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December 29, 2015

Bach Cantatas (63): Sunday after Christmas

Not every year has a Sunday after Christmas. When it occurs, it may fall both before or after the New Year. There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings for the Sunday after Christmas:
Galatians 4:1–7, Through Christ we are free from the law
Luke 2:33–40, Simeon and Anna with Mary in the temple


  • Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn, BWV 152, 30 December 1714
    Aria (bass): Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn
    Recitative (bass): Der Heiland ist gesetzt
    Aria (soprano): Stein, der über alle Schätze
    Recitative (bass): Es ärgre sich die kluge Welt
    Duet (soprano, bass): Wie soll ich dich, Liebster der Seelen, umfassen?

    ("Step upon the path of faith") Dialogue cantata composed in Weimar in 1714. The chamber work features an exotic orchestration, including viola d’amore (an instrument with sympathetically resonating strings), viola da gamba, recorder and oboe d’amore. While playing with the symbolism that God laid "the stone of foundation" and that Jesus is a "stone beyond all gems," the text is an allegorical dialogue between Jesus and the Soul about faith as the Rock of the Ages which never fails, and concludes with a rejection of the world. The cantata starts with an attractive sinfonia which has some resemblance to Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A Major for organ. The first aria is for the bass as Vox Christi, who invites the Soul to "step upon the path of faith," accompanied by purposeful music. In the ensuing recitative the bass introduces the symbol of the corner stone, which is taken up in the soprano aria, featuring an elegant accompaniment from the recorder and viola d'amore. The final duet (there is no chorale) unites Jesus and the Soul (and the upper instruments in unisono). 

  • Das neugeborne Kindelein, BWV 122, 31 December 1724
    Chorale: Das neugeborne Kindelein
    Aria (bass): O Menschen, die ihr täglich sündigt
    Recitative (soprano): Die Engel, welche sich zuvor
    Aria (soprano, alto, tenor): Ist Gott versöhnt und unser Freund
    Recitative (bass): Dies ist ein Tag, den selbst der Herr gemacht
    Chorale: Es bringt das rechte Jubeljahr

    ("The new-born infant child") Chorale cantata from Bach's second Leipzig year, based on a hymn by Cyriakus Schneegass (1597) which celebrates the newborn Jesus. The opening chorale is rather muted and the long and chromatic bass aria which follows dwells on "men who daily sin." Only accompanied by the continuo, this is the longest movement of the cantata. In the next recitative the chorale melody is played by three recorders, and in the trio for soprano, alto and tenor, it is sung by the alto as cantus firmus. After a bass recittaive which dwells on the joyful message of Christmas, the cantata closes with the usual plain harmonization of the chorale. 

  • Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende, BWV 28, 30 December 1725
    Aria (soprano): Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende
    Chorale: Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren
    Recitative and arioso (bass): So spricht der Herr
    Recitative (tenor): Gott ist ein Quell
    Duet aria (alto and tenor): Gott hat uns im heurigen Jahre gesegnet
    Chorale: All solch dein Güt wir preisen

    ("Praise God! The year now draws to a close") Part of Bach's third Leipzig cycle. The Sunday after Christmas is the last Sunday of the year and the principal topic of this cantata is the passing of the old year and coming of the new year, without referring to the readings for the day. The opening soprano aria exhorts us to recall God's gifts in the previous year and bring thanks. That thanks is then represented by the chorale "Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren," here in rare second position. This movement is in motet style; motets were traditionally part of Christmas music in Germany. The theme of God's generosity is continued in the arioso for bass and the tenor recitative. The duet for alto and tenor then sums up the themes of gratitude. The cantata ends with a straightforward chorale harmonisation.

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

December 28, 2015

Bach Cantatas (62): Third day of Christmas

The Third Day of Christmas (December 27) is in the Lutheran, Anglican and Catholic calendars the Feast of St. John the Evangelist (St. John Day), one of the first disciples and later one of the "pillars" of the Jerusalem church. He is traditionally considered the author of the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and possibly also the Book of Revelation and lived to a high age.

Readings for the Third Day of Christmas:
Hebrews 1:1–14, Christ is higher than the angels, or
Eccles. 15:1-8, Wisdom embraces those that fear the Lord;
John 1:1–14, Prologue, also called Hymn to the Word, or
John 21:15-24, Jesus commands Peter to feed his lambs.


  • Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, BWV 64, 27 December 1723
    Chorus: Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget
    Chorale: Das hat er alles uns getan
    Recitative (alto): Geh, Welt, behalte nur das Deine
    Chorale: Was frag ich nach der Welt
    Aria (soprano): Was die Welt in sich hält
    Recitative (bass): Der Himmel bleibet mir gewiß
    Aria (alto): Von der Welt verlang ich nichts
    Chorale: Gute Nacht, o Wesen

    ("Behold, what a love has the Father shown to us") The text of this cantata (which brings the faithful back to harsh reality after their copious Christmas dinner) does not so much refer to the readings as stress the fact that the believer does not have to be concerned about the "world" any more when loved by God in the way which Christmas shows. The opening chorus is set in fugal motet style; an archaic-sounding choir of trombones doubles the voices. Besides this chorus, the cantata contains three chorales in plain four-part harmonizations, all of them familiar to Bach's Leipzig community. The first one is a hymn of gratitude for what God has done for us. It is followed by an alto recitative, addressing the flimsiness of earthly riches, accompanied by scales in the continuo "rising to heaven." The second chorale questions worldly values and is followed by a soprano aria on the same theme, in the style of a gavotte, in which a virtuoso solo violin represents the "worldly things" which must dissipate like smoke. The bass recitative makes a firm statement about the sureness of heaven, after which the alto aria, accompanied by the oboe d'amore, stresses that the believer "desires nothing from the world" (but the complex rhythm of the aria may convey "the difficulty of staying on the path to heaven"). The cantata closes with the third and final chorale, a setting of the fifth verse of Johann Frank's "Jesu, meine Freude," which says farewell to all things material.

