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.

March 3, 2019: Quinquagesima [Transfiguration]
“Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe” BWV 22


Premier: February 7, 1723, Leipzig
Text: Martin Luther (Mvts. 1, 3, 6): Anon (Mvts. 2, 4, 5)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, oboe, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Many commentators have noted the stark discrepancy between the depth, complexity, and intensity of Bach’s work, and the rather pedestrian details of his biography. As far as can be determined, he never left his native Germany; he never received the international renown of Handel, nor did he accumulate the great wealth of his exact contemporary. The picture that emerges from the scant documentary record of Bach’s life is one of a pious, hard-working, frequently frustrated (and sometimes hot-tempered) artisan, producing one masterpiece after another for (mostly) oblivious patrons and audiences. Within this prosaic narrative, however, certain key events take on special significance -- perhaps none more so than Bach’s appointment as Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723. The circumstances of his selection border on the unbelievable: not only was he not the first choice (Telemann), he was not even the second (Graupner). In fact, when the decision was made to offer him the position, the town council resignedly noted that “since the best [musician] could not be obtained, a mediocre one would have to be accepted.” That mediocre, little known organist is now commonly regarded as the greatest musician in history.

Bach was scheduled to audition for the position in Leipzig on February 7, 1723, the last Sunday on which cantatas could be performed before the tempus clausum of Lent. Graupner had auditioned a few weeks earlier, and it was generally known that the position would be offered to him. Bach nevertheless proceeded with his audition, which entailed the composition of two new cantatas on prescribed texts, BWV 22 (performed before the sermon) and BWV 23 (performed after the sermon). As one would expect for works of this kind, Bach seems at great pains to demonstrate the scope of his compositional skill, and Christoph Wolff has noted that the two works feature no fewer than ten distinct textures/genres.

BWV 22 focuses on the day’s Gospel, where Jesus announces that he and the disciples will be going to Jerusalem, where he will ultimately be crucified. The text of the opening movement is drawn directly from the Gospel, and Bach sets it as  an operatic “scena” of the type later found in his passion settings. After an instrumental introduction the tenor soloist (Evangelist) sets the scene and the bass (Jesus) delivers his lines of dialog. Following a short interlude and change of tempo, the chorus enters to describe the general confusion of the disciples in a short fugue. In a particularly subtle instance of text painting that was almost certainly lost on his prospective employers, Bach varies the typical key scheme of the thematic entries, illustrating the “confusion” of the text.

The inner three movements make use of text by an unknown poet, in which the anonymous Christian soul longs also to follow Jesus wherever he goes. The first aria, for the alto soloists, is set as a trio, with only the continuo group and oboe accompanying. The ensuing recitative is of the “accompagnato” type, typically used in opera for important dialog. Here the Bass soloist echoes the sentiment of the aria and, foreshadowing the Passion narrative, describes the weakness of “flesh and blood.” The words “laufen” (“run” or “hurry”) and “Freuden” (“joys”) are appropriately set as virtuosic melismas. The second aria is scored with full accompaniment and is in the character of a passapied, a triple-meter dance popular from the 16th through 18th centuries. On the word “Friede” (“peace”), the soloist comes to rest on a single pitch for three measures. For the closing chorale, Bach wisely emulates the style of Johann Kuhnau, the previous Thomaskantor, and augments the usual four-part harmonization with free interludes and accompaniments for the orchestra. Quite unlike the solemn finales of many later cantatas, one commentator has described this movement as “a focus of bounding energy and positivity”

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February 24, 2019: Sexagesima
“Erhalt uns Herr, bei deinem Wort” BWV 126


Text: Martin Luther (Mvts. 1, 3, 6): Anon (Mvts. 2, 4, 5)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, trumpet, two oboes, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

“Erhalt uns Herr, bei deinem Wort” (“Lord, keep us steadfast in Your word”) is one of a handful of traditional Lutheran chorales that is still regularly sung by most American protestant denominations. The “combative and dogmatic character” (Wollf) of its original text, Martin Luther’s prayer for protection from the Pope and the Ottoman Turks, is amply reflected in Bach’s chorale cantata of the same title, written for Sexagesima Sunday in 1725 and part of his second annual cycle.

