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.

June 16, 2019: Trinity Sunday
“Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott,” BWV 129


Premier: June 8, 1727, Leipzig
Text: Johann Olearius
English Translation
Scoring: SAB soli, SATB chorus, 3 trumpets, timpani, transverse flute, 2 oboes, oboe d’amore, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Bach’s first annual cycle of cantatas began on  May 30, 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity and his first Sunday as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. As such, the cycles do not exactly align with the liturgical year, which begins on Advent I (usually the first Sunday in December). Trinity Sunday is the last week of each cantata cycle, and today’s work, BWV 129, was written as a substitute cantata for the original last work in the second cycle: Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding, BWV 176. Most of the works of the second cycle (1724-1725) are chorale cantatas, except for the final nine, which feature original texts by Christiana Mariana von Ziegler. It has been hypothesized that Bach’s abrupt turn away from chorale cantatas was prompted by the death of the anonymous librettist he had been using, but, whatever the reason, the inconsistency seems to have bothered him. Several later chorale cantatas from the late 1720s and early 1730s were probably intended to supplant the Zielger works and give the second cycle greater uniformity.

Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott is based on the eponymous chorale by Johann Oleariutus, usually sung to one of the tunes for  O Gott du frommer Gott (sometimes listed in modern hymnals as Was frag ich nach der Welt). The text addresses each person of the Trinity in vv. 1-3 and concludes with two stanzas of general praise. Bach used the five stanzas verbatim in the cantata’s five movements, a feature associated with his earliest cantatas (like BWV4) but rarely seen in Leipzig works. Also unusual for a work of this date is the prominence given to the chorus and absence of any recitative movements. An opening and closing chorus frame a trio (surely intentional symbolism) of arias. BWV 129 is scored similarly to last week's work, with another trio (!) of trumpets and timpani joining the typical Baroque ensemble winds and strings.

The opening chorus is a chorale fantasy constructed along the same lines as earlier works in the second cycle. The sopranos present the chorale melody in long notes phrase by phrase, accompanied by thematic counterpoint in the lower three parts. The chorus opens with a substantial orchestral ritornello. The first violin line is a heavily embellished and elaborated version of the opening six notes of the chorale. The trumpets play mainly as a group and are generally limited to fanfare figures.

The first of the three arias concerns God the Son (i.e. Jesus), and is unsurprisingly given to the Bass, although it is not a vox christi role per se. The soloist is accompanied only by the continuo group, and it is tempting to see this duet textures as a reflection of Jesus’s dual natures (this interpretation is also often applied to movements of the B minor mass.) The vocal line, which is not based on the chorale melody, includes several lengthy melismas on the words “gelobet” (“praised”), “höchste” (“greatest/highest”) and “erlöset” (“redeemed”). The second aria features the sopranos soloist accompanied by a solo violin and the transverse flute (which was in the process of supplanting the recorder as the normative flute instrument.) The music at times suggests one of the other tunes for O Gott du frommer Gott, but no chorale melody is quoted explicitly. The alto aria is a tuneful movement in 6/8 accompanied by the oboe d’amore and continuo. The lilting rhythm and frequent melismas may symbolize the creatures that “soar in the breezes.” At the mention of the trinity (“Gott Vater, Gott der Sohn, und Gott der Heilge Geist.”), all three parts align in a unison arpeggio, perhaps highlighting the unity of the Trinity. In another departure from most of the other Leipzig cantatas, the work concludes not with a simple chorale harmonization but a fully orchestrated movement. The first trumpet paraphrases the opening chorale motive while the other parts join in fanfares.

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June 9, 2019: Whitsunday (Day of Pentecost)
“Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!” BWV 172


Premiere: May 24, 1714, Weimar; Revised 1731, Leipzig
Text: John 14: 23 (Mvt. 2); Philipp Nicolai (Mvt. 6); Salomo Franck ? (Mvts. 1, 3-5)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, 3 trumpets, timpani, flute or recorder, bassoon, oboe d’amore (later organ obbligato), strings (double viola) and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Apart from the obsequious (and, from a scholarly perspective, mostly unreliable) dedications that often accompanied his major works, J.S. Bach’s feelings towards his own compositions can only be guessed at. The amount of time spent in composing, existence of substantial revisions, frequency of repeat performances, influence on or reuse in later works, and attempts at publication might all be indicators of enthusiasm for a particular work. Judging by these criteria, BWV 172, the third Weimar cantata composed after Bach’s promotion to concertmaster in 1714, seems to have been a particular favorite. Bach returned to the work several times throughout the rest of his career, often making slight revisions to the orchestration (or in one case changing the key), and it provided a model of many of his later cantatas for Pentecost, as well as the B minor Mass.

Erschallet, ihr Lieder was the first Weimar cantata produced for a feast day: Whitsunday (now referred to as the Day of Pentecost) commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world, as recounted in the book of Acts. The bulk of the libretto is thought to have been written by Weimar court poet Salamo Franck, and deals with the various aspects of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity, and the opening chorus demonstrates a good deal of Trinitarian imagery. The three trumpets are another obvious symbol, as is the movement’s triple meter. Additionally, the substantial performing forces are divided into three “choirs:” the three trumpets, strings and bassoon, and the choir itself. Bach utilized a similar, if grander, design in the opening chorus of the later St. Matthew Passion. The movement is constructed in a three-part “da capo” form, with the opening major section bookending a more restrained minor-key middle. That middle section, where the text describes God’s intention to prepare our souls as his temples, also features a subtle, but unmistakable instance of text painting. Whereas the opening was mostly homophonic, the middle section contains two points of imitation. The first is built up from the bass, while the second descends from the soprano: a musical representation of the temple referenced in the text.

