Other recommended albums
The largest single group of works surviving from Bach’s huge output has generally, since the publication of the Bach Gesellschaft edition in the second half of the nineteenth century, been included under the description ‘cantata’. (It is worth mentioning here that it was this publication which established the numbers by which the cantatas are well known but which bear no relation whatsoever to their chronological sequence of composition. Cantata No 1 post-dates the last-numbered church cantata, No 199, by some twenty-six years.)
A typical Bach cantata might consist of an opening chorus, alternating recitatives and arias, and a chorale to close. His librettists often used the word ‘cantata’ but Bach himself preferred, when he used a name at all, the older word for a work for voices and instruments, ‘concerto’. ‘Cantata’ he reserved for works modelled on the Italian secular cantata in the form made familiar by Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel and consisting just of recitatives and arias, generally for one voice and continuo. Remarkably few of Bach’s cantatas are written in this manner, for even those which lack chorus tend to use a variety of soloists. But these two CDs are devoted to three of the best-known works—one sacred, two secular—which use the Italian form.
Ich habe genug, Cantata No 82, was first performed at Leipzig on the Feast of the Purification on Sunday 2 February 1727. The Purification commemorates an incident recorded by St Luke. Mary takes the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to offer the ritual sacrifices. The officient is Simeon:
And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, then he took him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel’.
The cantata links Simeon’s joyful resignation to death with the Christian’s hope of heaven.
The words of the opening aria paraphrase the Nunc dimittis, or ‘Song of Simeon’. We hear first a rocking string figure which accompanies a solo oboe in a phrase very like the violin solo in ‘Erbarme dich’ from the St Matthew Passion. As in the Passion, the instrumental bass has a pulsating descent. A generation earlier a composer would probably have built the movement upon it as a ground; Bach is less systematic, though the descending figure occurs throughout the aria. The solo voice (here, as in most performances, a bass, though Bach also performed the work with soprano and with alto) takes up the mood of resignation from the oboe, though just before the final instrumental repeat of the opening section he has an exultant flourish on the words ‘mit Freuden’ (‘with joy’).
The following recitative again draws attention to the words ‘mit Freuden’, since only then does Bach set more than one note per syllable. The second aria was evidently a favourite in the Bach household for it appears, at a pitch suitable for soprano, in Anna Magdalena Bach’s Harpsichord Book. Bach’s imagination responds to the first few words and he writes a lullaby with a rocking movement and a prominent, soporific flat seventh. After a short recitative ending with a descending scale for the continuo at ‘Welt, gute Nacht’ (‘World, goodnight!’), the oboe, silent in the preceding aria, returns to double the violin in a lively final aria beginning with a contrasting ascending scale. The change in mood is immediate. A modern listener, believer or not, may find the pietist joy in death unappealing; but Bach implies more explicitly than the text that the joy is not just the resigned one of content at having recognised Christ, but a positive eagerness for the joys of the world to come.
Nothing is known of the origins of Cantata No 202, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten. It survives in a single manuscript score copied in about 1730 and now owned by the German music publishers, Peters. But there seems no reason to doubt the assumption that it dates from Bach’s time at Cöthen. He was employed by music-loving Prince Leopold from 1717 until 1723 in a position of such eminence (he was the second-highest paid in the princely household) that must have made the less respected and harder-worked position in Leipzig, which he held for the rest of his life, difficult to bear. Much of his instrumental output seems to have originated during his Cöthen days. He was also expected to compose cantatas for the new year and for the princely family birthdays. This modest cantata must have been written for the secular part of a wedding celebration, perhaps at springtime if the text is to be taken literally. It is one of Bach’s happiest works.
There are nine movements. The even-numbered ones are recitatives, each short and quickly turning into arioso, uneventful except in number 8 when the bass suddenly becomes active at the mention of thunder. The da capo form is used for only three of the arias. In the first we do not expect it, since the opening section has the freedom of an arioso. The opening string arpeggios suggest something unfolding—one might fancifully think of the buds opening in spring. When the oboe enters it has a sinuous, florid line from which the voice borrows melismas for ‘Weichet’ (‘withdraw’, ‘be gone’) and ‘betrübte’ (‘melancholy’, ‘dull’). Bach varies the scoring for each aria: the next one uses the minimum accompaniment—continuo only. The vigorous theme illustrates the sun god restlessly driving his horses through the sky and is borrowed from the Sixth Sonata for violin and harpsichord. (This may be adduced to justify the unconventional performance without cello.)