The brief opening chorale fantasia is unmistakably militaristic in character, and features the trumpet prominently. As usual, the choral sopranos carry the chorale melody while the lower three parts engage in thematic counterpoint. Notable instances of text painting include a long sustained note on “erhalt” (“preserve” or “sustain”) and a descending bass melisma on “stürzen” (“cast down”).

The subsequent tenor aria contains several fiendishly difficult passages, particularly on the words “erfreuen” (“delight”) and “zerstreuen” (“scatter”), which are both set as long, elaborate melismas. The latter in particular tests the limits of the soloist’s breath control, and one wonders whether it was in fact intended to sound chaotic and breathless so as to reflect the destructive impulses of the church’s enemies. The third movement is an unusual hybrid recitative/chorale, where the alto and tenor soloists alternate chorale phrases with poetic commentary.

The Bass aria reflects Bach’s “righteous indignation at the enemies of his faith” (Whittaker). The text exhorts God to “throw pompous pride to the ground” (“Stürze”), and Bach appropriately features rapid descending scales throughout the movement. The vocal line here is another of Bach’s more intimidating creations: full of jagged leaps, long phrases, and covering a wide range, it seems to inexorably descend even as it occasionally tries to leap up. Particularly notable is Bach’s setting of the phrase “Laß sie den Abgrund plötzlich verschlingen” (“Let the abyss suddenly swallow them up”), where the voice descends nearly two octaves in a two-measure span. Another brief recitative strikes a more conciliatory tone before the supriring final chorale, which is based not on the bellicose “Erhalt uns Herr,” but on Luther’s “Verleih uns Frieden” (“Grant us peace.”)

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February 17, 2019: Septuagesima
“Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin” BWV 144


Premier: February 6, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Matthew 20: 14 (Mvt. 1); Samuel Rodigast (Mvt. 3); Markgraf Albrecht von Brandenburg (Mvt. 6); Anon (Mvts. 2, 4-5)
English Translation
Scoring: SAT soli, SATB chorus, oboe d’amore, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

In Bach’s day, the third-from-last Sunday before Lent was known as Septuagesima. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s eliminated it, as well as Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, from Roman Catholic usage, and most protestant denominations quickly followed suit. The readings for the day include the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and Bach’s cantata focuses on the theme of being satisfied with one’s life, in accordance with God’s plan.

The opening movement, based on a single verse lifted verbatim from Matthew’s Gospel, is in the style of a motet, with the instruments doubling the vocal parts, and no introduction or ritornello. The words “gehe hin” (“go thy way”) are presented in long notes as part of the fugue subject, then immediately repeated twice more in notes that are four times faster, as if the listener is being shooed away.  Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, a theorist and writer on music in the generation after Bach (and one of a very small number of musicians familiar with his works), described this movement as an example of “splendid declamation … [and] a special little play on words.”

The alto aria is in the style of a minuet, with the grumblings of dissatisfied Christians represented by the low-pitched repetitive string lines. John Eliot Gardiner, the well known conductor and Bach interpreter, describes the movement as “deliberately annoying,”and an attempt by Bach to fix the movement’s message in the minds of his audience with what would now be described as an “earworm.”

The cantata contains two chorale settings in its six brief movements. The first (mvt. 3), is the first verse of Samuel Rodigast’s Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, a particular favorite of Bach, who was himself frequently dissatisfied with his professional life. A subsequent tenor recitative concludes with a repetition of that first line of the chorale and a tuneful soprano aria extols the virtues of contentment (“Genügsamkeit”). The final chorale is the first verse of Was mein Gott will, another text that exhorts the listener to submit to God’s will.

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February 10, 2019: Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
“Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!” BWV 51


Premier: 1730, Leipzig
Text: Martin Johann Gramann (Mvt. 4); Anon (Mvts. 1-3) [possibly JSB]
English Translation
Scoring: Soprano, trumpet, strings, and continuo.

