It is now the 24th Sunday after Trinity. Depending on the year, this Sunday can fall anywhere in the month of November, from the 1st to the 26th day of the month.
In 1723, during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, this day fell on November 7, with two more Sundays to go before Advent. For that day Bach wrote the apocalyptic Cantata 60, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort! I have the best memories of doing the research about this cantata, from finding out how Bach’s music had inspired a lithographer in 1914 as well as Alban Berg in 1935, to being pleasantly surprised by Robin Blaze’s marvelous singing on the Bach Collegium Japan recording. Read it all in my post from 2016.
The next year, in 1724, this Sunday fell November 19, the penultimate Sunday before Advent that year. For that Sunday Bach wrote Cantata 26 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig. When I first listened to this cantata in 2017, I labeled it “The Water Cantata” in my head, because there is moving water in both the tenor aria and the bass aria, from a rushing brook to a stormy white water river. The combination of bass voice with the three oboes and bassoon even made me think of Hades in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. I remember finding it special, all that water, especially since I had just come back from a short visit to Yosemite National Park with my family, where I had admired waterfalls and rivers. There is now an excellent J.S. Bach Foundation video of this cantata available on YouTube. You can really hear the water move, especially in their terrific rendition of the tenor aria. Find it here. Soloists are Susanne Frei soprano; Antonia Frey, alto; Daniel Johannsen; tenor; Klaus Häger, bass.
Find the score for Cantata 26 here, and the texts & translations here.
The reading for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax Collector) from the Gospel of Luke. In the parable, these two men come into the temple to pray around the same time, but talk to God in very different ways. While the Pharisee puts on a fake show about how good he is, the tax collector is very humble, “wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven” and asks for forgiveness.
“There’s something with this Sunday,” I wrote three years ago, and I still feel that way when I listen to the cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723 and 1724.
In 1723, his first year in Leipzig, Bach performed two cantatas on this Sunday: Cantata 179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht kein Heuchelei sei(See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy) before the sermon, and his solo cantata for soprano Cantata 199 Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut (from his early years in Weimar) afterwards. Cantata 199 is only loosely related to the Gospel story, and was probably never written with this story in mind. Because of its multi-layered history and the many different recordings, I will discuss that composition some other time.
Cantata 179 focuses on the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and just like cantatas 46 and 102 I discussed last week, it must have been one of Bach’s own favorites, because he re-used three movements in later works. Read all about it in my post from 2016, which I have updated with better images and new video links.
In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, which, surprise, surprise, focuses on the Publican asking for mercy. The only recording that does this cantata justice and gives me the good kind of stomachache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan. Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s singing is outstanding, and Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music, which is–judging from a lot of other recordings–not an easy thing to do. I updated my blog post from 2017 with all the correct links to stream or purchase this recording. Please find it here.
I now have my own Westerland rose growing against the front of my house. The abundance of flowers, the range of color, and the glorious scent are daily blessings this time of year. And while in 2017 I still had to piece together my favorite recording of Cantata 86 from some of Gardiner’s and some of Koopman’s, there now is the fabulous live recording of the Netherlands Bach Society on YouTube, published on September 7, 2018. It even has two of my heros in the alto aria: Shunske Sato on violin and Robin Blaze singing countertenor. Other wonderful soloists on this recording: Marion Strijk, soprano; Daniel Johannsen, tenor; and Stephan MacLeod, bass.
Sato and Blaze present a very clear explanation of how Bach illustrates the “breaking” of the roses in the alto aria in this short video. Worth all the four and a half minutes of your time.
For the text and translations of cantata 86, please visit this page, and for the score, please go 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 you 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.
Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, ‘Landscape with a waterfall’, circa 1668, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Last week it was the 7th anniversary of my mother’s passing. I wasn’t sure what to write about that, so ended up not posting that day. If you would like to read more about the woman who still is my main inspiration for this blog, you can read my tribute to her here.
But as it turns out, it is not a bad thing to combine the cantatas Bach wrote for Trinity 23 & 24 in 1724 in one and the same blog post, since they both stand out for their bass arias. It is noteworthy that Bach ended both his 1723 and 1724 Trinity seasons in Leipzig with cantatas featuring impressive bass arias*. That the “End of Life/End of Time/Judgement Day” theme was on every Protestant’s mind in the 18th century around this time of year of course had a lot to do with this. Bach often associates the bass voice with this theme, see for example Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort, discussed here on this blog.
