J.S. Bach, Cantatas 77 & 27 — Oct 2005

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Program Notes

J.S. BACH: Cantatas 77 & 27

In his cantatas, Bach expresses the text using ingenious compositional techniques. Generally, the cantatas deal with the element of love, and then progress to the concept of law. Cantata 77 is unusual because it deals with these contrasting elements simultaneously in the first movement. This piece is about loving God, and, within the Lutheran context, about the importance of following God's law. Bach composes the outer parts, the continue and trumpet, using a very strict technique (a canon at the fifth in augmentation). These instruments represent the law. The inner voices of the chorus move more freely, representing love. As the uncompromising outer instruments interact with the unrestrained voices, this truth emerges: only with the foundation of the law can love thrive. Bach exemplifies the truth of the text using the relationships of the notes and voices. It's amazing—you can only do that with music.

Many years ago I played the organ part of Cantata 27. I thought it was an exceptional piece, beautiful in every way. I'm happy to have a chance to revisit this piece more in depth now. In addition, I thought it would be a great way of highlighting our wonderful keyboard player, Steven Bailey.

We're also excited to feature John Thiessen on this program's Corelli sonata. John has been a part of the Bach Choir for many years, first as soloist and principal trumpet player; and also as our orchestra manager. He and all our instrumentalists make it possible for us to bring to life the great combination of choral singing and rich orchestral playing.

—David Babbitt


Today’s program includes two beautiful cantatas and portions from another three written by the greatest master of the German cantata, J. S. Bach (1685–1750). 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 this required writing cantatas for the most part.

The cantata was an integral part of the Lutheran service, with a text that was determined by the liturgical calendar. The cantata thus performs 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.

Bach’s cantatas come in several types. The most common is that which is based on a chorale (a Lutheran tune with its strophic text, oftentimes by Luther himself). The incorporation of the chorale for the specific liturgical feast called the audience into the piece, for everybody would have recognized (and sung) the chorale, even if quoted only in the instrumental part. Sometimes in fact Bach did quote the chorale only in the instrumental parts, knowing that he could then produce at least two layers of meaning, one through the implicit words of the instrumental chorale, the other through the explicit words of the text being sung. Such is the case, for example, with both of the complete cantatas on today’s program. Bach’s 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, and concluding with a simple harmonization of the chorale. Another characteristic that many cantatas display is internal symmetry at various levels, the most obvious of which is often symmetry in the organization of movements.

Most of Bach’s sacred cantatas were composed during the first five years of his tenure in Leipzig (1722 to his death), though many of his most delightful, profound, accomplished, and spiritual works date from the pre-Leipzig period. 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. We know of at least eight cantatas written before Weimar, 23 in the Weimar years (1708–16), and just two during his tenure at the Calvinist court of Cöthen (1717–21), where there was no music for religious services. To this latter period we owe much of Bach’s most famous instrumental pieces, 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, about half of all his cantatas are lost. All of today’s cantatas come from the early Leipzig years of Bach’s tenure, except for the SA duet from Cantata 163, which was written in 1715 in Weimar.

Cantata BMV 27, "Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende!" (Who knows how near my end is?), belongs to the third Leipzig year of cantatas (1726–27) and was first performed on October 6, 1726. Even though the first movement includes a chorale (“Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten”—Who but lets dear God rule), this is not a chorale cantata. The concluding chorale is from a different hymn and none of the other movements is based on a chorale. In the first chorus the chorale tune is worked into the texture, which includes another melody only faintly related to the chorale tune. Between each of the portions of the chorale sung by the choir, Bach inserts a recitative by each of the voice parts, in sequence. The first chorus is followed by two pairs of recitative and aria, and a concluding chorale in five parts written not by Bach but by Johann Rosenmüller.

The aria that follows the first recitative is a charming composition for alto, oboe da caccia (hunting horn), and obbligato organ. The organ part was originally written for harpsichord, but Bach replaced it with organ probably around 1737. The two solo instruments weave a delightful and complex tapestry around the voice. The next pair of movements include a recitative for soprano and strings (which add commentary to the voice part) and an aria for bass and strings. In this aria you will notice two contrasting musical motives: an agitated one, representing “Weltgetümmel” (worries of the world), and a tender one representing the initial concept of peace—“gute Nacht” (good night).

