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.

November 17, 2019: Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity
“Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht,” BWV 55

Premier: November 17, 1726, Leipzig
Text: Johann Rist (Mvt. 5); Christoph Birkmann (Mvts. 1-4)
English Translation
Scoring: T solo, SATB chorus, transverse flute, oboe d’amore, two violins and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

We’ll take a step back this week from the large-scale chorale cantatas of the second annual cycle to hear one of the shorter and more intimate Leipzig cantatas. Scored for tenor soloist and small instrumental ensemble, BWV 55 was premiered on this date in 1726. It is Bach’s only extant solo cantata for tenor.

The readings for this Sunday include the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35), where Jesus advises his disciples to be as forgiving of others as God has been toward sinful humanity. The libretto, by Bach’s student Christoph Birkmann, highlights the contrast between an infinitely forgiving God and an inherently sinful humanity. The opening aria features a highly chromatic but rhythmically consistent vocal line, accompanied by the full ensemble. The slowly lilting and slightly foreboding movement is somewhat reminiscent of the opening chorus of the St. John Passion, written a few years earlier. As the soloist describes coming before the throne of God, the winds and strings abruptly drop out, highlighting the image of a sinner standing alone before God.

The first recitative is in the older “secco” (dry) style, with minimal accompaniment and no regular pulse. The second aria is direct appeal to God for mercy and features a highly virtuosic flute part. The second recitative is of the newer, accompanied variety, and the work concludes with a verse from the chorale Werde munter mein Gemüte. This is the only time in the work when a choir might be utilized.

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November 10, 2019: Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity
“Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir,” BWV 38

Premier: October 29, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Martin Luther (after Psalm 130) (Mvts. 1, 6); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, four trombones (for doubling only), two obes, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

This week’s cantata was the immediate successor to last week’s in Bach’s second annual cycle (1724-1725). It is structured similarly to BWV 180, but differs greatly in tone, since it is based on one the great penitential chorales of the Lutheran tradition. Luther was an amateur composer, and probably wrote the text and tune himself. It is still occasionally sung in modern churches as “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee” or a closely related translation.

The Lutheran reformation was already two hundred years in the past during Bach’s career, and chorales specifically associated with Luther often inspired Bach to utilize a more retrospective style. In the 1720s, that retrospective style (known as the stile antico) was loosely derived from the works of Palestrina and other late 16th-century composers.  The opening movement of BWV 38 is in that quasi-motet style, characterized by a rhythmic austerity and lack of virtuosic accompaniment (the instruments double the voices, except for the continuo). In terms of harmonies, however, the piece is solidly in the 18th century, with unusual chromatic turns that probably would have brought composers like Palestrina to the attention of the Inquisition. As with most of the chorale cantatas, the soprano presents the melody in long notes, although here the distinction between this and the lower three voices is somewhat less distinct, thanks to the limited rhythmic range. The phrases of the chorale also dovetail somewhat more seamlessly without orchestral ritornellos to break them up.

The numerous ways in which Bach responded musically to a text are sometimes described collectively as “word painting” or “text painting.” As we’ve seen over the course of this year, they range from somewhat heavy-handed and extremely obvious to incredibly subtle. One of the most fascinating of these techniques is Bach’s occasional use of consciously “bad” music to make a theological point. This is perhaps the case in the alto recitative, where the jagged and wandering bassline probably refers to the librettist’s description of humanity as an “abomination of sin.”

This cantata is somewhat unique among Bach’s chorale cantatas in that the original melody, while present only explicitly in the outer movements, also informs most of the motives in the recitatives and arias. In the third movement, the oboe lines are ingeniously derived from the chorale melody and highlight the archaic scale (Phrygian mode) on which it is based.

Extremely subtle text painting is also at work in the soprano recitative. The placement of the chorale melody in the bass represents a reversal of roles, and probably alludes to the librettist’s imagery of building one’s weak confidence on “waterlogged ground.” On an even more subtle level, the word Zeichen (“signs”) is harmonized against a chord that contains all three of the musical “signs:” flat, sharp and natural.

The fifth movement is a trio, a rare arrangement in Bach’s cantatas. Like the foregoing, it is a masterful essay in subtle responsiveness to the imagery-rich text. The idea of chains linking “one misfortune to another” is represented by a sequence of harmonies that moves by descending fifths. At the mention of Jesus, the sequence immediately changes direction and ascends, as the complex and overlapping vocal lines suddenly coalesce into homophony.

One final process has been at work over the course of this entire cantata: the key sequence of the (non-recitative) movements proceeds in a downward sequence from E (mvt. 1) to A (mvt. 3) to D (mvt. 5), reflecting the descent into the depths evoked in the chorale’s title. The final movement, whose text strikes a more optimistic tone, stops that free fall and returns to the opening key of E. It is one of Bach’s most audacious (and infamous) chorale harmonizations, beginning on an extremely dissonant third-inversion dominant chord.

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November 3, 2019: Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 180

Premier: October 22, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Johann Franck (Mvts. 1, 3, 7); Anon (Mvts. 2, 4-6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, two recorders, two transverse flutes, two obes, oboe da caccia, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Many of the traditional Lutheran chorales, especially those based on pre-existing plainchant melodies, are difficult to sing and have not remained in the standard repertoire of protestant hymnody. One that is still encountered in most modern hymnals is Schmücke dick, o liebe Seele (“Soul, Adorn Thyself with Gladness”). Traditionally sung as a communion hymn, the text presents the mystical relationship between the believer and the eucharist as that of a bride and groom. It is tangentially related to the “Parable of the Great Banquet,” part of the day’s Gospel reading, and forms the basis of cantata no. 180.

Like most of Bach’s cantatas from the second annual cycle, BWV 180 retains the chorale text verbatim for the outer movements, and utilizes poetic paraphrases for the remainder. It is slightly unusual in that all seven of its movements are in major keys, in keeping with the generally positive tone of the chorale (though not necessarily the day’s readings.) Several of the movements seem based on popular dances of the day: the first is reminiscent of the gigue, the second of a bouree, and the fifth of a polonaise.

The opening movement is a chorale fantasia, with the chorale tune presented phrase by phrase in the soprano, accompanied by thematic counterpoint in the lower voices. The accompanying orchestra is relatively substantial, with flutes and oboes joining the usual complement of strings. The lilting 12/8 meter is found most often in Baroque music in either pastorales or gigues. As Dürr notes, this movement is probably closer to a gigue than a pastorale, albeit a rather staid one.

Bach seems to have had an especially gifted flute player on hand in the Fall of 1724, and he wrote several demanding parts for flute or recorder in cantatas from that period. The second movement of BWV 180 contains one them, as the flute accompanies the tenor soloist along with the continuo. The ecstatic movement is replete with a figure that Albert Schweitzer called the “joy motive” (a short short long rhythm), as well as musical depictions of knocking suggested by the text.
The third movement is a sort of hybrid recitative. It begins as a normal secco (“dry”) recitative, with the soprano soloist describing the joys of the Eucharist. It morphs into an arioso with the entrance of  “violincello piccolo” (an unusual miniature cello played horizontally, like a viola), as the soprano takes over an ornamented version of the chorale melody. The active cello line “envelops the soprano's voice in a quasi womb-like blanketing of divine reassurance” (Mincham).

The fouth movement is a accompanied recitative for alto, which leads into an exuberant soprano aria accompanied by the full orchestra. A bass recitative/arioso precedes the final chorale.