The work’s only recitative is given to the Bass in the vox Christi role, delivering text from the day’s gospel reading. The most striking feature is the final note -- a sustained C below the bass staff, the lowest note in any Bach vocal part -- which highlights the idea of “dwelling with God.” Trinitarian elements return for the Bass aria, where the text addresses the Trinity directly. In Bach’s vocal music, trumpets are normally reserved for choral movements, but here the trumpet trio accompanies the Bass soloist. Tellingly, they often play in unison, highlighting the ideal of one God in three persons. Furthermore, the opening motive is comprised only of the three notes of the C major triad. The second aria, for Tenor, describes the Holy Spirit’s role in creation. Again in triple meter with three distinct sections, the unison strings present an undulating line which, according to Alfred Durr, “conveys the impression of release from all earthly gravity.” The presentation of three arias in a row is in itself surely no accident, and the last of the set, actually a duet, finds the soul (soprano) in dialog with the Spirit (alto.) The movement is strikingly close to an operatic love duet, and shows Bach moving away from the more conservative conventions of the Muhlhausen cantatas. Some scholars have argued that the movement shows pietistic inclinations, although Bach’s relationship to that movement remains a matter of considerable debate. The two voices are accompanied by a solo cello (forming another trio texture), and the oboe d’amore (perhaps an intentional pun?), which intones the Pentecost chorale Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (“Come Holy Ghost, God and Lord”). In a later Leipzig revision, both the oboe and cello were replaced by the organ, perhaps reinforcing the trinitarian symbology.

The four-part chorale of the sixth movement is the fourth verse of Wie Schon leuchtet der Morgenstern, sometimes known as the “Queen of Chorales.” The text again describes the union of the soul and God. A violin descant perhaps represents the Spirit itself. In performances before 1724, Bach evidently repeated the opening chorus after the final chorale, but this was later dropped, perhaps to bring the work more in line with the conventions of later Leipzig cantatas.

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June 2, 2019: Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension observed)
“Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein” BWV 128


Premiere: May 10, 1725, Leipzig
Text: Ernst Sonnemann after Josua Wegelin (Mvt. 1); Matthäus Avenarius (Mvt. 5); Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (Mvt. 2-4)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, trumpet, 2 horns, 2 oboes, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia (doubling viola), strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The Feast of the Ascension, which commemorates Jesus’s bodily ascension to heaven, occurs on the Thursday forty days after Easter. In contemporary America, it is often transferred to the following Sunday, such that Ascension, Pentecost (Whit Sunday), and Trinity occur in succession. Bach composed four cantatas and an oratorio for the occasion, including BWV 128 from his second annual cycle. Like the other works at the tail end of the second cycle, it utilizes a text by Christiana Mariana von Ziegler. It also shares similarities with the chorale cantatas in that collection, although technically speaking it is not part of that genre. The end of his second full year in Leipzig was one of the most intensely productive periods of Bach’s career: he composed nine new cantatas over a five-week period between April 22 and May 27.

Like most cantatas for major feast days, BWV 128 is lavishly scored, with oboes, horns, and a trumpet augmenting the usual complement of strings. The work opens with a festive chorale fantasia of the kind found in the earlier cantatas from the second annual cycle. The chorale text, from which the cantata takes its name, dates from the 1630s and is sung to the tune of Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr. As usual, the soprano presents the chorale melody in long notes while the lower three voices engage in thematic counterpoint. Nearly all of the musical material in the movement, including the orchestral introduction, is derived from the opening notes of the chorale, an extremely familiar melody for an 18th-century German Lutheran.

The middle three movements of the cantata feature Ziegler’s poetry, which contrasts the emptiness of the world with the joys of Heaven, and looks forward to a reunion with Jesus at his second coming. A brief recitative for tenor is followed by an unusual movement for the bass soloist and trumpet (its lone appearance in the work). The soloist exhorts the listener to proclaim Jesus with “shrill sound,” as the trumpet accompanies with both fanfares and intricate passagework. As with all Bach’s music, this movement would have been performed on a valveless “natural” trumpet, where pitches were determined entirely with lip position. The long scalar passages in this movement would have posed a particular challenge, but Bach was lucky enough to have the services of Gottfried Reiche, one of the finest trumpet players in Germany. The tone and texture of the movement change abruptly as the text moves from exhortation to contemplation of Heaven. The trumpet drops out as the soloist lapses into free recitative, accompanied only by shimmering strings. The trumpet returns to close the movement with the opening ritornello.

The fourth movement is an intricate duet for alto and tenor, accompanied by the continuo group and oboe d’amore, a slightly lower-pitched and warmer-toned oboe invented only a few years before Bach’s arrival in Leipzig. Throughout the second section of this da capo form, Bach sets the word “sterne” (“stars”) as an ascending scale. The cantata concludes with the usual four-part harmonization of verse 3 of the chorale O Jesu, meine Lust, sung to the tune O Gott, du frommer Gott.

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May 26, 2019: Sixth Sunday of Easter
“Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch” BWV 86


Premiere: May 14, 1724, Leipzig
Text: John 16: 23 (Mvt. 1); Georg Grünwald (Mvt. 3); Paul Speratus (Mvt. 6); Anon (Mvts. 2, 4, 5)
English Translation
Scoring: SAT soli, SATB chorus, 2 oboes d’amore, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Many of the Gospel readings for the Sundays after Easter are drawn from the “Farewell Discourse” in John’s Gospel, which occurs chronologically immediately after the Last Supper and before the events of the Passion. In the third part of that lengthy monologue, Jesus tells the disciples that “whatever you ask the Father in my name will be given to you.” The anonymous librettist of BWV 86, from Bach’s first annual Leipzig cycle, examines the seeming divergence between Jesus’s promise and the fact that prayers do not always seem to be answered. Bach’s setting relies predominantly on the three vocal soloists, using the chorus only for the concluding chorale.

The work opens with a movement for the bass soloist, in the vox christi role, with text drawn verbatim from the day’s Gospel. The string introduction anticipates the bass melody, and the accompaniment maintains that motivic coherence. The vocal line consists of a three-fold repetition of the text, which is set syllabically. The following alto aria is in a da capo form and features a prominent solo violin part. The text describes the believer’s willingness to “pluck roses, even if thorns prick me at the same time.” Various commentators have speculated on the significance of the violin line, which is notably absent during the last line of text, describing God’s promise to answer prayer. This aria is one of the very few piece where Bach specifies dynamics.

