Merry Christmas! My sincere apologies if you are somewhere in the world where it is not Christmas Morning anymore.
I have two new videos for you today, that will last you until January 6, just in case I don’t manage to write another blog post between now and then.
The J.S. Bach Foundation has released all six cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to YouTube. They released these on CD and DVD for purchase last year, but have now made them available to everyone. You can find that video recording here.
What is even better: they also made the effort to provide English subtitles for Rudolf Lutz’ lecture about Part I of the Oratorio, for Christmas Day. You can find that video here. I highly recommend watching this to better understand the meaning of the music, to learn how Bach reworked some of his secular cantatas into this Oratorio, and that he perhaps planned to do that all along.
There is also a good video of parts I, II, III, and VI of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by Bach Akademie Stuttgart. The setting in which they perform is less festive looking than the beautiful Baroque church of the J.S. Bach Foundation, but it’s also well done. You can find it here.
If you would like to read and listen more, here’s an overview of my previous blog posts for this First Christmas Day:
Our Christmas Morning, from 2016, talks about how my mother used to wake my sister and me up with Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Three Days of Christmas, from 2017, gives you the three cantatas Bach wrote in 1724, all three brand-new, no reworking there.
In German-speaking countries, people wish each other either a “schönen” (beautiful, pleasant), “lieblichen” (lovely, love-filled), or a “besinnlichen” (thoughtful, contemplative) Advent. I wish you all of that: beauty, love, and contemplation for the next four weeks.
On this first Sunday of Advent, I present to you again the J.S. Bach Foundation (J.S. Bachstiftung) with soprano Núria Rial, this time in Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor. In 1731, Bach transformed a secular birthday cantata from 1725 into this work for Advent. Enjoy watching these two videos by the J.S. Bach Foundation to get better acquainted with this composition:
If you would like to read, listen, or watch more, here’s a little overview of my previous posts for the first Sunday of Advent:
In Weimar, in 1714, Bach wrote Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This one I remember the best from my childhood, because my mother loved Seppi Kronwitter’s singing of the soprano aria on the Harnoncourt recording. Read about it here. More about Bach’s prolific Advent cantata writing in Weimar next week.
In Leipzig, in 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 62 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. My most recent writing about this cantata is from 2020, not for this blog, but for that of California Bach Society. Find it here. My post from 2017 about this cantata is here.
Read my post about Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch emporhere.
Wieneke Gorter, November 28, 2021.
By the way: the video of the J.S. Bach Foundation’s 15th Anniversary concert with Núria Rial is still available here on YouTube. It is a registration of the performance in Trogen, held one day after the one I attended in Basel.
The church in Trogen, Switzerland, where the 15th anniversary concert of the J.S. Bach Foundation was recorded on Wednesday. Find it here on YouTube, only available until Friday November 19, 2021, at 2:59 pm PST / 5:59 pm EST / 11:59 pm CET.
This week, the J.S. Bach Foundation celebrated 15 years of recording Bach cantatas with a special anniversary program in three cities in Switzerland: Basel, Trogen, and Zürich. I am still pinching myself that I got to attend the concert in Basel on Tuesday November 16, sitting only 6 feet (2 meters) from the amazing soprano Nuria Rial, who sang Cantata 199 Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut and Cantata 202 Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten.
Her performance was everything I had been hoping for and more. Her voice pulls you in from the start, and the energy and joy she exudes are just extraordinary. And then there’s her playfulness. I will never forget how special it was to experience that from up-close. I also realized what a true ensemble member she is, always in contact with the instrumentalists.
And those instrumentalists really need to be mentioned! Oboist Amy Power’s playing was lyrical throughout, with beautiful ornamentations in the “da capo” parts of the arias. I especially enjoyed the call-and response between her and Nuria Rial in the first movement of Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten. Her accomplishments were even more impressive knowing that she had been summoned from Graz less than 8 days before the concert, when the J.S. Bach Foundation heard that oboist Andreas Helm had to isolate at home because of contracting Covid-19.