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October 27, 2019: Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity [Reformation Sunday]
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80

Premier: October 31, 1735? Leipzig
Text: Martin Luther (Mvts. 1, 2, 5, 8); Salomo Franck (Mvts. 3, 4, 6, 7)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, three oboes [later trumpets], [timpani], two oboes d’amore, strings, and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Lutheran churches, and many other protestant denominations, commemorate the Lutheran reformation on the last Sunday in October. On October 31, 1517, a young University of Wittenberg theology professor named Martin Luther sent a list of 95 “disputations,” or theses, to the Archbishop of Mainz, officially beginning the Reformation era. The political and intellectual consequences of his actions would define the course of European history for the next several centuries.

Martin Luther was also an amateur musician and had a profound respect for music’s role in the church. In medieval Catholic Masses, the congregation was largely passive. The choir and organist performed all of the music and, since bread and wine were relatively expensive, often the officiating priest was the only person to take Communion. One of Luther’s innovations from a liturgical prespective was the (albeit slow) introduction of congregational singing, which began only a few years after the Reformation. The new body of congregational music was referred to as “chorales,” and were derived from several sources: 1) slightly reworked Catholic chants with German text, 2) secular music with new sacred texts, and 3) newly composed works by Luther and his associates. The most famous example of this last category is the venerable Ein feste burg ist unser Gott, or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” still commonly sung today, even in Catholic churches. Bach used Luther’s famous melody as the basis for one of his latest, and most famous, chorale cantatas, which passed through several revisions over a period of about 20 years.

BWV 80 began as a Weimar cantata with text by Salomo Franck that used the Ein feste Burg melody in two of its movements. The original version (BWV 80a) was intended for Lent III and became obsolete once Bach took up his duties in leipzig, where Lenten cantatas were banned. Bach revised this earlier work for Reformation day, possibly as early as 1723, retaining Franck’s text but giving greater prominence to Luther’s chorale. Only fragments of this version survive, so it is uncertain how much of the chorale text was actually utilized. Bach revised the work again some time in the 1730s, at which time he added the famous opening chorale fantasy. The trumpet and timpani parts were added after Bach’s death, probably by his son Wilhelm Freidemann.

The opening chorale fantasy is unlike those of the second annual cycle chorale cantatas, where the chorale melody is stated in long notes in a single voice. Here, all four vocal parts engage in free polyphony based on motives drawn from the famous hymn tune. The actual chorale melody is presented  in canon between the basso continuo and highest oboe part (trumpet in some recordings). The other instruments generally double the voice parts, in the style of a 16th-century motet, perhaps a nod to the chorale’s origins.

The chorale tune appears again in the second movement, a virtuosic showpiece for the bass soloist, with the soprano soloist assigned to the chorale melody. The text is an amalgamation of Franck’s poetry (in the bass part) and the second verse of the chorale (in the soprano). The main accompaniment is provided by unison strings, while the oboe doubles the soprano chorale. Both vocal lines are extremely intricate, with long melismas given to the bass soloist.

Following a substantial bass recitative is a sparsely accompanied soprano aria. The vocal line and continuo share similar motives, reflecting the text’s emphasis on mystical unity with Jesus. Like some of the other late chorale cantatas, BWV 80 contains a central movement based on the tune. Mvt. 5 is set for unison voices (highly unusual in Bach’s cantatas) accompanied by the full instrumental ensemble. The instrumental ritornello (repeating interlude) is also derived from the chorale tune.

After a tenor recitative (featuring several florid melismas), the seventh movement is another duet, this time for alto and tenor. More understated than much of the cantata, the textures is basically that of a trio sonata (with an oboe da caccia and violin) with overlaid vocal lines. The expected four-part chorale concludes one of Bach’s most popular and masterful chorale cantatas.

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October 20, 2019: Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
“Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn,” BWV 96

Premier: October 8, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Elisabeth Kreuziger (Mvts, 1, 6); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, transverse flute, sopranino or piccolo violin, two oboes, strings and continuo (including horn or trombone).

Readings for this Sunday

Throughout his long employment in the Lutheran church (broken only briefly by a six year term at the Calvinist court in Cöthen), Bach was obliged to write music in narrowly prescribed genres and styles. Scholars with modernist sensibilities have decried the arbitrary limits placed on him by his pedantic superiors, while others have noted that these same restrictions may have forced him to express his creativity in ingeniously subtle ways, thereby contributing to the development of his inimitable style. The cantata is a relatively circumscribed form, and the chorale cantata even more so. The works that make up Bach’s second annual cycle (by and large chorale cantatas) exhibit fairly consistent structure, with an opening chorale fantasy followed by a series of recitative and aria pais and finally a closing chorale. While they are broadly similar, each also shows an individual approach to the particular text, and both obvious and subtle word painting techniques.

The readings for the eighteenth sunday after Trinity raise the question of the nature and identity of Jesus, which is answered by the text of the chorale Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn (“Lord Christ, the only son of God”). The opening movement is, like most of the second-cycle works, a chorale fantasy with the chorale melody in long notes in one part and free imitation in the others. Unusually, Bach sets the chorale melody in the alto part rather than the soprano, which allows the sopranos to take an active and brilliant accompaniment role. Another unusual feature of this cantata is Bach’s use of the sopranino, a high-pitched recorder roughly analogous to the modern piccolo. It’s florid and “sparking” line was probably inspired by the libretto’s reference to Jesus as the “morning star.” The instrumental/chorale balance is heavily weighted towards the orchestra in this movement, with a substantial introduction and ritornellos framing brief phrases of the chorale.

As usual, the internal movements of this chorale cantata are paraphrased from the middle verses of the chorale text. After an alto recitative, the tenor aria again features a virtuoso flute line. Bach seems to have made a point of featuring the flute in cantatas from the autumn of 1724. His intended soloist was unclear, but some scholars believe it was Friedrich Gottlieb Wild, a law student at Leipzig University. The words kräftig (“powerfully”), erleuchte (“enlighten”), and entbrenne (“burn”)  are often set as long melismas.

Following the soprano recitative, the bass aria discusses humanity’s tendency to stray from God’s path. Bach portrays this ingeniously, by taking a page from the much earlier Venetian school composers of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The oboes and strings are placed on either side of the singers and the orchestration abruptly lurches from one to the other to represent to the “erring steps” of the text. This jerking motion pauses briefly when the soloist asks for Jesus to lead him in the path. The works ends with a four-part setting of the fifth verse of the chorale.

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October 13, 2019: Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, BWV 114

Premier: October 1, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Johannes Gigas (Mvts. 1, 4, 7); Anon (Mvts. 2, 3, 5, 7)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, horn, two oboes, flute, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Tragedy was not in short supply for 18th-century Germans, nor for J.S. Bach.War, disease, hunger, and death were all daily realities, for which the church struggled to provide an explanation. The most common, and one that Bach at least seems to have accepted, is that suffering on Earth is a punishment for sin, while the heavenly rewards of the afterlife await those who confess the Christian faith. This is the central theme of BWV 114, written as part of the second annual cycle for the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity.

Like most chorale cantatas, the work begins with an extended chorale fantasy, with the chorale melody in the soprano against thematic accompaniment in the lower voices. The instrumental introduction is built on two contrasting themes: the oboes and first violin introduce a somber theme derived from the chorale melody while the lower strings and continuo present a more forceful idea characterized by repeated anapest rhythms (short short long). The groups switch themes midway through the introduction. The angular and somewhat austere music complements the text, which describes the deserved punishment for sinners.

