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by Alan Senior
I can claim a lifelong enthusiasm for Bach’s church cantatas, largely due to listening to many series broadcast on the BBC since the 1960s. Prior to that I’d heard the odd one or two from the few available recordings on LP before cassettes became popular or CDs were even thought of. And the many glorious melodies to be found in these works have always inspired me. A young admirer once asked Bach how he managed to think up so many tunes. “My dear fellow,” he replied, “I have the greatest difficulty not to step on them when I get out of bed in the morning.”

However, there is something which prevents many people from entering into the experience of listening to a church cantata in the same spirit they’d approach, say, an opera. “A church cantata?” they say. “That must be hard going and a bit dreary, too. Definitely not my cup of tea.” And that will be that; such music will be avoided at all costs. There’s a story of a BBC programme presenter taking a taxi to Broadcasting House early one Sunday morning in the 1960s. “What are you playing on the wireless?” asked the cabby, casually. “Bach cantatas,” came the reply. “Right!” said the taxi-driver. “Out you get. You can walk the rest of the way!”
An acquaintance once told me that he’d tried listening to Bach’s religious music but that “the composer always sounds as if he’s on his knees.” I told him to listen to Cantata No. 11, known as the Easter Oratorio, full of festive trumpets which focus on the joyful side of Easter with music celebrating the triumph of the Resurrection. Then there’s the wonderful Cantata No. 31: ‘The Heavens Laugh, the Earth Rejoices’…

So what I’ll try to do is show that the taxi-driver and many others are, for the most part, wrong in their assumptions about this largest part of Bach’s huge musical output. Listen, for example, to the duet from Cantata No. 78 written by Bach in 1724, and which may strike you as ‘very operatic.’ The words are: ‘We hasten with weak, yet eager steps, O Jesus… to Thee’ and the organ and cello depict those eager footsteps, whilst the violone plays pizzicato throughout. (The violone, incidentally, is an instrument used in many of these cantatas. It was pitched an octave lower than the viola da gamba, or bass viola, making it similar to a double-bass).
Depending upon the text being set to music, many cantata movements are plaintive, even sad, but Bach often manages to follow them with something that will start your feet tapping. Some years ago a critic once described them as “a treasure house to be endlessly explored.” He might also have said ‘buried treasure’ for these works lay unperformed and unknown for many, many years – except for a handful such as “Wachet Auf” (‘Sleepers Wake, loud sounds the warning’ from No. 140). Note that number: 140. ‘Endless’ was another appropriate word for that critic to use for there are almost 200 church cantatas surviving, each lasting on average some 25 minutes, with a further 8 spurious ones in the index to Bach’s works compiled by Wolfgang Schmieder in 1950.
It’s difficult to know how many cantatas Bach actually wrote and dozens have been lost forever. For instance, after Bach’s death, his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann sold many at auction to pay off debts and they haven’t been seen since. It’s believed that Bach must have composed at least 295, including approximately 265 at Leipzig between 1723 and 1744. Of these only 202, church and secular works, have come down to us. Many were revised and re-written, sometimes more than once. Those after No. 194 are secular cantatas written for weddings, funerals and the name days of royalty and the aristocracy. There’s a Hunting Cantata (with the famous ‘Sheep may safely graze’ movement) and even a humorous one to celebrate the growing fondness for coffee drinking in Leipzig society, No. 211. But, although many were published between 1803 and 1850, they remained - apart from a dozen or so - virtually unknown until the record companies HANSSLER and TELDEC acquired the services of the conductors Helmuth Rilling, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt to record all of them over a period of some twenty years (more of that when we talk about their availability on CDs).