In all his years as a church musician, J.S. Bach apparently never had occasion to compose a cantata for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, since it so often overlaps with Septuagesima, Sexuagesima, or Quinquagesima. On the rare occasions when he did need one, he probably  used either a work by another composer, or one of his cantatas written for “ogni tempo” (“any time”). We’ll pursue the latter option this week, and look at one of Bach’s most remarkable solo cantas, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! BWV51.

Bach’s only cantata scored for solo soprano and trumpet, BWV 51 requires virtuoso performers in both roles. It was premiered at some point in 1730, possibly on September 17 (15th Sunday after Trinity), but has a general libretto appropriate for most non-penitential Sundays. The vocal part may have been intended for Christoph Nichelmann, a then thirteen-year-old student at St. Thomas’s who would later go on to a significant career as a composer. The trumpet part was probably written for Bach’s usual trumpet player Gottfried Reiche, one of the finest players in Germany.

According to Bach scholar Alfred Durr, the five-movement work demonstrates some of the most common Baroque forms and genres: concerto, monody, variation, chorale fantasia, and fugue. The opening da capo aria is in the style of a concerto, with an orchestral ritornello occasionally interjected between florid passages for the soprano soloist. Monody is the name given to a particular style of secular song that flourished in Florence around 1600. Intended to imitate the conjectured music of ancient Greece, it is defined by expressive vocal lines, flexible tempo, and sparse accompaniment, and is often written in contrasting sections. It helped lay the groundwork for the recitative, which in turn enabled the composition of opera. The two-part recitative in the second movement of BWV 51 returns somewhat to these early roots. Bach portrays the “babbling” of our “weak mouths” with purposefully awkward melismas.

The central aria is a much more intimate affair than the outer movements, with the soloist accompanied, unusually, only by the continuo group. While not a true basso ostinato (repeated bassline, as in a passacaglia), the bass does regularly return to certain motives while the soloist expresses joy at being called (“heisen”) a child of God. In place of the usual concluding four-part chorale, Bach provides a choral fantasy on “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” (‘Now praise the Lord, my soul”). Written in the style of a trio sonata overlayed with the chorale melody, the soprano sings verse five of the chorale relatively straightforwardly. This chorale setting segues unexpectedly into a brilliant fugue on the word “alleluia,” with the soprano and trumpet engaging in virtuosic melismas that test bounds of vocal and instrumental range. One commentator describes the final alleluia as“literally breathless with the sheer pleasure in, and energy generated through, the relationship with God.”

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February 3, 2019: Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
“Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” BWV 14


Premier: January 30, 1735, Leipzig
Text: Martin Luther (Mvts. 1, 5); Anon (Mvts. 2-4)
English Translation
Scoring: STB soli, SATB chorus, corno da caccia 2 oboes, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The date of Easter changes from year to year based on the lunar calendar, and, as such, the number of Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) varies between four and nine. Before the 1960s, however, the readings for the three Sundays preceding Lent were fixed, meaning that there might be only one Sunday of Ordinary Time if Easter fell early enough in the year. Easter was on April 1st in 1725, the year of Bach’s second annual cantata cycle, so there were only three Sundays after Epiphany. Ten years later, Bach seems to have returned to his second annual cycle (Bach scholar Christoph Wolff maintains that he performed it complete during the 1734-35 liturgical year), and, needing a work for the fourth Sunday of ordinary time, composed BWV 14 as one of the last additions to the set.

Bach’s second annual cycle is defined by his use of the “chorale cantata” format, where at least two movements of the cantata are based on the music and text of a traditional Lutheran chorale. Here, it is Martin Luther’s Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (“Were God Not With Us At This Time”), a paraphrase of Psalm 124 traditionally sung in Leipzig on this Sunday. As usual, the first and last movements use the chorale text verbatim, while the inner three are paraphrases.