The tenor aria features an ornately virtuosic, but highly expressive flute line accompanying the soloist’s description of the world as “valley of misery.” The tone, meter, and key change abruptly as the soloist describes placing his trust in “Jesus’ fatherly hands,” but a da capo returns to the bleak mood of the opening. Following a bass recitative, the sopranos sing a simple setting of the chorale tune, set to the text of the third verse of the chorale. The auster vocal part is completely unembellished, and is accompanied only by an angular and menacing continuo line.

The only movement in a major key, the alto aria looks forward to death and a release from suffering. After the tenor recitative, the work ends with a four-part setting of the sixth verse of the chorale.

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October 6, 2019: Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
“Komm, du süße Todesstunde,” BWV 161

Premier: September 27, 1716, Weimar
Text: Salomo Franck (Mvts. 1-5); Christoph Knoll (Mvt. 6)
English Translation
Scoring: AT soli, SATB chorus, two recorders, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Disdain for one’s earthly existence and anticipation of joy in a heavenly afterlife was a major theme in early Lutheranism, and is vividly expressed in several of Bach’s cantatas. It can be an unsettling and difficult topic for modern audiences, accustomed as we are to long lifespans and the numerous pleasures of post-industrial life. In Bach’s day, however, the average lifespan of a European was around 35 years, and the prospect of death was an ever-present reality. Bach himself was no stranger to it: his first wife died at the age of 36 and only nine of his twenty children outlived their father. Even those who lived to a relatively advanced age could expect to experience wars, serious illness, hunger, poverty, and worse. Given the brief and often unpleasant nature of 18th-century existence, the fervent contempt for life, and passionate longing for death expressed by Lutheran writers of the time is perfectly understandable. It seems to have had special resonance with Bach, and inspired some of his most intensely expressive music.

Komm, du süße Todesstunde (“Come, sweet hour of death”) is a Weimar cantata scored for two soloists, choir, and small orchestra. The structure is unusual in that the big choral movement occurs toward the end of the work, just before the final chorale. While it is not strictly speaking a chorale cantata, much of the musical material (including the final chorale) is derived from O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, generally set in modern hymnals as the Lenten hymn O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” In the opening aria, it is played verbatim by the organ in simple, unornamented quarter notes, in stark contrast to the intricate figuration of the soloist and flutes. The flute prominently feature the so-called “sigh motive,” an accented descending step.

The tenor recitative that follows begins in the older “secco” (“dry”) style but moves into more measured rhythm towards the end. The second, again features sigh motives and introduces the strings for the first time. The alto recitative, accompanied by the full ensemble, is a masterful essay in word painting. At the mention of death, continuo group plays a rapid descending scale. Sleep is portrayed by a long note in the vocal line and strings, and gently repetitive rhythms in the flutes. In contrast, the word auferwecken (“awake”) is set to a rapid ascending scale and active figuration in all seven parts. The reference to funeral bells in the last line is vividly set to bell-like pizzicato notes in the strings, and a single repeating pitch in the flutes.

The choral movement is relatively (perhaps purposefully) unsophisticated, as the librettist (Weimar court poet Salamo Franck) makes a final plea for release from earthly suffering. Bach sets the text homophonically (each voice moving in roughly the same rhythm), with instrumental interludes between the phrases. The most active music is given to the flutes, perhaps representing the “sweet joy in heaven” of the text. The final chorale is the last verse of O Haupt voll Blut, which contrasts the soul’s eternal rest in heaven with the body “eaten by worms.” The flutes play an intricate descant above the vocal parts, described by one scholar as “creating the image of the flesh transfigured.”

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September 29, 2019: St. Michael and All Angels [Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity]
“Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg,” BWV 149

Premier: September 29, 1729, Leipzig
Text: Mvt. 1: Psalm 118:15-16; Mvts. 2-6: Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander); Mvt. 7: Martin Schalling
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Christian Friedrich Henrici, better known by his penname Picander, was an author and poet based in Leipzig. Beginning in 1725, he collaborated with Bach on several cantatas and larger vocal works, including the St. Matthew Passion and the (lost) St. Mark Passion. In a 1732 publication, Picander claimed that Bach had completed an entire annual cycle of cantatas based on his libretti during the years 1728 and 1729. Scholars still debate the veracity of Picander’s claim but, if true, nearly all of these cantatas have been lost. One that survives from that time period is BWV 149, the last of Bach’s three extant cantatas for the feast of St. Michael on September 29.

According to the biblical book of Revelation, St. Michael is the angel that defeated Satan’s uprising against God and expelled him from heaven. He was an important figure in early Lutheranism: Luther himself considered that he represented a pre-incarnate manifestation of Jesus. The readings for the day are full of vivid imagery of battles, and Bach’s other two extant cantatas (BWV 19 and BWV 130) strike a rather bellicose tone. In BWV 149, the battle has already ended and the opening movement begins with references to celebration. For this movement, Bach adapted the music from a much earlier work: the Hunting Cantata BWV 208, written in 1713 as a birthday present for a German noble (this is also the cantata that contains “Sheep May Safely Graze”). Bach expanded and reorchestrated the movement considerably, but its horn-call motive and rolicking triple meter betray its origins. The initial entrance of the chorus is built up incrementally from the bass, perhaps to represent the gradual crescendo of a cheer.

BWV 149 calls for one of the largest ensemble of any of Bach’s canatas, with trios of trumpets and oboes, a bassoon, and timpani joining the usual contingent of strings. All are present in the opening movement, but only the continuo group (usually a cellist and keyboard player) accompanies the first bass aria. While not presented as the vox christi (“voice of Christ”), the bass here assumes the role of the “great voice” that announces the defeat of Satan in the passage from Revelation. The unusually active and disjunct accompaniment may represent the battle itself.

Following a brief alto recitative, the second aria is given to the soprano soloist. The text concerns the protection given by God’s angels (it is not dissimilar from the famous prayer from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel) and the mood is cheerful and pastoral. The subsequent tenor recitative ends with a long ascending line meant to portray the “ascent to heaven” in the libretto. The duet for alto and tenor features a prominent and difficult part for the bassoon, as the two soloists describe the need to remain vigilant for the second coming. The vocal lines enter in strict canon, perhaps a reference to the discipline required to remain alert and watchful at all times. The final chorale is a verse from Ach, Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein (“Ah, Lord, let Your dear little angel”), the same chorale that concludes the St. John Passion. Unusually, the trumpets and timpani are held back until the final chord, creating an unexpectedly brilliant conclusion.

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September 22, 2019: Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
“Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich,” BWV 17

Premier: September 22, 1726, Leipzig
Text: Psalm 50: 23 (Mvt. 1); Luke 17: 15-16 (Mvt. 4); Johann Gramann (Mvt. 7); Anon (Mvts. 2, 3, 5, 6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, two oboes, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

By the middle of 1725, Bach had produced nearly two years’ worth of new cantatas for his employers in Leipzig. His pace slackened considerably thereafter, and one imagines that, even for him, the well of inspiration had begun to run a little dry. The works grouped in the third annual cycle actually span the years 1725-1727 and include cantatas for a little more than half of usual Sundays and Feasts. To fill in, Bach was obliged to reuse older works, or perform works by other composers he admired, like G.P. Telemann and Bach’s cousin Johann Ludwig. Johann Ludwig Bach was employed by Duke Ernst Ludwig, duke of Meiningen, about 110 miles southwest of Leipzig. The Meiningen cantatas have a particularly consistent structure, which Bach emulated in some of his own works from 1726.