Bach’s huge output dates mostly from his appointment as Cantor (director and teacher of music) at St Thomas’s Church and School, Leipzig in 1723. He remained there for the rest of his life (some 27 years), but he had constant disputes with the civil authorities. In 1740 his eyes started to fail and he was almost totally blind in the last year of his life, 1750. For those last ten years Bach had turned inward, withdrawing from public life and composing 'The Art of Fugue’ and the B minor Mass. With his death we can say that a centuries-old tradition of predominantly polyphonic (multi-voiced) composition in Germany ended, together with the concept of music primarily as a vehicle for the glorification of God. Although he had built up a repertoire of cantatas, he was known in his lifetime only as a keyboard composer and virtuoso, dying at the age of 66 after a bungled operation on his eyes by an English doctor. In the fifty years after his death he was almost completely forgotten and it was his son Carl Philipp Emanuel who was the great Bach in the second half of the 18th century.
We can offer only a few examples from this vast ‘treasure house’, so let’s continue with a chorus, which is how Bach usually began these works, though he sometimes preceded them with a sinfonia, a kind of orchestral overture as an introduction, to be followed by a succession of recitatives (declamatory, speech-like singing to advance the Biblical story or lessons to be gained from it), then solo vocal pieces (arias) or, sometimes, duets like the one we mentioned earlier. The cantata then ended with a chorale, a metrical hymn-tune sung by the chorus in unison and based on Martin Luther’s wish to restore the congregation’s role in church services with the use of simple, devotional words to familiar tunes (either folk-songs or old ecclesiastical melodies).
Bach called Cantata No. 11 of 1735 ‘Oratorio for the Feast of the Ascension’. The opening chorus has the words: ‘Praise God in His kingdoms, praise Him in His honours; laud Him in His Splendour; seek His praise rightfully to express, when you with assembled choirs make to Him a song in His honour’. It’s in two parts and would have been sung before and after the hour-long sermon. The text is by the Leipzig civil servant Christian Frederich Henrici, known by the pseudonym Picander, expressing poetically the story of Christ’s ascension, without any dramatic dialogue. This chorus is vigorously scored for trumpets, drums, woodwind and leaping strings, and the choral writing is in Bach’s best incisive style. It’s followed by the alto aria: ‘Ah, remain then, my dearest life; ah, flee not so soon from me’. Bach thought this movement worthy of inclusion in the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) section of his B minor Mass. In fact, over one third of the contents of that great work began life in the cantatas.
Bach had been the Leipzig Town Council’s third rather than first choice of candidate for the post of Cantor at the Church and School of St Thomas; Telemann and Graupner had already turned it down. As one councillor put it: “Since the best cannot be had, one must take the next best.” However, Bach’s excellent reputation as court composer at Cothen had preceded him to Leipzig and he had already conducted his St John Passion on Good Friday in the Church of St Nicholas by way of introducing himself (and as evidence of his fitness for the post) so there must have been an air of hopeful expectancy on both sides. But Bach’s life here would be anything but easy due to the intransigence of his so-called ‘superiors’.
The numbering of the cantatas does not follow any chronological order in the catalogue, but rather the works composed for each day of the church calendar. No. 119 was one of the earliest written at Leipzig for the installation of the new Town Council in 1723. Bach’s years in official capacities had taught him to write whatever the occasion and whatever the text demanded… even though his heart may not have been in the task. Six of the nine numbers in Cantata No. 119 are in praise of Leipzig – satisfaction with its rulers, exhortation in favour of loyalty to municipal powers and the divine authority manifest in the elected council. It seems ludicrous today when sleaze, scandal, fraud and sheer incompetence seem to regularly rear their ugly heads in national and local government; can you imagine a composer being enlisted to write a piece in praise of your local councillors, with words which encourage you to trust the authorities – they always know what’s best for you? But we must remember that Bach had just been employed as the chief musical servant of the Leipzig Town Council – their official composer and director of the church music of the city. So he was out to make an impression on his employers and to show them how he appreciated their temporal greatness; this was before his stubbornness and lack of understanding (and his undoubted defects as a choirmaster) had set up the strife with the Council which was to embitter him.
Here the unknown poet directly addresses the leafy boulevards of Leipzig: ‘O blessed land of heart’s desire, fair city among the linden trees’, with a rustic counterpoint provided by two oboes da caccia – which were normally used for hunting scenes. (The other oboe favoured by Bach was the oboe d’amore – oboe of love – which has a pear-shaped bell giving it its mellow, individual tone-colour). Both have subsequently been neglected since Bach’s day, but were taken up again with the advent of the period instrument, so-called ‘authentic’ performance movement in the late 1960s. One feels that this tender evocation of the city’s linden trees could hardly have failed to charm the new Town Council… a bit of PR work on Bach’s part which probably did him a power of good.