In the following aria the solo violin impersonates the breezes caressing the flowers; the diminuendi in the ritornelli are, unusually, indicated in the score. The oboe returns for a trio with voice and continuo, very much in the manner of the chamber music which Bach was writing at the time. (It also strongly resembles the jig-like aria ‘Doch weichet’ in Cantata No 8 of 1724, also thought to derive from an instrumental movement.)
The cantata closes with a brief gavotte, first on the instruments, then sung, with accompanying figuration passing from instrument to instrument and finally played by the ensemble. The wedding celebrations can now continue with dancing.
The eighteenth-century English novelist and clergyman, Laurence Sterne, remarked in one of his sermons that ‘joy’ was another word for religion. His view was not idiosyncratic but rather an eighteenth-century attitude which goes some way towards assisting an enquiring twentieth-century mind to understand the apparent ease with which Bach incorporated in his church cantatas music originally performed in a secular context. Writers and audiences are sometimes perplexed by the lack of distinction which Bach made between sacred and secular, but, whilst this is understandable, Bach’s methods, like Sterne’s remark, reflect currents of thought common in the so-called Age of Reason. Bach, therefore, would have considered that if the labour and artistic skill which he lavished on music conceived for secular purposes was on a high enough level then it was equally suitable in a religious context. Thus in later years he made use of some of the ‘hunting cantata’ music in his Whitsun cantata, BWV68, and in a cantata for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, BWV149.
Bach was in his early twenties when in 1708 he accepted an invitation from Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar to join the court orchestra. Among the many duties he performed was that of providing cantatas both for the royal chapel and for important secular occasions. The cantatas of Bach’s Weimar period are comparatively few but they are, without exception, of the highest musical distinction. The present work, Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd!, was composed as a congratulatory cantata for Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weissenfels. This man, unlike the more unassuming Duke Wilhelm Ernst, sought to rival the almost legendary splendour of life at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV which was then drawing to a close; but we may perhaps doubt, even so, if he appreciated Bach’s festive music as being the product of a talent which surpassed by far anything that he nurtured under his own roof.
The particular occasion for which Bach produced his earliest surviving secular cantata was probably the birthday of the Sachsen-Weissenfels duke in 1713. It fell on 23 February and the festivities at Weissenfels lasted several days, since the duke liked to do things in style. Indeed, after several years of opulent living, the finances of his dukedom had to be put under the supervision of the Emperor’s own estate management.
Duke Christian was a passionate huntsman, and the librettist, Salomo Franck, who was the Weimar diocesan secretary, took this into account when providing Bach with an attractive variant on a classical legend concerning the goddess Diana. Weissenfels was an active centre of German opera at the time, where libretti on mythological subjects seem to have been particularly favoured. Johann Philipp Krieger was the leading composer here and he too, doubtless, provided birthday music for the duke. Bach’s autograph score has survived and so has his working copy of Franck’s libretto, but the original parts have been lost. The arias and ensembles, with their colourful orchestration and youthful vigour, create a larger-than-life picture of courtly conviviality so it is hardly surprising that Bach performed the work on subsequent occasions as well as parodying three of its movements in church cantatas of his Leipzig years.
The scene is set in a forest glade where, in her opening recitative and aria, Diana, goddess of the hunt, declares her love of the sport. An arioso section in the recitative is especially effective in the way that Bach traces the path of an arrow in lively semiquaver continuo figurations; this is set in contrast with a brief adagio passage preceding it in which Diana sights her prey. The two corni da caccia in the aria vividly characterise the ‘sport of the gods’. Endymion remonstrates with her, hoping that she will find time for pleasures in which he can share. His recitative, too, merges into arioso, whilst his aria is built on an ostinato basso continuo. In a recitative which develops into a florid Italianate duo, Diana and Endymion agree to make the day a feast of splendour. They are joined by Pan, god of flocks and shepherds. In a secco recitative he lays down his badge of office—a shepherd’s crook—in deference to Duke Christian. His aria, in which he likens the duke to himself—a prince is the Pan of his country—is richly and evocatively scored for two oboes and an oboe da caccia, instruments long associated with pastoral settings. Bach later parodied this movement in a Whitsun cantata for 1725, ‘Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt’, BWV68.