Regarding Cantata 139 Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity (which was last week), I prefer the recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation (Bachstiftung). Especially the tenor aria is very well done by tenor Johannes Kaleschke and violinists Renate Steinmann and Martin Korrodi. Update from 2019: when I first wrote about this performance in 2017, the cantata was not available on YouTube in full length, but now it is! You can find it here. For those who can understand (a little) German, there is also a terrific explanation by conductor Rudolf Lutz of everything that happens in the cantata available on YouTube here. You can even download the same worksheet (“Lutzogramm”) as the audience is looking at here. Rudolf Lutz is at his best here, very clever, witty, and informative. He spent a lot of time prepping for this workshop, including entering entire orchestrations into his “Lady Yamaha,” which is very effective for understanding Bach’s incredible composition. Soloists are Susanne Frei, soprano; Antonia Frey, alto; Johannes Kaleschke, tenor; Ekkehard Abele, bass.
However, since the subject of this post is bass arias … the best interpretation of the extremely unusual bass aria appears on the Bach Collegium Japan recording. Peter Kooy does a fabulous job bringing out the different character for the 11 (!) different sections of the aria. I created a playlist on Spotify of this Bach Collegium Japan recording here. Soloists are Yukari Nonoshita, soprano; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Makoto Sakurada, tenor (he doesn’t convince me or capture my attention, and I find his pronunciation of the word “getrost” a bit distracting); Peter Kooy, bass.
Find the text of Cantata 139 here, and the score here.
Peter Kooy/Bach Collegium Japan again wins “best interpretation of the bass aria” in Cantata 26 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig for the 24th Sunday after Trinity in 1724.Listen to Bach Collegium Japan’s recording via a playlist I created here on Spotify. This cantata was released on the same album as Cantata 139, so the soloists are again Soloists are Yukari Nonoshita, soprano; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; and Peter Kooy, bass.
Find the text of Cantata 26 here, and the score here.
And what a bass aria this is! The calmly babbling brook from the lovely tenor aria earlier in the cantata has become a white water river in this bass aria. And the combination of bass voice with the oboes makes me think of Hades in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Peter Kooy is great and my mother loved him very much, but in my humble opinion, the luckiest people today are those attending the cantata service in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague, Netherlands, where my good friend and favorite Bach bass Marc Pantus will be singing this aria. The Kloosterkerk was also my mother’s church for the last decade of her life, so I have now successfully circled back to her in this post, and miss her much more today than I did last week.
Wieneke Gorter, November 26, 2017, updated November 21 & 24, 2019.
*The first cantata Bach ever wrote for this particular time of year was Cantata 163 in Weimar. It contains a bass aria accompanied by two cellos, an instrumentation Bach never ever used after that. The last two cantatas of the 1723 Trinity season were Cantatas 90 and 70. Read my post about Cantata 90 for the 25th Sunday after Trinity here and my post about Cantata 70 for the 26th Sunday after Trinity here.
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.
This week I don’t feel a lot of connection with the Bach cantata from 1724 for this Sunday (the 5th after Easter, or Rogate Sunday), cantata 86 Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch. When I came home from the funeral of one friend, I learned that another friend had passed away suddenly the day before. Because these were both very strong, kind, beautiful, and inspiring women, and I can’t believe they are gone, I feel much more inclined to listen tocantata 198, Lass, Fürstin, Lass nun einen Strahl, which Bach wrote for the funeral of a well-loved Queen than to a cantata which promotes that “God always knows best.”
But I’ll still write about cantata 86. The only connection I have with it this week are the roses in the text of the alto aria. It is my favorite movement of this cantata, because of the splendid violin solo. The interpretation of that violin solo I like best of all the recordings I listened to* is the one by Kati Debretzeni on the Gardiner recording. You can find that recording here on Amazon or here on iTunes. Soloists on the Gardiner recording are Katharine Fuge, soprano; Robin Tyson, counter-tenor; Steve Davisilim, tenor; and Stephan Loges, bass.