  • Ich freue mich in dir, BWV 133, 27 December 1724
    Chorus: Ich freue mich in dir
    Aria (alto): Getrost! es faßt ein heil'ger Leib
    Recitative (tenor): Ein Adam mag sich voller Schrecken
    Aria (soprano): Wie lieblich klingt es in den Ohren
    Recitative (bass): Wohlan, des Todes Furcht und Schmerz
    Chorale: Wohlan, so will ich mich

    ("I rejoice in you") Chorale cantata from the second Leipzig cycle, based on the chorale in four stanzas "Ich freue mich in dir" (1697) by Caspar Ziegler. The text has no reference to the readings nor to the feast of John the Evangelist, but expresses the joy of the individual believer about the descent of God in the form of the child Jesus. The opening chorus is in the form of a chorale prelude with the choir singing the lines of the chorale, interspersed with attractive orchestral interludes and oboe d'amore melismas. The alto aria is again accompanied by oboes d'amore, here used almost like trumpets, singing about the happiness of having seen God face to face. The tenor recitative ends by quoting from the chorale in both words and music "Wird er ein kleines Kind und heißt mein Jesulein." The soprano aria has a fine string accompaniment and a gentle lilt, like a lullaby, and continues expressing joy in the same vein, only more gentle. The cantata is closed by a four-part setting of the last chorale stanza, which could almost have been a Christmas carol.

  • Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, BWV 151, 27 December 1725
    Aria (soprano): Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt
    Recitative (bass): Erfreue dich, mein Herz
    Aria (alto): In Jesu Demut kann ich Trost
    Recitative (tenor): Du teurer Gottessohn
    Chorale: Heut schleußt er wieder auf die Tür

    ("Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes") Miniature cantata without opening chorus from  1725. Bach chose a text by Georg Christian Lehms (1684-1717), who was inspired by the epistle to the Hebrews, "Christ is higher than the angels." The mellifluous opening aria for soprano features the oboe d'amore as well as the flute. It is a gently swaying lullaby expressing joy at the birth of Jesus; the flute part is highly embellished. This is truly angelic music. The bass recitative moves from celebration to a recognition of the lowliness of Jesus' status. The melancholic, chromatic alto aria (finding comfort in Jesus' humbleness) with prominent oboe d'amore expands this idea. In contrast to the bass, the tenor recitative again moves back from humility to celebration. The final movement is a setting of the final stanza of "Lobt Gott, ihr Christen alle gleich", a chorale with words and melody by Nikolaus Herman published in 1560.

  • Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen 27 December 1734 (Christmas Oratorio Part III) BWV 248/3
    Chorus "Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel fuhren"
    Chorus "Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem"
    Recitative (bass) "Er hat sein Volk getröst't"
    Chorale "Dies hat er alles uns getan"
    Duet (soprano, bass) "Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und sie kamen eilend"
    Aria (alto) "Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder"
    Recitative (alto) "Ja, ja! mein Herz soll es bewahren"
    Chorale "Ich will dich mit Fleiß bewahren"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und die Hirten kehrten wieder um"
    Chorale "Seid froh, dieweil"
    Chorus "Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen"

    ("Ruler of Heaven, hear our babbling") The third part of the Christmas Oratorio sees the shepherds eventually arriving in Bethlehem. It starts with a fine, glorious chorus, borrowed from BWV 214/9, with trumpets and drums. The first recitative by the Evangelist sets the scene and this is followed by a lively chorus "Let us now go towards Bethlehem." A further recitative is followed by a contemplative chorale and then a gentle duet (taken from BWV 213/11) for soprano and bass accompanied beautifully by a pair of oboe's d'amore. The evangelist continues telling of the shepherds finding the child and spreading the news. The alto then sings "Mary's aria" (the only original aria in the Christmas Oratorio), a gentle reflection on the miracle that has just taken place, accompanied by solo violin. The cantata then draws to a close with the pattern recitative-chorale-recitative-chorale, after which the opening chorus is repeated.

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

December 27, 2015

Bach Cantatas (61): Second day of Christmas

On this day Leipzig celebrated Christmas and St. Stephen's Day in alternating years, with different readings. St. Stephen has nothing to do with the Christmas story, he was a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings and who was according to the Acts stoned to death (somewhere in or around the year 34), making him the first martyr of the church. St. Stephen's Day is a public holiday in many nations that were historically Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran.

Thus the second day of Christmas has two different readings: the shepherds coming to Bethlehem from the Christmas story and Jesus' description of the persecution of the prophets by Jerusalem, seen in the light of the story of the stoning of St. Stephen from the Acts. Of the four Bach cantatas for this day, only the second part of the Christmas Oratorio deals exclusively with the Christmas story (about the shepherds), all of the other cantatas contain elements of the persecution trauma inherent in the St. Stephen story.

Readings for Second Day of Christmas and St. Stephen's Day:
Titus 3:4–7, God's mercy appeared in Christ
Luke 2:15–20, The shepherds at the manger
(St. Stephen's Day)
Acts 6:8–15 and 7:55–60, Martyrdom of Stephen
Matthew 23:35–39, Jerusalem killing her prophets


  • Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes, BWV 40, 26 December 1723
    Chorus: Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes
    Recitative (tenor): Das Wort ward Fleisch
    Chorale: Die Sünd macht Leid
    Aria (bass): Höllische Schlange, wird dir nicht bange?
    Recitative (alto): Die Schlange, so im Paradies
    Chorale: Schüttle deinen Kopf und sprich
    Aria (tenor): Christenkinder, freuet euch!
    Chorale: Jesu, nimm dich deiner Glieder

    ("For this the Son of God appeared") This cantata contains in only fifteen minutes three beautiful chorale settings, two attractive arias, two recitatives and an upbeat opening chorus. The text combines the Christmas story with the Stoning of St. Stephan, by introducing Jesus as coming down to earth to destroy the works of the devil. The cantata therefore finds Bach in a militaristic mood and is full of battle cries. That starts with the opening music, which with its blaring horns is a great example of Bachian military music. The tenor recitative exhorts the faithful to contemplate the implications of the incarnation in the expression "the Word became flesh." The bass aria with highly rhythmic accompaniment develops the theme of Satan's destruction in the form of an operatic "rage aria," addressing the evil one as a snake. The "twisting whiplashes of the violins" are thought to portray the "serpent's tail." After the alto recitative (reminding us that this is the same serpent that seduced Adam and Eve), the tenor interestingly compares Jesus to a hen protecting her chicks. The horns and oboes here are not used for military music, but for a joyful tune, playing a fine fanfare. The internal chorales which separate these arias are folksy in style and content. In contrast, the final chorale "Freuet euch ihr Christen alle" forms a surprisingly restrained closure after the bravura of the tenor aria.  