Among Bach’s late chorale preludes for organ are several works where the chorale melody is overlaid on a texture that would otherwise be complete in itself. Often this takes the form of a trio sonata with a fourth part, as in BWV 86 where the chorale melody is actually sung rather than played. The chorale in question is the sixteenth (!) verse of Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn, sung here by the soprano soloist accompanied by the two oboes and continuo. The continuous music of the oboes has been described by John Eliot Gardiner as representing “stratospheric circling of the angelic host.” A short tenor recitative describes the certainty of God’s promises in an uncertain world, and the final aria, also for tenor, affirms that theme, while recognizing that God’s help may sometimes be “postponed.” The final chorale is the 11th verse of Es is das Heil uns Kommen her, which promises that “hope awaits the right time.” One of the oldest chorales, it appeared in the first Lutheran hymnal in 1524. It was supposedly written while its author was in jail awaiting execution for heresy, which he eventually avoided.

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May 19, 2019: Fifth Sunday of Easter
“Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe” BWV 108


Premiere: April 29, 1725, Leipzig
Text: Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (Mvts. 2, 3, 5); John 16: 7 (Mvt. 1); John 16: 13 (Mvt. 4); Paul Gerhardt (Mvt. 6)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, 2 oboes d’amore, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Little is known of Bach’s personality or working methods. Few of his letters survive, and he was reluctant to participate in any autobiographical exercises, despite occasional prodding from lexicographers. According to his first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, when pressed for the secret of his success, Bach replied curtly “I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” Subsequent music history has proven the second half of this outlandish quote to be thoroughly false. There is, however, no denying Bach’s commitment to his craft and almost superhuman industry. During his first few years in Leipzig, he produced (composed, copied, rehearsed, performed) a new cantata nearly every week, and at times his pace quickened even further. Today’s selection was the second in a series of nine composed between April 22 and May 27 of 1725, at a staggering rate of almost two per week.

Most of the cantatas in Bach’s second annual cycle are chorale cantatas but, beginning with the third Sunday of Easter (April 22), he abruptly abandoned the genre for unknown reasons. Some scholars have proposed that he lost whatever anonymous librettist he had been relying on to paraphrase the chorale texts. Whatever the case, the last nine utilize texts by Christiana Mariana von Ziegler, the daughter of the former (later incarcerated) mayor of Leipzig. Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe (“It is good for you that I leave”) draws on the day’s Gospel reading where Jesus describes his imminent departure (ascension) and promises to send the Holy Spirit.

BWV 108 begins with a pair of arias, the first of which is given to the bass soloist in the vox Christi role. The text is lifted directly from the day’s Gospel reading and is set as a dialog between the bass and the oboe soloist, accompanied by the strings. The mood is, appropriately, somewhat ambivalent, with frequent sigh-like motives (accented descending steps) contrasted with rapid (often ascending) melismas. The following aria, for the tenor, describes the need to remain steadfast in belief. Bach highlights this commitment in a few ways: the word glauben (“believe”) is always set as an extremely long held note. More subtly, the bass line is entirely comprised of a single repeating rhythmic figure (known as a basso ostinato).

After a brief recitative, the chorus belatedly makes their first appearance. The text is again drawn directly from the Gospel, and describes the arrival of and character of the Holy Spirit. Bach divides the text into three parts, each set as a short fugue. The third fugue subject is quite similar to the first, giving the movement a “da capo” character. The instruments double the vocal parts, as in a motet. The final brief ara, for the alto soloist, features a prominent violin part characterized by regular dactylic rhythm and prominent “sigh” motives. The final chorale pairs the melody of Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn with a text by the great hymnodist Paul Gerhardt. The walking along “well trodden paths” of the text is perhaps represented by the active and repetitive bassline.

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May 12, 2019: Fourth Sunday of Easter
“Weinen, Klagen, Zorgen, Zagen” BWV 12


Premiere: April 22, 1714, Weimar
Text: Acts 14: 22 (Mvt. 3); Samuel Rodigast (Mvt. 7); Salomo Franck ? (Mvts. 2, 4-6)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, trumpet, oboe, bassoon, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Bach was by no means as prolific a musical “borrower” as his exact contemporary Handel, but, like all composers of his era, he often reused older music in new works, especially if those older pieces had failed to reach a wide audience or were unpublished (like all but one of the cantatas). This phenomenon is most obvious in Bach’s concertos, nearly all of which exist in multiple forms for multiple instruments, but is also evident in his vocal works. The famous “Crucifixus” movement of the Mass in B minor is actually a rearrangement of a chorus from the early Weimar cantata Weinen, Klagen, Zorgen, Zagen (“Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing”), the second to be composed after Bach’s 1714 promotion to Concert Master.

The text of BWV 12, presumed to be by Weimar court poet Salomo Franck, is a surprisingly somber one for a work intended for the Easter season. Drawing on the day’s prescribed readings, the author focuses on the inevitability of suffering in the Christian life, and the consolation of the resurrection and second coming of Jesus. The brief opening sinfonia is in the style of an oboe concerto, with the strings providing basic accompaniment. The first chorus is divided in three parts: the first (and last) is in the form of a passacaglia, a 16th century dance originating in Spain and based on a regularly repeating bass/harmonic pattern. In this case the pattern is the “lament bass,” sometimes known by the latin name passus duriusculus (“difficult way”), which descends a perfect fourth by half-steps. Each voice part enters on a different word of the title, generally set as a “sigh motive,” Albert Schweitzer’s term for an accented descending chromatic half step. The austere accompaniment in half notes was substantially elaborated by Bach when he reused this music in the B minor mass. After twelve repetitions of the bass pattern, the tempo increases and the mood brightens briefly as the voices describe “Christians who bear the mark of Jesus.” A reprise of the opening section follows.

The brief alto recitative, the only one in this cantata, contrasts the “Trübsal” (“tribulations”) of the present with the joy of entering the kingdom of God. Each of the three repetitions of “Trübsal” is set as a diminished triad, while the kingdom of God is set as an ascending scale. The ensuing aria is a “da capo” aria, a three-part form borrowed from 18th century opera where two repetitions of the opening section frame a contrasting middle. The texture is that of a trio sonata, with the alto soloist accompanied only by an oboe and the continuo group. The opening ritornello acts as something of a motto, appearing before, during, and after the vocal section in the first part, and in fragmented form in the second. It is perhaps a musical reflection of the unity of disparate elements described in the text, which is also highlighted through alliteration (“Kreuz und Krone… Kampf und Kleinod”). The second of three successive arias, for bass, deals with the Christian’s decision to follow after Christ. The act of walking is portrayed by the regular walking bass, while prominent ascending scales throughout may represent the ascent into heaven. The last of these ascending scalar figures is performed by the soloist and continuo in unison, perhaps signifying a mystical union of man and God.

