J.S. Bach, Favorite Choruses — Mar 2011

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Program Notes

Today’s celebratory program includes choruses from a number of cantatas by J. S. Bach (1685–1750), and one of the double-chorus motets Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir. Wherever Bach was employed, except perhaps the court of Cöthen, he was required to provide new music for every important day of the ecclesiastical year (59 days including Sundays and holidays), and that meant mostly cantatas. The bulk of his sacred cantatas were written during the first five years of his tenure in Leipzig (1723 to his death), however, many of his most delightful, profound, accomplished, and spiritual works date from the pre-Leipzig period. We know of at least eight cantatas written before Weimar, 23 in the Weimar years (1708–16), and just a couple during his time at the Calvinist court of Cöthen (1717–21), where there was no music for religious services. To the latter period we owe many of Bach’s most famous instrumental works, such as the Brandenburg concerti. Bach’s obituary lists among his compositions “five full years of church pieces [cantatas], for all the Sundays and holidays.” Unfortunately, a good portion of those manuscript scores went to his oldest son, the composer Wilhelm Friedman, who eventually sold them one by one. The others went to his second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, also a composer, who faithfully preserved them. According to the latest scholarship, about two fifths of the church cantatas were lost. We have almost 200 church cantatas, from CPE’s inheritance and from that of the widow, Anna Magdalena, who kept the parts for the performers (as distinct from the scores) and later offered them to the Thomasschule of Leipzig, where they still are kept. The surviving cantatas range in style from the most intimate work for a single voice and virtually no accompaniment, to the most grand and triumphant. Most of today’s choruses are of the latter sort.

The cantata was an integral part of the Lutheran service, with a text determined by the liturgical calendar. The cantata thus performed the liturgical task of interpreting the Gospel for the day in terms of music. In Leipzig, the principal Sunday service, which included the cantata, could last as long as four hours if there were many communicants.

The cantata was the most important form of vocal music of the Baroque period outside of opera and oratorio, and by far the most ubiquitous. The earliest Italian genre was a secular piece for single voice, which gradually evolved into an alternation of recitatives and arias, most often a pair of each. Up to the late 17th century, the cantata was predominantly a secular form, but the church cantata, which included choral movements ranging from simple chorale harmonizations to complex, extended structures, was a major feature of Lutheran music in early 18th-century Germany. The standard form of accompaniment gradually expanded from basso continuo alone in the mid-17th century to an orchestra including obbligato instruments in the 18th century. The German cantata stands apart from that of other countries, above all because it was cultivated primarily as a sacred genre and because its origins and development were largely independent of Italian models.

Bach’s cantatas come in several types. Most are based on a chorale, a Lutheran tune with strophic text, often by Luther himself. The incorporation of the chorale for the specific liturgical feast invited the audience into the performance, for everybody would have recognized (and sung) the chorale, even if the tune were quoted only in an instrumental part. When quoted only by instruments, the chorale adds an implicit layer of meaning—its tacit words—to the other text being sung. The cantatas often start with a complex choral and instrumental movement (sometimes preceded by an instrumental prelude, sinfonia, or overture), followed by a sequence of recitatives and arias and, at times, another choral movement, concluding with the chorale, in a simple harmonization. Many cantatas display some kind of internal symmetry at various levels, the most visible of which is symmetry in the organization of movements. Already in Mühlhausen, where he served for a year in 1707–08 before going to Weimar, the young Bach wrote that his “ultimate goal [was] a well-regulated church music to the glory of God,” which is what he accomplished in his cantatas.

The first chorus of cantata BWV 12 Weinen, Klagen Sorgen, Zagen might sound familiar to those members of our audience who have heard Bach’s B Minor Mass—it was in fact reworked into the “Crucifixus” of the Mass, a new context it is perfectly suited to because of its poignant dissonances. This piece is written in an older style. It is a passacaglia, which means that there is a repeating pattern in the bass over which the polyphonic structure unfolds. Bach composed this cantata while employed in Weimar (1708–1717) for the 3rd Sunday after Easter (the “Jubilate” Sunday), where it was first performed on 22 April 1714. In this early cantata, as in others from the same time, Bach portrayed the sadness or darkness of the text with the accompaniment of the oboe.