The cantatas of Johann Ludwig Bach are almost invariably in seven movements, divided into two parts, with biblical quotations beginning each part. The first part begins with a verse from the old testament, and the second part with a verse from the new. BWV 17, premiered on this exact date in 1726, follows this pattern as well. The day’s Gospel contains an account of Jesus healing ten lepers, of whom only one returned to give thanks. Accordingly, the libretto concerns the propriety of giving praise and thanks to God. It is likely that the duke himself was the author of the libretto. The opening chorus, based on a verse from psalm 50 is notable for its extended instrumental introduction. The main theme is presented in two fugal expositions, and the word preiset (“praise”) is set to a joyful melisma.

After a brief alto recitative, the first part concludes with a soprano aria. Both the violins and the soloist cover a wide range, perhaps an allusion to the line “your truth reaches as far as the clouds go.” In Bach’s day the two parts of the cantata bookended the sermon, which took about an hour. The tenor recitative that begins the second part quotes directly from the day’s Gospel story and is presented as in the Passion settings, where the Evangelist (narrator) recounts the lines of scripture that are not dialog. The following tenor aria a joyful outburst of praise with melismas on the words Dank (“thanks”) and Lob (“praise”). After a final bass recitative, the work concludes with a stanza of the chorale Nun lob, mein' Seel', den Herren (“Now Praise the Lord, My Soul”).

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September 15, 2019: Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
“Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben,” BWV 77

Premier: August 22, 1723, Leipzig
Text: Luke 10: 27 (Mvt. 1); Justus Gesenius / David Denicke (Mvt. 6); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, trumpet, two oboes, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The Gospel for Trinity 13 contains Luke’s version of the so-called “great commandment”: “You shall love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” In Matthew’s version, it continues with the line “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Bach seized upon the relationship of the old and the new law in BWV 77, one of his earliest Leipzig cantatas.

Bach highlights the relationship between Moses’s law and the new commandment of Jesus in the opening chorus. Much of the material is derived from Luther’s chorale based on the ten commandments: Dies sind die heiligen zehn Gebot (“These are the ten holy truths”). The tune is presented in canon (the strictest form of imitation) between the trumpet and basso continuo, the highest and lowest voices in the texture. The trumpet, which presents the melody twice as fast as the continuo, enters ten separate times over the course of the movement, an unmistakable allusion to the ten commandments. The music in the choral parts is derived the chorale tune.

After a short recitative, the soprano aria deals with the idea of love for God. The soloist is accompanied by two oboes which frequently play in parallel thirds, creating a pastoral, plaintive mood. There is an extended melisma on the word entbrennen “enflamed.” The second recitative, for tenor, takes the form of a prayer. It is presented as an accompagnato recitative, a form common to operas of Bach’s day and reserved for particularly passionate or important dialog. The alto aria is in the form of a sarabande (a slow triple-meter dance) and contains a particularly ingenious example of text painting. The trumpet part is written in such a way that it would be extremely awkward and difficult to play on the valveless (“natural”) instruments of Bach’s day and would likely have sounded ungainly and out of tune. Bach’s decision to write purposefully off-putting music is explained by the text, which describes human imperfection. In the original manuscript, the final chorale setting is left textless. It was filled in later by Bach’s son Johann Christoph Friedrich as a verse from Wenn einer alle Ding verstünd.

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September 8, 2019: Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
“Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren,” BWV 137

Premier: August 19 1725, Leipzig
Text: Joachim Neander
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The Baroque “orchestra” was very modest by the standards of the 19th and 20th centuries: a few violins and violas, at least one cellist, perhaps a bass violone or bassoon, continuo keyboard player, and sometimes a pair of oboes. Flutes were typically used in a soloistic capacity, and clarinets were only recently invented and not yet in widespread use. Brass instruments, like trumpet and horn, were still valveless (“natural”)  and could only reliably play in tune in a few keys. In Bach’s cantatas, trumpets were typically used only in works intended for major feasts like Easter or Pentecost. Their appearance, along with timpani, in a cantata ostensibly written for the middle of Ordinary Time is surprising. John Eliot Gardiner has hypothesized that BWV 137 was originally written for the inauguration of the Leipzig town council, since its text has no real relationship to the readings for Trinity 12. The work is a chorale cantata and, although it was written a few months after the conclusion of the 2nd annual cycle, it is stylistically somewhat more retrospective. Like BWV 4 (one of the earliest extant cantatas), and BWV 107 (a Leipzig cantata from the previous year), the chorale melody and text are used in each of the five movements.

The chorale melody of BWV 137 is one of the few that may still be familiar to modern church-goers as “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation.” The opening movent is similar to those of the other second-cycle cantatas, with the chorale melody in long notes in the soprano accompanied by imitation in the lower voices based on the orchestral introduction. The second movement is one of six cantata movements that Bach arranged for organ solo and published in 1747 or 1748 as the Sechs Chorale von verschiedener Art (commonly known as the “Schubler Chorales”) It was the second of only two collections of his organ music that appeared in print during his lifetime. The alto sings a slightly embellished version of the chorale melody accompanied by the continuo players and a solo violin. Some recent recordings use the choral alto section in lieu of a soloist.

The central movement is a duet between soprano and bass, accompanied by the two oboes and continuo. Each phrase in the vocal lines begins with the chorale melody, but then freely elaborates on it. The tenor aria is accompanied only by a trumpet and the continuo group. The soloist and continuo play in A minor, while the trumpet plays the chorale melody in C major, creating an usual harmonic dichotomy. The three trumpets add obbligato melodies to the final four-part chorale. 

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September 1, 2019: Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
“Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” BWV 199

Premier: August 12, 1714, Weimar (original); rev. August 8, 1723, Leipzig
Text: Georg Christian Lehms (Mvts. 1-5); Johann Heermann (Mvt. 6)
English Translation
Scoring: Soprano solo, oboe, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Eighteenth-century Lutheranism was not a particularly warm and fuzzy religion. On the contrary, great emphasis was placed on mankind’s inherently sinful nature and absolute inability to achieve salvation on our own merits. Violent or disturbing imagery (for the 1700s) was routinely utilized in cantata texts to drive these points home, and Bach often responded with music of particular pathos. Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (“My Heart Swims in Blood”) was one of the first cantatas Bach presented after his promotion to Concert Master in Weimar, although it may have been written earlier than that. He revived it during his first year in Leipzig, with some minor alterations.

Bach’s early Weimar cantatas are transitional works in which the more modern operatic style begins to supplant the older chorus-driven model he had inherited from Pachelbel and others. BWV 199 in fact does not utilize a chorus at all, but is scored only for a solo soprano and very small instrumental ensemble. While there is no four-part chorale to conclude the work, Bach does incorporate verse 3 of Wo soll ich fliehen hin into the sixth movement.

The work begins with a recitative in the accompagnato style, with the singer portrayed as a “monster” in “God’s holy eyes.” The following aria is in da capo form and continues the somber mood of the opening. The B sections ends in a brief passage of recitative before the da capo. The idea of repentance appears for the first time in movement 3, and the aria in movement four reflects on that theme. A very brief recitative segues in to the chorale movement, where the soloist presents each phrase of the chorale accompanied by an ornate viola countermelody. By the final recitative/aria pair, the melancholy tone of the opening has been replaced by joy in the grace and forgiveness of God. The recitative concludes with a lavish melisma on “frohlich” (“joyful”) which is echoed in the last aria, set in the style of a jig.