Bach had to train his ill-disciplined and overworked choristers and provide music for all four of the municipal churches in Leipzig (in particular St. Thomas’s and St. Nicholas’s). In addition, he had to superintend the musical life of the whole city – to be, for example, the leader of several amateur ensembles. Finally, as well as singing he was obliged to teach Latin to about 50 boys at the School, a continual annoyance to him. (By the way, St. Thomas’s School building no longer exists; it was demolished in 1902 but there is a Bach Archive nearby). Many disagreements must have arisen in regard to Bach’s dealings with the School and its rectors, and he was not a man blessed with much prudence, patience or diplomacy. He was stubborn about his rights and his position was often very difficult, but the fact that he could retain his mastery through the struggles of these Leipzig years is evidence of Bach’s good health and strength of character, managing through sheer will-power to overcome his times and conditions, composing one cantata per week, plus others for Feast Days.
The imagery of some texts supplied by the local pastor and poet Erdmann Neumeister openly acknowledged the influence of Italian opera and secular cantatas – so much so that for him the church cantata was a kind of miniature opera made up of recitatives and arias with all their theatricality and, although Bach set only a small amount of Neumeister’s texts, he wholeheartedly adopted these operatic forms to great effect in his cantatas. So, though Bach wrote no operas during his life, perhaps he didn’t need to – it’s all there in the cantatas and other works such as the St Matthew Passion.
People have asked: was Bach driven by music or God? Was he really a devout believer or just knew where his music could be put to the fullest use? A look at his personal Bible answers this with its many underlinings, notes and comments, showing that Bach was a man of immense faith: he composed only to the glory of God. We know that he owned a large theological library and at the top of his cantata scores he wrote: ‘Jesus, help me’ and at the end of each score: ‘Servant of God’. He himself said: “The aim and final reason for all music should be nothing else but the glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit.”

Every Sunday and Feast Day in Leipzig the shops closed and all trade ended (these stern old Lutheran values persisted well into the 20th century in this area). Fourteen church sermons were available to the devotee, rising to over twenty-two over a full week. Every service followed a precise liturgy, springing from Luther, and records were kept of communicants and their frequency of attendance. Discipline ruled supreme in Leipzig – Bach could not leave the city without special permission. But amidst this rigid atmosphere and the petty squabbles he was always encountering, the composer managed to write inspired pieces to order, such as Cantata No. 95 of 1723, “Christ who is my Whole Life”, where the tenor aria conveys a spirit of exuberant emotion… This aria must have been written for some kind of light tenor (or counter-tenor) and the theme is the frequent one of the knell striking the last hour. ‘Ah, strike then soon, blessed hour’ describes a longing for the ecstatic state of heavenly bliss. The Gospel of the day incites us to avoid worldly cares and to seek first the Kingdom of God. But there is no hint of morbidity in this cantata, just a desire to leave a world of which the soul has grown weary and to go to its eternal home. The tenor is accompanied by two oboes d’amore, two violins, a viola and continuo. The strings and continuo (which was always an organ unless otherwise specified) play pizzicato throughout and the parts are laid out to imitate bells small and large. Many composers of modern times have tried to imitate the strange combinations of notes heard from bells but Bach anticipated them, with his limited means, by more than a hundred years. The endless oboe melody keeps the soloist at the top of the stave most of the time, but the singer has to express the full beauty of his part without strain. We are indeed transported into a new world of sound as the body passes into an exalted sphere of heavenly grace.
When he wrote the cantatas, Bach used ink he’d made himself using soot, rust and oak gall – a corrosive mixture which has eaten through the manuscript paper. The evidence of this ink, watermarks and handwriting on the scores show that in the first two years of his appointment at Leipzig, Bach provided half of the surviving 194 church cantatas. In thirty-nine working weeks he furnished his employers with 51 new cantatas while carrying out his many other teaching and training duties… masterpieces to order. But, generally speaking, he hardly made things easy for himself: for many Sundays he planned longer cantatas in two parts, or two complementary cantatas, to be performed before and after the sermon. How did he manage to do all this?
With only a week given to him for completion Bach often wrote a new cantata straight down in full score, correcting as he went along. One of the family would draw the staves: Bach then gave the score to a group of copyists who wrote out the separate parts for the performers. His sons helped from the age of fourteen, also his second wife Anna Magdalena (who bore him some 13 children) and pupils. It was a case of putting idle hands to work in what amounted to a production line. Extreme haste led to many mistakes and Bach had to find time to oversee the copying and to try to correct these.