The opening movement of BWV 14 is, predictably, a choral fantasia, but it is quite unlike those found in the chorale cantatas of the previous decade, and is in unique among all of Bach’s cantatas. The expected orchestral introduction is absent, and in fact the strings double the voice parts throughout, as in Bach’s motets. The horn and oboe play the chorale melody in long notes, a role typically assigned to the choral sopranos in previous works. With all four voice parts able to participate in the counterpoint, Bach builds the movement around a series of complex counter-fugues, where each subject (based on the next phrase of the chorale melody) is immediately answered by its own inversion. Bach would explore this technique again several years later in The Art of the Fugue.

The subsequent soprano aria describes the inherent weakness of human strength and the need for God’s help to withstand enemies. In a particularly poignant instance of text painting, during the last repetition of the line “Stünd uns nicht der Höchste bei,Würd uns ihre Tyrannei Bald bis an das Leben gehen.” (“If the Highest did not stand by us, their tyranny would soon touch our very life.”), the strings and winds suddenly drop out, leaving only the continuo to accompany the soloist, who soon comes to a complete stop.

The tenor recitative ties in with the day’s Gospel reading (Jesus calming the storm), and illustrates the imagery of a “wild flood” with rapid scales in the continuo part. The bass aria also references “wild waves,” and portrays them in a similar manner while the two oboes play an elaborately imitative duet in accompaniment. The usual four-part chorale concludes the work.

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January 27, 2019: Third Sunday After Epiphany
“Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe” BWV 156


Premier: January 23, 1729, Leipzig
Text: Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander) (Mvts. 3-5); Johann Hermann Schein (Mvt. 2); Kaspar Bienemann (Mvt. 6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, oboe, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

J.S. Bach was hardly the only composer of sacred cantatas during the early 18th century. In fact, the genre was so popular throughout Lutheran Germany that several authors and poets published volumes of cantata libretti for use by composers. One of the most prolific librettists was Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote under the pen name Picander. He worked closely with Bach himself when both were residents of Leipzig, and many of Bach’s later cantatas (as well as the St. Matthew Passion) are products of that collaboration. BWV 156, the latest of Bach’s four extant cantatas for the third Sunday of Epiphanytide, was premiered in early 1729. Picander claimed in a  later volume of his works that in 1729 Bach created a full yearly cycle of cantatas based on his texts, but no evidence of this claim has so far been discovered.

The prescribed readings for Epiphany III deal with Jesus healing a leper, and Picander’s text expounds on the idea of sickness and death as part of God’s will. The cantata, scored for modest performing forces, is probably best known for its opening sinfonia, which features a prominent part for solo oboe. Almost certainly borrowed from a now-lost oboe concerto, the movement was later reused by Bach in his Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, BWV1056.

The second movement is an unusual hybrid, with the tenor soloist singing an aria while the choral sopranos accompany with the first verse of the chorale Machs mit mir, Gott. The awkward, heavily syncopated continuo line, presented at first against a sustained unison note in the strings, perhaps represents standing unevenly with a foot in the grave. Following a bass recitative, the alto aria features an imitative duet between the violins and oboe and evocative settings of the words “Leide”(“pain”), and “Sterben” (“dying”). Another bass recitative precedes the expected final chorale.

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January 20, 2019: Second Sunday After Epiphany
"Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" BWV 3


Premier: January 14, 1725, Leipzig
Text: Martin Moller (Mvts. 1, 2, 6); Anon (Mvts. 3-5)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, horn, trombone, 2 oboes d’amore, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was also an organist and musicologist, with a special interest in the music of Bach. His two-volume life and works study, published in 1908, contained one of the earliest attempts to identify a “symbolic language” in Bach’s music. According to Schweitzer, certain musical phenomena (some pitched, some purely rhythmic) had specific extra-musical associations for Bach, including the “sigh” motive (an accented descending step in equal note values) and the “joy” motive (a repeated short-short-long pattern). Later authors have generally been skeptical of Schweitzer’s conclusions, which lack any kind of documentary evidence, but many of these motives are prominently featured in Bach’s works, including Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid BWV 3, a chorale cantata from Bach’s second annual cycle written for the second sunday after Epiphany.