  • Christum wir sollen loben schon, BWV 121, 26 December 1724
    Chorus: Christum wir sollen loben schon
    Aria (tenor): O du von Gott erhöhte Kreatur
    Recitative (alto): Der Gnade unermesslich's Wesen
    Aria (bass): Johannis freudenvolles Springen
    Recitative (soprano): Doch wie erblickt es dich in deiner Krippe
    Chorale: Lob, Ehr und Dank sei dir gesagt

    ("We should already be praising Christ") Chorale cantata based on the Luther chorale motet "Christum wir sollen loben schon” (itself derived from the famous 5th c. Latin hymn A solis ortus cardine), treated in an archaic manner in the opening chorale fantasia. The text dwells on the wonder of the incarnation, with only a vague relationship to the readings of the day. The first tenor aria. accompanied by a delightful obbligato oboe d'amore, develops the theme. It has been called "off-kilter," expressing confusion and wonder. After a recitative, the bass aria with string accompaniment celebrates Jesus' coming. Text and music apparently reflect "John the Baptist's jumping in his mother's womb during the Visitation of Mary." This is followed by an arioso recitative, with an almost impossible extended range for a boy soprano. The work closes with a beautiful chorale.

  • Selig ist der Mann, BWV 57, 26 December 1725
    Aria (bass): Selig ist der Mann
    Recitative (soprano): Ach! dieser süße Trost
    Aria (soprano): Ich wünschte mir den Tod, den Tod
    Recitative (soprano, bass): Ich reiche dir die Hand
    Aria (bass): Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen
    Recitative (soprano, bass): In meinem Schoß liegt Ruh und Leben
    Aria (soprano): Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben
    Chorale: Richte dich, Liebste, nach meinem Gefallen und gläube

    ("Blessed is the man") This cantata has nothing of the Christmas spirit but is a rather severe dialogue between Christ (bass) and the Soul (soprano) inspired by the story of the Stoning of St Stephen. As in operas of the period, the discourse is carried forward in recitative while the arias expand on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists. The first bass aria is dominated by long vocal phrases. In the first soprano aria the longing for death is expressed by an upwards line followed by a wide interval down. Here the Soul sings of the torments to be endured without Christ's love. The central recitative duet provides a pivot point after which the music becomes more upbeat. The third aria shows Jesus as the victor by fanfare-like broken triads, calling on the Soul to cease its weeping. In the last aria the florid line of the solo violin can be interpreted as "the passionate movement of the Soul into the arms of Jesus." The aria ends on the question "was schenkest du mir?" which is answered by the final four-part chorale on the tune of "Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren."

  • Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend, 26 December 1734 (Christmas Oratorio Part II) BWV 248/2
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend"
    Chorale "Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor; Angel, soprano) "Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen"
    Recitative (bass) "Was Gott dem Abraham verheißen"
    Aria (tenor) "Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und das habt zum Zeichen"
    Chorale "Schaut hin! dort liegt im finstern Stall"
    Recitative (bass) "So geht denn hin!"
    Aria (alto) "Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh'"
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und also bald war da bei dem Engel"
    Chorus "Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe"
    Recitative (bass) "So recht, ihr Engel, jauchzt und singet"
    Chorale "Wir singen dir in deinem Heer"

    ("And there were shepherds in the same country") The second cantata of the Christmas Oratorio cycle opens with a beautiful pastoral sinfonia. The evangelist relates the story of the shepherds which is followed by the lovely chorale "Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht." The Evangelist then describes the infant Jesus in the manger and tells the shepherds to have no fear. The bass states that this is the fulfillment of the old testament promise. In a gentle aria the tenor urges the shepherds to seek the child. This urging is repeated by the evangelist, after which follows the chorale tune "Vom Himmel hoch." Next comes a gorgeous berceuse for alto, flute, and strings, the center piece of this cantata. Parodied from BWV 213/3, it is transformed into a beautiful and gentle lullaby to the child in the manger. After the evangelist has filled in one more biblical text, the chorus sings the energetic "Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe," an original composition for this cantata. The work ends with a straightforward setting of the final chorale, accompanied by motives from the opening sinfonia.

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

December 26, 2015

Bach Cantatas (60): Christmas Day

The Christmas season in Leipzig was celebrated from Christmas Day through Epiphany. Christmas itself was observed on three consecutive days, not two, with a Christmas cantata performed every day. Although also containing some exuberant music, in Bach's day Christmas was not as "oppressively cheery" as it is today - in fact, much of the music written by Bach for Advent and Christmas looks profoundly inward.

For the Christmas season of 1734 Bach composed the Christmas Oratorio in six parts, to be performed consecutively on the three days of Christmas, on New Year, the Sunday after New Year and on Epiphany. We will discuss the six parts on their respective days.

There are 3 extant cantatas for Christmas Day, plus the first part of the Christmas Oratorio. One more cantata, BWV 197a from 1728, is lost apart from the text; although the music of some of its movements can be reconstructed as it was parodied in BWV 197, I have skipped it. I have also left out BWV 191, which is a Latin cantata written to celebrate the Peace of Dresden (which ended the 2nd Silesian war) and which was performed on Christmas day, 1745. The music of its three movements has been copied from the B Minor Mass.

The readings for Christmas Day:
Titus 2:11–14, God's mercy appeared (or Isaiah 9:2–7, Unto us a child is born)
Luke 2:1–14, Nativity, Annunciation to the shepherds and the angels' song


  • Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, 1714 or 1715
    Chorus: Christen, ätzet diesen Tag
    Recitative (alto): Oh, selger Tag! o ungemeines Heute
    Aria (soprano, bass): Gott, du hast es wohl gefüget
    Recitative (tenor): So kehret sich nun heut
    Aria (alto, tenor): Ruft und fleht den Himmel an
    Recitative (bass): Verdoppelt euch demnach
    Chorus: Höchster, schau in Gnaden an

    ("Christians, engrave this day") Bach's earliest extant cantata for Christmas, possibly composed in Weimar as early as 1714; although the cantata contains none of the usual nativity themes, such as pastoral music, it consists of bright and celebratory music. The cantata starts in an energetic mode with a festive chorus, accompanied by a large orchestra with four trumpets and timpani. Although the minting metaphor in the opening chorus ("Engrave this day in metal and marble") might lead us to believe that this is another text by Weimar Mint director Salomo Franck, that is in fact not the case as Bach seems to have received the libretto from Heineccius, pastor in Halle, in 1713. The accompanied alto recitative is more inward looking than the exuberant opening chorus. Next we find two duets separated by another recitative. The first - austere - duet is for soprano and bass with oboe obbligato, the second - dancing - one of for alto and tenor. This is a rare cantata containing no solo arias, but duets instead. A bravura bass recitative with brass and winds introduces the glorious final chorus (not a chorale), which starts with a double fugue. The central recitative, by the way (movement four) contains in midpoint the word "Gnaden," "Grace;" Bach consciously made this concept the pivot on which the whole cantata turns.

  • Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 91, 25 December 1724
    Chorale: Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ
    Recitative (and chorale, soprano): Der Glanz der höchsten Herrlichkeit
    Aria (tenor): Gott, dem der Erden Kreis zu klein
    Recitative (bass): O Christenheit! Wohlan
    Aria (soprano, alto): Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt
    Chorale: Das hat er alles uns getan

    ("Praise be to you, Jesus Christ") Chorale cantata from Bach's second Leipzig year, based on the famous Christmas hymn "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ" (1524) by Martin Luther (and going back at least to the tenth century sequence Grates omnes reddamus). The text emphasizes the contrast between the majesty of Christ's heavenly state and the lowliness of his birth for the salvation of mankind. The hymn tune is brilliantly set for horns, tympani, three oboes, and strings with the sopranos singing the melody in long tones against jubilant counterpoint. The ensuing soprano recitative is contrasted with chorale phrases. The expressive tenor aria starts with a wailing chorus of three oboes. It has an interesting dotted rhythm, which was the normal symbolic representation in French Baroque music of kingly majesty. After the chromatic bass recitative has addressed the topic of "this vale of tears," the last aria, a duet between soprano and alto, sung in close imitation over a Corellian walking bass, concerns the poverty which God takes upon himself for the salvation of mankind. The horns and drums reenter for the closing chorale, restoring the jubilant tone of the opening chorus.

  • Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110, 25 December 1725
    Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (Chorus)
    Ihr Gedanken und ihr Sinnen (Aria Tenor)
    Dir, Herr, ist niemand gleich (Recitative Bass)
    Ach Herr! was ist ein Menschenkind (Aria Alto)
    Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (Duet Soprano and Tenor)
    Wacht auf, ihr Adern und ihr Glieder (Aria Bass)
    Alleluja! Gelobt sei Gott (Chorale)

    ("May our mouth be full of laughter") Christmas cantata composed by Bach in his third year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, on a text by Georg Christian Lehms. The text has not the usual recitatives alternating with arias, but instead features three sections with biblical quotations. The opening chorus is a very skillful arrangement of the Overture to the Fourth Orchestral suite - it fits so to speak "like a glove." This enormous movement is easily the center of gravity of the cantata. The "laughter" mentioned in the text is often graphically audible. The ensuing feathery tenor aria with two obbligato flutes is a musical jewel. The poet's invitation to his thoughts to leave earthly concerns and rise to the contemplation of higher things is depicted by rising flute figures. The second aria for alto benefits from the presence of an oboe d'amore, which graphically liberates itself from the vocalist who portrays the stubborn foolishness of mankind. The fifth movement is a duet for soprano and tenor who both play angels greeting the shepherds with the text “Glory to God in the highest.” The music is based on the "Virga Jesse floruit" from the Magnificat. It is an expression of goodwill towards mankind in pastoral style. Next comes a heroic bass aria, with trumpet and woodwind, a stirring call to wake up and join the praise of the angels. Note that, when the text refers to "devotional strings," the winds rest and the violins play long ornamental melismas. The final harmonized chorale, taken from Caspar Füger's "Wir Christenleut," is set in plain style.

  • Jauchzet, frohlocket 25 December 1734 (Christmas Oratorio Part I) BWV 248/I
    Chorus "Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage"
    Recitative (tenor) "Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit"
    Recitative (alto) "Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam"
    Aria (alto) "Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben"
    Chorale "Wie soll ich dich empfangen"
    Recitative (tenor) "Und sie gebar ihren ersten Sohn"
    Chorale (sopranos) & Recitative (bass) "Er ist auf Erden kommen arm" & "Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn"
    Aria (bass) "Großer Herr und starker König"
    Chorale "Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein!"

    ("Rejoice, exult, up, glorify the days") The first part of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which consists of six self-contained but linked cantatas meant for performance on different days. All include music that Bach had originally written for secular cantatas (the reuse of one's own music was a common practice in the Baroque period, especially since most music was not published). But while in cantata format, the Oratorio includes a tenor Evangelist who narrates the story in the form of a recitative, as in the Matthew and John Passions. The backbone of the text is provided by the biblical narrative, from the nativity up to the coming of the three wise men. Most texts are from St. Luke and St. Mathew and the emphasis is on narration and contemplation rather than dialogue or action. The first cantata opens in magnificent style, with trumpets and drums, adapted from BWV 214/1. It is a truly glorious piece of music. The first recitative introduces the well known narrative of Mary and Joseph going to Jerusalem for the census. This is interrupted by the alto, who after a recitative in which Christ is introduced as bridegroom (as in BWV 140), calls in a gentle aria, "Bereite dich, Zion," to prepare oneself. After a chorale the tenor continues his narration of the Christmas story. The ensuing bass recitative contemplating the meaning of it all is intertwined with the sopranos singing the chorale "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ." This leads to the glorious bass aria "Großer Herr, o starker König," originally from a secular work in praise of the king, but with its trumpet fanfares wonderfully suited to the new text. A grand setting of the chorale "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her," with trumpets, ends the cantata.

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

December 25, 2015

Bach Cantatas (59): Advent I - IV

The First Sunday in Advent was a "red letter day" which formed the beginning of the liturgical year, although Bach started his Leipzig cycle with the Trinity season, as he arrived in his new job in the summer (1723).

In Leipzig this was the only Sunday in Advent when a cantata was performed, because "tempus clausum" (a quiet period without music) was observed on the other three Sundays. In Bach's time, Advent was a season of reflection and penitence.

Bach did write cantatas for the three other Advent Sundays when he worked in Weimar, but unfortunately the music of most of these cantatas has been lost. The situation is as follows:

Advent I: Three cantatas, BWV 61, 62 and 36.
Advent II: BWV 70a. This cantata was expanded in 1723 to BWV 170 for Trinity XXVI. The music in its original form was lost, so we will skip it here.
Advent III: BWV 186a. This cantata was expanded in 1723 to BWV 186 for Trinity VII. The music in its original form was lost, so we will skip it here.
BWV 141 is sometimes mentioned here, but this is in fact not a work by Bach but by Telemann. The attribution to Bach is wrong.
Advent IV: BWV 147a. This cantata was expanded in 1723 to BWV 147 for Visitation. The music in its original form was lost, so we will skip it here.
BWV 132. This is the only other Advent cantata from Weimar that has been preserved and it will be discussed below.