The last of the three arias is given to the tenor, accompanied by the continuo and the hitherto silent trumpet. The trumpet mournfully intones the chorale Jesu, meine Freude (“Jesus, my joy”) as the soloist describes the need to remain faithful and the ultimate reward of heaven. A four part setting of the chorale Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (“What God does, is well done”) concludes the work, with the oboe and trumpet playing an obligato descant above the melody.

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May 5, 2019: Third Sunday of Easter
“Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt” BWV 112


Premiere: April 8, 1731, Leipzig
Text: Wolfgang Meuslin, after Psalm 23
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, two horns, two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

“Good Shepherd” Sunday is the unofficial name given to the fourth Sunday of Easter, on which the prescribed lectionary calls for the reading of John 10 (“I am the good shepherd”) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”). Before the 1970s, these readings were assigned to the third Sunday of Easter, so it is not surprising that all of Bach’s cantatas for that day deal with the imagery of the shepherd. BWV 112, a relatively late chorale cantata, was composed several years after most of the other works in Bach’s second annual cycle of cantatas, which ran from Trinity Sunday 1724 through Trinity Sunday the following year. It was actually composed as a replacement for BWV 85, another chorale cantata, for reasons that are not completely clear.

The chorale on which BWV 112 is based was written by Wolfgang Meuslin, an important figure in the early Reformation, and sung to the well known tune “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” by Nikolaus Decius. The original text to this tune was the German version of the Latin Gloria, and it was sung nearly every week in Lutheran churches from the early 16th century. It would have been among the most immediately recognizable melodies for Bach’s original audience.

All five movements of BWV 112 use the chorale text verbatim, but only the first and last include the chorale tune. The opening movement is a chorale fantasy of the type often found in cantatas of the second annual cycle. After the opening ritornello (“little return,” the term for a regularly recurring theme or group of themes in a Baroque instrumental work), the sopranos present the melody in long notes while the lower voice engage in imitation.

The following aria is in the form of a trio sonata, with alto and oboe soloists accompanied by the continuo group. The pastoral nature of the text is reflected in the 6/8 meter, and the florid scalar passages in the oboe may represent the “streams of pure water.” The bass recitative features both obvious and subtle text painting. In the opening arioso phrases, the harmonies seem to wander aimlessly between keys to reflect wandering of the text. A sudden harmonic shift and the entrance of the strings on sustained chords reflects the “persecution, suffering, sorrow, and the spiteful malice of this world.” After a cadence in the distantly related key of F minor, Bach again wrenches the harmony in another direction by reinterpreting the A-flat as a G-sharp and moving back toward the home key, as the text describes the God’s constant protection. The fourth movement, a duet for soprano and tenor, is in the form of a bourrée, a popular dance often used by Bach in his keyboard suites. The work ends with the usual four-part chorale.

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April 28, 2019: Second Sunday of Easter [Quasimodogenti]
“Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ” BWV 67


Premiere: April 16, 1724, Leipzig
Text: 2 Timothy 2: 8 (Mvt. 1); Nikolaus Herman (Mvt. 4); Jakob Ebert (Mvt. 7); Anon (Mvts. 2, 3, 5, 6)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, corno di tirarsi, flute, 2 oboes d’amore, strings and continuo [incl. organ].

Readings for this Sunday

Bach’s first year in Leipzig saw a flurry of compositional activity, particularly around the feasts of Christmas and Easter. On Good Friday 1724 (his first in his new position), he premiered the St. John Passion, one of his two surviving passion settings. After reviving the early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden on Easter Sunday, he returned to new works the next week with Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ (“Hold in remembrance Jesus Christ”). The new cantata shows the influence of both these works: the dramatic sensibility of the passion and the symbolically symmetrical structure of BWV 4. Its lavish orchestration features prominent wind parts, especially for the little-understood corno di tirarsi, or “slide horn.” It was probably related to the “slide trumpet,” also used by Bach, and a distant ancestor of the modern trombone.

Like BWV 4, BWV 67 displays strong chiastic symmetry, that is, symmetry that suggests the shape of a cross. It is organized into seven movements, in the pattern chorus, aria, recitative, chorale, recitative, aria, chorus. The central movement utilizes the Easter chorale Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag (“Appeared is the glorious day.”) The opening chorus features a brief instrumental introduction before a three-fold homophonic statement of “halt” (“hold”), a device familiar to listeners from many of Bach’s earliest cantatas. It is also a subtle pun, since the word halten can also mean “stay.” The choral sopranos depict halten another way, with a lengthy sustained note that eventually begins a theme closely resembling the Lenten chorale O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (“O Sinless Lamb of God”). Against this main theme, the word “auferstanden” (“risen” or “resurrected”) is set as a dramatically ascending line -- a musical portrayal of the theological interconnectedness of Lent and Easter.

The readings for the Sunday after Easter concern Jesus’s appearances to his disciples as related in the Gospel of John. In the first instance, Jesus appears in a locked room and speaks with them, but the disciple Thomas is absent and refuses to believe the account of his colleagues. Jesus appears again a week later and gently chastises Thomas for his lack of faith. The anonymous librettist of BWV 67 draws a parallel between Thomas’s doubts and the anxious modern Christian. The tenor aria explores this theme, with short, skittish notes in the orchestra to accompany the text “was schreckt mich noch?” (“what still frightens me?”). The central chorale is framed by two alto arias. The first actually segues directly into the chorale -- a common feature Bach’s passion settings -- while the second reflects on “powerful and frightening” enemies. The fifth movement is also derived from the passion settings, with the bass (as the vox christi) in dialog with the choir. In the role of Jesus, the soloist repeats Jesus’s words “Peace be with you” from the day’s Gospel reading as the choir describes the struggle of the Christian soul. The characters in this miniature scene are portrayed with drastically different music: while the introduction and choral sections are turbulent and and agitated, the winds that accompany the bass soloist are placid, measured, and even in a different meter. The work closes with the customary four-part chorale.