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August 25, 2019: Tenth Sunday after Trinity
“Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei” BWV 46

Premier: August 1, 1723, Leipzig
Text: Lamentations I: 12 (Mvt. 1); Johann Matthäus Meyfart (Mvt. 6); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, corno da tirarsi [trumpet?], 2 recorders, 2 oboes da caccia, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The biblical book of Lamentations, supposedly written by the prophet Jeremiah, is a series poems from the 6th century BCE lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Its bleak text is primarily associated with Good Friday Tenebrae services, and has been set by numerous composers since the Renaissance, most famously by Thomas Tallis. Its use in a cantata intended for the middle of ordinary time reflects the day’s Gospel, where Jesus chases the merchants and moneychangers from the temple and predicts the destruction of Jerusalem. The remainder of the libretto expands on the theme, describing God’s wrath as just punishment for sins.

Like generations of composers before him, Bach’s setting of the famous verse from Lamentations (“Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me”) is full of pathos. Structurally, the opening movement is a prelude and fugue, a common genre in Bach’s harpsichord and organ works. The prelude is slow and somber with darkly chromatic harmonies and bare dissonances. The orchestra, unusually large for a non-feast Sunday, includes recorders, oboes, and the mysterious “corno da tirarsi,” probably a slide trumpet. Aside from the flutes, the instruments largely double the voices in the prelude section of the movement. The ensuing fugue is faster but no more upbeat, as the text mentions God’s just wrath. Beginning with just the altos and continuo, it eventually grows to encompass the whole chorus and orchestra. Scholars have described the movement as “austere” and “uncompromising.”

The tenor recitative is of the accompanied variety, used sparingly in operas of Bach’s day and generally only for particularly emotional or important dialog. The repeating figure in the flutes has been likened to falling tears. The following bass aria showcases the trumpet and dually reflects the breaking of a thunderstorm and the power of God’s wrath. It makes use of a number of Baroque “rage aria” tropes, including fast repeated notes and dotted martial rhythms. In the middle section, where the text describes the “unendurable” punishment, the bass line rises by half step, creating a feeling of anxious foreboding. During the second phrase of the B section, it reverses course and descends by half-step as the text describes the “downfall” of sinners.

In the alto recitative, the soloist assures sinners everywhere that they will not escape a judgement like Jerusalem’s. The first bit of conciliatory text arrives in the alto aria, which describes the protection offered by faith in Jesus. The soloist describes Jesus as the good shepherd, accompanied only by the flutes and one of the oboes, Movements without basso continuo accompaniment are exceedingly rare in Bach’s output, and his purpose in excluding it here may be to offer maximum timbrel contrast to the somewhat “heavy” music that precedes it, and to highlight the shepherd theme of the text. The contrasting imagery in last line of the text (“If storms of vengeance are what sinners earn, he gives help so that the righteous dwell in safety”) is highlighted through text-painting. The line concerning the deserts of sinners is rhythmically intricate and melodically disjunct, while the word “wohnen” (dwell), is a single sustained pitch for 6 beats.

The last movement sets the final verse of O großer Gott von Macht (“O great God of Might”) with short orchestral interludes between the phrases.

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August 18, 2019: Ninth Sunday after Trinity
“Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort,” BWV 168

Premier: July 29, 1725, Leipzig
Text: Salomo Franck (Mvts. 1-5); Bartholomäus Ringwaldt (Mvt. 6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, [SATB chorus], 2 oboes d’amore, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Bach worked on the cantatas comprising the third annual cycle intermittently between 1725 and 1727, never achieving the level of completeness seen in the first and second cycles. BWV 168 is chronologically the first of the cycle, although it was written nine weeks after the conclusion of the previous one. Bach used a text by Salamo Franck, his old colleague from the Ducal court in Weimar. Although it had been published in 1715, Bach had never had an opportunity to set it thanks to an extended official period of mourning for Duke Johann Ernst. The cantata hearkens to back to some of the Weimar pieces in its intimate scoring, for four vocal soloists and reduced instrumental ensemble. If a choir is used, it is heard only in the final chorale.

Although Bach never wrote an opera (he somewhat derisively referred to them as “the pretty little Dresden tunes”), he was more than capable of producing dramatic music, as anybody familiar with the Passion settings can attest. The opening aria of BWV 168 is an evocation of divine wrath, presented as the “word of thunder, that splits apart the very rocks.” The brief introduction features intricate string writing and repeated martial rhythms, emphasizing the gravity and power of the text. As the bass soloist describes the “word, at which my blood runs cold,” he comes to rest on an extended low B, probably representing a heart stopping in fear.

The tenor recitative is accompanied by the oboes, who highlight the imagery of falling mountains and lightning strikes with rapid arpeggios. The reference to “capital and interest” in the following aria is an allusion to the day’s Gospel reading: the parable of the unjust steward. The bass recitative is in the secco (“dry”) style common operas in the 18th century. The tone of the libretto turns from the wrath of God to the grace of God, and describes Jesus as paying the debt owed by the sinner.

The second aria movement is a sparsely accompanied duet between soprano and alto. The bass line is almost an ostinato, and is comprised of only a few repeating rhythmic figures. The imitative vocal parts engage in a good deal of text painting. Kettte (“fetters”) are represented by melismas tied over the bar so as to weaken the downbeat. Sterbebett (“deathbed”) is set to an extremely unusual harmonic progression with dissonant suspensions in the voices. A four-part setting of the final verse of Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut concludes the work.

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August 11, 2019: Eighth Sunday after Trinity
“Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz,” BWV 136

Premier: July 18, 1723, Leipzig
Text: Psalm 139: 23 (Mvt. 1); Johann Heermann (Mvt. 6); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, horn, oboe, oboe d’amore, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Like most Baroque composers, J.S. Bach was not averse to reusing previously composed music, especially if the work being recycled was not likely to be familiar to the audience in question. Unlike his contemporary Handel, who frequently borrowed (some might say plagiarized) the works of other composers, Bach generally only repurposed his own music. BWV 136 is likely a reworking of an earlier cantata, although no model has yet come to light. The opening movement was itself revised as the “Cum sancto Spiritu” section of the Gloria from a Mass in A major, performed in Leipzig in the late 1730s.

Many suites from the 17th and 18th centuries conclude with a gigue movement, but BWV 136 actually begins with one. One might expect Bach to treat the text from Psalm 139 (“Search me, God, and know my heart”) in a fearful or anxious manner, since it deals with the judgement of God, but Bach instead adopts the tone of a securely righteous believer. The movement is structured around two extended fugues on the same subject, with an extremely difficult obbligato horn part. It was probably intended for the Leipzig virtuoso Gottfried Reiche.

The tenor recitative is a bit more foreboding, as the text describes God’s ultimate condemnation of sinners at the last judgement. That mood continues into the alto aria, accompanied by the continuo and an oboe (some modern scholars believe it should be an oboe d’amore). While not exactly a “da capo” aria, it does feature a three-part form with a brief middle section in contrasting meter.