Readings for Advent I:
Romans 13:11–14, Night is advanced, day will come
Matthew 21:1–9, The entry into Jerusalem

[Readings for Advent II:
Romans 15:4–13, Call of the Gentiles
Luke 21:25–36, Coming of the Son of man]

[Readings for Advent III:
1 Corinthians 4:1–5, The ministry of faithful apostles
Matthew 11:2–10, John the Baptist in prison]

Readings for Advent IV:
Philippians 4:4–7, Be joyful in the Lord
John 1:19–28, Testimony of John the Baptist


Cantatas for Advent I:
  • Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, 2 December 1714
    Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Chorale fantasia)
    Der Heiland ist gekommen (Recitative Tenor)
    Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche (Aria Tenor)
    Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür (Recitative Bass)

    Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze (Aria Soprano)
    Amen, Amen, komm du schöne Freudenkrone (Chorale)

    ("Now come, Savior of the heathens") Chamber cantata composed in Weimar at a time Bach was influenced by French and Italian musical styles. It is one of the best known of all Bach's cantatas. The libretto is by Erdmann Neimeister, pastor in Hamburg, who pioneered a new form of cantata incorporating simple recitative and da capo arias in Italian operatic style, a new cantata form which Bach made his own. The first movement, a chorale fantasia, is structurally based on a splendid French overture (after all, this was also the opening of the church year). The grand theme is that of Luther's hymn Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland (itself an arrangement of the Latin hymn “Veni redemptor gentium”) with a typical dotted rhythm accompaniment. This is followed by a fugue (the fast part of the overture). The tenor recitative outlining the significance of the incarnation, begins secco, but continues with an arioso, as in Italian opera. The ensuing aria, also in Italian style, is quite lovely, with a lush string accompaniment. It is in the rhythm of a gigue. The request is made to Jesus to come to his Church and this is answered in the next recitative for bass as vox Christi, which also has some nice word-painting: the text "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" is accompanied by "knocking" pizzicato strings. The final aria is for soprano, in Bach's time a boy soprano, whose childlike voice fits well to the delicate melody. As in other Bach cantatas, the soprano voice represents the individual soul and it responds to the invitation by the bass with the words "Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze" (Open, my whole heart). The cantata closes with a grand harmonization of the last half of the chorale, "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern."

  • Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, 3 December 1724
    Chorale: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
    Aria (tenor): Bewundert, o Menschen, dies große Geheimnis
    Recitative (bass): So geht aus Gottes Herrlichkeit und Thron
    Aria: Streite, siege, starker Held!
    Recitative (soprano, alto): Wir ehren diese Herrlichkeit
    Chorale: Lob sei Gott dem Vater ton

    ("Now come, Savior of the heathens") Bach's second cantata based on Luther's Advent hymn. An orchestral introduction leads into the opening chorale, which is in a lively and festive mood. The long and joyful tenor aria celebrating the coming of Christ, is in siciliano rhythm with string accompaniment. After a recitative the bass sings a pompous battle aria accompanied by all the string instruments in octaves, a virtuosic show piece about the "conquering hero." This militaristic effusion is followed by a strongly contrasting duet for soprano and alto expressing thanks and the cantata closes with a simple chorale harmonization.

  • Schwingt freudig euch empor, BWV 36, 2 December 1731
    Part I
    Chorus: Schwingt freudig euch empor
    Choral (soprano, alto): Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
    Aria (tenor): Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten
    Chorale: Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara
    Part II
    Aria (bass): Willkommen, werter Schatz!
    Chorale (tenor): Der du bist dem Vater gleich
    Aria (soprano): Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen
    Chorale: Lob sei Gott dem Vater ton

    ("Soar Joyfully Upwards") This cantata draws on material from previous congratulatory secular cantatas, beginning with BWV 36c (1725). The jubilant mood of the secular work clearly matched the atmosphere of the entry into Jerusalem, one of the readings for this Sunday. Instead of writing recitatives, Bach has interpolated four chorale movements from two important hymns for Advent, Luther's "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" and Nicolai's "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern." The joyous opening chorus has a wonderful "leaping" quality. This is followed by the first setting of stanzas from Luther's chorale, an intimate duet for soprano and alto. The ensuing tenor aria is accompanied by an oboe d'amore and is a tender evocation of the entry into Jerusalem where Christ is personified as the bridegroom of the soul. The first half of the cantata then closes with a simple four-part version of "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern." The bass aria which opens the second part, recaptures the joyousness of the opening chorus by singing a welcome to Christ. This is followed by another hymn stanza where the tenor sings the chorale melody in long notes as a cantus firmus against a busy oboe d'amore. The final soprano aria, a berceuse, has a delicate, even haunting beauty. This simple expression of faith is accompanied by a muted violin obbligato. Another four-part setting of "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" ends the cantata.

Cantata for Advent IV:
  • Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn, BWV 132, 22 December 1715
    Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn (Aria Soprano)
    Willst du dich Gottes Kind und Christi Bruder nennen (Recitative Tenor)
    Wer bist du? Frage dein Gewissen (Aria Bass)
    Ich will, mein Gott, dir frei heraus bekennen (Recitative Alto)
    Christi Glieder, ach bedenket (Aria Alto)
    Ertöt uns durch deine Güte (Chorale)

    ("Prepare the paths, prepare the road") Chamber cantata from Weimar. The libretto by court poet Salomo Franck is related to the day's prescribed reading, the testimony of John the Baptist. The first movement is an extended aria for soprano, with a nicely flowing melody, and accompanied by oboe d'amore. The aria contains long melismas on the word "Bahn" which are perhaps not only meant to represent the "long way," but also the flowing of baptismal water. After a rather didactic recitative, follows a severe bass aria with only continuo accompaniment, a reminder that Advent was a time of penitence in the Lutheran church (the text takes as point of departure the question "Who are you" addressed to John the Baptist). The alto recitative continues the penitential mood. This is however followed by a more optimistic alto aria in which the obbligato violin is thought to represent the cleansing effect of baptismal water. The cantata closes with a lovely setting of the chorale "Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn."

December 24, 2015

Bach Cantatas (58): Trinity XXV-XXVII

The twenty-fifth to twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity. As the Twenty-fifth Sunday has only two cantatas, and the Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh each only one (these Trinity days only occurred in rare years when Easter fell very early), we treat them together in one post.