Cantata BWV 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich is a cantata for the 14th Sunday of Trinity, and was first heard on 22 September 1726. The initial chorus is an expansive concertato movement (meaning with voices and instruments), with the vocal parts in fugal style throughout. This lively movement receives a new lease on life as the closing movement, “Cum sancto spiritu,” of the Lutheran Mass in G Major, BWV 236. Because the cantatas were for one specific liturgical day, they would only be heard one day a year; while a setting of the ordinary of the mass (those parts of the mass that were sung every day of the year, namely the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) had much greater currency.

Cantata BWV 62 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is a cantata for the first Sunday in Advent composed in Leipzig, for the 3 December 1724 and is part of the second cycle of cantatas, the “chorale” cycle. It is thus a chorale cantata, based on Martin Luther’s hymn for advent “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” from the ancient Latin hymn “Veni redemptor gentium” that Luther translated into German. It was one of the most famous chorales in Bach’s time, and Bach used it for another cantata (BWV 36), as well. The initial chorus is also an expansive concertato movement. The choral and instrumental parts engage in an intricate polyphonic texture while the soprano declaims the unadorned chorale tune, each phrase anticipated by the continuo and accompanied (doubled) by the horn.

Cantata BWV 75 Die Elenden sollen essen was composed for the first Sunday of Trinity, 30 May 1723, during Bach’s first year in Leipzig. It is a work of grand proportions, in two parts, and comprised of 14 movements, rather than the usual five to seven, each part in effect a complete cantata. The first chorus of part 1, which is the only concertato movement for the chorus in the entire work, is in two sections. The second section, at the words “Euer Herz soll ewiglich leben,” is a fugue, intended originally to be started by solos. The oboes participate in the fugue adding effectively two parts to the texture.

Cantata BWV 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben is a Leipzig work for the 10th Sunday of Trinity, 25 August 1726. Its first movement, a grand concertato movement, also became part of the Lutheran masses, as the Kyrie of G Minor Mass, BWV 235. In the center of this movement, one of Bach’s fugues (the first of two in this movement), has a theme that plays on the offbeats and on throwing staccato notes up to the sky.

Cantata BWV 131 Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, possibly the earliest, composed in Mühlhausen some time between 1707 and 1708. It was probably composed for the memorial service for the victims of a raging fire that destroyed about a quarter of the city and killed several people in 1707. The text is that of Psalm 130 plus the second and fifth verses from the chorale “Herr Jesu Christ” of 1588 by Bartholomäus Ringwaldt (itself based on Psalm 51). This is a cantata for a penitential service in which Bach explores the dramatic juxtaposition, so beloved by Baroque artists, between human misery (explored in Psalm 130) and the redemption and salvation through Christ (in the chorale). Interestingly, the cantata has no solo movement, only chorus or duets, in which one of the two vocal parts only presents the unadorned chorale tune in long notes. In this program, the SFBC performs the third and fifth movements, both of which include multiple changes of pace, as well as fugues.

Cantata BWV 134 Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß is for Easter Tuesday, and it was first performed on 11 April 1724. In a very unusual fashion, the only choral movement is its concluding one, “Erschallet, ihr Himmel,” and it is not a chorale. This is clearly explained by the piece’s history: this cantata was adapted from an earlier secular cantata, BWV 134a, Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht (“Time, that creates days and years”), which was a duet between Time (a Tenor) and Divine Providence (an Alto). This was composed as a congratulatory ode on New Year’s Day 1719 to honor the birthday of Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The concluding chorus is a very lively movement in 3/8, a lilting meter Bach exploits for series of sequences and runs of groups of six 16th notes. There are also a few duets for alto and tenor parts within the chorus, mirroring the duets of the original secular cantata.