The readings for the day deal with Jesus’s first miracle: the transformation of water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. The text of BWV 3, however, seems to have no discernable relationship with the lectionary, and instead focuses on Jesus as a source of comfort in times of trouble. The eighteen stanzas of the original chorale were condensed and paraphrased by an unknown librettist into six, with the first, second, and eighteenth left verbatim in movements 1, 2 and 6.

As in most of the chorale cantatas, the opening movement is an extended chorale fantasy, with the melody presented in long notes in one voice against counterpoint in the other three. Here, though, the melody is in the bass, doubled by a trombone for extra gravitas. Schweitzer’s “sigh” motive figures prominently in the instrumental accompaniment, which also features a pair of oboes d’amore that foreshadow the theme of the soprano, alto, and tenor. That theme, which permeates the entire movement,  is an elaboration of another common Baroque musical symbol: the descending chromatic line described in modern scholarship as the “emblem of lament.”

The second movement is a hybrid of sorts, with the vocal soloists interpolating recitative fragments between phrases of the four-part chorale. In contrast to the opening chorus, this movement is accompanied only by the basso continuo group, whose material is also derived from the chorale melody. A “da capo” aria for Bass follows, with imagery of “hell's anguish and pain” contrasted with “heavenly joy.” The accompaniment, again provided only by continuo, seems to be related to main theme of the opening chorus, and features several “sigh” motives. As expected, Bach sets “heavenly joy” as a lavish melisma.

Another “da capo” movement follows the tenor recitative, this time a duet for soprano and alto, with the violin and oboes adding a third melodic line. The imagery of the cross, as found in the text, seems to have special significance for this movement. The main motive, introduced in the violins/oboes, might be seen as a genuflection (making the sign of the cross), where a wide leap is subsequently filled in with the intervening pitches. Also of note is Bach’s use of added sharp accidentals  on the word “kreuz” (“cross”), which reflects the text “Jesus helps to bear [lift] my cross,” and also creates an interesting pun, since the word for sharp in German is also “kreuz.” The expected four-part chorale concludes the work.

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January 13, 2019: First Sunday After Epiphany (Proper 1)
"Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht" BWV124

Premier: January 7, 1725, Leipzig
Text: Christian Keymann (Mvts. 1, 6); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, horn, oboe d’amore, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The readings for first Sunday of Ordinary Time relate the only story of Jesus’s adolescence found in the Bible. According to Luke’s account (the only gospel to mention it), Jesus stays behind in the Temple after a family trip to Jerusalem, which leads to three days of anxious searching by his parents. Bach seized upon the idea of Jesus being lost in Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht (“I shall not let my Jesus Go”) BWV 124, a chorale cantata written for his second annual cycle in Leipzig.

Unlike his cantata for Epiphany I the previous year (BWV 154), which addresses the events from the point of view of Jesus’s family, BWV124 is more generalized and allegorical. The chorale text, written in 1658 by Christian Keymann, is used verbatim in the opening and closing movements and paraphrased by an anonymous author in the recitatives and arias. The opening chorus is in the character of a minuet, and is structured as in most of the chorale cantatas, with the soprano (doubled by the horn) presenting the chorale melody in long notes against free counterpoint in the alto, tenor, and bass. The movement is notable as one of Bach’s most significant deployments of the oboe d’amore (“oboe of love”). Like the oboe da caccia featured in last week's cantata, the oboe d’amore is a lower-pitched cousin to the modern oboe, with a warmer, less strident tone. Also like the oboe da caccia, it was a very recent invention at the time of Bach’s arrival in Leipzig, and he seems to have been one of the first significant composers to make use of it. A prominent instance of text-painting occurs on the phrase Klettenweis an ihm zu kleben (“cling like a bur to him”), where the alto, tenor, and bass all sustain a B for three consecutive measures.

After a tenor recitative, the first aria strikes a more somber tone, with the soloist describing the “the hard deathblow that weakens my senses and disturbs my limbs.” The oboe soloist is again prominent, while the strings obsessively repeat a short-short-short-long rhythm, perhaps meant to signify “fear and terror” (Durr). Following a bass recitative is a short duet for soprano and alto, presented in the character of a dance, with regular twelve-bar phrases and basic imitation. The usual four-part chorale harmonization concludes the work.