Written for the end of the Trinity season, like those for the previous Sunday, these cantatas have a strong eschatological flavor, treating of the Last Judgement, Armageddon and the promised "abomination of desolation."

Readings for Trinity XXV:
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, the coming of the Lord (a vision of paradise that comes to the blessed)
Matthew 24:25–28, the Tribulation (a period full of calamities at the end of time)

Readings for Trinity XXVI:
2 Peter 3:3–13, look for new heavens and a new earth
Matthew 25:31–46, the Second Coming of Christ

Readings for Trinity XXVII:
1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, be prepared for the day of the Lord
Matthew 25:1–13, parable of the Ten Virgins


Cantatas for Trinity XXV:
  • Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende, BWV 90, 14 November 1723
    Aria (tenor): Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende
    Recitative (alto): Des Höchsten Güte wird von Tag zu Tage neu
    Aria (bass): So löschet im Eifer der rächende Richter
    Recitative (tenor): Doch Gottes Auge sieht auf uns
    Chorale: Leit uns mit deiner rechten Hand

    ("A horrible end will carry you off") A short cantata consisting of two arias (separated by recitatives) topped off with a chorale. The text concentrates on the terrifying aspects of the second coming of Christ, painting a rather dismal picture to make the faithful tremble in their benches. The horror of the Last Judgement was after all a favorite theme among Baroque artists, something which fired the imagination of also Bach. With its running scales and hammering blows in the strings, the first aria for tenor is truly ferocious, emphasizing what a horrible end awaits sinners. The bass aria with virtuoso trumpet (the trumpet of the Last Judgement as mentioned in the epistle reading) spells more wrath and destruction, as God in furious anger will take vengeance on those who have thwarted him. A setting of "Vater unser im Himmelreich" concludes this cantata (with some venom in its chromatic tail). 

  • Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 116, 26 November 1724
    Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ (Chorale fantasia)
    Ach, unaussprechlich ist die Not (Alto aria)
    Gedenke doch, o Jesu (Tenor recitative)
    Ach, wir bekennen unsre Schuld (Terzetto by Soprano, Tenor, Bass)
    Ach, laß uns durch die scharfen Ruten (Alto recitative)
    Erleucht auch unser Sinn und Herz (Chorale)

    ("You Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ") Chorale cantata based on one of the readings for this "eschatological Sunday," Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, which contains a vision of paradise that comes to the blessed. This vision is expressed through the confident and optimistic chorale melodies in the first and last movements, while in between the mood is quite different, reflecting on the horrors of the Last Judgment and punishment of sinners. The opening movement is an elaborate chorale fantasia, beginning with an instrumental ritornello. The alto aria with its tortuous oboe d’amore obbligato expresses the soul's "unspeakable" terror imagining the final judgement. After the recitative, we get a trio (something rare in Bach) rich in harmonic and contrapuntal interest in which the three voices confess their guilt and ask for forgiveness. The recitative for alto, a prayer for lasting peace, is then followed by the final chorale, "Erleucht auch unser Sinn und Herz."

Cantata for Trinity XXVI:
  • Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! BWV 70, 21 November 1723
    Part I
    Chorus: Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!
    Recitative (bass): Erschrecket, ihr verstockten Sünder
    Aria (alto): 'Wenn kömmt der Tag, an dem wir ziehen 
    Recitative (tenor): Auch bei dem himmlischen Verlangen
    Aria (soprano): Laßt der Spötter Zungen schmähen 
    Recitative (tenor): Jedoch bei dem unartigen Geschlechte
    Chorale: Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele
    Part II
    Aria (tenor): Hebt euer Haupt empor 
    Recitative (bass): Ach, soll nicht dieser große Tag
    Aria (bass): Seligster Erquickungstag 
    Chorale: Nicht nach Welt, nach Himmel nicht 

    ("Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!") Again a cantata about Christ's second coming and the Last Judgement, based on a now lost cantata originally composed in Bach's Weimar period. The cantata starts with a striking trumpet theme in fanfare style (repeated many times in the course of the movement), after which the unaccompanied chorus enters to give a rousing warning about the Last Judgement. The choir contrasts short calls "Wachet!" and long chords "betet!" The next bass recitative is accompanied by all instruments, illustrating the fright of the sinners and the fear of the ones called to be judged. The alto aria with its mournful cello obbligato is rather laid back, but the soprano aria with its catchy violin accompaniment again possesses more spirit. The first part of the cantata ends with the chorale "Freu dich sehr." The second half opens with a friendly tenor aria, as if the tide has turned, but the following ferocious bass recitative is again meant to shock with its eschatological chorale "Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit," played by the trumpet, returning us to the last judgment. This chorale had been used as kind of a Dies irae during the devastating Thirty Years' War. The following bass aria starts and ends with a gentle melody, but is interrupted by more last judgment music. A simple chorale setting rounds off the cantata.

Cantata for Trinity XXVII:
  • Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, 25 November 1731
    Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Chorale fantasia)
    Er kommt (Tenor recitative)
    Wann kommst du, mein Heil? (Duet for Soprano and Bass)
    Zion hört die Wächter singen (Chorale Tenor)
    So geh herein zu mir Bass recitative)
    Mein Freund ist mein! (Duet for Soprano and Bass)
    Gloria sei dir gesungen (Chorale)

    ("Awake, calls the voice to us") This is one of the most beautiful of all Bach's cantatas, written for a Sunday that only occurs once in eleven years. It is based on the reading for the day, the well-known parable of the wise virgins, portraying the second coming of Christ as if he were a bridegroom who has arrived to claim his bride, the soul. The cantata is based on the Lutheran hymn "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" by Philipp Nicolai (1599), which appears unchanged in movements 1, 4 and 7. As love poetry, the other movements of the cantata were based on the Song of Songs - both the arias are dialogues, the soprano and bass soloists representing the bride and bridegroom respectively. In the opening chorale fantasia movement, the cantus firmus is placed in the soprano. The first duet is accompanied by an embellished siciliana line in the violin, perhaps inspired by the "flickering oil lamps" of the text. The two vocalists sing their own text here, but in the second duet they join in parallel lines, symbolizing their union, a technique common in contemporary operatic love duets. The second strophe of the chorale, at the center of the cantata, is sung by the tenor against a ritornello theme in the strings, which supposedly reflects the nightwatchmen's joy. Bach used this popular tune for his organ chorale BWV 645. Cantata BWV 140 is deservedly recognized as one of Bach's best known and loved pieces and surely stands among the greatest of his works. It was one of the first Bach cantatas to be printed in the 19th century. 