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April 21, 2019: Easter Sunday
“Christ lag in Todesbanden” BWV 4


Premiere: 1707-1708, Muhlhausen
Text: Martin Luther
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, (cornetto, 3 trombones), two violins, two violas, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The German-language chorale was the primary form of liturgical music in the German Lutheran church (and its American progeny) from the 16th through the mid 20th centuries. Unlike Roman Catholic Masses, where nearly all of the music was performed by the choir, chorales were (at least from the early 17th century) generally sung by the congregation. The chorales originated from three primary sources: arrangements of well known Catholic chants, with more regular meter and German text; newly composed works by Martin Luther, his associates, and successors; and (to a much lesser degree) secular music with new sacred text. Contrary to the widely repeated assertion that Luther mined the canon of German drinking songs for his chorales, this last group formed a distinct minority.

Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ lay in death’s grim prison”) is one of the oldest chorales, with text and tune by Martin Luther and Johann Walter based on the traditional Roman Catholic Easter chant Victimae paschali laudes (“Christians to the paschal victim”), thought to date from the 11th century. Like its Latin source, the chorale is in a minor key and more somber than most modern Easter music. It was still widely sung in American churches through the mid 20th century but, perhaps because of its more restrained character, has almost vanished from the repertoire. The chorale was a particular favorite of 17th and 18th century composers, however, and formed the basis for several notable choral and organ works by Bach and others.

Bach’s setting of the chorale probably dates from 1707, and may have been used as an audition piece for St. Blasius in Muhlhausen, where he worked for a short time from 1707-1708. It is a rare example of a complete chorale cantata, where each movement uses the chorale melody and text verbatim. After the opening sinfonia, Bach orders the seven vocal movements in a symmetrical pattern: chorus - duet - solo - chorus - solo - duet - chorus. The work is a classic example of chiastic symmetry: a piece organized to reflect the symmetrical shape of the cross. The chiastic overtones are further accentuated by the text of the central choral movement, which deals with the conflict between life and death played out in Jesus’s passion and resurrection. The original, early version of the cantata is lost -- it is only known from a revised version performed twice by Bach in Leipzig, at which time the cornetto and trombones (doubling the chorus) were probably added to the austere scoring.

With its slow tempo and bleak harmonies, the opening sinfonia seems anything but festive and triumphant. It may have been intended to “set the scene” of Jesus lying in the tomb. The opening chorus is somewhat similar to analogous movements in Bach’s later chorale quartets, where the soprano section sings the chorale melody in long notes against a thematic accompaniment. While the violas primarily double the alto and tenor lines, the violins engage in a rapid-fire sixteenth note dialog that lends the movement a unique sense if inertia. On the word “hallelujah” (which concludes every stanza of the chorale), the choir breaks into a virtuosic fugue with the instruments doubling the voices. The syncopation of the fugue subject belies the generally antiquated style, known in the 18th century as the stile antico.

The first duet, accompanied only by the continuo group, is characterized by simple imitation and pervasive dissonant suspensions (especially on the word “gefangen” (“imprisoned”)). In the following aria the tenor sings the chorale melody against a florid accompaniment in the violins. This is briefly interrupted at the text “da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt” (“here remains nothing but death's outward form”) where the voice comes to a complete stop after “nichts,” and the violins make a musical sign of the cross.

The central chorus is structured similarly to a chorale motet, with the instruments doubling the voices. The chorale melody is displaced from the soprano to the alto with thematic counterpoint in the other three voices. Bach utilizes the fugal device stretto in several places in the movement, where one voice enters with the theme before the previous voice has finished its complete statement.

The bass aria is accompanied by the full orchestra, and is a good deal more intricate than the earlier tenor movement. The soloist presents the chorale melody phrase by phrase, then elaborates on it while the strings repeat the theme. Although the entire cantata is in the key of E minor, this movement is the first to spend significant time in a major key, particularly at the phrase “der Würger kann uns nicht mehr schaden” (“the strangler can harm us no more”). The drama of this moment is thrown into special relief by the phrase that precedes it, where the bass leaps down a diminished 12th at the word “Tod” (“death”). Music theorists of Bach’s day often described diminished 5th (and 12th) as “the devil in music.” The immediate answer of the ascending fifth and sustained high D serves as musical confirmation that the devil has been overcome.

The second duet, for soprano and tenor, is also sparsely scored for continuo alone. Here, though the character is one of joy, accentuated by triplet figuration and dance rhythms. The chorale melody is shared equally between the voices. The original version of the cantata almost certainly concluded with another extended contrapuntal chorus, but this is now lost. For the Leipzig revivals, Bach substituted a simple four-part setting of the chorale, bringing it into line with most of his other cantatas from that period. Some modern recordings have applied the text of the final stanza to the music of the opening chorus in an attempt to recreate the original Muhlhausen version.

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April 14, 2019: Palm/Passion Sunday
“Himmelskönig sei wilkommen” BWV182


Premiere: March 25, 1714, Weimar
Text: Salomo Franck ? (Mvts. 2, 4-6, 8); Psalm 40: 7-8 (Mvt. 3); Paul Stockmann (Mvt. 7)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, recorder, solo violin, strings and continuo.

The feast of the Annunciation, celebrated every March 25, almost always falls during Lent, and often provided one of the only occasions for elaborate music making during that penitential season. We heard one of Bach’s cantatas for the occasion last week. This week we’ll examine another, written during a year in which that feast happened to coincide with Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter, celebrating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the Passion narrative). Since the themes are somewhat analogous (Jesus entering Mary’s holy womb and Jesus entering the holy city), Bach was able to construct a work that is suitable for both days. It is among the first cantatas composed after Bach’s promotion to Concertmaster of the ducal court in Weimar in early 1714. The librettist is not known with certainty but is presumed to be cout poet Salomo Franck.