So what sort of performances would they have been? In a letter to the Town Council we see Bach appealing for more funds and more musicians. There were many vacancies amongst the orchestral players and, as for the singers, Bach comments: ‘Singers – 17 useable; 20 – not yet useable; 17 – totally useless’. But presumably even the untrained singers could at least manage to participate in the four-part chorales; not that some of these were all that simple. It’s been suggested that the congregation were also encouraged to join in during this final movement, where hymn-sheets were provided. For the 20 instrumental players he needed to augment his meagre resources he drew on a body of professionals who served the Leipzig churches, and on some University students. The young men of the first choir provided the soloists, unless a visiting tenor or bass was able to assist for the arias. This first choir probably numbered only 12 singers performing during a final Saturday afternoon rehearsal from parts copied that morning with the ink still wet, empty of cues and still with some mistakes. Incidentally, it’s been suggested that there may have been only one voice per part, not a chorus as we hear it today. Singers didn’t share their copies and there was hardly time to copy the parts a dozen times or more. With the orchestra, Bach did not always have at his command players of the calibre he desired, or the instruments he wanted. He was obliged to alter his scores by replacing, say, an absent or inefficient flute with a solo violin. If a horn player or an oboist was indisposed on the Saturday the parts would have to be rewritten or adapted before Sunday morning and, as the work might not be given again, the score and parts were left as they were.

When one remembers the conditions of production – with these difficult pieces hurriedly prepared, speedily copied out, under-rehearsed and full of inaccuracies – one marvels that Bach should have continued, year after year, to pour out these immortal works under such circumstances. When his grandson, who had sung in the choir, was asked years later about the training and performances, he remarked: “He cuffed us a lot and it sounded awful.” But somehow performances were achieved by each boy learning only a few set phrases which Bach intertwined kaleidoscopically; his other method amounted to inspired improvisation.
Cantata No. 172: “Ring out, ye Songs, resound, ye Strings at this Holy Time”, was written for Whit Sunday. Surprisingly there is no allusion to the awe-inspiring descent of the Holy Spirit (as related in Acts II, verses 1 to 13) which was appointed to be read on this Sunday, so we are deprived of the stirring picture Bach could have made of the mighty rushing wind and the tongues of fire. But the songs certainly ring out, the strings and the three trumpets do resound. The brass is silent during the splendid fugal middle section: ‘God will prepare for himself souls as temples’. It’s been recorded by the Boys’ Choir of Bach’s own church (St Thomas’s) and nowadays they don’t, presumably, have to be cuffed about the ears to make them perform well. They and the new Bach Collegium Musicum were conducted by Hans-Joachim Rotzsch, himself a one-time Cantor of that church.
Christian Frederich Henrici (known as Picander) and Erdmann Neumeister were the principal writers of Bach’s librettos, together with the poet Marianne von Ziegler and the civil servant Salomo Franck. These librettos have little or no literary merit and sometimes Bach could do very little with them. It’s been suggested that there is far too much hell-fire, sin and repentance in the texts and, indeed, this is true. ‘There awaits a dreadful end for you, ye scornful sinners’ is the warning found in Cantata No. 90 and ‘Tremble, ye hardened sinners’ comes from Cantata No. 70. Both are typical of the fears of eternal punishment to be found in many of these works and Satan is often shown as lying in wait for the unwary, just as the congregation is reminded of the tortures to be found in Hell. Other texts are aimed at strengthening those weak in faith and the Christian soul is exhorted to set its sights on Heaven, not on the attraction of worldly wealth. This sometimes amounts to a death-wish: ‘May the world with its pleasures pass away’ pleads the singer in Cantata No. 186 and ‘I am ready, fetch me… Here is only lamentation, anxiety, pain’ (from No. 128). Cantata No. 75 meanwhile tells us that ‘Those who seek Heaven in the world are accursed, those who endure hell here will rejoice in Heaven.’
So there has to be constant preparation and readiness for death (reflecting, perhaps, the short life-span of people in those days) and there must also be acceptance of suffering as the will of God. Christians should humbly bear the punishments that fall on them and try to understand and be comforted with the thought that they are beneficial to the soul. Above all, we are to love and trust in Jesus as we draw ever nearer to Death’s abyss. With texts like these, full of fear, gloom and terror, one wonders how Bach was able to inject so much life into his music, but even when some cantatas begin gloomily he was able to lift the music vigorously to new heights. The cantatas always present us with a firm, unfailing statement that light conquers darkness and that good will overcome evil.
Sometimes there are prayers for protection from pestilence, fire and war (as in No. 171) and for the wise rule and prosperity of the Church; and by today’s standards there is often some unintentional humour. The text for an aria in Cantata No. 156, for instance, could have been the inspiration for the title of a well-known sitcom, when it talks of “one foot in the grave”. The title of No. 165 has been translated as “O holy font that washeth white”, overtaken these days by adverts for ‘Daz’, whilst in Cantata No. 126 the author cannot resist a swipe at Luther’s two arch-enemies – the Pope and the Turks, in that order!
Surprisingly, Bach’s cantatas are imbued with the spirit of the dance, even in the most sacred of these works. Though dancing was out of the question in churches, Luther had said that music was valuable in preaching the Gospel to the people, who would have been familiar with dance movements, thus drawing parallels with ordinary life. By dance movements we mean gavottes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, minuets, etc. Such movements, inserted between texts for the particular day in the church calendar, would probably have come as a welcome relief to the congregation, especially if they contained familiar styles such as a country dance (or dance in peasant style), like the one in Cantata No. 145 for Easter Tuesday, probably written in 1729. This bass aria: ‘Mark, my heart, constantly only this’ is splendid and direct, with trumpet, transverse flute (the horizontal one used in the modern orchestra), two oboes d’amore, two violins and continuo. Bach brings in these additional instruments to give full force to the resounding octaves which mark the fact that the Saviour is still living.

