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8.570453 - BACH, J.S.: Cantatas for Solo Soprano, BWV 51, 52, 84, 199 (Thornhill, Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Muller-Bruhl)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Sacred Cantatas for Soprano


Born in 1685 into a family of musicians, Johann Sebastian Bach was orphaned at a relatively early age, so that his education and training as a musician, which had started at his native Eisenach, fell, from 1695, to an older brother, Johann Christoph, in Ohrdruf, where he served as organist at the Michaeliskirche. At the age of fifteen he moved to Lüneburg, perhaps on the recommendation of his master at the Klosterschule that he had attended in Ohrdruf. By the age of eighteen he had embarked on his professional career, first and briefly as a court musician in Weimar, before his appointment in August 1703 as organist at the Neuekirche in Arnstadt. In 1707 he took up the position of organist at Mühlhausen and married his first wife. The following year found him as organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar, elevated in 1714 to the position of concertmaster, and in 1717, now with a growing reputation as an organist and as an expert on the instrument, matched by the size of his growing family, he moved, in spite of his employer’s active opposition, to the position of Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. This happy period, the social summit of Bach’s career, ended in 1723. The prince’s marriage to a woman who did not share his musical enthusiasm had led Bach to seek a position elsewhere, and this he found in his appointment as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. There, as an employee of the city council, he had responsibility for the music of the principal churches of the city, coupled with teaching duties in the choir school where he and his family had their quarters He retained his place in Leipzig for the rest of his life, by 1730 able to find an additional field of musical activity in his work with the semi-professional university Collegium Musicum, an ensemble that had weekly meetings and was called on to provide music for a variety of occasions. The first years in Leipzig, however, brought the need to provide a regular supply of music for the church, and this he met by the composition of five annual cycles of cantatas for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran church year. The quantity of such compositions may seem unusual, until compared with that of other composers under a similar obligation.

The cantata, an Italian title seldom used by Bach himself, had come to play an important part in services of Sundays and feast days, performed before the lengthy sermon and usually related to the gospel of the day in its text in a service that would generally last some four hours. Bach’s earlier cantatas had been written at Weimar and in connection with his employment at Mühlhausen, but the greater part of the nearly two hundred surviving sacred cantatas belong to the first few years of Bach’s work in Leipzig. He embarked on his first cycle of cantatas in 1723, soon after his arrival in Leipzig, where he needed to make a good impression before employers with whom his relations were not always easy, in spite of his widely acknowledged musical distinction.

The cantata Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht, BWV 52 (False world, I trust thee not), was written for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity as part of Bach’s third annual cycle of cantatas, and first performed on 24 November 1726. It is scored for solo soprano and four-part chorus with two horns, three oboes, bassoon, first and second violins, viola and continuo. The opening Sinfonia makes use again of the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, here without the violino piccolo. This had possibly originated as an opening Sinfonia for Bach’s 1713 secular Hunt Cantata, BWV 208, written in celebration of the 31st birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. The Sinfonia is followed by a recitative and the first aria, in D minor, accompanied by violins and basso continuo. A second recitative leads to a second aria, in a cheerful B flat major, accompanied by the three oboes and basso continuo. The final chorale In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr (In thee have I hoped, O Lord) is by Adam Reusner, a follower of Martin Luther and author of some forty such hymns.

The fourth annual cycle of church cantatas by Bach makes use of texts drawn from the work of Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote under the name of Picander and provided texts for the St Matthew Passion and St Mark Passion, as well as for a number of cantatas by Bach, sacred and secular. Ich bin vergnügt in meinem Glücke, BWV 84 (I take pleasure in my happiness), is scored for solo soprano with oboe, violins, viola and basso continuo, and four-part chorus for the final chorale. It was written for Septuagesima Sunday and first performed on 9 February 1727. The first aria, in E minor and with dotted rhythms, expresses contentment with the blessings God has granted. The second aria, with its oboe and solo violin obbligato, is in G major and reflects, in its text, the Gospel reading of the day, the parable of the vineyard and the labourers hired by the owner during the course of the day and the contentment that all should have felt. The lesson is further supported by the final chorale, its text taken from Ämilie Juliane Gräfin zu Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, the author of some six hundred hymns. Her Geistliche Lieder was published in Rudolstadt in 1683.

Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199 (My heart swims in blood), sets a text by Georg Christian Lehms, whose Gottgefälliges Kirchen-Opfer had been published in Darmstadt in 1711. The cantata was performed on the eleventh Sunday after Trinity in 1714, but is thought to have been written before that date and Bach’s appointment as concertmaster in Weimar. It is scored, in its earliest Weimar version, for oboe, violins, viola and basso continuo, the viola obbligato in the sixth movement given to a solo cello in a second Weimar version. The work was performed at Cöthen, with a viola da gamba, played presumably by Christian Ferdinand Abel, in the sixth, seventh and eighth movements. Cantata performances at Cöthen were relatively infrequent, as the Pietism of the court made regular use of such compositions unnecessary. There would, however, have been a place for such works at the Lutheran church of St Agnus, attended by Bach and his family. The cantata, with an obbligato violoncello piccolo replacing viola or viola da gamba, formed part of the first annual cycle of cantatas for Leipzig. The opening recitative is accompanied by strings, leading to the first of the three arias, a da capo aria, its repetition preceded by a brief recitative. The second da capo aria is accompanied by strings and basso continuo and the sixth movement, a chorale with a text taken from Johann Heermann, is set for soprano and continuo with viola obbligato. The final da capo aria, with its contrapuntal opening, uses the oboe, strings and continuo in its accompaniment. The texts suggest the liturgical reading of the day, the parable of the pharisee and the publican, largely reflecting the latter’s humility.

The cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!, BWV 51 (Praise God in all lands!), written for the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, was probably performed in Leipzig on 17 September 1730 and is scored for soprano, trumpet, strings and basso continuo. It is the last of the four church cantatas for solo soprano and probably among the best known of any. Since in 1726 the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity had coincided with the Feast of St Michael, for which a special cantata had been written, there remained a gap in the third annual cycle, which the new cantata filled. The additional words Et in ogni tempo added by Bach to the subtitle of the work indicate its suitability, as a cantata in praise of God, for any season in the church year. It opens with a C major aria to which the trumpet adds further brilliance. This is followed by a recitative accompanied by strings and continuo, moving into an Andante at the words Muß gleich der schwache Mund von seinen Wundern lallen (My feeble mouth must stammer forth his wonders) with an elaborate vocal ine accompanied only by basso continuo. The second aria, in 12/8 and accompanied by continuo only, is in A minor. The chorale, with a text taken from Johann Gramann, who had in 1520 served as Rector of the Thomasschule, has the solo singer accompanied by two violins and continuo in a C major trio-sonata texture, leading to a final triumphant Alleluja, for which the trumpet returns in a concluding hymn of praise.

Keith Anderson

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