Like many early cantatas, BWV 182 opens with a free-standing instrumental movement, referred to as a “sonata” in the score. Essentially a dialog for the flute and violin, its persistent dotted rhythms are reminiscent of the traditional “French” overture, a form strongly associated with royalty (and particularly the entrance of royalty). Bach utilizes the French overture style in the similarly early Nun komm der Heiden Heiland BWV 61, written for Advent and concerned with the imminent incarnation of a heavenly king. It is tempting to hear this sonata as a similar allusion, although its character is lighter and more lyrical than many works in that genre. The lightness of touch continues into the opening chorus, which begins with a “permutation fugue.” Apparently an invention of Bach’s, the permutation fugue is a kind of hybrid fugue and canon, where strict imitation is maintained for a longer than normal period, but where the harmonies follow the general paradigms of Baroque fugue. Below is a graphical representation, with A, B, C, and D representing the four parts of the main theme:

Bach fugue

This type of fugue is extremely difficult to compose, since every part of theme must adhere to the rules of counterpoint both above and below every other part. No sooner has this fugue run its course than Bach begins again, this time with entries building up from the bass, then descending from the soprano, creating a kind of inverted V shape, just as the text describes the holy mountain of Zion. The movement, a contrapuntal tour de force and one of the most astounding in the early cantatas, is in a “da capo” form usually utilized in operatic arias.

Whereas the Muhlhausen cantatas are often dominated by the chorus and frequently avoid recitatives altogether, the early Weimar works show Bach beginning to incorporate operatic conventions. The recitative in BWV 182 is given to the bass, in the “Vox Christi” (“Voice of Christ”) role, and is the only instance of biblical quotation in the work. Beginning in the older “secco” (“dry”) style, it quickly takes on the more measured character of an arioso, before segueing into the first of three successive arias. As the text turns more specifically toward the Passion narrative in each aria, Bach reduces the accompanying forces from strings and continuo (mvt. 3) to flute and continuo (mvt. 4), to continuo alone (mvt. 5). The significance of this is uncertain, but it may represent musically the desertion of Jesus’s disciples during his last hours or, as Alfred Durr suggests, a change in perspective from the welcoming crowd to the individual believer. The final aria, given to the tenor, is an interesting reversal of expected roles, with the slow moving vocal line accompanied by a florid, active continuo bass, perhaps representing the “weal and woe” of the text, or the tendency of wavering believers to “flee.”

The work closes unusually, with two large choruses. The first is a chorale fantasy of the type often found in Bach’s later chorale cantatas, with the soprano presenting the melody of Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod (“Jesus’s Suffering, Pain, and Death”) in long notes accompanied by thematic counterpoint in the lower voices. The orchestra performs cola parte, as in a motet. The final movement, another permutation fugue, is described by John Eliot Gardiner as “a sprightly choral dance that could have stepped straight out of a comic opera of the period.”

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April 7, 2019: Lent V
“Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (Actus Tragicus) BWV106


Premier: 1707-1708, Muhlhausen
Text: Acts 17: 28 (Mvt. 2a); Psalm 90: 12 (Mvt. 2b); Isaiah 38: 1 (Mvt. 2c); Johann Leon (Mvt. 2d); Luke 23: 43 & Martin Luther (Mvt. 3); Adam Reusner (Mvt. 4)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, 2 recorders, 2 viola da gamba, continuo.

For the last week of tempus clausum, we’ll return again to Bach’s earliest days of cantata composition. Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (“God’s time is the very best time”) is a funeral cantata almost certainly composed in Muhlhausen, either for the funeral of one Bach’s maternal relatives, or (more likely) for the former mayor of the city. The unusual appellation “Actus tragicus” is found on a later copy from the 1760s.

Compared to the Leipzig cantatas, early works like BWV 106 are less reliant on operatic convention like recitatives, and display a more continuous structure. This cantata is in fact completely continuous, although it contains several clearly differentiated movements and subsections. It also features an unusual orchestration, with recorders (the normative flute instrument in the early 18th century) paired with the dark, rich tones of the viola da gamba. Despite its early date, it is one of the most intense and dramatic of Bach’s cantatas.

The mournful opening sinfonia is dominated by the recorders, with the gambas and continuo providing basic choral accompaniment. The long second movement can be divided into four discrete sections: an opening chorus, tenor arioso, bass arioso, and closing chorus with soprano solo. The themes of the first three sections revolve around the inevitability of death and God’s ultimate control of both life and death. In the last section, the pre-Christian idea of death as complete annihilation (chorus) is contrasted with the Christian ideal of death as union with Jesus (soprano soloist). As the soloist calls for Jesus, the orchestra intones the chorale Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt (“I have brought my affairs home to God.”). After several alternations of the choral and solo material, the movement closes with the soprano again calling for Jesus with a long melisma, now completely unaccompanied. Bach notates a lengthy rest before the beginning of the third movement.

The third movement is again comprised of several sections, and continues the focus on the New testament Gospel message. Two of the biblical quotations are from the “Seven Last Words” of Christ, which, according to the Gospels, are phrases spoken by Jesus as he was being crucified. The alto soloist presents the first, “In deine Hände befehl ich meinen Geist” (“Into your hands I commit my spirit;”), accompanied only by the continuo group. The bass soloist delivers the second line, “Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein” (“Today you will be with me in paradise”), again accompanied only by continuo. Midway through the Bass aria, the choral altos intone Martin Luther’s chorale Mit Fried und Freud, a German version of the Song of Simeon (“With Peace and Joy I Now Depart”). Throughout the movement, Bach generally sets the word “Paradise” in the highest part of the bass range.

Bach’s practice of concluding his cantatas with a four-part chorale harmonization did not become standard until his years in Leipzig. BWV 106 does indeed close with a choral setting of a traditional chorale, but it is substantially more elaborate than a simple “cantional” style setting. The chorale in question is the final verse of In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr (“In Thee, Lord, have I trusted.”), presented first as an embellished four part chorale and concluding with a fugue on “through our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

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March 31, 2019: Lent IV [Feast of the Annunciation]
“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” BWV 1


Premier: March 25, 1725, Leipzig
Text: Philipp Nicolai (Mvts. 1, 6); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: STB soli, SATB chorus, 2 horns, 2 oboes da caccia, 2 concertante violins, strings and continuo.

For the fourth week of tempus clausum (“closed time” observed during Advent and Lent, when the Leipzig authorities banned elaborate church music), we’ll look at one of Bach’s cantatas for a festival with a fixed date. The Feast of the Annunciation commemorates the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and subsequent description of  her role as the mother of Jesus. Not coincidentally, it is observed exactly nine months before Christmas, on March 25 (this past Monday). Bach wrote at least two cantatas specifically for the day, although one is now lost.

