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April 8, 2012

Bach Cantatas (18): Easter Sunday (April 8)

Easter is the most important feast in the Christian liturgical year. According to the scripture, Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the 3rd day after his crucifixion.


Easter marks the end of Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance. The last week of the Lent is called Holy Week, and it contains Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus. By the way, on Good Friday, there were no cantatas performed in Lutheran churches in Bach's time, but in Leipzig on this day a Passion was performed in a Vespers service.

Easter is followed by a fifty-day period called Easter-tide or the Easter Season, ending with Pentecost Sunday.

Easter is a "moveable feast," set by the First Council of Nicaea (325) on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. The date of Easter varies between March 22 and April 25. In 2012 it falls on April 8.

There are two cantatas for Easter Sunday plus the Easter Oratorio. Two more cantatas ascribed to Easter Sunday are in fact not by Bach: BWV 15 is by Johann Ludwig Bach, and BWV 160 is by Telemann.

Readings:
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 5: 6-8, "Christ is our Easter lamb";
Gospel: Markus 16: 1-8 "Resurrection"

References:
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Cantatas:
  • Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, probably 1707

    1. Sinfonia: strings and continuo
    2. Choral: Christ lag in Todes Banden
    3. Duet S, A: Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
    4. Choral T: Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn
    5. Choral: Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg
    6. Aria B: Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm
    7. Duet S, T: So feiern wir das hohe Fest
    8. Choral: Wir essen und leben wohl


    ("Christ lay in the Bonds of Death"). Chorale Cantata on Martin Luther's Easter Hymn. This early cantata is in archaic style (the chorale text returns in every vocal movement, the orchestral accompaniment contains two violas). The cantata starts with a sinfonia for strings and continuo that establishes a grave mood. The fist chorale (Versus 1) is for full ensemble; the chorale melody appears as cantus firmus in long notes in the soprano. This a grand fugal setting of the chorale melody. Versus 2 is for soprano and alto, singing above a walking bass line, versus 3 for tenor accompanied by a brilliant string line. The central versus is for the whole ensemble in motet style. Then follows versus 5 for bass voice set against the strings - it is a very rhetorical movement (low notes for "Tod (death)," suspension on "haelt (hold)," etc.), a meditation on the meaning of Passover. Versus 6 is for soprano and tenor, singing in a more lively rhythm and the cantata concludes with a four-part chorale for the whole ensemble, a suitable close to this impressive work. (***)

  • Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, BWV 31, 21 April 1715

    1. Sonata
    2. Chorus: Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret
    3. Recitative B: Erwünschter Tag!
    4. Aria B: Fürst des Lebens, starker Streiter
    5. Recitative T: So stehe dann, du gottergebne Seele
    6. Aria T: Adam muß in uns verwesen
    7. Recitative S: Weil dann das Haupt sein Glied
    8. Aria S: Letzte Stunde, brich herein
    9. Choral: So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ

    ("Heaven Laughs, the Earth Rejoices"). Christ's Resurrection is celebrated in the initial sinfonia, an instrumental tour-de-force with its trumpet call. The festive character is continued in the ensuing jubilant chorus in five parts, with divided sopranos. Three recitative-aria pairs follow, for bass, tenor and soprano - the last one containing a chorale cantus firmus. Textually the cantata morphs from joy about Easter to the longing of the believer to be united with Jesus and therefore a looking forward to the personal "last hour." The bass aria is accompanied by a vigorous dotted motif symbolizing Jesus' princely power. The tenor aria is very attractive and the soprano aria even more so, a tender lullaby on death as sleep ("Last hour, break forth, to press closed my eyes"), almost a duet for soprano and oboe. The above mentioned chorale cantus firmus is played by the strings. The cantata concludes with the usual four-part chorale. This is one of the most majestic of the Weimar cantatas, a masterwork of Bach's first maturity. (****)

  • Easter Oratorio "Kommt, eilet und laufet", BWV 249, 1735

    1 Sinfonia
    2 Adagio
    3 Aria Duetto tenor, bass: Kommt, eilet und laufet
    4 Recitativo soprano, alto, tenor, bass: O kalter Männer Sinn
    5 Aria soprano: Seele, deine Spezereien
    6 Recitativo alto, tenor, bass: Hier ist die Gruft
    7 Aria tenor: Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer
    8 Recitativo soprano, alto: Indessen seufzen wir
    9 Aria alto: Saget, saget mir geschwinde
    10 Recitativo bass: Wir sind erfreut
    11 Chorus: Preis und Dank


    ("Come, hasten and run"). Based on a secular laudatory cantata written ten years before. As there is no evangelist, this is more a "dramma per musica" than an oratorio. The story is the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb by the disciples Peter and John and the women Maria Magdalena and Maria, the mother of Jacob. The work opens with an upbeat sinfonia that features trumpets and drums. This is followed by an elegiac adagio with prominent flute which paints the atmosphere of the peaceful cemetery where the action takes place. The chorus returns to the opening melody and describes how Jesus' followers hasten and run to his grave. (These three sections may well have been parts from a now lost concerto.) In the SATB recitative for all four characters mentioned above and the ensuing soprano aria with fine traverso line, Jesus' four followers realize they don't need herbs to salve Jesus body, but that rather a laurel wreath would be more fitting. In the next SATB recitative they discover the empty sepulcher, the stone moved aside. The also find Jesus' shroud. This is followed by one of the most beautiful pieces of music Bach ever wrote, the tenor aria "Gentle shall my death-throes be," a meditation by Peter on Jesus' shroud with a delicately evocative melody, a comforting "slumber" aria with a rocking accompaniment by recorders and muted strings. In it, the Christian soul celebrates Jesus' power to triumph over death and reduce its pains to mere sleep. For both Marias the shroud is not enough, they want to see Jesus himself as is expressed in the sighing recitative for soprano and alto and the more upbeat aria for alto. "Tell me, tell me quickly, say where I can find Jesus, whom my soul loves!" is based on the Song of Songs. The bass recitative by John affirms Jesus' resurrection and the final chorus is a glorious song of praise. A delightful oratorio suffused with dance-like rhythms. (****)