Cantata No. 174 of 1729 was composed for Whit Monday on the theme: “I love the Highest with my whole mind” to words by Picander and it also contains an example of re-cycled Bach by way of a sinfonia… the re-working of the first movement of his earlier Third Brandenburg Concerto. Already a masterpiece of complex counterpoint, it was re-scored to allow for the addition of two hunting horns (not the mellow tone of the French horn but ones displaying the more strident sound of the instrument used at the princely courts in Weimar and Cothen, where Bach had been employed). The composer also added two oboes, a further tenor oboe, three violins and violas, three cellos, bassoon, violone and continuo. We can only guess what prompted Bach to preface the cantata with this movement but as the work consisted of only two arias, separated by a recitative and chorale, it obviously needed lengthening to take up the statutory time; also, as a celebration of the Whitsun feast the sinfonia is wonderfully appropriate. If Bach was able to copy out the movement and add the extra instruments, which meant filling in 15 lines of score on every page, he cannot have been pressed for time on this occasion.
Recordings of the Bach Church Cantatas hardly existed before the arrival of the LP in the 1950s. Looking back at what was available on 78s then I saw, amongst a dozen or so recordings, familiar movements from Nos. 140 and 147 (the latter contains the chorale: ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s desiring’). There was nothing approaching authenticity; instead, organ and even two-piano arrangements. For the opening Sonatina to the early Cantata No. 106, there were flutes rather than recorders, or an arrangement for organ. (In Bach’s scores the Blockflote - in English, the Recorder - is always indicated).
This Funeral Cantata (Actus Tragicus) was composed at Muhlhausen, where Bach was employed for one year in 1707, aged 22. Its title is “God’s time is best” and at one bound Bach has leapt into consummate mastery. Never again did he achieve the continuous tenderness and the elevated spiritual feeling in just the same way; it remains unique. Possibly written for the funeral of an elderly man (perhaps his uncle), it is a touching personal document of an already deep thinker stirred to the depths of his heart and comforted by his religion. It is almost flawless for this stage of Bach’s career, the scoring veiled and mournful… only two recorders, two violas da gamba and continuo; the opening Sonatina is surely one of the loveliest elegies ever penned…
When CDs arrived all 194 of the sacred cantatas had already been recorded twice – by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt on TELDEC and by Helmuth Rilling on HANSSLER CLASSIC. Rilling was the first to undertake the task in 1969, completing them in 1985. Harnoncourt and Leonhardt split the recording sessions between them; both included boy trebles in the line-up. Harnoncourt used the Tolz Boys’ or Vienna Boys’ Choirs, with the Chorus Viennensis and the Vienna Concentus Musicus; Leonhardt favoured the Hanover Boys’ or King’s College Choirs, and the Collegium Vocale from Ghent and his own Consort. Rilling, meanwhile, had the Gächinger Kantorei and the Stuttgart Bach Collegium performing with his soloists. The Teldec recordings date from 1971 to 1989 and are based on our knowledge of the resources Bach himself had at his disposal. They used period instruments, whilst women’s voices were banished in all but two cantatas.
Now that we are in period instrument/authenticity-conscious times, we have been forced to think hard about styles, and whereas performances by Fritz Werner on ERATO and Karl Richter on ARCHIV were once taken for granted, in the space of a decade we moved from the massed voices of Richter’s Munich Bach Choir all the way to the one-to-a-voice concept of Joshua Rifkin on L’OISEAU LYRE and, like it or hate it, Rifkin’s minimalist approach can work well in the recording studio. Then there is the question of the use of counter-tenors; Bach may have used them or equally preferred boy altos or even at times castrati as opposed to falsettists (a singing method used by males, particularly tenors, to achieve notes higher than those within the normal range of their voice), but we just don’t know what Bach used.
As for the orchestra, we still rarely hear it as Bach intended, chiefly due to instrumental differences. For instance, his strings, flutes and brass were much less powerful than ours, his oboes were coarse and nasal, his bassoons less suave. Players of the violino piccolo, viola da gamba and viola d’amore are rare, the contra-bass doesn’t adequately represent the violone and our organs are of a different calibre. Also, conditions of performance were then vastly different… there was no choir lined up on a platform with orchestra in front, soloists to the fore and organ way behind. Instead, Bach’s forces were all gathered in the organ gallery, far from the congregation and out of sight. Here, players and singers could move about, soloists stand next to the players and balance be obtained by adjusting positions. And as the cantatas were written for specific occasions or dates in the church calendar and then forgotten, no one was sufficiently interested in them to perpetuate any record of manner and method of performance. But Bach’s orchestra was never stereotyped. Whittaker points out that in the known cantatas he uses no fewer than 153 different combinations and that, except for the choruses, it is rare to find the same selection of instruments repeated within a single cantata. In Leipzig, with a regularized set of players and town musicians to draw upon, Bach experimented incessantly.
But some recordings go a long way to achieve authenticity. Harnoncourt and Leonhardt used counter-tenors throughout the series; so do Rifkin and Herreweghe but other notable interpreters such as Prohaska, Richter and Werner preferred contraltos – not a convincing solution, though the contralto Anna Reynolds provided Richter with some fine performances, as in the aria from Cantata No. 34 from about 1735, “O eternal Fire, O source of love” – another Whit Sunday cantata. This alto aria, ‘Well for you, ye chosen souls, whom God has selected as his dwelling’ is accompanied by two transverse flutes, two violins and a viola (all muted) and continuo. This is arguably the most beautiful aria Bach ever composed with its infinitely tender, undulating melodies. All the instrumental parts are marked pp (very soft) when the voice enters, with exquisite, almost intoxicating effect, so be prepared to be transported once again into a state of heavenly bliss.