On WDPR, you may occasionally hear us mention a “BWV” number when describing a piece by Bach. This is an acronym for the unwieldy German phrase Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (literally, “catalog of Bach’s works”). The German musicologist Wolfgang Schmieder compiled the first thematic catalog of Bach’s known works in 1950, assigning a number to each one. The catalog has been substantially revised and expanded since then -- many pieces no longer considered to be authentic have been removed, and many newly discovered ones added --  but it is still the standard numbering of Bach’s works. For composers that didn’t use opus numbers (and even many that did), thematic catalogs provide a way to positively identify individual works, especially since so many classical pieces have generic titles like “Sonata in C.” Other important examples include the Köchel catalog of Mozart’s works, and the Deutsch Schubert catalog. You might notice that today’s cantata is BWV 1. This often leads to the mistaken impression that it is Bach’s earliest surviving work, when in fact it is actually a relatively late one. Schmieder’s catalog is ordered by genre, with the vocal works first, then organ, other keyboard, and finally instrumental music. Within each genre, the ordering largely follows the (rather random) publication order of the first complete edition of Bach’s works, published from 1851 to 1899.

BWV 1 was written in 1725 as part of the second annual cycle of cantatas. Like most of the works in that collection, it is a chorale cantata with the first and last movements based on the text and tune of Philip Niccolai’s chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (“How Brightly Shines the Morning Star”). A popular work, it is sometimes referred to as the “Queen of chorales” and is still regularly sung by most denominations, often during Epiphany. Indeed, BWV1 bears a passing resemblance to the Epiphany cantata Sie werden aus Saba BWV65, written a little over a year earlier. Both are lavishly scored (including prominent horn parts) and begin with choral movements in (relatively uncommon) 12/8 meter. 

The expected chorale fantasy that opens BWV1 is on grander scale than many of the contemporaneous chorale cantatas, partly because the chorale melody itself is so long. Accounting for about a third of the cantata’s total length, it features virtuosic writing in the horn parts, “twinkling” figures in the solo violins, and numerous instances of call and response. As usual, the text of the middle movements is freely paraphrased from the original chorale. After a brief tenor recitative, the soprano soloist explores the theme of divine love with an intimately scored aria for oboe, voice, and continuo. The image of “celestial flames” is perhaps reflected in the florid writing for the oboe.

After another brief recitative, the second aria features the tenor soloist and includes some rather obvious word-painting. Bach reflects the first line of text (“Our mouths and the sound of strings…”) in the scoring itself, where the soloist is accompanied by the two solo violins and all the orchestral strings, but not the winds. Similarly, the word “Gesang” (“song”) is set to a series of elaborate melismas. The full orchestra returns for the final four-part chorale, with the second horn playing its own independent melody and the rest of the instruments doubling the vocal lines.

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March 24, 2019: Lent III
“Wiederstehe doch die Sünde” BWV54


Premier: 1714 or 1715, Weimar
Text: Georg Christian Lehms (1684-1717)
English Translation
Scoring: Alto solo, strings, and continuo.

The Weimar court of the early 18th century did not employ the same prohibition on elaborate church music (tempus clausum) during Lent as did the churches in Leipzig. It is possible, then,  that Bach composed BWV 54 for Oculi Sunday (Lent III) in either 1714 or 1715, although dating the work with certainty has proved problematic. The librettist intended the text for that day, but it is also general enough that the cantata could be used in ogni tempo (“at any time”). Whatever the case, it is one of bach’s most economical and compact cantatas, scored only for a single vocal soloist and the usual complement of strings and continuo. It is thought to be his earliest extant solo cantata.

Having served as organist at the ducal court in Weimar since 1708, Bach received a promotion in 1714 to Konzertmeister (“concertmaster” the highest ranking musical position at court). His new duties included the composition of new vocal pieces, and it is thought that BWV 54 was one of the first such works to be written. If it was, Bach certainly began this new phase of his career with a bang: the first movement opens with an extremely dissonant sonority and continues with a series of highly dissonant suspensions. The bass note in fact remains unchanged for the first four bars, probably illustrating the need to “stand firm” against sin, and the key is not established firmly until measure 9. The word “widerstehen” (“stand firm”) is often set as a long held note in the voice against moving lines in the strings. This aria was later reused by Bach in the now lost St. Mark Passion.

The following recitative is full of textural allusions. The phrase "So zeigt sich nur ein leerer Schatten und übertünchtes Grab" (“It shows itself as only an empty shadow and a whitewashed grave”) is set to an extremely unusual harmonic progression, while the sword referenced in the last line is portrayed by running notes in the bass.

The final aria, again in da capo form, is an unusual creation. It is nearly a four-part fugue, with the violins, viola, and voice engaging in imitation, accompanied by the continuo. The main theme is again disconcertingly chromatic, while the elaborate counter-subject may represent “the wily shackles of the devil.” (Gardiner)

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March 17, 2019: Lent II
“Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir,” BWV131


Premier: 1707 or 1708, Muhlhausen
Text: Psalm 130; Bartholomäus Ringwaldt (Mvts. 2, 4)
English Translation
Scoring: (S)ATB soli, SATB chorus, oboe, bassoon, strings, and continuo.

Like last week’s selection, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir is thought to be one of Bach’s earliest surviving cantatas. Scholarly consensus has tended to favor BWV 150 as the earliest, but the lack of hard evidence concerning its origin makes it difficult to date with certainty. BWV 131 was certainly composed in Muhlhausen, where Bach was employed as organist at St. Blasius for about a year between 1707 and 1708. He had probably intended to stay longer, but an opening in Weimer in 1708 proved too great a temptation.

Bach apparently got on much better with the Muhlhausen authorities than their Arnstadt counterparts. In 1708 they paid to have his cantata Gott ist mein Konig published: it had been written for the council inauguration and was the only such work published in Bach’s lifetime. BWV 131 was commissioned by the pastor of St. Mary’s, the other major church in Muhlhausen, and was likely written for a memorial service for the victims of a devastating fire that destroyed about a quarter of the town.

