Hear three uplifting Bach Cantatas led by Bach specialist Mary Greer. Originally written for specific occasions during the church year, these works will be performed by members of the Handel and Haydn Society Period Orchestra and Chorus in the glorious setting of Harvard's Memorial Church.
Mary Greer, conductor
Deborah Selig, soprano
Brenda Patterson, mezzo-soprano
William Ferguson, tenor
Sumner Thompson, bass
- Bach: Cantata No. 37,
Wer da gläubet und getauft wird
- Bach: Cantata No. 92,
Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn
- Bach: Cantata No. 97,
In allen meinen Taten
Orchestra & Chorus
Christina Day Martinson
Krista Buckland Reisner
Bach wrote well over 300 cantatas, of which some 220, filling half the volumes of his collected works, are extant. Though these pieces have called forth countless exegetical flights, they were very practical items, intended, as was virtually all of the music before Beethoven, for a specific occasion and audience. In the case of Bach’s cantatas, which were the principal music of the main Lutheran service, the occasion arose almost weekly and the audience was the congregation of Leipzig’s churches. The Hauptgottesdienst, the most important of the week’s devotions, was an imposing collection of Roman and Protestant components that began at 7am on Sunday and lasted until almost noon: an organ voluntary, a motet, the Kyrie and Gloria, various hymns, gospels, prayers and announcements, communion, and a sermon whose mighty length was certain to turn listeners’ thoughts to the hereafter. Just before the sermon, to prepare the congregation for the inspired homily and to celebrate that Sunday’s special significance in the church calendar, a cantata was performed whose texts were taken from, based on, or inspired by one of the Biblical verses for the day. Except for the Sundays in Lent and Advent, Bach was required to prepare a cantata every week with his choristers from the Thomasschule, as well as for various special festivals, such as Christmas, Easter, and New Year’s Day — a total of 59 cantatas annually. During his tenure in Leipzig, Bach produced five complete annual service cycles, comprising some 300 sacred cantatas. The first two of these cycles (a total of 120 works) were completed during his first two years at the Thomaskirche (1723–1725) — an average of one new cantata every six days! (1723 was also the year of the Magnificat, the St. John Passion, a motet, a Sanctus, numerous organ works, and the birth of a short-lived daughter.) The third cycle was written between 1725 and 1727, and the fourth by 1729, but the last extended into the 1740s, Bach by that time having built up a large library from which he could draw to meet his needs.
Cantata No. 37, Wir da gläubet und getauft wird
Bach composed Cantata No. 37 in 1724 for the service observing Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, which that year fell on Sunday, May 18th. As do numerous cantatas of his first two annual cycles, this one begins with a phrase from the day’s relevant scripture — Wer da gläubet und getauft wird, der wird selig werden (Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be blessed”) — set for chorus, and concludes with a harmonization of an appropriate chorale verse, in this case the fourth stanza from Ich dank dir, lieber Herre (“I thank thee, dear Lord”) by the Swiss poet, philologist, and pedagogue Johann Kolrose (ca. 1487–1558). The intervening movements, usually for soloists, use chorale texts, Bible verses, or newly written poems meant to enhance and personalize the scriptural message for the day. The author of the texts of the tenor and bass arias and the bass recitative in Cantata No. 37 is unknown; the duet for soprano and alto is based on the words and music of the fifth verse of the chorale Herr Gott Vater, mein starker Held! (“Lord God Father, my mighty champion!”) by the German theologian Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608).
© 2011 Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Cantata No. 92, Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn
The chorale “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” is also known with another set of words “Ich hab’ in Gottes Herz und Sinn.” It is something of a tour de force that Bach uses the same tune with different words on adjacent Sundays. His setting of “Was mein Gott will,” was, particularly in its chorale portions, militant, brimming with energy and straightforward. For Septuagesima, the use of the tune is ambiguous, even mysterious. Many of these qualities have to do with the new words. But there is also a feeling that Bach can do anything he wants with these melodies. The first verse of the chorale speaks of the soul surrendering only to find the sure way to heaven. The opening orchestral statement has a submissive motive in the oboes d’amore. Its tonal answer by the violins is not only submissive but positively awkward in its melodic shape. All other musical material throughout the movement illustrates the climb back to heaven. With this simple group of opposing materials Bach builds a large and very impressive chorus. The mood is of quiet pleading and supplication. It couldn’t be more different than the military briskness of the Cantata BWV 111. The one interesting similarity of the two movements is that the repetition of the Stollen at the end of the Abgesang is again identical. It is a clever device for keeping the listener grounded as to where he is in this long and diffuse bar-form piece.
