in order to be a true savior, he has to come to earth, become man, and go through all the rotten reality that might imply. This theme appears more or less prominently in all Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day, and in this cantata 110 it is already announced in the tenor aria:
Er wird Mensch, und dies allein, He has become man, and this only Dass wir Himmels Kinder sein. so that we may become children of heaven.
Nine years later, in the first cantata of his Christmas Oratorio, Bach also stresses this “coming to earth” and “becoming man” of Jesus on this first Christmas Day, in what is also the most moving and inward-looking part of that particular cantata: the soprano-bass duet. The text Bach gives to the bass in that duet is as follows. Note the last line.
Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn, Who will rightly extol the love Die unser Heiland vor uns hegt? that our Saviour cherishes for us? Ja, wer vermag es einzusehen, Indeed, who is able to realise Wie ihn der Menschen Leid bewegt? how he is moved by human suffering? Des Höchsten Sohn kömmt in die Welt, The highest’s son came into the world Weil ihm ihr Heil so wohl gefällt, because its salvation pleases him so well So will er selbst als Mensch geboren werden. that he himself is willing to be born as a man.
For the fourth Sunday of Advent, Bach wrote two cantatas in Weimar: Cantata 132 Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn in 1715, and Cantata 147a Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben in 1716.
Bach rewrote Cantata 147, the same way he did that with cantatas 70 and 186, into a cantata for another time of the year in Leipzig, in this case the feast of the Visitation on July 2, 1723. Read more about that here in my post from 2016. I have now updated that post with a link to the wonderful live performance of Cantata 147 by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with with Hana Blažiková, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Cantata 132 was not transformed into a cantata for another time in the church year in Leipzig, so today’s performances of this cantata still reflect the Advent cantata from Weimar. Watch a beautiful live performance of this cantata by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soloists are Julia Doyle, soprano; Tim Mead, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; and Dominik Wörner, bass.
Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
As I already pointed out in my Advent Calendar earlier this week, the text of the joyful opening aria refers to the story of John the Baptist, who was believed to have come to prepare the way for Jesus, and includes the Isaiah quote as it appears in the scripture: “Messias kömmt an!” (The Messiah is coming). Bach gives this text to the soprano three times, and to give it extra emphasis, each time omits all instrumental accompaniment on those three words.
The rest of the cantata stays close to the story of John the Baptist. The bass aria refers to the Pharisees interrogating John, but then Bach’s text writer (Salomo Franck, who was also the Weimar court librarian) projects the question “Wer bist du?” (Who are you?) onto the believer: ask your conscience: are you a true person or a false person?
As a child, I was enormously impressed by this bass aria, even more than by the wonderful soprano aria at the beginning of the piece. I loved how Max van Egmond sings the “Wer bist du?” text on the Leonhardt recording from 1983. You can find that recording, and read more about those childhood memories, in this blog post from 2016. I had no idea at the time that in those very cool opening notes Bach is quoting this organ piece by Buxtehude. I only learned that this week, by watching the “extra videos” the Netherlands Bach Society provides along with their live recordings on All of Bach.
If you are not following this blog yet, please consider signing up (on the left of this text if you are on a desktop computer, at the bottom of this post when you are reading on a smartphone). This way you won’t miss any posts about the many cantatas Bach wrote for all three Christmas Days (yes there were three in his time), New Year’s Day, and the Sundays after those feast days.
To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.
Several people have asked me what made me start writing for this blog again. The answer is simple: Shunske Sato’s violin playing in the “Mein Verlangen” tenor aria from Cantata 161 Komm, du süsse Todesstunde. I had already heard that Sato was “a good one” from people with authority on the matter, and had enjoyed listening to his recordings, but it took these live concerts to experience the magic that happens when he is a soloist in a Bach aria.
During a visit to my home country, the Netherlands, I attended the Netherlands Bach Society’s “All Souls” concerts on October 31 in the Grote Kerk in Naarden and on November 3 in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague. I had been unsure how to talk about these concerts in the framework of this blog, especially now that it’s more than a month ago and we’re in Advent already (yes there is Advent music in this post, please keep reading) and there is no recording of these concerts.
Solo sonatas and partitas on All of Bach
But it turns out that this week is the perfect time for a spotlight on Shunske Sato, because this Thursday December 5, 2019, the Netherlands Bach Society will publish the final episode of his series of solo violin sonatas and partitas on All of Bach, their online video archive of Bach performances. Just click on this link and the entire series is right there, under “recently added.”
Sato was appointed concertmaster of the Netherlands Bach Society in 2013, and became their artistic director in June 2018. For the concerts I attended, he was concertmaster only, having invited alto Alex Potter to program and lead this production. (Alex Potter deserves a blog post too, but that will come later). By inviting a different guest director for each program, Sato has breathed fresh air into the he group of musicians I feel.
Instead of the standard biographies, the program booklet featured personal stories from Sato and the four vocal soloists. As a person who’s produced many program books in her lifetime, I felt this was a breath of fresh air too. And as a mom of two teenagers who are finding their way through school and life, I especially liked this part from Sato’s story:
“Things got tricky in my teens: I began spending lots of time away from school playing concerts, and my grades at school were impressively low (except for French and Maths). Giving up on school, I often spent my weekdays at my favorite bookstore instead and read about history, computer programming and linguistics, and composed string quartets. Saturdays always came as a relief: classes and lessons at the Juilliard School in New York, where hung out with my “real” friends.”
Playing Weimar style
Back to what happened in the concert in Naarden on October 31. For this entire program, the violinists were playing one-on-a-part, the same way it was probably done in Weimar, where Bach first performed Cantata 161 on the small organ loft in 1716. This meant that Sato was thus the instrumental soloist in the tenor aria “Mein Verlangen,” and with the rest of the ensemble completely in sync with him, he could truly do his own thing.
And then there was light
And boy, did he do that! Every time he played the “Mein Verlangen” theme, he stretched the tempo just a little bit, every time slightly differently. It created a halo over the entire aria. Even though the tenor wasn’t singing yet, the text was already there: the longing (“Verlangen”) but also the pure radiance (“reiner Schein”) of the soul and the image of angels. He truly brought light into the music, and also for me personally into my heart and mind. It made all my frustrations and worries melt away, and it made the other instrumentalists play and tenor Thomas Hobbs sing with even more inspiration than they already had in this concert.
“The more I let go, the more I risk, the more I dare to really tell the story”
Witnessing Sato communicate the text of the aria before the singing started, I was immediately reminded of this wonderful interview with him for All of Bach. It is specifically about the “Erbarme dich” aria from the St. Matthew Passion, but his message “The more I let go and the more I risk, the more I dare to really tell the story…” applies just as well to this aria that I saw him play.
I went to the “All Souls” concert again three days later in the beautiful concert venue the Nieuwe Kerk has become. Sato’s playing there was possibly even more moving and the effect on those on stage and in the audience possibly stronger too. Several people had tears in their eyes.
Watch for yourself in this Advent aria
See the “Sato magic” happen in the soprano aria from Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor on All of Bach, with soprano Zsuzsi Tóth. Never did I enjoy a “da capo” this much. To read more about this cantata, the third one Bach wrote (or adapted) for the first Sunday of Advent, read my blog post from 2017 here.
With special thanks to Marloes Biermans and Annelie Bulsing of the Netherlands Bach Society for their generosity in providing photos and copy for me to use,
Wieneke Gorter, December 3, 2019.
To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.