Harnoncourt and Leonhardt’s decision to engage boys to sing the soprano solos almost throughout the series was a bold step, with mixed success, and of course they had to change them frequently over the years. It’s hard to believe that Bach had at any time a boy in his choir capable of performing such virtuoso arias, and able to compete with the brilliant instrumental parts so often found in duet with the voice. But, since women’s voices were forbidden in the organ loft, Bach must have found a treble able to tackle them, with or without a few cuffs around the ear.
Cantata No. 14 of 1735 has the title: “Were God not with us in this time… we would have despaired.” It was written during the War of the Polish Succession which threatened to involve most of Europe, so the emphasis is on deliverance. The boy soloist is accompanied by a hunting horn, two violins, a viola and continuo and the words begin: ‘Our strength proves too weak to withstand our enemy’. But instead of defeatism the mood here is one of defiant confidence; however, considering the war had still three years to run the rejoicing displayed in the aria which follows this one, and the praises given for victory in the chorale, seem rather premature. The boy treble, Peter Hinterreiter, was certainly stretched to the limit, and the hunting horn player didn’t exactly have things easy in this Teldec recording conducted by Gustav Leonhardt.
I believe that kind of freshness should be treasured, however uneven it may sometimes be. Cantata No. 130 of 1724: “Lord God, we all praise Thee” is about St Michael and the War in Heaven, and the text in the bass aria gave Bach an opportunity for some vivid tone painting, to the words: ‘The old dragon burns with envy and ruminates continually on new affliction’. The trumpet fanfares explain themselves (three are used here) but the thudding, repeated notes of the timpani may represent the restless scheming of the Evil One. The conflict is still in progress as the aria ends…
Bach wrote Cantata No. 79, “God, the Lord, is Sun and Shield” for the Reformation Festival in 1725. The thrilling and magnificent opening chorus for choir, horns, timpani, two transverse flutes with two oboes, violins, violas and continuo may have been given a further performance ten years later on the 30th of October, 1735 during the War, accounting, in part, for its martial character – this is one of the most militant and tremendous choruses that ever came from Bach’s pen and the fanfare-like theme for two horns and timpani bursts upon us with startling vehemence, whilst the pounding of the drums is insistent and relentless. However, the Reformation Festival was the celebration of earthly victories in the cause of national religion, so there is no need to look further to account for this stupendous battle scene with its beating drums and vigorous oboe passages doubled by flutes, whilst the detached notes for second violins, viola and continuo suggest the tramping of soldiers’ feet. Again, there are many memorable choral openings in Bach but few which are so overwhelming as the first bars for the choir, with phrases of the utmost majesty – sopranos, altos and tenors brilliantly high-pitched. The chorale from the same work - the familiar ‘Now thank we all our God’ - was plainly harmonized here by Bach but, like the chorus, contains a superb counter-melody. Those who think of counterpoint as an academic device should listen more closely to the way Bach uses it with his first melodies. Such marvellous inspiration shames those people who regard Bach merely as a consummate craftsman.
BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ programme always asks: “If you could take only one recording with you to the mythical island, which one would it be?” Well, for me it would have to be Cantata No. 13: “My sighs, my tears” of 1726, full of spiritual and melodic beauty. There is certainly noble grief in the superb tenor aria which begins this cantata, without any ray of hope, yet there are few pieces in the whole range of art so exquisitely coloured and so perfectly expressive of the text as this. The choice of instruments and their treatment also make it a miracle of the highest beauty; it’s scored for two recorders, an oboe da caccia and continuo… a quintet of deep anguish in which the middle section has the words: ‘Ah! So must the pain prepare us for death’. This is Bach at his most spiritual and heart-rending throughout. The depth of emotion here is hardly surpassed, even in the St Matthew Passion, and the soloist, Peter Schreier, realises this to perfection in the recording with Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra.