The second movement is one of Bach’s most difficult chorale-with-tropes movements. Here the distinction between chorale and recitative is blurred. For instance that bass coloration of the line of chorale “Wenn er mich auch gleich wirt ins Meer” melds into the tune underneath the following recitative. We have occasionally seen this in chorale tropes before, but not to this extent. The effect is one of confusion and storminess. The one reference to the sea in this verse becomes important. Although both “stormy” arias that follow do not specifically indicate it, Bach clearly hears them as seascapes.
The tenor aria #3 is the first sea piece. Against regular but agitated string figuration, a wild and irregular line in the first violin gives a vivid picture of a storm at sea. The tenor sings sometimes isolated yelps, sometimes jagged lines related to the string parts. The brilliant part of this piece is the regular rhythmic underpinning of the lower strings. It would sound like pandemonium without these lines.
In this cantata the chorale always returns as the voice of reason. In #4 two oboes d’amore play an expressive little motive in canon accompanying the simple alto statement of the chorale theme. The harmony is very much the world of the opening chorus. It is a kind of subtle chromaticism that is remarkably versatile. Look how Bach can color an opposing idea like “he knows when joy, he knows when sorrow.” In these brief bars, both joy and sorrow are fleeting. Neither is completely formed by the harmony. Each has an element of the other.
After a secco tenor recitative our second seascape, this time for bass with continuo occurs. It is a more orderly affair, more positive in outlook but nevertheless stormy. It is the kind of aria that could seem ordinary in its bluster if the phrasing and the juxtaposition of the bass to the voice weren’t so subtle and sophisticated. Again the chorale enters in to bring a sense of calm. Again the chorale-with-trope form is used but this time with the full chorus and solo voices providing the tropes. Just as in the second number in Cantata No. 3, each voice is represented, this time starting with the lowest voice. The soprano then ends the number segueing into the aria #8.
It is important to hear the previous sections as sea music because the pastoral elements of the soprano aria are key to its impact. The oboe d’amore plays a naïve and heartbreaking shepherd’s tune over the pizzicato strings. The boy soprano announces: “I will always be true to my shepherd.” After so much music that is in every way “at sea,” this simple pastoral piece is remarkably touching. Bach knows that after so much ambiguity and complexity— and make no mistake, this is one of the most psychologically complicated of all of the cantatas — this child-like faith is the only answer. As wonderful as this aria is as a separate piece, in its context it is overwhelming. Although the final chorale takes us back to the harmonic world of the opening, the sense of benediction in the harmonization is unmistakable.
© Craig Smith
Cantata No. 97, In allen meinen Taten
Cantata No. 97 is sui generis. It has as its text the first nine verses of the well-known hymn “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen,” originally a tune by the Renaissance composer Isaac but taken over by Paul Fleming in 1642 to become a mainstay of the Lutheran Chorale repertoire. Bach not only sets the nine verses unchanged but treats the whole cantata as a baroque suite; each aria, duet, and the opening chorus are identifiable as movements in the suite form.
The work opens with a grand French Overture, the traditional beginning of the form. The orchestra of oboes and strings plays the opening characteristic dotted figurations. At the middle section the chorus with the chorale in the sopranos enters. The bravura orchestral writing is reflected in the brilliant roulades in the lower voices of the chorus. The second verse is set for the bass voice and the continuo as a lively and virtuoso gigue. The third verse of the chorale appears as a secco recitative. The next verse is perhaps the greatest thing in the cantata. This aria for tenor, violin obbligato, and continuo is a broad Allemande portraying the mercy and protection of God. This is the most ambitious and far-reaching of all of Bach’s violin obbligati in the cantatas. Although the cantata has an autograph date of 1734, the violin writing is more characteristic of the virtuoso writing of the solo violin partitas and sonatas written in Cöthen in the early 1720s. Here the violin portrays a state of God’s grace which the tenor punctuates and comments upon. The alto recitative is accompanied by strings and leads into the unusual and thorny aria, also with strings. Here the composer clearly wants to confuse the listener rhythmically with the large number of syncopations and ambiguous downbeats. The lovely duet for soprano, bass, and continuo is, like virtually every movement in this work, more complicated than it seems. The soprano aria with two oboes is abstract and profound in its structure and content. The cantata ends with an elaborate harmonization for the four-voice choir with independent string parts.
This great cantata (and it is one of the very best) may seem more abstract and less emotionally involving than some of the more popular earlier works. It certainly is leading to Bach’s last profound period of composition of the German Organ Mass, the Musical Offering, and the Art of Fugue. Here, as in those great last works, Bach uses what is probably the greatest technique of any composer to sum up the wisdom of the age. Certainly, at the very least, this cantata is a remarkable compendium of all that can be said about this great chorale.
© Craig Smith
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.