Introduction The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) has been revered by listeners, churchgoers, and musicians of all stripes the world over for good reason: it is technically superb, artistically impeccable, symbolically rich, and emotionally satisfying, and performers find it among the most demanding music there is. This evening’s concert represents much of Bach’s long career with works of different genres, which reveal some elements that may surprise today’s audiences.
Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, into a devout Lutheran family of strong musical bent (and he extended this musical tradition to his children). An exceptional keyboard performer, he also played violin, and was even in his teens an outstanding organist; in his maturity he was respected as perhaps the best organist at least in Germany if not the world. Of the five major positions he held, three were as a church musician (at Arnstadt, 1703-1706, Mülhausen, 1707-1708, and Leipzig), meaning that he served variously as a church organist, choir director, and composer. At Arnstadt the 18-year-old Bach also began a tangent of his career as an organ inspector, tester, and exhibitor—work for which he would be sought through the rest of his life. At Weimar, 1708-1717, he was primarily a music teacher to the duke’s nephew, a court organist, chamber musician, and also a church organist and composer. At Anhalt-Cöthen, 1717-1723, in the completely secular position of Kapellmeister, he composed primarily for the elector and his instrumentalists. But he also was raising a family there, so he created extended didactic works systematically laid out to train young students, including his own children. Bach’s works from the Cöthen years range through all instrumental genres (and a few songs) except for organ: suites; sonatas and concertos; collections of educational works such as the clavier books for his wife, Anna Magdalena, and his son Wilhelm Friedemann; two- and three-part keyboard inventions; and the preludes and fugues comprising Book I of the Well-Tempered Keyboard.
By far Bach’s longest employment was at Leipzig, from 1723 until his death. Leipzig was a bastion of Lutheranism, and the city government was a de facto voice of church policy. Here, as the town council’s sixth choice for what was essentially a civic job—Director of Music for the city—Bach was obliged to provide, direct, and supervise music in the city’s two major churches, alternating between Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche, and at civic events, as well as at festivals at the church at Leipzig University. His “day job” was as Kantor (third in seniority) at St. Thomas School, where he was responsible for teaching singing and music skills to the boys, preparing them to perform the music in church services, and generally assisting with supervising their daily activities. He was originally required to teach subjects other than music, such as Latin and mathematics, but he quickly found a replacement whom he paid to take over those classes. For a period he also served as director of the collegium musicum at Leipzig University. Not surprisingly, because he needed music every week for the city’s two important churches, he was continually composing sacred works. The great majority of his cantatas are from this period, as are the passions, the Christmas and Easter oratorios, the Mass in B minor, the motets, and again collections of pedagogical works such as a portion of the Clavier-Übung and the Art of Fugue.
Two vocal genres that Bach needed for the church were cantatas and motets. The cantata, involving a choir, soloists, and instrumental accompaniment, usually begins and ends with a chorale, or Lutheran hymn, with which the congregation would be very familiar and would join at the end of the work. The body of the cantata would alternate between chorale verses, new prose set as recitative, and poetry set as an aria; all were generated from the scripture for that day. Thus the cantata formed a kind of supplement to the pastor’s sermon. Bach wrote hundreds of sacred cantatas, famously cycles for four years in Leipzig. Some 200 (about 60%) of the total for his career are extant.
Cantata BWV 8: Liebster Gott, wann werd’ ich sterben?
Composed in 1724 for the 16th Sunday of the season of Trinity (from Pentecost to Advent), this cantata employs soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists and choir, accompanied by horn, flute, two oboes d’amore, strings, and continuo (keyboard and cello). The first and last movements are settings of two verses of Casper Neumann’s chorale; the intervening movements—two arias, each followed by a recitative—are on anonymous texts. What sets this cantata apart musically is the importance of the obbligato instruments—flute and oboe d’amore—and the seeming airiness of the accompaniment throughout all but the final choral.