Following a brief bass recitative, a duet for tenor and bass returns to the jig-like rhythms of the opening, though now in a more somber minor key. The phrases alternate between canon and homorhythm. Each instance of the word Strom (“stream”) is set as an elaborate melisma. The closing chorale is the ninth verse of Wo soll ich fliehen hin, and features a descant played in the violins.

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August 4, 2019: Seventh Sunday after Trinity
“Was willst du dich betrüben,” BWV 107

Premier: July 23, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Johann Heermann
English Translation
Scoring: STB soli, SATB chorus, corno da caccia, 2 transverse flutes, 2 oboes d’amore, organ obbligato, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Most of the chorale cantatas in the second annual cycle use the chorale text only for the first and last movements (typically choruses), with free paraphrases for the movements given to the soloists. The older style, where the text (and, in some cases, the tune) is retained throughout, was found in works of the late 17th century and was utilized by Bach for his early Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesnabden BWV 4. He went back to that model, by then extremely antiquated, for the cantata Was willst du dich betrüben, BWV107, the seventh work of the second cycle. He would use it yet again for the later work Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, BWV 129 (1726).

Bach’s motivations for restricting himself to this older paradigm can only be conjectured. After more than year of constant composition of cantats, he may have felt sufficiently adept in the genre to set himself a special challenge. Most Lutheran chorales are written in bar form, a pattern inherited from the medieval Minnesinger and Meistersinger traditions. It is often rendered as AAB (stollen, stollen, abgesang in German), with two lines of equal length (and accent pattern) followed by a line of longer length. The normative aria form in Bach’s day was known as “da capo” aria, often rendered as ABA, where A and B were self-contained sections and the A sections were identical. It works best with free verse and cannot easily be fitted to texts intended for bar form. Bach, however, includes four arias in BWV 107, taking steps to obscure the rigid bar form in each.

The opening chorus follows the general pattern of most of the chorale cantatas, with the melody presented in (relatively) long notes in the soprano, doubled in this case by the corno da caccia (“hunting horn,” i.e. French Horn), and accompaniment in alto, tenor, and bass. The rhythmic disparity between the (lightly embellished) chorale and the accompaniment is not quite as stark as in many similar works. The second movement is a recitative that uses the chorale text. This actually presents fewer difficulties than the arias due to the recitative’s free nature. Bach includes substantial melismas on the words “freuden” (“joy”) and “retten” (“rescue”).

The first aria, for Bass, is features a pun on the word “erjagen.” In the context of the cantata it pertains to a goal achieved by great effort, but it’s general meaning relates to hunting. Bach sets it as an elaborate trill for the soloist, reminiscent of a hunting horn. The unusual second aria, for tenor, is characterized by free alternation of 3/4 and 6/8 meter (which contain the same number of eighth-notes per measure). The technique is found most commonly in folk music, especially of Latin America and Spain (think of the opening of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, or “Maria” from West Side Story), a body of work with which Bach was certainly unfamiliar. In this case, it more than likely refers to the “intrigues” of satan mentioned in the text. The soloist is accompanied only by the continuo group, whose jagged and decidedly un-melodic line was described by Albert Schweitzer as “the contortions of a huge dragon.” The third aria, for soprano, retains not only the chorale text but the tune, in paraphrase at the beginning and verbatim at the end. The second tenor aria, accompanied by the flutes, strikes a slightly lighter tone than the preceding movements ans the text describes living in harmony with God’s will.

The final chorale is a good deal more elaborate than the usual four-part setting, with the voices embedded in an orchestral siciliano, a slow dance in compound time (6/8 or 12/8) characterized by dotted rhythms. As in the opening chorus, Bach groups the phrases of the chorale text unusually: 1-2 (stollen), 3-4 (stollen), 5, 6-8. In this verse, phrase 5 is an invocation of the trinity, singled out for special treatment.

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July 28, 2019: Sixth Sunday after Trinity
“Es ist das Heil uns kommen her,” BWV 9

Premier: 1732-1735, Leipzig
Text: Paul Speratus (Mvt. 1, 7); Anon (Mvt. 2-6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, SATB chorus, transverse flute, oboe d’amore, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Late masterworks like the B-Minor Mass and The Art of the Fugue demonstrate that Bach was concerned with his posthumous legacy, but whether he actually believed that any of his works would continue to be performed after his death is unclear. There was as yet no notion of the “Classical” canon, and music did not tend to remain in use for more than a few decades, especially if it remained unpublished. Furthermore, the mid-18th century was a time of stylistic transition, as the intricate, contrapuntal style of J.S. Bach was progressively overshadowed by the more elegant, melody-centric style of his sons Carl Philip Emmanuel and (especially) Johann Christian.

Bach may have hoped that his massive contribution to church music, where styles were slower to evolve, would be his most enduring legacy. In his early years in Leipzig he had himself made use of cantatas written by his predecessor Johann Kuhnau, and it would have been reasonable to assume that his successor would do the same. It was perhaps this belief that motivated him to complete his second annual cycle of cantatas, mostly written in 1724 and 1725, and comprised primarily of chorale cantatas. He continued to add to it through the mid 1730s, replacing works that did not conform to the theme (principally cantatas written between Easter and Trinity 1725) and filling in gaps where necessary. BWV 9, one of the last additions to the cycle, filled one of these gaps, as Bach had been out of town on this Sunday in 1724. Despite its late date, Bach scholar Christoph Wolff believes that the libretto originated in 1724, and was provided by the same anonymous author that Bach utilized for the original cycle.

Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (“Salvation unto us has come”) is one of the oldest Lutheran hymns, appearing in the the first hymnal of 1524. Its text deals with one of the the central doctrines of Lutheranism: salvation through faith alone. It is broadly applicable to the day’s Gospel reading, a passage from the Sermon on the Mount. The format of the work is consistent with most of the others in the second cycle: an opening chorale fantasia with text drawn verbatim from the chorale, several movements for soloists with freely paraphrased text, and a concluding four-part chorale, again utilizing a chorale verse.

The first movement might be viewed as a concerto for flute and oboe, with overlaid choral parts. As usual, the sopranos sing the chorale melody in long notes against free counterpoint in the lower parts. All three of the lengthy recitatives in this cantata are given to the bass soloist, leading some commentators to speculate that Bach may have been attempting to give a sermon in music to parallel the sermon in the Gospel. All three are “secco” recitatives, accompanied only by the continuo group, except for the final phrase of the fourth movement, where the text “clasp Jesus firmly in their arms” is set as a tender arioso.

Alternating with these homiletic recitatives are two arias, the first for tenor and the second for soprano and alto. The tenor aria is comprised primarily of descending lines with occasional leaps up, to illustrate the image of sinking into the “abyss” of sin. The unusual and (somewhat incongruously) jocular 12/16 meter has led Alfred Durr to describe the movement as “a giddy descent into the abyss of sin.” The duet for soprano and alto is constructed of paired imitative duets between the two voices, and the two wind instruments. In the brief B section of this da capo form the instruments largely double the voices in a single duet. After the final bass recitative, the work concludes with the usual four-part chorale.