In Bach’s time the church tried to secure its adherents through fear and not through love – often with medieval visions of damnation and torture which filled the heart with dread. Cantata. No. 8: “Beloved God, when shall I die?” of 1724, might suggest further wailing and gnashing of teeth but the opposite is the case; here is to be found the true Christian doctrine, with Christ the all-merciful One and death a release and call to a life of bliss. There is fear, to be sure, but it is more at the thought of the penitent’s unworthiness than any anticipation of relentless persecution beyond the grave. The marvellous opening chorus: ‘Beloved God, when shall I die?’ is an example of ‘endless melody’ long before Wagner coined the term. The haunting lament continues almost oblivious of time and space, with the upper strings playing pizzicato throughout. It inspired the 19th century Bach scholar Philipp Spitta (a man not usually given to flights of pictorial fancy) to write of the sound of tolling bells, the fragrance of blossoms pervading it, and the sentiment of a churchyard in springtime. Bach’s poetic scoring supports this interpretation and the transverse flute is pitched high all the time, standing out clearly and every now and then playing the same note 24 times in semi-quavers to suggest the trembling of the departing soul. The world pictured here is truly beautiful, expressing shades of gentle regret but not of the kind denoted by black clerical vestments and dismal lay clothes. The bass aria from this cantata, in 12/8 time, is used here for one of Bach’s gigue-like pieces of uninhibited joy – a piece of unabashed dance music as the flute announces in exhilarating rushes the return of trust in the mercy of God, to the words: ‘Then vanish, you mad fruitless cares’. The soloist then sings: ‘Nothing that pleases me belongs to the world’ and the bells ring out ecstatically with yet another enchanting melody to accompany the words ‘Appear to me thou blessed joyous morning, transfigured and glorious before Jesus to stand’. What better way to end a hard day at the office, than to come home and listen to a piece with such captivating melodies from Bach’s endlessly rich treasure house, which surely left the congregation totally uplifted. One wonders if the sermon which followed would likewise bring about an exalted state of consciousness.
It’s a fact that Bach’s librettists dwelt too much on sin and repentance but the music manages to transcend the brashness of these fundamental Christian dogmas, handled by Bach’s inspiring faith in God, his tender and profound love of Christ and his sublime approach to death as the key to eternal life… all clothed in glorious music and an incomparably vivid musical imagination. No one, surely, can fail to submit to the appeal of the astonishing melodic richness to be found in cantata after cantata, with their satisfying harmonic foundations, marvellous contrapuntal skills and splendid vital rhythms.
We can see Bach the tone painter in many of these works, enhancing the religious certainty of the times and often depicting death as a vision of eternity. He chose the texts himself, sometimes adjusting them to his own requirements where they are often transformed into positive and exuberant emotion. Like Milton, Bach was an artist of gigantic stature, displaying an unshakeable confidence built upon the sure foundation of genius. The breadth of his achievement in these cantatas continues to inspire many performers and those who take the trouble to explore them…
