Bach Cantatas

Every Sunday at 10am

During the 18th century, the musical centerpiece of Lutheran worship services was the cantata, a multi-movement piece featuring chorus, orchestra, and vocal soloists. Johann Sebastian Bach composed over 200 cantatas during his long career as a Lutheran church musician. During his time in Leipzig, he was required perform a cantata every Sunday of the year, as well as on fixed-date feasts like Reformation and St. Michael's Day. For the first few years of his employment there, Bach produced dozens of new works, each intended to accompany a particular set of readings on a particular day of the year. Discover Classical presents a year-long survey of this major component of Bach's output. Tune in every Sunday at 10AM for a cantata that Bach wrote for that particular day.

December 16, 2018: Third Sunday of Advent
"Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" BWV140

Premier: November 25, 1731, Leipzig
Text: Philipp Nicholai (Mvts. 1, 4, 7); Anon (Mvts. 2, 3, 5, 6)
English Translation
Scoring: STB soli, SATB chorus, two oboes, taille (english horn), horn, strings and continuo

For the second week of  tempus clausum (the second through fourth weeks of Advent, during which elaborate church music was banned), we’ll hear one of Bach’s best known chorale cantatas, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV140. A late cantata, it is based on a still-familiar hymn by Philipp Nicholai, commonly translated in modern hymnals as “Sleepers Wake” or “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying,” and traditionally described as “the king of chorales.” During Bach’s day, this chorale was associated with the Sundays focused on the end times, but it is now more often sung during Advent.

This cantata is one of several with a symmetrical structure: the opening chorus and final chorale use the chorale text and tune as expected, as does a central movement for tenor, one of the best known in Bach’s entire cantata output. In between are two pairs of recitatives and duets, both heavily indebted to the operatic style of the 18th century.

As with many of the chorale cantatas, the opening movement is an extensive chorale fantasy, with the melody presented in long notes in the soprano against free counterpoint in the lower voices. The orchestral accompaniment is comprised of two basic ideas: a martial, dotted figure and a syncopated ascending melody. The counterpoint in the lower three vocal parts is often quite rhetorical: on the line “Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne” (“the watchman high up on the battlement”), all three lines begin with scalar ascent; on “Wach auf!” (“wake up!”), they begin with two homorhythmic repetitions of text, as if calling out; “Wo? Wo?” (“Where? Where?”) is set similarly to “Wach auf!” The unusual theme of the short “alleluja” fugue is derived from the syncopated motive found in the accompaniment.

The two pairs of recitatives and duets are modeled on operatic love duets, with the the secular lovers replaced by Jesus and the Christian soul, as in the biblical Song of Solomon. The tenor recitative, with text by an anonymous poet, combines the imagery of the chorale text (Jesus as an arriving bridegroom), with motifs from the Song of Solomon (God as as stag leaping upon the hills.) The ensuing duet is in the form of a dialog between Jesus (set, as always, as a bass), and the soul. Bach utilizes an unusual instrument called the violino piccolo in this movement. Similar to a violin but smaller in size and pitched higher, it plays a florid accompaniment to the vocal soloists.

The famous middle movement presents the mostly unadorned chorale melody (v. 2 of the chorale) in the tenor against a countermelody in the violins. Beautiful in its simplicity, it was later transcribed by Bach for organ as one of the six Schubler Chorales. After another recitative, the second duet again features the soprano soul and bass Christ. It is similar in style to the first, with the significant exception that the voices now sing simultaneously more often than in dialog, symbolising the union of God and the soul. The usual four-part chorale (v. 3 of the chorale) closes the work, with the violino piccolo doubling the sopranos an octave higher, perhaps representing the soul’s ascent into heaven.

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December 9, 2018: Second Sunday of Advent
"Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" BWV62

Premier: December 3, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Martin Luther (Mvts. 1, 6); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB Chorus, two oboes, horn, strings and continuo

During Bach’s time in Leipzig, the second through fourth Sundays in Advent were a tempus clausum (“closed” or “forbidden” time), a period during which believers were encouraged to pursue prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. Elaborate church music was also banned on those Sundays, including Bach’s cantatas. Consequently, Bach is known to have written only one work for Advent II, Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet! BWV70a (Weimer, 1716), the music of which is now lost. For our weekly survey of Bach’s cantatas, we’ll examine another that he wrote for Advent I, his second setting of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland BWV62.