First violinist Eva Borhi’s sensitive playing was especially gorgeous in the “Tief gebückt” aria from Canatata 199 and “Schlummert ein” aria from Cantata 82 with Manuel Walser. But my favorite was her interaction with Nuria Rial in the “Wenn die Frühlingslufte streichen” aria from Cantata 202.
Violist Sonoko Asabuki had an exquisite solo in the Chorale “Ich, dein betrübtes Kind” from Cantata 199, and cellist Daniel Rosin did a great illustration of Phoebus’ speeding horses in the third movement of Cantata 202, which earned a “Bravo” cheer from the audience, as if we were at the opera. (Always better than the audience member who fell asleep during “Schlummert ein,” snoring and all, a few rows behind me).
Last but not least, Rudolf Lutz, who directed the others from the harpsichord, improvised tasteful and effective mini-preludes leading up to the recitatives in Cantata 199, and very sensitively employed the lute register in the da capo of “Schlummert ein,” which formed a beautiful accompaniment to the pianissimo playing strings. He was also his usual witty self, making audience and performers laugh with his short speeches. My sister mentioned that even though we were here together at the concert because of our mother, she was actually strongly reminded of our grandfather. Also a man who always appeared very proper and Calvinist, but would then surprise you with his terrific sense of humor.
There’s a few hours left to watch the video recording that was made at the concert in Trogen, until Friday November 19 at 2:59 pm PST / 5:59 pm EST / 11:59 pm CET. Find it here on YouTube.
Today is an exciting day for me, because I get to see and hear Nuria Rial sing live for the first time in my life, performing a piece I have very fond childhood memories of. I also get to hug my sister for the first time in more than two years, and I get to explore the gorgeous city of Basel. It is a special week for my sister and me, since this coming Friday is the 11th anniversary of our mother’s death.
To remember our late mother and her love of music, every year my sister and I have tried to go to a concert together. Because I used to live in California and my sister lives in France, and we both have kids, it would not work out every year, but we’ve had some memorable experiences. In March 2013 we attended Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by Herreweghe in Cuenca, Spain, during Holy Week, which in Spain comes with processions in the streets. In November 2015 we went to Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers by Savall in the then brand-new Philharmonie de Paris, only a few days after the terrorist attacks. The last time we went to a concert together was in January 2018.
When the J.S. Bach Foundation announced their 15th anniversary concerts with Nuria Rial in Cantata 202, my choice for this year was made. I’m so grateful this is all working out and I am so excited I already woke up at 5 am this morning, as if I’m an elementary school kid, going on a field trip.
About that elementary school kid. One of my strongest childhood memories is of the time my sister and I accompanied my mother when she had to go sing at a wedding. It must have been late 1970s/early 1980s. The couple were both elementary school teachers, so they got married on a Wednesday afternoon, to make it possible for their students to attend their wedding as well. I remember absolutely nothing about all the other kids that must have been there that day. I only remember waiting for the bus, sitting on the floor of the organ loft, and hearing the music. Read more in this in this post, where you can also hear an example of the piece my mother sang that afternoon: the “Gavotte” from Cantata 202.
I have always wanted to visit Basel. It’s the place of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, where so many of the Baroque musicians I admire received their training. But I also heard many stories about all the great art museums, the historic city, and how beautifully it is situated on the Rhine. When we returned from our trip to Italy in 2018, we had a wonderful stop-over with a dear friend near Basel, but all we got to see of the city were the two railway stations.
I first heard Nuria Rial sing on the German radio station WDR3, exactly one month after my mother passed away in 2010. I was staying at my parents’ house in the Netherlands with my kids. My mother had always preferred the German classical music station over the Dutch one, especially for their Early music programming, so WDR3 was pre-programmed into my parents’ fancy equipment. I heard Nuria Rial sing and she literally took my breath away. After it was over I went on Facebook and told all my singer friends (that’s why I still know what day it was). To get an idea, watch her live recording of the soprano aria from Cantata 36 with the J.S. Bach Foundation. I know I already said it, but tonight is the first time I’m going to hear and see her live.
It will also be the first time I’m going to see the J.S. Bach Foundation (Bachstiftung) perform live, after having been a fan of theirs for several years now, and having shared many of their videos on my blog. Read my last post about them (and another favorite soprano) here. I feel honored I get to celebrate their 15th Anniversary with them tonight.