Like Bach’s other early cantatas, BWV 131 is less operatic, and more dependent on the chorus, than those of the Leipzig period. The opening movement resembles a French overture, with a slow triple-meter section followed by faster, imitative music. After a brief instrumental introduction, the first section features solo and duet textures on “Aus der tiefen” (“Out of the depths”) and full chorus on “rufe ich zu dir” (“I cry to thee”). The highly rhetorical second part is a fugue with three false starts, each one punctuated by a homophonic statement of “Herr, Herr hore meine Stimme” (“Lord, hear my prayer”). The fugue subject, on the text “Laß deine Ohren merken auf die Stimme meines Flehens!” (“Incline thine ear to the voice of my pleading”) features a dissonant diminished-seventh leap on the word “pleading.”

Another unusual feature of this cantata is its continuous nature, with most of the movements segueing directly in to the next. The second movement features the bass soloist in dialog the soprano (either a soloist or the whole section), who intones the chorale Herr Jesus Christ, du höchstes Gut. The word “furchte” (“fear”) in the bass part is set to a series of melismas, perhaps to represent penitent trembling. The third movement begins with a threefold repetition of “Ich harre des Herrn” (“I wait for the Lord”), a highly rhetorical gesture used several times in Bach’s early works. The slow, plaintive fugue that follows is accompanied by more active, undulating figures in the oboe and strings, which one commentator has likened to the ticking of a clock. The alto/tenor duet begins by repeating the final line of the chorus. As in the second movement, the alto intones Herr Jesus Christ, du höchstes Gut against the tenor’s more expressive line. The final chorus again opens with a threefold homophonic statement, this time on “Israel.” As in BWV 150, the movement features several tempo changes before eventually breaking into a final, brilliant fugue.

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March 10, 2019: Lent I
“Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich,” BWV150


Premier: Between 1704 and 1707, Arnstadt
Text: Psalm 25: 1-2 (Mvt. 2); Psalm 25: 5 (Mvt. 4); Psalm 25: 15 (Mvt. 6); Anon (Mvts. 3, 5, 7)
English Translation
Scoring: SB soli, SATB chorus, bassoon, strings, and continuo.

Like Advent, the first five Sundays of Lent were considered tempus clausum (“closed time”) in Bach’s day: a penitential period when no elaborate church music was permitted. For our year-long survey of Bach’s cantatas, we’ll use these weeks to examine several works written for penitential services, funerals, or for unspecified occasions.

In the Spring of 1702, 17-year-old  J.S. Bach completed the last phase of his formal education and began to search for his first professional position. Like many young musicians then and now, his career did not begin particularly auspiciously. He competed for, and won, a job in Sangerhausen, but the intervention of a local duke scuttled his plans. Early the following year he obtained a position at one of the ducal courts in Weimer, where extant documents ignominiously record his title as “lackey.” Even at this early stage of his career, however, he had gained a degree of notoriety as a performer and was called upon to examine a new organ at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt later that same year. Although an organist had already been appointed, Bach’s demonstration of the new instrument must have been sufficiently impressive for the town authorities to offer him the job instead, and he assumed his duties in late 1703.

On paper, Bach’s situation in Arnstadt was a good one for a young man: he was decently paid, had very light duties, and a new, high-quality instrument at his disposal. The short time he spent in the city, however, was characterized by nearly constant conflict and controversy, much of it entirely of his own making. He found the musicians with whom he was expected to collaborate to be decidedly sub-par, and famously called one a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” This sparked a physical altercation and both men were reprimanded by the town authorities. They also took the opportunity to chastise Bach for his overly complex accompaniments to congregational singing. In October 1705 Bach was granted four weeks leave to visit the revered but aging composer and organist Dieterich Buxtehude in Lubeck, about 280 miles away. He was expected back by Advent but, having made most of the journey on foot, did not return until mid February of the following year. By the Spring of 1707 he had obtained a new position in Muhlhausen.

Bach’s persistent dissatisfaction in Arnstadt was due in part to the paucity of musical resources at his disposal. Unlike his later jobs, he had no direct control over any other students or musicians, and does not seem to have been able to count on his colleagues to even show up when requested, although the town authorities clearly expected him to collaborate with them. While this environment was clearly not conducive to the composition of elaborate cantatas, it is thought that Bach’s earliest efforts in the genre date from his last months of employment in Arnstadt.

Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich may well be the earliest of Bach’s surviving cantatas and, like the similarly early Christ lag in Todesbanden, was possibly written as an audition piece for Muhlhausen. It is less operatic than many of the Leipzig cantatas, with no da capo arias and no recitatives. The chorus, in fact, is featured to a much greater degree than the soloists. The orchestration is also unusually sparse. The libretto alternates psalm verses and stanzas of poetry by an unknown author.

The opening sinfonia and the first chorus are based on the same motive: an octave leap up and step-wise chromatic descent. This latter figure was known in Bach’s day as the passus duriusculus, and was a common musical symbol of lament and longing. It appears regularly in Bach’s vocal works, including the “Crucifixus” of the B-Minor Mass. The opening chorus is characterized by abrupt changes in tempo and affect, not unlike Italian music of the 17th century.

The subsequent brief soprano aria includes several instances of text painting. “Toben” (“rage”) is set to characteristically militant arpeggios and open octaves. “Tod, Holl” (“death, hell”) is set as a descending diminished 7th leap, one of the most dissonant usable intervals in Bach’s day. The second chorus (mvt. 4) begins with five repetitions of “Leite mich” (“Lead me”) and, like the opening, is highly sectional in design.

The vocal trio in mvt. 5 is exceedingly rare in Bach’s vocal works, and is the only movement of the cantata in a major key. The following chorus begins slowly, with the instruments forming what one commentator describes as a “celestial haze,” as the words describe looking upward toward heaven. The second half is a fugue.

Bach did not adopt the convention of concluding cantatas with a simple four-part chorale setting until several years later, and BWV 150 concludes with another extended chorus. It is in the form of a chaconne: a traditional Spanish dance supposedly imported from the Western Hemisphere, and based on a regularly repeating bassline. Here, the bass ostinato is the inversion of the opening movement’s passus duriusculus, a musical reflection of the theological idea of Jesus leading from sorrow to joy.

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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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