Since I most recently wrote about Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day (Cantata 110), and the Third Day of Christmas (Cantata 151) from 1725, I had thought it would be nice to write about the two cantatas Bach performed directly after that: Cantata 28 for the Sunday after Christmas 1725, and Cantata 16 for New Year’s Day 1726.
But I don’t like them. I was listening to them yesterday and today together with my adolescent daughter, who’s pretty well versed in Baroque composers, and she said: “the first one doesn’t even sound like Bach!” I agree with her. Or at least it doesn’t sound that inspired to me. I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but sometimes I don’t like what Bach wrote.
So, for this Sunday after Christmas in 2019, I’m again playing Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, which I’ve already discussed twice on this blog, most elaborately in 2017. You can find that post here.
Since I was a very small child, the word “Jubeljahr” (Year of Jubilee) has stood out to me when listening to Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein. I already mentioned this a bit in my post from last year. So on the second to last day of 2017, I did some research into this concept of Jubeljahr, and realized that perhaps Bach might have liked the word too. Keep reading to find out why.
My favorite recording of this cantata is the one by Herreweghe from 1995 with soprano Vasiljka Jezovsek, alto Sarah Connolly, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooij. Find it here on YouTube. Find the text of cantata 122 here, and the score here.
In 1724, there was a Sunday in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, (a first for Bach in Leipzig*) and it fell exactly on New Year’s Eve. The upcoming New Year was not just any year. For the Catholic church 1725 was going to be a Holy Year, Year of Jubilee, or “Jubeljahr” as they called it in German.** While Bach was Lutheran, chances are high that he was aware of the Catholic tradition and thus of the extra importance of this last Sunday of the calendar year. The nearby court of Dresden was Catholic, most of the Marian feast days were still celebrated, only a year before Bach had written a Magnificat (Mary’s song of praise) for Christmas, and many medieval customs were still present.
Because of all this, I would like to think that Bach wanted to mark this special occasion, and might have chosen the chorale Das neugeborne Kindelein from 1597 on purpose for his cantata for this day, because of the mention of “Jubeljahr” in the last verse. Whether the original writer of the chorale might have alluded to the Lutheran belief that the union of God with people makes every year a Jubilee, or to the then upcoming Jubilee and turn of the century in 1600, I don’t know. But nowhere else in Bach’s cantata oeuvre is do we see the word “Jubeljahr.”
The text of the chorale builds on the early medieval tradition of melting the story of Jesus’ birth with the celebration of the New Year, talking about the newborn baby Jesus at the same time as announcing that the year has ended and this is a true Jubilee.
However Bach and his librettist don’t go all the way with the medieval world view: They change the original text of the third verse of the chorale, used for the fourth movement of the cantata, Trotz Türken, Papst und Höllen Pfort (Despite Turks,the Pope and the gates of hell) into Trotz Teufel und der Höllen Pfort (Despite the devil and the gates of hell). In 1725 the fear for a Turkish invasion was probably not as palpable as it had been in 1597, when the chorale was originally written.
Other things to listen for in cantata 122: The amazing high c in the soprano recitative. The leap of a fifth from f to c and then the octave back to c in the soprano recitative on the words “Die Engel” (the angels) had actually just occurred one movement earlier, two octaves lower, in the bass aria, on the words “O Menschen” (Oh people). Gardiner says this musical illustration that heaven/angels (high voice and highest instruments: recorders) and earth/people (low voice and cello) become one makes him think of the angels and men hugging in the forefront of Mystic Nativity by Botticelli, and this is why I decided to feature that as the illustration for today’s blog post.
Wieneke Gorter, December 30, 2017
*In 1723, Bach’s first year in Leipzig, the Sunday after Christmas was December 26, Second Christmas Day.
** The concept of “Jubeljahr” comes from the Old Testament, where Leviticus describes that after 7×7 years, you sould celebrate a Year of Jubilee, the 50th year. However in1470 Pope Paul II issued a Bull to fix the Jubilee for every twenty-five years, starting in 1475, so that every generation could have a Jubilee.
There are many Bach cantatas for New Year’s Day, or the Feast of the Circumcision and naming of Jesus. Apart from the fourth cantata of the Christmas Oratorio I discuss here, those are: BWV 190 from 1724, BWV 41 from 1725, BWV 16 from 1726, and BWV 171 from 1729. They are all impressive, usually with trumpets and timpani in the orchestra, but rarely get performed anywhere. I hope that will change sometime.
Today is also the first Sunday after Christmas. If that day did not fall on Third Christmas Day, Bach would write a cantata for that too, as you can see in this overview. It means there is an overwhelming treasure trove of cantatas to choose from today.
The ones I like best are cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein (for the first Sunday after Christmas in 1724) and the fourth cantata from the Christmas OratorioFallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (for New Year’s Day or the Feast of the Circumcision and naming of Jesus in 1735).
Listen to Herreweghe’s recording of cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein on YouTube. It’s only 14 minutes long, but contains so many jewels. With soprano Vasiljka Jezovsek (stunning performance in the recitative), alto Sarah Connolly, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooij. I love every part of this cantata, but as a child I was most excited about the choruses: they still sounded like pretty Christmas music, but talked about the New Year!
Find the text of cantata 122 here, and the score here.
For Herreweghe’s interpretation of the 4th cantata from the Christmas OratorioFallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben you have two options: There is a beautiful CD recording from 1989, which you can purchase here. Soloists on this recording are soprano Barbara Schlick, tenor Howard Crook, and bass Peter Kooij.
There is also a wonderful DVD recording from 2013, with soloists Dorothee Mields, countertenor Damien Guillon (not singing in part 4), tenor Thomas Hobbs, and bass Peter Kooij. I can highly recommend watching this. This DVD is available at ArkivMusic, Barnes and Noble, and can also be streamed on Amazon Prime.
Find the text of cantata 4 from the Christmas Oratoriohere, and the score here.
I love this part of the Christmas Oratorio the best, because of the moving bass-soprano duet, the trio sonata disguised as a tenor aria with two violins, the famous echo-aria for soprano, and of course because it has horns in the orchestra! The presence of horns in the orchestra is the reason this cantata is often skipped in concert performances of the Christmas Oratorio. The entire oratorio is a bit too long for a regular concert program, there are no horns required in any of the other five parts, and natural horn players are expensive and hard to find, so presenters can save on production costs by not hiring any horn players at all.
By the way: Bach never intended for the Christmas Oratorio to be performed as a whole. He wrote each cantata for the six consecutive church Holidays in 1734/1735: First Christmas Day, Second Christmas Day, Third Christmas Day, New Year’s Day (or Feast of the Circumcision), Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany, and the separate cantatas were performed during the church services on those days. The music for the oratorio was largely based on existing choruses and arias from secular works. In this case of the fourth cantata, the opening chorus, soprano aria, and tenor aria all come from BWV 213 Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen aka Hercules at the Crossroads written in 1733 for the 11th Birthday of Prince Friedrich Christian, son of the Elector of Saxony.
I wish you a good 2017!
Wieneke Gorter, December 29, 2016, links updated December 28, 2019.