There really is nothing like a live performance. But if you can’t make it to Switzerland this week, you can still watch this same concert 🙂 Tomorrow, Wednesday November 17, this same program will be live-streamed from Trogen, Switzerland, at 7 pm Central European Time, which is 10 am Pacific Time, 1 pm Eastern Time, or 6 pm in the UK. For more information on the live-stream, and to download the program booklet, click here. Direct links to the live stream are here, or on the YouTube channel of the J.S. Bach Foundation.
As far as we know, Bach wrote two cantatas for this Sunday, the third after Trinity: Cantata 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis and Cantata 135 Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder.
Read my post from 2017 about Cantata 135 here. Since I wrote that post, a beautiful live video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation has been released on YouTube. Find it here.
But now about Cantata 21. It is one of Bach’s most well-known cantatas and it gets programmed often because it features several exciting choruses. The version most of us know is with three soloists: a soprano, a tenor, and a bass. Bach first wrote it like that in Weimar and later performed a similar version in Leipzig in 1723, as part of his first year there. However, in 1720, he created a different version, which he performed in Köthen as well as in Hamburg. It is likely that this version was created for a special soprano soloist (possibly Anna Magdalena?), because in this version, Bach assigns all three tenor solos to the soprano as well, thus featuring the soprano in every solo movement. The bass joins her for two duets.
It turns out that the J.S. Bach Foundation decided to perform this 1720 version for their live video series, with soprano Dorothee Mields and bass Peter Kooij. If I had been at that concert in person, I would have joined the whooping and clapping at the end, because it is an outstanding performance by both soloists but also by the chorus. I only discovered this video recording by accident tonight. I had completely missed it when it was released earlier this month. I meant to write a very short blog post today, quickly giving you some links to previous posts and then go to sleep, but I was completely mesmerized by Dorothee Mields’ singing and was unable to close my computer.
In my post from 2016 about Cantata 21, I show how similar the duet from this cantata is to the duet from Cantata 172 (also written in Weimar). When I watched the J.S. Bach Foundation video of Cantata 21 and witnessed Mields’ art of being in sync with her duet partner, I remembered there’s another wonderful video I have wanted to share. It is Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter singing the duet from Cantata 172 in this video by the Bach Akademie Stuttgart that came out at the end of May. I enjoy very much how sensitive Mields and Potter both are to the music and the text, and how beautifully and naturally their voices move together.
For me, December 27 is always the Third ChristmasDay , whether it falls on that other cantata day, the Sunday after Christmas, or not. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, there are two days on which people celebrate Christmas: December 25 and 26. Special meals are eaten on both days. And because the country is so small, you can visit one part of your family on the 25th and then see the other part on the 26th. Most relatives expect you to do this. So, when I was a child, Third Christmas Day was always our first “free” day during the Christmas break, without church visits, meal prep, having to dress up (even though I liked that), or commitments to family.
We had a standing arrangement with friends for this day: if there was enough snow on the ground, and if we were in town, we would go cross-country skiing together on the only hill in our region. It was a half-joke, because the Netherlands isn’t very snowy, and it would take an extraordinary winter for there to be enough snow on the ground for cross-country skiing. When I was 16 we moved away from that region, so it maybe happened only once that we actually did this together with the other family, but just the idea was fun, and it didn’t feel like something we “had” to do to any of us.
This was a long introduction to justify why I am sharing a cantata for Third Christmas Day on this blog today, when I should be sharing cantatas for the Sunday after Christmas instead, as that day officially overrides the other.
Ever since I found out this video of Cantata 133 Ich freue mich in dir(I rejoice in you) existed, on November 1st of this year, I had been planning to share it today. It features two absolutely gorgeous tender arias by some of my favorite soloists and the wonderful ambiance Concerto Copenhagen always manages to convey in their Christmas videos. So here your are: Cantata 133 Ich freue mich in dir, written in 1724, by Concerto Copenhagen, from their 2011 Christmas concert, starring Alex Potter in the alto aria and Maria Keohane and her beautiful berry-red dress in the soprano aria. Find the video here, the text and translations here, and the score here.
