Jesus and Nicodemus, by Dutch painter Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn
Today’s Cantata 176 Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding,written for Trinity Sunday in 1725, marks the end of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of cantatas as well as the end of his series of nine cantatas on texts by Leipzig poet Christiana Mariana von Ziegler.
My favorite recording of this cantata is by Gustav Leonhardt, with the Leonhardt Consort, Knabenchor Hannover, and Collegium Vocale Gent. Vocal soloists are Matthias Echternach (boy soprano, soloist of the Knabenchor Hannover); Paul Esswood, countertenor; and Max van Egmond, bass. Find it here on YouTube.
Find the texts & translations here, and the score here.
The Gospel story for this day is the story Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, stating that only those who are reborn through water baptism and the Spirit (or Holy Ghost) can reach eternal life, hence the reference to Trinity. Find the text of that part of the Gospel of John here.
However, Von Ziegler doesn’t talk about the water baptism or any other aspects of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus at all, but instead focuses, four movements long, on the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. The highlight of the cantata is the soprano aria “Dein sonst hell beliebter Schein,” which very poetically embellishes on Nicodemus’ wish for the sun to go under.
Only in the last aria do the words “was Jesus verspricht” (what Jesus promises) turn up, and is there a short reference to the Holy Trinity. To make the reference more clear, the closing chorale ends with the following text, almost as a Roman doxology, so that everyone is clear that it is indeed Trinity today:
Gott Vater, Sohn und Heilger Geist,
Der Frommen Schutz und Retter,
Ein Wesen drei Personen.
(God the Father, son and holy spirit
protector and saviour of the devout
one being, three persons.)
Cantata 81 Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? from 1724 closely follows the reading for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany: the story of Jesus calming the storm on the sea of Galilee.
In combining masterful text illustration with his theology, Bach presents a powerful drama rivaling a Handel opera. And I was lucky to find two conductors especially not shy of the opera-element in this cantata: Harnoncourt and Gardiner. The recording from 1978 directed by Harnoncourt has a great sense of drama as well as good singing in all the movements. For me it is the most “overall” satisfying recording of this cantata. It was not an easy decision though this week, and the fact that I grew up with the Harnoncourt recording might of course have influenced my choice. Soloists: Paul Esswood, counter-tenor; Kurt Equiluz, tenor; Ruud van der Meer, bass.
If you have time to listen some more: The absolute best rendition of the spectacular tenor aria in my opinion appears on the Gardiner recording, with very convincing “waves” in the orchestra (at an even higher tempo than Harnoncourt) and truly marvelous singing by Paul Agnew. Listen to this aria on Spotify.
What to keep in mind when listening:
The reading for this 4th Sunday after Epiphany, from Matthew 8:
23. Und er trat in das Schiff, und seine Jünger folgeten ihm.
 And when he entered into a ship, his disciples followed him.
24. Und siehe, da erhub sich ein groß Ungestüm im Meer, also daß auch das Schifflein mit Wellen bedeckt ward; und er schlief.
 And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep.
25. Und die Jünger traten zu ihm und weckten ihn auf und sprachen: HERR, hilf uns, wir verderben!
 And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish.
26. Da sagte er zu ihnen: Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam? Und stund auf und bedräuete den Wind und das Meer; da ward es ganz stille.
 And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.
27. Die Menschen aber verwunderten sich und sprachen: Was ist das für ein Mann, daß ihm Wind und Meer gehorsam ist?
 But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!
In Western Europe at Bach’s time, there was probably no insight yet that the “sea” in this bible story was actually a large sweet-water lake. Bach’s Lutheran bible talked of a sea, not a lake, and most paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries depict seagulls, cliffs, or port cities in the distance. Of course a storm can also develop on a large lake, but we have to assume that Bach and his librettist had a full-blown storm at sea in mind when writing this. Bach probably never witnessed one, but Gardiner says that one of the theologian books in Bach’s library featured a vivid commentary on this part of the gospel. That book’s author, Heinrich Müller, lived in Rostock, on the Baltic sea. And who knows what interpretations of a “tempesta di mare” by other composers Bach had heard at the opera in Hamburg or seen on copied music which traveling colleagues and students might have brought with them.
The big storm at sea manifests in the tenor aria, equal to a “rage” aria by Handel, with the orchestra and the singer imitating the rolling waves and wind.
Then enters Jesus in the bass arioso, asking his disciples, but also the believers in general, why they didn’t have faith. Dürr remarks that the music is like an “Invention” and is practically a bass duet, with the other “singer” being the continuo. This is also a pivotal point in the cantata, moving from the part without Jesus/faith (nos 1-3) to the part with Jesus/faith.
Another “storm aria” follows, sung by the bass, but this time the storm is somewhat quieting down, and the oboe lines paint a quieter mood. All this to illustrate that Jesus is calming the storm. The alto recitative states/confirms that Jesus has calmed the storm, and is with us, and the chorale (second verse of the beautiful Jesu meine Freude) is the final affirmation:
Unter deinen Schirmen Beneath your protection Bin ich für den Stürmen I am free from storms Aller Feinde frei. and all enemies. Laß den Satan wittern, Let Satan sniff around, Laß den Feind erbittern, let the enemy be exasperated Mir steht Jesus bei. Jesus stands by me. Ob es itzt gleich kracht und blitzt, Though there is thunder and lightning, Ob gleich Sünd und Hölle schrecken, though sin and hell terrify, Jesus will mich decken. Jesus will protect me.
Thank you for reading! Please leave your email address in the “follow this blog” section on the left side of this blog post. You will receive an email by WordPress whenever I have posted a new story. Please note that the choice of words and spelling in their confirmation email is by WordPress, not me. My apologies for that, and many thanks to you for your patience while I work on a more elegant solution!
Wieneke Gorter, January 31, 2016, links updated February 2, 2020