Part of Bach's second annual cycle of cantatas, BWV62 is a true chorale cantata: a work where at least two movements are based on the tune and text of one of the Lutheran chorales. The repertoire of chorales known by a single congregation in Bach’s day would have been relatively limited, and the ones that were sung would have been as familiar as “Amazing Grace” is to most American churchgoers. Writing chorale cantatas was therefore a way to both expedite the compositional process, and ensure that the work was at least to some degree familiar to the congregation. BWV62 was apparently popular enough that it was performed at least once in Leipzig after Bach’s death. The cantata is particularly notable for its many instances of “text painting,” the use of musical phenomena to reflect particular imagery or ideas in the text.

The work begins with an extensive ritornello, a Baroque-era term meaning “little return” and describing a section of instrumental music that returns in full or in part throughout a movement. The introduction features two clear statements of the chorale melody, once in the continuo group (usually including a keyboard instrument and at least one other bass instrument) and once in the oboes. The sopranos state each phrase of the chorale melody in long notes while the lower three voices engage in counterpoint based on motives drawn from the main melody. Of special note is the phrase “Des sich wundert alle Welt” (“at whom all the world is amazed”), where the lower three voices break into melismas (a single syllable extended over multiple pitches) on the word “all,” painting a musical picture of the whole world awaiting savior.

The opening chorus is followed by a “da capo” aria for tenor in the style of a siciliano. A three-part form where identical outer sections enclose a contrasting middle, da capo arias were the dominant musical form in operas of Bach’s day. Here Bach consistently sets the word “Beherrsher” (“ruler”) as a long melisma that explores the full tenor range. Following a bass recitative also rich in musical allusion, the second aria explores the image of Christ as a military conqueror. Full of long melismas and powerful arpeggios, the outer sections of the da capo aria frame a more unsettled middle, where the word “weakness” is consistently set as a descending leap, as if the music lacks the strength to remain in the high range. A brief two-part duet precedes the final chorale, where the original “Nun komm” melody returns.

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December 2, 2018: First Sunday of Advent
"Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" BWV61

Premier: December 2, 1714, Weimar
Text: Martin Luther (mvt. 1), Erdmann Neumeister (mvts. 2-3, 5), Revelation 3:20 (mvt. 4), Philipp Nicolai (mvt. 6);
English Translation
Scoring: STB soli, SATB Chorus, Strings and Continuo

Readings for this Sunday

We begin our year-long survey of Bach's sacred cantatas with the earlier of his two settings of "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland," dating from his time as Concert Master for the Ducal court in Weimar. While not strictly a chorale cantata (a cantata based on a pre-existing chorale, the traditional congregational music of the Lutheran church), BWV61 does make use of two well known chorale melodies. "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland," usually translated as "Savior of the Nations, Come" is one of the oldest chorales, adapted by Martin Luther in 1524 from the Roman Catholic chant "Veni redemptor gentium," attributed to St. Ambrose.  Known as "the queen of chorales," "Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern" ("How Brightly Shines the Morning Star) was written by the great hymn writer Philipp Nicolai in the late 16th century. Both are still sung during Advent in Protestant churches.

As in most of the cantatas, BWV61 begins with a movement for chorus, here based on a French overture. Originating in French opera of the late 17th century, a French overture is a two-part form: a slow, stately opening often featuring heavily dotted or martial rhythms followed by a more sprightly section -- frequently a fugue. Due to its origins in the French court, the style had a close association with Royalty, and Bach uses it here not to greet a secular monarch, but the King of Kings. The opening phrase of the chorale melody is state by each voice in descending order, perhaps a musical representation of Jesus's descent to earth. A hymn-like statement of the second phrase concludes the opening slow section. Phrase three of the chorale is treated imitatively in a fast triple-meter section marked "gai" (gay, merry), before the opening music returns for phrase four.

The following recitative-aria pair for the tenor uses a text by Erdmann Neumeister, a Lutheran pastor and poet, and frequent source for Bach's cantatas. The aria is set as a trio sonata, with the strings playing a unison line in counterpoint to the tenor soloist.

Mvt. 4 is a recitative for the Bass, here assuming the "vox Christi" (voice of Christ) role. The knocking at the door referenced in the text is portrayed musically by regular pizzicato chords in the strings. The following aria represents the believer's response to Christ's invitation, and is given to the soprano.

Bach's later cantatas often conclude with a simple four-part chorale setting, but the final movement of BWV61, based on the second half of the "Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern" melody, is a good deal more elaborate. The soprano states the chorale melody in long notes accompanied by the lower three voices as well as the violins, whose florid melody spans a three-octave range, and concludes with a run up to the G an octave above the treble staff. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner hears this dramatic ascent as an attempt to "convey the extent of the soul's longing for the joys of a future life and the prospect of Jesus returning at the end of time."

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