Cantatas for Third Christmas Day have all been discoveries for me since I started writing this blog. None of these were cantatas my mother played on the turn table at home, probably for two reasons: 1. It was the day for the third cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (and this one was my sister’s favorite); 2. After playing the one cantata, we were usually off doing other things afterwards (see above), and my mother must have felt the “freedom” of this day too.
I will take a break for the next two weeks, and not post again until Sunday, January 17. Our first-born is flying the nest exactly two weeks from today, to go live on a college campus on the other side of the country, and we won’t see him in person again until May. So I would like to spend my time these next two weeks cooking, hiking, and laughing with the family, and helping my son get ready.
Here are some links for further reading and listening during those two weeks:
More cantatas for today:
Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, written for Third Christmas Day in 1725. I recommended the performance by Maria Keohane (wearing a white and gold Christmas dress) with the Netherlands Bach Society in my post from 2019. Find it here.
Cantata Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, written for the Sunday after Christmas in 1724. In addition to recommending the Herreweghe recording, in my blog post from 2017 I share my research as to why the word “Jubeljahr” (Jubilee) appears in this cantata.
Cantata 64 Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, written for Third Christmas Day in 1723. I recommended the recording by Harnoncourt and Bach Collegium Japan in my post from 2016. Find that here.
Or watch the cantata for the Third Christmas Day from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio following my links in this post.
Cantatas for New Year’s Day:
Watch the fourth cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by the J.S. Bach Foundation. You can find it here. The fourth cantata is my favorite part of the Christmas Oratorio, and soprano Miriam Feuersinger is absolutely fabulous in this performance.
Read my blog post from 2017 about Cantata 41 Jesu, nun sei gepreiset. Or explore on your own: Bach wrote several other cantatas for this day which I haven’t discussed on this blog yet: BWV 190 in 1724, BWV 16 in 1726, and BWV 171 in 1729.
It has been hard to read the newspapers this week and not be touched or even completely floored by human suffering. That’s why Cantata 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (from 1724) is like a warm bath to me. The two horns in the orchestra already make my day, but there is also a strong presence of angels in the text and music of this cantata.
Watch a wonderful live registration of this cantata on YouTube by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with Monika Mauch, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Bernhard Berchtold, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Find the text and translations here, and the score here.
In the opening chorus (with the ascending scale of fast notes), Bach illustrates the “host of angels” singing, or, as Eduard van Hengel says, even “flapping their wings.”
Last year I already talked about how in most of his cantatas for Christmas Day, Bach focuses on Jesus’ journey from the godly realm, the heavenly glory, to being a struggling man on earth. It is very moving then to hear this following text in the bass solo. And it is a true Christmas present to me that it is Peter Kooij who is singing this on the J.S. Bach Foundation video, because he is one of the best to interpret texts like these. Note how Bach illustrates the “Jammertal” (vale of sorrow) at the end.
O Christenheit! Wohlan, so mache die bereit, Bei dir den Schöpfer zu empfangen. Der grosse Gottessohn Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen. Ach, lass dein Herz durch diese Liebe rühren; Er kömmt zu dir, um dich for seinen Thron Durch dieses Jammertal zu führen.
O Christendom! Come now, prepare yourself to welcome the creator amongst you. The mighty Son of God has descended and comes to you as a guest. Ah, let your heart be moved by this love; He comes to you, in order to lead you through this vale of sorrow to his throne.
In the beautiful soprano-alto duet (arguably the best part of this cantata), Bach brilliantly illustrates the contrast between the human suffering and the heavenly angels. He sets the suffering parts of the text to chromatic lines, similar to those just introduced on that word “Jammertal” in the bass solo. To the heavenly angels he gives happy, dotted rhythms.