For better interpretations of the bass and tenor solos, I recommend listening to the Koopman recording with tenor Christoph Prégardien and bass Klaus Mertens. You can find that recording on YouTube, Amazon, or iTunes.
2020 update: read my blog post of May 15, 2020, to find links to the live video recording by The Netherlands Bach Society, with Robin Blaze, coutertenor, and Shunske Sato, violin.
For the text and translations of cantata 86, please visit this page, and for the score, please go here.
Why the connection with roses? About one week ago, on Friday May 12, I went to drop off a card for a friend who was dying. I learned she was in her last days on Tuesday, but it took me until Friday morning to find the right words, finish writing the card, and to drop it off. When I walked to her door I noticed a hedge of sweet pink roses in the front yard. I felt peace from seeing the roses, and from the knowledge that she liked roses, but I also felt miserable and angry that she would be taken away from all this, from her family, her life, her home. The next day, we heard she passed away during that night.
This past Friday was the day of her funeral. I didn’t know how it would go, how my kids would handle it (my oldest and her oldest are friends), and tried to find some strength for myself, so I would be able to be there for them. I realized that I associate this woman’s kindness and warmth with the pinkish apricot color of my favorite rose in the Berkeley rose garden, Westerland. So I decided to walk through the rose garden to experience the color and scent of this amazing flower, and it helped. This is what she looked like that day:
What to listen for in cantata 86:
In the opening movement, notice how Bach accentuates the fact that Jesus is speaking important, timeless words by setting these words in the form of an archaic motet. While the motet has multiple voices, the way it was done in the Renaissance, Bach can still make it clear that the words come from Christ’s mouth only, by giving all the other “voice parts” to instruments instead of to other singers.
In the alto aria, hear how the words “brechen” (to pick [roses]) and “stechen” (to prick) are illustrated by short notes and “broken” chords in the voice part, and broken chords in the violin part.
In the soprano aria, hear how low in the soprano range this is set — it could just as well have been sung by an alto. Bach has not given significant solos to a soprano since Easter of this year, 1724, and actually pretty sporadically since the start of the new year. Many scholars suggest that during that spring of 1724, Bach might have lost his boy soprano soloist (due to him leaving the school or due to his voice changing, we don’t know), and documents suggest that he was frustrated with the low quality of the boy sopranos of the St. Thomas School in general. They believe that this is why he started the chorale cantatas (cantatas of which each movement is based on a different verse of one and the same chorale tune) after Pentecost of that year. Keep following this blog and you’ll learn more about that soon 🙂
Wieneke Gorter, May 21, 2017, updated May 15, 2020.
*I did all this listening last year, when I actually ended up writing about cantata 87, the one Bach wrote for this same Sunday, but then in 1725. Read that post here.
In many traditions, from pre-Christian European to contemporary American, February 2 marks the end of the dark part of the winter. Feasts on this day celebrate the daylight, looking ahead to spring, and the start of new things. Growing up in a Calvinist protestant culture in the Netherlands, I wasn’t aware of any of these holidays.
Let’s start with the silly American holiday on February 2: Groundhog Day. If the groundhog (some sort of marmot) comes out of her hole on this day while it is cloudy, spring will be early; if it is sunny and the groundhog will thus see her own shadow when she comes out of her hole, she will be scared and go back inside and spring won’t start for another six weeks. Grown men actually observe the groundhogs on February 2.
People from Celtic cultures celebrate Imbolc or Brigid’s Day on February 2 because it is the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The holiday is a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
The Catholic feast of Candlemas also originates in pre-Christian times, and originally marked the end of a period of light feasts which started around mid November. After the early Christians established that Jesus was born on December 25, it was easy to declare Saint Martin (Nov 11, 40 days before Christmas) the start of the great Christmas season and February 2 (40 days after Christmas) the end of it. I read that in some countries people leave their Christmas decorations up until Candlemas. I would have loved to have that tradition in the Netherlands too, because I had serious trouble with the bleak, grey, uneventful month of January there. And all procrastinators are now absolved: you didn’t know it, but you were doing the right thing to leave those lights up until February!