December 23, 2015

Bach Cantatas (57): Trinity XXIV

The twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity. There is a strong eschatological bent to the cantatas for this day, which rather than following the reading for this Sunday about the raising of the rich ruler Jairus' daughter, take their cue from the Leipzig hymn schedule which prescribed that hymns "on death and dying" should be used on this day. So here we have two cantatas with an acute sense of "last things."

There are two cantatas for this Sunday, both among the best Bach has written.

Colossians 1:9–14, prayer for the Colossians
Matthew 9:18–26, the story of Jairus' daughter


  • O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60, 7 November 1723
    Aria (alto and tenor): O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort - Herr, ich warte auf dein Heil
    Recitative (alto and tenor): O schwerer Gang zum letzten Kampf und Streite! - Mein Beistand ist schon da
    Aria (alto and tenor): Mein letztes Lager will mich schrecken - Mich wird des Heilands Hand bedecken
    Recitative (alto and bass): Der Tod bleibt doch der menschlichen Natur verhaßt - Selig sind die Toten
    Chorale: Es ist genung

    ("O eternity, you word of thunder") This cantata has been called a work about the fear of death, a "gripping dramatization of existential angst," and "one of the most intense and neurotic thirteen minutes of music ever written." The cantata is in an unusual way concentrated on two solo voices. In the first three movements it forms a dialogue between Fear (alto) and Hope (tenor), with only a slight link to the readings of the day. But Hope alone cannot overcome Fear; only faith can lead to salvation, is the Lutheran message. Thus they are answered by the bass as Vox Christi in the fourth movement. There is no opening chorus, the cantata starts immediately with the first duet. In that duet, a chorale fantasia full of tremolos in the strings, the alto (Fear) and the horn perform a chorale melody (likening eternity to a "thunderous word"), while the tenor (Hope) sings a contrasting line with a simple expression of trust. After a secco recitative, also in duet form, containing an agonizing melisma by the alto on the word "torture," follows another argument between alto and tenor accompanied by oboe d'amore (fear) and violin (hope). With its jagged rhythms, this is a rather unpleasant duet, but Hope has the last word. In the ensuing recitative/arioso Fear is met by consoling words from the Vox Christi, "Selig sind die Toten." The final chorale, "Es ist genung," starts with a remarkable harmonization (an unstable whole tone scale), although the words offer some comfort. Alban Berg used this chorale in the final movement of his beautiful violin concerto (1935). In fact, this cantata seems to have been a favorite among the fin de siècle intelligentsia in Vienna, as the final chorale also inspired Oskar Kokoshka to a series of drawings based upon the dialogue between Fear and Hope. 

  • Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26, 19 November 1724
    Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Chorale fantasia)
    So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt (Tenor aria)
    Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit (Alto recitative)
    An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen (Bass aria)
    Die höchste Herrlichkeit und Pracht (Soprano recitative)
    Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Chorale)

    ("Ah, how fleeting, ah how insignificant") A short choral cantata from the second annual Leipzig cycle. The cantata stresses the futility of storing treasures on earth, starting with an athletic chorus accompanied by three oboes and concertante strings. The "boxy" but magnificent hymn melody (from 1652) is heard in the soprano vocal line, strengthened by a horn. This is followed by a virtuoso aria for tenor, "As quickly as rushing water," accompanied by an attractive solo flute and violin figures, while the cascading semiquavers in the instruments are copied by the voice to evoke the fleeting nature of mortal life as water running down a valley before disappearing. The alto recitative continues in this vein, by stressing the transience of all human aspirations, and the bass (with bassoon and three oboes) next comments upon the uselessness of earthly possessions. The rhythm is that of a  bourrée, a dance, but rather than merrymaking, this is a veritable Totentanz. The soprano next hammers down the fact that even the highest powers will not escape death. The cantata closes with a straightforward chorale harmonization of the hymn "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig."

December 22, 2015

Bach Cantatas (56): Trinity XXIII

The twenty-third Sunday after Trinity. The cantatas for this day are based on the Pharisees' questioning of Jesus as to the legitimacy of paying tribute to Caesar.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Philippians 3:17–21, "our conversation is in heaven"
Matthew 22:15–22, the question about paying taxes, answered by Render unto Caesar...


  • Nur jedem das Seine, BWV 163, 24 November 1715
    Aria for Tenor, Nur jedem das Seine!
    Recitative for Bass, Du bist, mein Gott, der Geber aller Gaben
    Aria for Bass, Laß mein Herz die Münze sein
    Duet (Arioso) for Soprano and Alro, Ich wollte dir, O Gott, das Herze gerne geben
    Duet (Aria) for Soprano and Alro, Nimm mich mir und gib mich dir!
    Chorale, Führ auch mein Herz und Sinn

    ("To each his own!") This is one of the best cantatas written by Bach in Weimar, scored for a small Baroque chamber ensemble of two violins, viola, two cellos and continuo. The text is by Salomo Franck, who as Director of the Mint not surprisingly often writes about money. He was also a numismatist in charge of the ducal coin collection at Weimar. His libretto gives the answer to the question of the Pharisees: "The heart is the coin of tribute rightfully due to God, but often a false image is stamped upon it." The cantata opens with the tenor aria "To each his own" which can be seen as a paraphrase of the injunction to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." After the bass has asked "Isn't that counterfeit?" the same vocalist continues with the aria "Let my heart be the coin," an aria uniquely accompanied by the deep sonority of two obbligato cellos. This is followed by a duet recitative and duet aria for soprano and alto. The aria is a "love duet" on the text "Take me from myself and give me to You!" characterized by commitment to God rather than carnal desire. The movement becomes more richly textured as it progresses, adding a chorale tune as well. Of the final movement, the usual chorale setting, only the continuo line is extant.

  • Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, BWV 139, 12 November 1724
    Chorale: Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott
    Aria (tenor): Gott ist mein Freund; was hilft das Toben
    Recitative (alto): Der Heiland sendet ja die Seinen
    Aria (bass): Das Unglück schlägt auf allen Seiten
    Recitative (soprano): Ja, trag ich gleich den größten Feind in mir
    Chorale: Dahero Trotz der Höllen Heer!