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January 6, 2019: Epiphany
"Sie Werden aus Saba alle kommen" BWV 65

Premier: January 6, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Isaiah 60: 6 (Mvt. 1); Johann Spangenberg (?) (Mvt. 2); Anon (Mvts. 3-6); Paul Gerhardt (Mvt 7)
English Translation
Scoring: TB soli, SATB chorus, two horns, two recorders, two oboes da caccia, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The feast of Epiphany, celebrated yearly in Western churches on January 6, commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men (or Magi) to the newborn Jesus, as described in the day’s Gospel reading. One of the twelve major festivals in the Lutheran Church, it also marks the official end of the Christmas season and beginning of the first of two periods of “ordinary time” in the liturgical calendar (the other being the extended time between Pentecost and Advent).

The Christmas season of 1723-1724 was Bach’s first as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, a post to which he had been appointed the previous May. Incredibly, Bach was actually the third choice for the position after Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner, both of whom were given pay raises by their current employers to prevent their relocation. Perhaps feeling a need to prove himself in his new surroundings, Bach produced a tremendous amount of music during his first months on the job. During the 12-day Christmas season alone, he wrote and performed four new cantatas, the brilliant Magnificat BWV 243, and a Sanctus in D. BWV 65, another new composition, concluded that flurry of activity on Epiphany 1724.

One of the shorter cantatas, BWV 65 is unusual in both its structure and orchestration. The usual opening chorus is followed by a simple chorale harmonization rather than the expected recitative or aria. The orchestration is also idiosyncratic: pairs of recorders, horns in C (the only use of such instruments in Bach’s output), and oboes da caccia supplement the usual strings and continuo. The oboe da caccia (literally “hunting oboe”) is a lower-pitched cousin of the oboe and was at the time a very new invention. Bach seems to have been one of its earliest proponents. Its rich, dark tones, combined with the two horns, lend a certain “exotic” or Eastern quality to the opening movement, which describes Isaiah’s prophecy that “they will all come from Sheba: they will bring gold and incense; and they will proclaim the praises of the Lord.” The 12/8 meter implies a pastoral mood and the frequent horn calls are also a typical Baroque symbol of riding and travel. The chorus presents four successive points of imitation (short imitative sections based on a single idea), each of which is built on successive entrance of voices, perhaps representing the gathering of a crowd. In a similar vein, the bulk of the opening movement is an extensive choral fugue which is gradually joined by the accompanying instruments.

If the opening chorus is representative of travel, then the following chorale, a verse of Die Kön'ge aus Saba kamen dar (“The kings came out of Sheba”) perhaps signifies the actual arrival of the Magi. The bass recitative takes the work in a different direction and contrasts the luxurious gifts of the Magi with the humble, but necessary offering of the Christian heart. The following rather austere aria expands on this theme, accompanied only by the continuo and two oboes, who play mostly in close imitation. Following the tenor recitative, the full instrumental ensemble returns for an upbeat tenor aria. After a rather simple, dance-like opening, the soloist erupts into a series of complex melismas on the word alles (“all”), highlighting the totality of the Christian’s true gift. The final chorale is set to the melody Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit, which Bach would later use in the St. Matthew Passion.

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December 30, 2018: First Sunday after Christmas
"Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende" BWV 28

Premier: December 30, 1725, Leipzig
Text: Erdmann Neumeister (Mvts. 1, 4-5); Johann Gramann (Mvt. 2); Jeremiah 32: 41 (Mvt. 3); Paul Eber (Mvt. 6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, cornett, three trombones, two oboes, english horn, strings, and continuo

Readings for this Sunday

The Sunday after Christmas is a "low" Sunday for most American churches, while clergy and musicians recover from the festivities of Christmas Eve. In Bach’s day, however, the celebration of Christmas continued for the full twelve days following the 25th, right up to epiphany on Jan. 6. Three cantatas by Bach survive for this day, including BWV 28, part of his third cantata cycle for Leipzig (which actually included the years 1725, 1726, and 1727). The text is mainly by Erdmann Neumeister, a contemporary of Bach and prolific and innovative writer of cantata libretti. He does not actually reference the scripture readings for the day, but discusses the passage of time while offering thanks to God for the outgoing year, and prayers for the new one.

