In 2018, the Oldest Bach Choir in the United States, The Bach Choir of Bethlehem celebrates its 120th birthday season. The choir gave the first complete U.S. performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor in [...]
J. S. Bach: Cantata BWV 21
They spoke about it
This recording frames a Bach cantata with two exquisite arias.
Soprano aria “Heil und Segen” from cantata Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille (BWV 120)
It begins with the soprano aria “Heil und Segen” (salvation and blessing), the fourth movement of the city council cantata, Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille (BWV 120), composed around 1728–1729 and performed again in 1742. But the aria was composed much earlier, during Bach’s time in Köthen (1717–1723), as part of an unknown work. The interweaving of the concertato violin and soprano voice makes it one of Bach’s most beautiful arias, the two melodic lines intertwining to illustrate the last line of the libretto: “justice and faithfulness must kiss each other in friendship.”
Cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21)
Cantata BWV 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, was composed for various occasions between 1713 and 1714; with nearly every performance it was expanded by additional movements. The opening sinfonia, effectively a trio for oboe, violin, and continuo, is followed by a sturdy chorus in two sections. The first section is built on a fugal theme derived from Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor (Op. 3, No. 11), which Bach transcribed for organ (BWV 596) and which was also the stimulus for his organ fugue in G Major (BWV 541). The whole movement turns on the adagio chords of measure 38 and the word “aber” (but): “I have deep distress… but your consolations revive my soul” (Psalm 94:19). Here, as often occurs in the cantatas, a contrast is drawn between the Law that condemns and the Gospel that forgives. The third movement is an incredibly beautiful and poignant soprano aria in a trio with oboe and cello that features dissonant word-painting on “Schmerz” (grief/pain). The subsequent tenor recitative leads to a tenor aria in which the da capo form first expresses a restrained confidence but then breaks out into an energetic confident fanfare. The chorus that brings the first part to a close, like the first chorus, is in two sections: a homophonic setting in a quasimotet style followed by a strict permutation fugue – the answer “Hope in God” to the question “Why are you cast down, my soul” (Psalm 42:11).
The cantata’s second part was heard as musica sub communionen, i.e., during communion. There are suitable Eucharistic overtones in this part. For example, the eighth movement has the line “Heil durch diesen Saft der Reben” (salvation through the juice of grapes), and the tenth movement features the wordplay “Weinen – Wein” (weep – wine). The first two movements of the second part (7 and 8) are duets in which the soprano represents the voice of the individual soul and the bass the voice of Christ. Movement nine is a mature and haunting chorale motet on the melody Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, with the tenor part singing the chorale melody of the first stanza and the other voice parts weaving independent, imitative counterpoint; in the second stanza, the soprano takes the melody – a masterly effect. The tenth movement is a tenor da capo aria in a joyful and confident 3/8 with continuo accompaniment. The cantata concludes with an overt and bright chorus that stands in stark contrast to the opening chorus. Here, for the first time, trumpets and timpani are heard (the original timpani part is lost and has been reconstructed). As with the second and sixth movements, it is in two sections: the first, a homophonic section with obbligato orchestra marked “Grave”; the second, an allegro permutation fugue that foreshadows Handel’s later style.
Alto aria “Liebt, ihr Christen, in der Tat” from cantata Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (BWV 76)
The recording ends with the alto aria “Liebt, ihr Christen, in der Tat” (love, you Christians, is expressed in deeds), the twelfth movement of the second cantata Bach composed in Leipzig, written in 1723 for the second Sunday after Trinity. The two-part cantata, comprising 14 movements, begins with a celebratory movement, “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (BWV 76, “the heavens declare the glory of God,” Psalm 19:2), a bubbling expression of praise, embellished with obbligato trumpet. The cantata must have impressed the Leipzigers, who were hearing the music of their new Cantor for only the second time after he took up his appointment. But Bach could also be reflective, as in this alto aria that occurs towards the end of the cantata, before a recitative and concluding chorale. In a lilting 6/8, against a trio of oboe d’amore, viola da gamba, and continuo, the voice sings an intimate love song.
© Robin A. Leaver 2018