    ("Fortunate the person who upon his God") Rather than addressing the question about paying taxes, this cantata derives its inspiration from the rejection of earthly things for the world of heaven in the other reading for this Sunday from Philippians. The cantata is based on the hymn in five stanzas by Johann Christoph Rube (1692) and sung to the melody of Johann Hermann Schein "Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt" (1628). It survives only from an incomplete set of parts in Leipzig. The opening chorus is a chorale fantasy. It has a complex structure: on the chorale melody song as cantus firmus by the sopranos, the other voices and instruments build several episodes of concertante character. In the following tenor aria the words of the first line, "Gott ist mein Freund" (God is my friend), appear again and again. The bass aria with solo violin and oboes d'amore in unisono is in rondo form and alternates in tempo between Andante and Vivace. 

  • Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht, BWV 52, 24 November 1726
    Recitative: Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht
    Aria: Immerhin, immerhin, wenn ich gleich verstoßen bin
    Recitative: Gott ist getreu
    Aria: Ich halt es mit dem lieben Gott
    Chorale: In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr

    ("False world, I don't trust you") Solo cantata for soprano (in Bach's time always sung by a child soprano). The unknown poet takes from the readings the idea that the world is false and that man should concentrate on God. The cantata uses the first movement of the 1st Brandenburg Concerto as its sinfonia (as more solo cantatas from this period recycle concerto movements). In the austere first aria (portraying the soul as beset by falsity and worldly hypocrisy) the soprano is accompanied by two violins, in the second aria of dance-like character (a polonaise), by three oboes. In this beautiful aria all is warmth and magnanimity - it is a response to the previous aria, now expressing confidence in Christ's benevolence. The final chorale, the first strophe of a hymn by Adam Reusner, In dich habe ich gehoffet, Herr (1933), brings back the brilliance of the two horns from the first movement to close the work. 

    December 17, 2015

    Bach Cantatas (55): Trinity XXII

    The twenty-second Sunday after Trinity. The cantatas for this day all take their lead from the parable of the unjust steward as recounted in the readings for this Sunday, contrasting God's justice with unmerciful and heartless humans - who are exhorted to show the same mercy towards others that God shows towards them.

    There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

    Philippians 1:3–11, Thanks and prayer for the congregation in Philippi
    Matthew 18:23–35, parable of the unforgiving servant


    • Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim, BWV 89, 24 October 1723
      Aria (bass): Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim
      Recitative (alto): Ja, freilich sollte Gott
      Aria (alto): Ein unbarmherziges Gericht
      Recitative (soprano): Wohlan! mein Herze legt
      Aria (soprano): Gerechter Gott, ach, rechnest du
      Chorale: Mir mangelt zwar sehr viel

      ("What shall I make of you, Ephraim") A short cantata without opening chorus, forming a meditation on the fate of those who turn away from God. God's anger is a major factor in the opening aria for bass, two oboes, strings and hunting horn. The text here comes from Hosea 11:8, in which God’s wrath is directed against Ephraim and his fellow worshipers of false gods. The singing is almost closer to recitativic arioso than a true aria. In the ensuing alto recitative and aria the theme switches to the parable of the unjust steward. The sinning creditor is relentlessly denunciated. The alto aria is only accompanied by continuo. The final recitative leads into an aria by soprano with obbligato oboe in which the clouds part to reveal God's mercy. In contrast to the text which remains rather serious ("for the salvation of my soul I will count the drops of blood from Jesus," which sounds rather sinister to me), the music almost sounds too upbeat. The closing chorale is a straightforward harmonization of stanza 7 of "Wo soll ich fliehen hin" by Johann Heermann (1630). 

    • Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, BWV 115, 5 November 1724
      Chorale: Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit
      Aria (alto): Ach schläfrige Seele, wie? ruhest du noch?
      Recitative (bass): Gott, so vor deine Seele wacht
      Aria (soprano): Bete aber auch dabei
      Recitative (tenor): Er sehnet sich nach unserm Schreien
      Chorale: Drum so laßt uns immerdar

      ("Make yourself ready, my spirit") Chorale cantata from the second Leipzig year based on the hymn by Dresden lawyer and courtier Johann Burchard Freystein (1697), which expands one theme loosely related to the readings of the day: be prepared by awareness and prayer. The opening chorus is a fine but brief chorale fantasia in the form of a passacaglia. The soprano sings the melody as a cantus firmus. The major part of the cantata is taken up by two very large arias. The heavy alto aria "Oh, sleepy soul, are you still at rest?" could have graced any opera of the time. The oboe d'amore plays a solo in a mournful siciliano rhythm, leading to a peaceful, quasi-sleeping tone. In a contrasting middle section, the text admonishes us to be vigilant, for otherwise the unwary, slumbering spirit could easily slip into "everlasting sleep," that is: death. The following soprano aria marked molto adagio is wedged between two recitatives and is characterized by an attractive accompaniment on the flute and piccolo cello. It is a penitent entreaty for forbearance. The closing chorale is a four-part setting of the final call to be alert, "for the time is not far off, when God will judge us and annihilate the world." Cheery words, indeed. This cantata has been called a "towering masterpiece."

    • Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht, BWV 55, 17 November 1726
      Aria: Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht ("I, wretched man, a servant to sin")
      Recitative: Ich habe wider Gott gehandelt ("I have offended against God")
      Aria: Erbarme dich! Laß die Tränen dich erweichen ("Have mercy! Let my tears move Thee")
      Recitative: Erbarme dich! Jedoch nun tröst ich mich ("Have mercy! However, I console myself")
      Chorale: Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen, stell ich mich doch wieder ein ("Though I have turned aside from Thee, Yet shall I return")

      ("I, wretched man, a servant to sin") A short solo cantata for tenor, the only one of that type extant by Bach. The singer for whom it was intended is unknown. Again stresses the contrast between God's justice and unjust humans based on the parable of the unmerciful steward. In the first two movements the vocalist reflects on his sinful condition, wallowing in self-accusations, in the following three he asks God for mercy. The first aria, which sets the scene, is accompanied by flute, oboe d'amore and two violins (but no violas); the halting rhythm illustrates the despair of the steward summoned with faltering steps before his master in the story from Matthew. In the second aria, with elaborate obbligato solo flute, the pleading of the sinner is represented by interval leaps. The closing chorale is a simply harmonized and comforting rendering of verse 6 of Johann Rist's "Werde munter mein Gemüte" (1642). This cantata (the three last movements of which may have stemmed from a lost Passion cantata) has been called a "passionate expression of the nullity of human nature."