BWV 28 is structurally a bit unusual: the big choral movement that usually opens Bach’s cantatas actually appears second, after an extended soprano aria. Bach divides the orchestra into two choirs, with the oboes and english horns alternating with the strings in the ritornello. The following chorus, in itself unusual, is written in the deliberately archaic style of the 16th century, known in Bach’s time as the stile antico. Based on the chorale Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren ("Now praise the Lord, my soul."), it is similar to many of the opening choruses of Bach’s chorale cantatas, with the sopranos presenting the chorale melody in long notes accompanied by motivic counterpoint. The orchestra doubles the vocal parts throughout.

Four brief movements conclude the work. The bass recitative delivers a short passage from Jeremiah describing the Lord’s promise of an abundant harvest. The tenor recitative, in the accompagnato style, returns to Neumeister’s poetry. A duet for alto and tenor precedes the final chorale, a verse of Helft mir Gotts Güte preisen.

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December 23, 2018: Fourth Sunday of Advent
"Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!" BWV 132

Premier: December 22, 1715, Weimar
Text: Salomo Franck (Mvts. 1-5), Elisabeth Kreuziger (Mvt. 6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, two oboes, strings, and continuo

Readings for this Sunday

All the cantatas that Bach composed for the second through fourth Sundays of Advent were written prior to his employment in Leipzig, where tempus clausum was observed. All of them are now lost except for BWV132, written for Advent IV in 1715, the year after Bach’s promotion to concertmaster at the ducal court at Weimar. An intimate work relative to some of the later cantatas, it is scored for four vocal soloists and a small orchestra, with the choir heard only in the final chorale.

Unlike the cantatas we’ve heard over the past few weeks, BWV132 is not based on a pre-existing chorale, although, like nearly all of Bach’s cantatas, it does conclude with a four-part chorale setting. The text was written by Salomo Franck, the court poet during Bach’s time in Weimer, and the librettist for nearly two dozen of his cantatas. His text draws heavily on the prescribed Gospel for the day, which focuses on John the Baptist, as well as imagery from Isaiah 40, best known in Handel’s setting “Every Valley” from Messiah.

The opening movement is a “da capo” aria for soprano featuring gently lilting rhythms and a prominent oboe countermelody. The dominant form in operas during Bach’s day, “da capo” arias are comprised of two nearly identical outer sections and a contrasting middle which is often in a different tempo and key. The soloists often sings a long melisma on the word “bahn” (“path,” or “road”), illustrating the circuitous path that must be made straight for the Messiah.

The second movement alternates passages of “secco” recitative (the free-flowing, minimally accompanied style associated with dialog in opera) with more fully worked out “arioso” sections. The intent is to demonstrate the contrast between the “crown and honour of the Christian” and the “heavy stones of sin.” During the second arioso section the soloist and accompaniment come together with similar rhythms on the word “vereine” (“unite”).

In the ensuing aria, the bass soloist is accompanied only by a solo cello and the continuo group. The text reframes the question “who are you?” posed to John the Baptist in the Gospel reading as one asked by Jesus of the listener. Bach’s setting of the phrase “Ein falsch und heuchlerischer Christ” (“A false and hypocritical Christian”) is strikingly awkward and unmelodic, while the underlying harmony unfolds a long sequence that ends up exactly where it began.

The alto recitative is in the newer “accompagnato” style, usually reserved for particularly important or emotional dialog in opera. In this case the text is one of confession and repentance, with a nod to the baptism described in the day’s Gospel.

The final aria, again for alto, is characterized by a forid solo violin line, interpreted by more than one listener as the “cleansing Baptismal water” referenced in the text. The music for the final chorale (the fifth verse of Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn) is lost, but can be substituted with Bach’s setting of the same chorale in another cantata.

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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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