Christ cleansing a leper, Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864
For this third Sunday after Epiphany, we find no less than four gems in Bach’s treasure trove: cantatas 73, 111, 72, and 156. I decided to highlight 73 and 72, because of the interesting references between the two. As far as we can tell, Bach loved these cantatas too: He performed cantata 73 at least one more time, and transcribed the opening chorus of cantata 72 into the Gloria of his Mass in G minor.
From the chronology of performances in Leipzig, it looks as if Bach wrote cantata 73 in 1724 and cantata 72 two years later. However, some scholars argue that (a large part of) cantata 72 was probably already written around 1715, since most of the poetry is from a collection Bach used when working in Weimar at that time. But whether 72 was first or 73 was first, it doesn’t matter that much for the appreciation of these two beautiful cantatas.
I have a soft spot for cantata 73 because I love the way Herreweghe performs this, have listened to the 1990 recording many times since it came out, and then to the (better!) 2013 recording. The best parts are the opening chorus and the bass aria (sung by Peter Kooy on both recordings) and I’m grateful for Eduard van Hengel’s Bach website (in Dutch) where I learned a lot about the many possible bits of reference in this cantata to other works.
Listen first to Cantata 72 Alles nur nach Gottes willen by Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki on Spotify
soloists: Rachel Nicholls (one of the most “boy soprano”-like voices today, I love it), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), Peter Kooy (bass)
This recording is no longer available on YouTube, but if you you only have access to YouTube, you could listen to Gardiner’s recording instead.
What to listen for in cantata 72:
The most important words from the Bible text for this third Sunday after Epiphany (the story of Jesus cleansing a leper, from the gospel of Matthew):
Da er aber vom Berg herabging, folgte ihm viel Volks nach. Und siehe, ein Aussätziger kam und betete ihn an und sprach: Herr, so du willst, kannst du mich wohl reinigen. Und Jesus streckte seine Hand aus, rührte ihn an und sprach: Ich will’s tun; sei gereinigt!
(When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean. Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, I am willing; be cleansed.)
In the opening chorus: The illustration of the word “Alles” (Everything): one can hear all the instruments in the orchestra, and when the voices come in, they first jump an octave over two quarter notes, signifying all the possible notes in the chord, and then run up in 16th notes, singing every single note in the chord.
In the alto aria: nine times the words “Herr, so du willt” – make sure to remember this melody!
In the bass aria: the text is set in the third person, but it is almost as if Jesus himself is speaking here, and this is where the text moves to the “Ich will’s tun” (I will do it / I am willing) words from the gospel.
In the soprano aria*: the happy and sweet elaboration on the “Ich will’s tun” – which here turns into “my Jesus will do it!”
The closing chorale: the same text and tune Bach uses throughout cantata 111 for this same Sunday in 1725, as well as in the St. Matthew Passion (but in that case with different harmonies in the last four lines!)
Next, listen to cantata 73 Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir in a fantastic recording by Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe, from 2013, on Spotify
Or this same recording on YouTube
soloists: Dorothee Mields (soprano), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Peter Kooy (bass)
Please note: this is a new recording, on Herreweghe’s own label, with a different soprano and tenor soloist than on his earlier recording of this same cantata (Virgin Classics, 1990, with soprano Barbara Schlick and tenor Howard Crook). I like this new one better. The entire CD is wonderful, and also features fabulous counter-tenor Damien Guillon in the other cantatas on the disc. If you like this recording, please consider supporting the artists by purchasing it on Amazon.
What to listen for in cantata 73:
In the opening chorus: the first four notes of the original chorale Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir in Leiden und Sterben, used as a four-note “Leitmotiv,” first appearing staccato in the horn in the orchestra:
and at the very end of the movement, homophonically in the choir, repeated three times, not something Bach normally does in cantata opening choruses:
In the bass aria: now the “Herr, wie du willt” from the chorale text turns in to “Herr, so du willt” from the gospel text. And to accentuate this, Bach again gives this text its own “Leitmotiv”-like melody. However, it might not have been a new melody. It is very similar to “Bist du bei mir” from Anna Magdalena’s music book. She wrote this aria in her book much later, but it was copied from an opera aria by Stölzel from 1717. Perhaps this opera aria was already being hummed in the Bach household in 1724, we will never know. Later in the bass aria in cantata 73, the “Herr, so du willt”-melody from the alto aria of cantata 72 returns!
What I love especially in this bass-aria is the illustration of “Leichenglocken” (death bells) by pizzicato strings and a somewhat “tolling” movement in the vocal part. My mother (a walking Bach encyclopedia who played a cantata on the turntable / CD player every Sunday) would always point features like this out to me. Bach used it in many other cantatas, for example in (cantata number/movement number): 8/1, 95/5, 105/4, 127/3, 161/4, 198/4. [Thanks again to Eduard van Hengel, I didn’t have to look this up myself].
* While overall I like Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of cantata 72 best, and I love how Rachel Nicholls sings the soprano aria, I would like to mention that on Montreal Baroque’s recording of this work, the soprano aria by Monika Mauch is excellent and worth listening to. How she makes everything calm on the words “sanft und still” is very special.