The Catholic Church merged Candlemas with the feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. In the Jewish tradition, a new mother was “unclean” for the first 40 days after giving birth. On the 40th day, she would have to visit the temple for a purification ceremony, and to present her son to the priests. Luther kept this Catholic feast on the calendar, but focused much more on the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple than on the Purification of Mary. What is more, he turned Simeon’s song of praise into a message of “Now I can die in peace.” This is why all five cantatas (BWV 82 (the famous Ich habe genug), 83, 125, 157, and 158) Bach wrote for this holiday are mostly about the joy of dying. But not to worry, the cantata from 1724 is actually very festive.
Listen to/watch cantata 83 Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bundeby the Netherlands Bach Society on YouTube. Shunske Sato, violin and direction; Robin Blaze, alto; Daniel Johannsen, tenor; Stephan MacLeod, bass. I prefer this recording because this cantata is a violin concerto and here we can see one of the best Baroque violinists and Bach interpreters, Shunske Sato, at work.* However for the most magical rendition of the second movement please also listen to the Bach Collegium Japan recording (Natsumi Wakamatsu, violin; Robin Blaze, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass)
Find the German text with English translations of Cantata 83 here, and the score here.
The first and third movement are written like a violin concerto and celebrate the “new” era. According to an excellent study by Dutch musicologist Pieter Dirksen, presented at a Bach Symposium in Germany in 2000, the impressive violin part was most likely written for violin virtuoso Johann Georg Pisendel from Dresden. Dirksen makes a very convincing case that Bach wrote this past Sunday’s operatic cantata 81 and this cantata 83 (both from the same week in 1724) specifically to please musicians and perhaps also dignitary guests from Dresden, giving them the two musical forms the Dresden court favored most: an opera in the form of cantata 81 and a concerto in the form of cantata 83. There are no documents supporting the suggestion that Pisendel was in Leipzig around the time this cantata was played. However, as I have mentioned before in this blog, it seems evident from Bach’s writing around special holidays that there were either guest musicians or colleagues to impress in those weeks. Also, Dirksen gives many plausible examples of links to Dresden in the style and instrumentation of these compositions, and argues that Bach had no other violinist available, including himself, who would have been able to play this and that this is why he didn’t write virtuoso violin solos in any cantatas from the first Leipzig cycle.
The second movement symbolizes the “old” tradition Simon stands for in the Gospel story. In a way he has never done this in any other cantata, Bach sets Luther’s translation of Simeon’s words (“Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren …”) to the old Gregorian psalmtone for Nunc Dimittis, which was the Roman version of Simeon’s words. It is likely he wanted to show the Catholic guests from Dresden he was familiar with their tradition too, or perhaps he wanted to honor the Catholic history of this feast day. The very best rendition of this movement is sung by Peter Kooij on the Bach Collegium Japan recording of this cantata. My late mother used to say: “Peter Kooij must have a special line with God.” He definitely has a special line with Bach.
Wieneke Gorter, February 2, 2017, updated February 2, 2020 and February 2, 2023.
*read how Shunske Sato’s playing made me want to write for this blog again in this post
The third cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was very popular in our house, and it was my sister’s all-time favorite. That is probably why I had never heard the beautiful cantata 64 Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget before doing research for this blog, even though it has trombones in the opening chorus and in all three (!) chorales, and Peter Jelosits is singing the soprano aria on the Harnoncourt recording.
Listen to Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of cantata 64 on Spotify. Soloists: Yukari Nonoshita, soprano; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Peter Kooij, bass. With Concerto Palatino: Yoshimichi Hamada, cornetto; Simen van Mechelen, Charles Toet, and Wim Becu, trombones.
Bach wrote this cantata in 1723 and the structure, with the three chorales, is very similar to cantata 40 from yesterday, written that same year.
During his four-week Advent Break that first year in Leipzig (he repeated a Weimar cantata on the first Sunday of Advent, and was not to perform any music in the churches for the next three Sundays), Bach wrote six new cantatas for the period from December 26, 1723, to January 9, 1724 (cantatas 40, 64, 190, 153, 65, and 154). But that was not all. For Christmas Day 1723, he supplemented cantata 63 from Weimar with a newly written Magnificat. Knowing how hard it is for a choir to sing that Magnificat (on the same level as the Mass in B Minor and the Motets), it is clear that Bach did not have a “break” at all, but was very busy rehearsing his choir in addition to writing all this new music.
Wieneke Gorter, December 27, 2016, Harnoncourt link updated December 26, 2019.