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July 21, 2019: Fifth Sunday after Trinity
“Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden,” BWV 88

Premier: July 21, 1726, Leipzig
Text: Jeremiah 16:16 (Mvt. 1); 5:10 (Mvt. 4); Georg Neumark (Mvt. 7); Anon (Mvt. 2, 3, 5, 6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, (SATB chorus), 2 horns, 2 oboes d’amore, taille [english horn], strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

By the Summer of 1726, J.S. Bach had held the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig for just three years, but he had already composed over a hundred new cantatas, plus the St. John Passion. His pace slackened just a bit in 1726, when he produced several works by his third cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach, Kapellmeister of the ducal court in Meiningen. Bach’s own works written during that period also follow the Meiningen pattern, beginning with a passage from the old testament, followed by two free verses (a recitative and aria pair), a central passage from the new testament, an aria and recitative pair, and a final chorale. Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden (“See, I will send Out Many Fishermen”) departs from this model only slightly in dividing the work into two parts intended to bookend the sermon.

Like last week’s work, BWV 88 is one of Bach’s more economical cantatas, requiring only four vocal soloists (a choir could be used for the final chorale), and orchestra of winds and strings. The opening movement uses a verse from Jeremiah that describes fishermen and hunters, foreshadowing the day’s Gospel reading of Jesus’ encounter with Peter, James, and John on the seashore. The movement, for the bass soloist, is cast in two contrasting parts. Reflecting the dual imagery of the text, the first features calm wave-like undulations (John Eliot Gardiner describes it as a barcarolle) and the second hunting horn calls.

The following recitative/aria pair, for tenor, take the form of a question and answer. The reciative asks whether God will “abandon us to the deceit and malice of our enemies”, and the aria immediately answers “no.” The second part of the aria balances the first by beginning with the word “yes,” and describes God’s mercies. Most of the movement is accompanied only by an oboe d’amore and the continuo group, but Bach surprisingly introduces the strings for the final orchestral postlude, resembling a minuet.

The second part of the cantata, performed after the sermon, is reminiscent of the St. John Passion. Based on the events related in day’s Gospel, an Evangelist (tenor) sets the scene and introduces Jesus’ words to Simon Peter. Jesus’ actual words are (as is nearly always the case) sung by the Bass soloist, accompanied only by the continuo group. The following duet, for soprano and alto, elaborates on the imperative of evangelism by obliquely referencing another passage from the Gospel: the parable of the talents. The soprano recitative describes the need to trust in God despite hardship, and the work concludes with the expected four-part chorale -- in this case the final verse of Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten.

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July 14, 2019: Fourth Sunday after Trinity
“Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe,” BWV 185

Premier: July 14, 1715, Weimar
Text: Salomo Franck (Mvts. 1-5); Johann Agricola (Mvt. 6)
English Translation
Scoring: SATB soli, (SATB chorus), oboe, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

While a handful of Bach’s cantatas have been dated to his early years in Arnstadt and Muhlhausen, his engagement with the genre began in earnest upon his 1714 promotion to Concert Master of the ducal court in Weimar. It was during this period that Bach’s cantatas began to move away from the earlier chorus-driven style of composers like Pachelbel and Buxtehude and toward greater use of operatic conventions like recitative and da capo aria. Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe, premiered on this exact date in 1715, is one of several that does not require a chorus at all, although it can be used for the final chorale. As with most of the Weimar cantatas, the libretto was written by court poet Salomo Franck, and draws on the portion of the Sermon on the Mount read in the day’s Gospel.

As with any master artist, Bach was capable of both obvious and subtle text-painting effects: rapid scales could be fairly overt allusions to imagery like wind, while theological concepts like divine mercy required a more nuanced approach that might only be discernible by attentive, trained listeners. The text of the opening movement of BWV 185 is a passionate evocation of divine love, and Bach responds with a tender siciliano for soprano and tenor somewhat in the vein of an operatic love duet. Above this, the oboe soloist intones the chorale Ich ruf zu dir, herr Jesu Christ. The main vocal theme, presented first in the continuo, is in two parts: the first paraphrases the opening motive of the chorale melody, and the second presents the same music in inversion (known in German is a “mirror canon”). According to Durr,  Bach’s purpose here is perhaps to highlight the libretto’s theme of human mercy reflecting divine mercy. Bach replaced the oboe with a trumpet for a later Leipzig performance..

The following movement for alto begins as a recitativo accompagnato but concludes as a more regular arioso. The text is somewhat didactic, and, reflecting the Gospel reading, advises the listener to model their behavior on God’s. The opening line, describing hearts as made of stone and rock, is set to long, sustained notes, while the word “soften” is a faster melisma. For the line “Denn wie ihr messt, wird man euch wieder messen” (“for as you measure, so will you be measured”) the music moves from the unmeasured recitative into a more metrically regular arioso. In the following aria, also for alto, the admonition to “scatter your seed generously” is set as an extended melisma. The full orchestra, however modest, also appears for the first time in this movement.

The bass recitative is set in the older secco (“dry”) recitative style, with the soloist accompanied only by the continuo group. This same “dry” texture is carried over into the aria, where the soloist assumes the vox Christi role and delivers what amounts to a short sermon on der Christen Kunst (“the Christian’s art”). The original libretto is a single run-on sentence, which Bach wisely breaks up with regular repetitions of that phrase. Gardiner describes the movement as “gentle, parodistic … [portrayal of] the rhetorical displays of a pompous preacher.” A four-part setting of Ich ruf zu dir closes the work, adorned with an obligato descant for solo violin.

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July 7, 2019: Third Sunday after Trinity
“Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder,” BWV 135

Premier: June 25, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Cyriakus Schneegaß (Mvt. 6); Anon (Mvt.1-5)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, cornett, trombone, 2 oboes, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Today’s cantata is the immediate successor to last week’s, and is the fourth work in Bach’s second annual cycle, which ran from the first Sunday after Trinity 1724 to Trinity Sunday 1725. The second cycle is almost completely comprised of chorale cantatas, works where at least two movements are based on a single Lutheran chorale. In the case of BWV 135, it is Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, a paraphrase of Psalm 6 sung to the tune of Herzlich tut mich verlangen (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded” in most modern hymnals).

Bach was attentive to the smallest details in his compositions, but he also took a long-term view of the relationships between his works. This is perhaps most obvious in the key relationships of his keyboard partitas, Italian Concerto, and French Overture. A similarly long-term vision is observable in the first four cantatas of the second annual cycle (the third was written not for a Sunday, but for the feast of St. John the Baptist). Each opening movement of the four is a chorale fantasia, where one voice presents the chorale melody against motivic counterpoint. In the first work of the set, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort BWV 20, the melody is in the soprano. In BWV 2 it moves to the alto, and to the tenor in BWV 7 (Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam). Finally, BWV 135 finds it in the bass voice. The four opening choruses also present a compendium of musical styles: a French Overture (BWV 20), a stile antico motet (BWV 2), and Italian Concerto (BWV 7). The opening movement of BWV 135 is a unique creation, described by one scholar as “extraordinary filigree of vocal and instrumental counterpoint.”

The orchestra presents a short ritornello derived from the chorale melody before the voices enter. Unusually, the basso continuo group is treated as part of the chorus rather than the orchestra, giving an uncharacteristic sense of lightness and transparency to the ritornellos. Bach’s reasoning for this may have been as simple as a desire to reinforce the bass cantus firmus, but it is also tempting to hear the top-heavy orchestral sections as representing the humble prayer for forgiveness related in the text. Bach subtly elongates the notes of the bass chorale melody for the phrase “Dass ich mag ewig leben” (“That I may live forever”).

The tenor recitative contains several instances of text painting. The description of “floods of tears” is accompanied by a rapid melisma, followed by a slower figure to represent “rolling down my cheeks.” The text painting continues in the tenor aria, written as a trio sonata with overlaid vocal line. The phrase “sink into death” is accompanied by dissonant falling sevenths, while the mention of silence provokes noticeable gaps in the vocal line. 