Fritz Werner conducted 55 cantatas from 1959 to 1974, Richter recorded 75 and his performances are usually monumental, providing colour and theatricality, but he sadly misjudges many of the dance movements. There are a few recordings still available by Rotzsch on BERLIN CLASSICS but if you want a complete set my first choice would be Harnoncourt and Leonhardt – stimulating, pioneering and a landmark in authenticity – though a few cantatas are missing from the set, Nos. 190, 191, 193 and the fragmentary No. 200 (which are all worth hearing). This full set of 60 CDs is offered at budget price; if you want to try them out individually, go for Volume I, but that’s at mid-price. However, Leusink with the Holland Boys’ Choir and Netherlands Bach Collegium also uses period instruments (but no boy soloists) in their complete set on BRILLIANT CLASSICS recorded in less than 15 months, and these are at super-budget price (amounting to £2 per disc). Leusink’s aim was to reach as many people as possible and he believes that CD prices are too high to accomplish this… which is why he chose to distribute his recordings in 500 chain stores belonging to a Netherlands drugstore concern, displayed alongside diapers and headache pills. This, of course, led the critics to ‘write him off’ but now reviewers are more favourable and 100,000 of the twelve boxes have been sold in Holland alone. Treble soloists are not used; Leusink felt that it wasn’t feasible to use schoolchildren because of the lack of time and the intensive training needed over many years – which is why Harnoncourt and Leonhardt sometimes fell short in their recordings. Herreweghe, Gardiner and Suzuki are working through them all at the time of writing; other notable interpreters are Joshua Rifkin with his paired-down performances and Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra. John Eliot Gardiner uses mixed choirs of male and female singers, with female sopranos and falsettists singing in the upper-voice arias. These recordings were made, you may recall, as part of the Millennium celebrations, Gardiner performing all the cantatas that year at churches throughout Europe on the liturgical days for which they were composed. It was a mammoth undertaking and involved transporting his singers, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, to many European cities.

Harnoncourt & Leonhardt are on TELDEC, distributed in the UK by Warner Classics

Richter is on ARCHIV, distributed by Universal Classics
Leusink is on BRILLIANT CLASSICS, distributed by CD Selections, Dorchester DT2 7YG

Herreweghe is on VIRGIN CLASSICS, distributed by EMI Classics
Werner is on ERATO, distributed by Warner Classics
Rilling is on HANSSLER CLASSIC, distributed by Select Distribution
Rifkin is on L'OISEAU LYRE, distributed by Universal Classics
Suzuki is on BIS, distributed by Select Distribution
Rotzsch is on BERLIN CLASSICS, distributed by Independent Distribution
Koopman is on Challenger Classics
Gardiner is on ARCHIV, distributed by Universal Classics

‘Analyzing Bach Cantatas’ – Eric Chafe (OUP 2000)
‘The World of the Bach Cantatas’ – Christoph Wolff & Ton Koopman (Norton & Co. 1997)
‘The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach’ – W. Gillies Whittaker (OUP 1959)
‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’ – Alec Robertson (Cassell 1972)
Also consult the Website www.bach-cantatas.com for a wealth of
information and the chance to hear excerpts from the cantatas.













































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