While I grew up waking up to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Christmas Day (read more about this tradition here), these days I much prefer listening to all the other, earlier cantatas Bach wrote for the period between from December 25 to January 6. However, there are two new video projects of the Christmas Oratorio just out or about to be launched this year that I don’t wish to ignore, so for those of you eager to watch and listen to any of that, here’s my one-paragraph overview:
Bach never intended this oratorio to be performed on one day. The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were each meant to be performed on a different Sunday or holiday: First Christmas Day, Second Christmas Day, Third Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany. The J.S. Bach Foundation in Switzerland recently released all six cantatas for free on their YouTube channel. You can find the list of videos, one for each cantata, here. If you enjoy watching these videos, please consider donating to the organization so they can continue to pay their musicians and produce these wonderful registrations. Voces8’s excellent “Live from London Christmas” paid programming features all six cantatas performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh. Appropriately, each cantata will go live on the day for which it was intended. You can purchase this series here.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. I continue to recommend La Festa Musicale’s beautiful series of Advent Chorales on YouTube. Their offering for this Sunday is Johann Crüger’s 1640 setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star). With an almost overwhelming number of performances appearing online over the past weeks, I really wanted to offer some new writing today. There is so much to tell about this particular chorale and all the ways Bach used it in his cantatas. And it helps that today is a rainy Sunday here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When Crüger wrote his setting in 1640, the chorale melody already existed. The chorale is generally attributed to Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), but the melody of Nicolai’s hymn might have been based on an existing hymn (with different text) from Wolff Köphel’s 1538 Psalter hymnal. Nicolai wrote the hymn in 1597, when the town where he preached was ravaged by the plague. During that time, as Eduard van Hengel suggests, Nicolai must have had to bury dozens of members of his congregation each day. He published it two years later, as part of a hymnal meant to provide comfort in those trying times, called Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebens (Mirror of Joy of the Life Everlasting). This publication also featured the famous Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls us).
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern was most likely a compelling chorale for Bach. He used it in many cantatas (see below), but the melody first appears in an organ work. In fact, the score of this organ fantasia on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 739) is the oldest surviving manuscript by Bach. Paper analysis has shown that the piece must have been notated between 1703 and 1709. (Thanks to the Netherlands Bach Society for providing this information on their website).
After that, in cantata movements, Bach would either use the original melody (Nicolai’s, see picture above), or Crüger’s version of it. The difference appears in the third line of text, and can be seen in this image, at superscript number 6. Green is Nicolai’s version, blue is Crüger’s.
In these two cantatas, Bach used Crüger’s version:
Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, written for the Annunciation of Mary, March 25, in 1725. It is one of my favorites because of the two French horns in the opening chorus. This was the last of Bach’s 1724/1725 continuous series of chorale cantatas, and to me, it communicates a similar Advent sparkle as Cantata 62 from that same series.* Per the standard format for these cantatas, Bach featured the first verse of the chorale in the opening movement, and the last verse in the final movement. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here. Soloists are Eva Oltiványi, soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; and Manuel Walser, bass. To understand why it might make sense that the theme of Advent is celebrated on the feast of the Annunciation, please find my blog post from 2018 about Cantata 1 here.
Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully up), an extra-long cantata in two parts, written for the first Sunday of Advent in 1731. The cantata was based on a secular cantata from 1725** but for this First Advent occasion, Bach included several movements based on two Advent chorales: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come now, Savior of the Gentiles) in the soprano-alto duet, the second tenor aria, and the closing chorale; and the sixth verse of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the chorale at the end of Part I of the cantata.
Bach used Nicolai’s version of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the following cantata movements, each time in a different way:
The penultimate movement of Cantata 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (Ring out, you songs, resound, you strings!) for Pentecost in 1714 (verse 4)
The closing chorus from Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland for the First Sunday of Advent in 1714 (last 4 lines of verse 7)
The chorale for soprano and alto (3rd movement) from Cantata BWV 37 Wer da gläubet und getauft wird (Whoever believes and is baptized) for the feast of Ascension in 1724 (verse 5)
As far as we know, Bach wrote only one cantata for this Third Sunday of Advent. It is the one listed in the BWV catalog as Cantata 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, first performed in Weimar on Sunday December 13, 1716. Read my blog post from 2016 and 2017 about this cantata here.
Wieneke Gorter, December 13, 2020.
*Find my first blog post about Cantata 62 here and a more detailed explanation of how it fits into the series of chorale cantatas here.
**Read more about the history of Cantata 36 in my post from 2017 here.
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.