The fourth and last character to appear in the pastoral vignette is Pales, a shadowy, mythical figure, sometimes male, sometimes female, but here presenting herself as goddess of crops and pastures. In her recitative, whose soft caressing phrases and natural melodic flow give it particular appeal, Pales, like Pan, offers homage to the Saxon duke. Her aria, in strong contrast to the preceding one, is scored for two treble recorders and continuo. It takes us into what must rank in Baroque music as among the most pleasing evocations of a pastoral landscape: ‘Schafe können sicher weiden’—such are the conditions in a wisely ruled dukedom! Diana, in a short recitative invites her companions to join with her in festivities. In a choral fugue whose vocal sections are effectively punctuated by an instrumental ritornello, the voices enter in descending order to wish the duke a long life.
The remainder of the cantata is made up of three solo movements and a vocal ensemble in which the virtues of the duke are extolled. Recitative is no longer required since there is no more story to tell, so Bach dispenses with it. In a duet, Diana and Endymion, accompanied by a violin obbligato, sing a joyful song to the prince. Pales follows their example in an aria whose melody, with its simple, folk-like character floats above a quasi-ostinato bass. This ostinato later became the fundament of a much more widely known aria, ‘Mein glaubiges Herz’, in the Whitsun cantata, BWV68. But, interestingly, Bach placed the fourth note of the ostinato up a fourth in the church cantata and this later version with its greater variety of pattern is, perhaps, more effective. Another curiosity connected with this movement concerns the instrumental ritornello, BWV1040, which in Bach’s autograph is appended to the ‘hunting cantata’. Since in BWV68 it is linked with the corresponding ostinato-based aria, with which it has close thematic connection, we can, perhaps, assume that Bach later intended it to be played in both contexts.
The single remaining aria is given to Pan. His salutations to the prince are contained in a supple dance-like movement in ‘da capo’ form with robust continuo support. The cantata ends with a concerted ‘da capo’ movement for the four dramatis personae. The writing is full of contrasts—in colour, texture and form—and the ideas are more developed than in the preceding chorus. The piece is introduced by rousing horn-calls whose motif is taken up intermittently by cello and bassoon and finally by oboes and upper strings too.
The resonant character of the music and the unashamed textual eulogies must have been a source of gratification both to the leisure-inclined prince and to his generous host. Bach used this music in a different context on two subsequent occasions. The first was in a reconstructed form in his cantata for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, ‘Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg in den Hütten der Gerechten’ BWV149 (1728/29). The second was in a council election cantata performed in 1740 for which the music has not survived.
The present recording pursues a theory evolved by the late Professor Thurston Dart. He noted similarities in the scoring between the cantata and an early version of what was later to become the Brandenburg Concerto No 1 in F, BWV1046. His suggestion was that the two works might have been performed on the same occasion as part of the duke’s birthday serenade at Sachsen-Weissenfels. The movements of the Concerto included in this recording are its opening Allegro, the Menuet and Trios I and II. These movements are common to both the earlier and later versions of the Brandenburg Concerto No 1 but there are important differences in Bach’s scoring. In the earlier version (BWV1046a) there is no ‘violino piccolo’ which features in the first three movements of the fair copy which Bach dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, and in Trio II the horns are partnered by a violin which follows a musically distinct line from that of the oboe which replaced it in the later version. Bach’s continuo instruments seem to have been far from standardised at this time and, since the original parts of the cantata have not survived, it is impossible to know what Bach’s precise wishes were. But it is interesting to note that both in the cantata and in the earlier version of the Concerto the bass lines are allocated individually to a cello and ‘violone grosso’ without there being any indication of 16' string pitch.
Clifford Bartlett © 1982