The first few measures of the alto recitative are a variation on the chorale melody, accompanied by plodding, sinking bass notes to represent the weariness of the text. The forceful bass aria is introduced by a long, arpeggiated melody in the violins. The text begins with an admonition against evildoers before describing the consolation of Jesus. During the da capo, the last iteration of this line is set as long, conjunct notes, perhaps indicating that the soul has at last found rest. The work closes with the customary chorale.

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June 30, 2019: Second Sunday after Trinity
“Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” BWV 2

Premier: June 18, 1724, Leipzig
Text: Martin Luther (Mvts. 1, 6 - after Psalm 12); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
English Translation
Scoring: ATB soli, SATB chorus, 4 trombones, 2 oboes, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

The first few decades of the 18th century were a period of stylistic plurality and transition throughout Europe. In Italy, Baroque opera seria still reigned supreme, but hints of what would become the Classical style were already visible in the immensely popular comic operas by composers like Pergolesi. In France, the heavily ornamented music by Couperin and Rameau reflected the extravagance and flamboyance of the royal court. Thanks largely to Handel’s dominance, the high Baroque style was retained in England far longer than on the continent. Composers of church music (especially Catholic composers) also occasionally emulated the older, austere music of Palestrina, now regarded as the contrapuntist par excellence. German music theorists of the time invented an elaborate system of stylistic categories to deal with this diverse body of music, applying the name stile antico (old or antiquated style) to works in this last category. In reality, few composers were interested in a wholesale return to the principles of the late Renaissance, least among them J.S. Bach. Stile antico music of the 18th century is much freer harmonically than was Palestrina, but it reflects that older style in its control of dissonance, simplified rhythms, avoidance of instrumental idioms, and largely syllabic text setting. The opening movement of BWV2, premiered during Bach’s second year in Leipzig, is one of his finest essays in the style.

Bach tended to be very purposeful in his use of the stile antico, reserving it for texts or themes that were either of ancient origin (as in the Kyrie of the B minor Mass), or particularly austere (as in BWV 2). Based on Psalm 12, Luther’s chorale of the same title decries unbelief, false teaching, and pride. Bach uses the chorale text verbatim in the opening movement, a large-scale chorale fantasy divided into several discrete sections. The alto sings each phrase of the chorale melody in long notes, while the other three parts engage in vorimitation: anticipating the next phrase of the melody with fugal entrances derived from it. Aside from the basso continuo, the instruments double the voice parts throughout.

As was his usual practice in chorale cantatas of the second cycle, the inner verses of the chorale are paraphrased by an anonymous author into more modern verse. Following a tenor recitative, the alto aria forms a stylistic counterweight to the austere opening. Written in the more tuneful “modern” style, the soloist is accompanied by a florid solo violin and the basso continuo. Bach briefly quotes the chorale melody near the end of the movement, which asks for Gods protection against “rabble rousers.”

The bass recitative begins  in the “accompanied” style common to operas of Bach’s day. As the text turns from a description of the plight of the poor to God’s promise to help, the music becomes a fully fledged arioso. Similarly, the “bewildering” harmonies of the opening (including some strikingly dissonant sonorities) give way to much mure straightforward harmonic progressions.

The tenor aria, accompanied by nearly the full ensemble, describes God’s true word as tried and tested through the cross. At the last iteration of this line, the soloist presents a brief descending chromatic fourth, known in Bach’s day as the passus duriusculus (“difficult way”), a subtle reference to the difficulties of Jesus’s mission. The instruments briefly drop out at the beginning of the middle section of this da capo aria. The usual four-part chorale closes the work.

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June 23, 2019: First Sunday after Trinity
“Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot,” BWV 39

Premier: June 23, 1726, Leipzig
Text: Isaiah 58: 7-8 (Mvt. 1); Hebrews 13: 16 (Mvt. 4); David Denicke (Mvt. 7); Anon (Mvts. 2, 3, 5, 6)
English Translation
Scoring: SAB soli, SATB chorus, 2 recorders, 2 oboes, strings and continuo.

Readings for this Sunday

Bach’s first two annual cycles of cantatas consist largely of works that were newly composed during his first two years in Leipzig. His superhuman pace began to slacken somewhat after the conclusion of the second cycle on Trinity Sunday 1725, and the works that make up the so-called third annual cycle were actually composed over a period of three liturgical years. To compensate for his reduced compositional output, Bach produced numerous works by other composers. The two months following Trinity Sunday 1725 featured cantatas by his contemporary and friend G.P. Telemann, and February through September of the following year were largely given over to works by his third cousin Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731), Kapellmeister of the ducal court in Meiningen.

The few cantatas by J.S. Bach from that period generally follow the format of those Meiningen cantatas, and even make use of libretti attributed to Duke Ernst Ludwig I, his cousin’s employer. Each libretto has a symmetrical structure, beginning with a passage from the old testament, followed by two free verses (a recitative and aria pair), a central passage from the new testament, an aria and recitative pair, and a final chorale. BWV 39, performed on this exact date in 1726, is conceived along these lines, although Bach departed from his model in dividing the work into two parts. Bach’s two-part cantatas, which this survey has largely avoided due to their extended length, were intended to frame the sermon, which generally took about an hour.

The readings for the first Sunday after Trinity concern Christian charity and the importance of caring for the poor. The opening chorus is one of Bach’s most complex, with three distinct sections corresponding to the three sections of Isaiah’s text: admonitions to feed the hungry and cover the naked, followed by the promise of a reward in heaven. Bach breaks the modest orchestra into three groups: flutes, oboes, and strings, and utilizes a three-fold echo texture for the extended opening ritornello. Some commentators have interpreted this texture as representing the act of sharing bread. The ritornello is repeated, this time with the choir, who sing homophonically in short fragments, described by Gardiner as “imploring gestures, emotionally choked, their pleas breaking and stuttering.” The word Elend (“misery”) is set to a series of dissonant suspensions. Following a brief fugato episode, the opening section is repeated. The second main section, essentially a bridge between the first and third, begins with a tempo and meter change. The basses present the line “So du einen nackend siehest” (“If you see someone naked”) absolutely unaccompanied (naked), before the rest of the chorus and orchestra enter to clothe them. The third section begins with a return to triple meter and a fugue. This final section is a mirror image of the opening, where a short fugue was framed by homophony -- here two fugues frame a central homophonic section. A brief orchestral interlude leads to a final joyful coda.

The second movement is a lengthy, but sparsely scored bass recitative. The following alto aria, which concludes part 1, is in the form of a trio sonata overlaid with a vocal part. Several instances of text painting are apparent: each repetition of the word streuet (“sew,” referring to God’s bounty) is set to a lengthy melisma, while bringen ein (“reap” a reference to the eternal afterlife), is set as a long sustained pitch.

The second part begins with an arioso movement for bass, in the vox Christi role, with text taken from the day’s epistle reading. The soloist is accompanied only by an ostinato figure in the cello.

The second aria, for soprano, is an introspective meditation on life and death, accompanied by the recorders (often utilized by Bach in intimate movements related to the afterlife) and continuo. Following an alto recitative, the work concludes with verse six of Kommt, laßt euch den Herren lehren (“Come let the Lord teach you”), sung to the tune of Freu dich sehr (often found in modern hymnals as Comfort, Comfort Now my People.)

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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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