Cantata BMV 77, "Du sollt Gott deinen Herren lieben" (You shall love the lord your God) written for the 13th Sunday after Trinity (first heard on August 22, 1723), belongs to Bach’s first Leipzig cycle. The first chorus places this otherwise simple and short cantata among the most important of the composer’s output. This is because of the profound integration of the theological and symbolic meaning of the text with the compositional techniques chosen by the master. The text of the opening chorus comes from the Luke 10:25–27, while the rest is free poetry based on Luke 10:28–37, from a 1720 libretto collection by Johann Oswald Knauer.

The text presents the love of God as being a commandment or “law.” Bach represents this law (“canon” in Latin) by a strict canon between the trumpet (tromba da tirarsi—slide trumpet) and the basso continuo that also frames the contrapuntal texture in the middle parts. Each statement by the trumpet is picked up in canon by the bass, at the fifth, and in lengthened note values (“augmentation”). Twice there are five entrances of the canon to represent the Ten Commandments, followed by a final complete statement of the melody to represent the complete, ever-present law—the commandment to love which includes all ten commandments. The trumpet and bass parts thus represent the all-encompassing law, since the melody of the canon is the chorale “Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot” (These are the holy Ten Commandments). When the chorale is quoted in its entirety at the end, the singing parts quote the second part of the text whose subject is loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

This grandiose opening movement is followed, as in Cantata 27, by two pairs of recitative and aria and a concluding harmonized chorale. The two arias are simple by contrast with the first chorus: there is a gentle one for soprano and two oboes, and a da capo intimate and spiritual one for the alto and trumpet.

Cantata BMV 146, "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal" (We must pass through great sadness) was written for the third Sunday after Easter and probably performed May 12, 1726. It is part of a set of cantatas from the summer of 1726 which include an organ obbligato part most likely performed by Bach himself. The duet we are performing today seems almost secular with its animated dance style.

Cantata BMV 17, Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich (All who offer thanks do praise me) for Trinity XIV (first performed on September 22, 1726) belongs, like Cantata 27, to the third cycle of cantatas from the Leipzig years. It is based, as are others from this cycle, on a text from a 1704 collection attributed to Duke Ernst Ludwig of Saxe-Meiningen, a collection that was also a favorite of Bach’s cousin Johann Ludwig. These texts are peculiar in that many of them include two contrasting quotes from the Bible, one from the Old Testament and a second from the New Testament. In the case of Cantata 17, the text talks about the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:15–16) and each of the two parts of this bipartite cantata is introduced by a Bible quote. The Old Testament quote describes the immeasurable goodness of God, and the New Testament quote discusses the duty of Christians to thank God for his goodness.

Some audience members might recognize the opening movement, since Bach used it for the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” of the G major Lutheran Mass that we performed last year (BMV 236/6). This expansive choral movement opens with a sinfonia, which ushers in the quintessentially Bachian fugue for voices. The entire movement is fugal and lends itself perfectly to the text of praise.

Cantata BMV 163, Nur jedem das Seine (To each but what’s due them), for Trinity XXIII (first performed on November 24, 1715), belongs to the Weimar years. It is an intimate work calling only for strings and continuo, no winds, besides the four vocal parts. The text is by the Weimar court poet, Salomon Franck (1659?–1725), who was also one of Bach’s favorites. The last movement is a chorale by Johann Hermann, a famous hymn writer. The soprano-alto duet includes a chorale tune (“Meinen Jesum lass’ ich nicht”) in the instruments, again adding an additional layer of meaning to the semantic structure.

Our concert includes also a trumpet sonata by the Italian baroque master Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713). Corelli was one of the inventors of the genre of the concerto, the joining of solo(s) and ensemble that his follower Vivaldi exploited so extensively. He was also the first to become famous and make a living exclusively as a composer of instrumental music. His influence was enormous. The sonata for trumpet, two violins and continuo is the only one Corelli composed for trumpet and was first published in London in 1704.

This concert is thus a showcase of Bach’s early Leipzig style, featuring some of the most rousing moments alongside more contemplative and serene ones, as well as one of very few examples of cantatas with a keyboard instrument as a solo, a part Bach most certainly wrote for himself.

—Copyright © Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2005.

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