Cantata BWV 147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben is another chorale cantata from Leipzig from the first annual cantata cycle of 1723–24. Written for the feast of the Visitation, it was first performed on 2 July 1723. The text is a compilation of poetry by Salomo Franck and others. The text by S. Franck was published in his Evangelische Sonn-und Festtages-Andachten (Protestant devotions for Sundays and feast days) in Weimar in 1717. The cantata is a revision of an earlier work from the Weimar years now lost. The earlier version, Cantata 147a, was written for the fourth Sunday in Advent and performed on 20 December 1716. This cantata has a large number of movements (ten) of which the first, the last, and one central one are choral. The central movement on today’s program is a four-part harmonization of the chorale tune interspersed and accompanied by instrumental passages for the strings and oboes in unison with violin I. The trumpet doubles the soprano rendering of the chorale.

Cantata BWV 179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht is also from the first Leipzig cycle, for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, composed for 8 August 1723. The cantata includes two pairs of oboes: one regular one and one oboe da caccia, hunting oboe, an unusual and beautiful instrument. Like BWV 17, the first movement of this cantata was reused for the Lutheran Mass in G Major BWV 236, where it was recast as the Kyrie. It is a movement in the “old” style, with the four fugal parts sustained only by the continuo, with the instruments doubling the choral voices.

Cantata BWV 196 Der Herr denket an uns is a very early cantata, composed in the pre-Weimar period for a wedding and probably first performed in 1707–08. When Bach was organist at Arnstadt, part of his duty was to write music for funerals, weddings, and other special occasions (“organist’s music”), as opposed to supplying regular pieces for Sundays and holidays (“cantor’s music”). Some of Bach’s most famous cantatas, such as No. 106 Actus tragicus, No. 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden, and No. 71 Gott ist mein König, belong to this early period as well. These and other surviving cantatas of the time share the characteristic feature of consisting essentially of biblical quotations and hymn verses. Cantata 196 is based on Psalm 115:12–15 (“Not unto us, O Lord” at “The Lord has been mindful of us”). Most of Bach’s pre-Weimar cantatas have structures that are given by the choral movements, and that is also the case with 196: after an independent string sinfonia, a soprano da capo aria and a tenor-bass duet are framed by outer choral numbers both of which are on today’s program. These movements dominate the cantata in length, musical weight, and position. The concluding chorus includes a delightful double fugue for the final amen. The word painting at “Himmel und Erde” (heaven and earth) is also worthy of note in this final number.

Cantata BWV 217 Gedenke, Herr, wie es uns gehet is a cantata for the first Sunday after Epiphany. It is spuriously attributed to Bach because it only surfaced about 11 years after the composer's death in a catalog of materials for sale by publisher Breitkopf. Some have wanted to attribute to Altnikol, Bach's son in law as well as main copyist. Alfred Dürr suggests the influence of J.A. Hasse. The style is similar to that of some of Bach's motets. Some of the other spurious cantatas surrounding BWV 217 have been later attributed to Telemann, but that is not the case for the present one. There is no record of any performance during his or his son's lifetime.

The word “motet” usually refers to a sacred composition, originally only in Latin, to be sung either during a service or in other non-liturgical situations. Bach’s motets are in German, and are thought to have been composed especially, if not solely, for burial services. The motet BWV 228 Fürchte dich nicht ich bin bei dir is one of the double choir ones (like Der Geist hilft, Singet dem Herrn, and Komm, Jesu, komm) and may have been composed for the memorial service for Frau Susanna Sophia Winckler, on 4 February 1726 at St. Nicolas church in Leipzig. The texts of Bach's motets are usually biblical quotations and chorales. The text for BWV 228 comes from Isaiah 41:10 and 43:1 and two stanzas of the chorale “Warum sollt ich mich denn grämen” by Paul Gerhardt (1653), but set to a variant of the tune by Johann Georg Ebeling (1666). This motet has a notable final section, a fugue for the three lower parts (the two choirs are here in unison), while the chorale tune rises and soars above the foundation created by the chromatic fugal theme. A delightful touch is in the final second a return to the initial material just for three bars. Whether these pieces were intended to be performed with instruments or not remains an unsolved issue, though for one of the pieces (“Der Geist”) we do have an extant set of parts for instruments.

This concert is a glorious compilation of Bach’s most showy and crafty choral movements, some of which may have been his favorites too, given he provides them renewed leases on life by parodying them in other works. We hope you enjoy this anthological presentation of some of our favorites.

—Copyright © Alexandra Amati-Camperi, 2011

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.