On its surface, the cantata strikes one as being one of Bach’s least prepossessing. What? Only two arias? Only two choral movements? And a reversed order of recitative and aria? But we should remember that Bach never wrote without purpose. His music in this cantata effectively shows the glorious adornments being slowly reduced until the final chorale stands without trappings, purely in its essence.
The text of the opening movement speaks of the individual believer’s acknowledgement of his mortality. The extended setting of the first chorale verse is one of the most remarkable examples of Bach’s sweet, gracious vision of the soul’s longing for death. In effect, there are six sonic units at work here. A duet between the two oboes d’amore forms the melodic basis in the orchestra; above them is a rapid, insistent flute note, appearing and disappearing, keeping metronomic time. Beneath these, the bass line moves in sedate clock-like regularity, while the pizzicato strings provide lacy harmony within which the choir presents its phrases. Adding to the airiness of the texture, the choir’s sopranos begin the chorale tune briefly alone before continuing on in their graceful modification of the chorale melody. The lower three parts, entering two beats after the sopranos, stand apart in a block with their own rhythmic pattern.
Liebster Gott, wenn werd’ ich sterben? Meine Zeit läuft immer hin. Und des allen Adams Erben, unter denen ich auch bin, haben dies zum Vaterteil, dass sie eine kleine Weil’ arm und elend sein auf Erden und dann selber Erde werden.
Dearest God, when will I die? My time is running out. And all of Adam’s heirs, of which I also am one, have this for a heritage, that they are poor and wretched for a short time on earth and then will themselves become earth.
The virtuosic aria that follows asks the soul what it will cast off in its last hour as the body draws toward its rest in earth. The tenor soloist is accompanied by the perpetual motion of a solo oboe d’amore. (The tenor’s beginning phrase recalls the opening line, “Wann kommst du, mein Heil” from a lovely duet that appeared seven years later in Cantata 140, in another instance of a soul longing for its companion.) Although lacking flute and one oboe d’amore, the still-rich embroidery of music here suggests the soul has an abundance of goods. No wonder that the following recitative struggles with end-of-life details!
Was willst du dich, mein Geist, entsetzen, wenn meine letzte Stunde schlägt? Mein Leib neigt täglich sich zur Erden, und da muss seine Ruh’statt werden, wohin man so viel tausend trägt.
My soul, what do you want to jettison when my last hour strikes? My body daily bends toward the earth, to which one bears so many thousand, and there must my resting place be.
The ensuing recitative is troubled by what will become of body and goods (the believer hasn’t executed his will yet?).
Zwar fühlt mein schwaches Herz Furcht, Sorgen, Schmerz: wo wird mein Leib die Ruhe finden? Wer wird die Seele doch von aufgelegtem Sündenjoch befreien und entbinden? Das Meine wird zerstreut, und wohin warden meine Lieben in ihrer Traurigkeit zerstreut vertrieben?
My faint heart well feels fear, trouble, pain; where will my body find rest? Who will release and set free the soul from the yoke of sin laid on it? My belongings will be scattered, and to where would my dear ones be scattered in their distracted sorrow?
As if to decide the matter, the next aria, a tour de force for bass soloist and lively flute obbligato, cheerfully tosses off those foolish cares, looking forward to meeting Jesus and rejecting worldly possessions so as to be “transfigured and splendid” before Jesus. The meter and jaunty jig rhythm infuse the music with the joy and lightness of being of one who anticipates throwing off burdensome worldly possessions.
Doch weichet ihr tollen vergeblichen Sorgen! Mich rufet mein Jesus: wer sollte nicht gehn? Nichts, was mir gefällt, besitzet die Welt! Erscheine mir seliger fröhlicher Morgen, verkläret und herrlich vor Jesu zu stehn.
Oh, soften, you foolish useless sorrows! My Jesus calls me—who shouldn’t go? The world possesses nothing that pleases me. Appear to me, blessed happy morning, to stand before Jesus transfigured and splendid.
In the following recitative, the believer bequeaths his weakness (of faith) and his belongings to the world he is leaving in favor of eternal life.
Behalte nur o Welt das Meine! Du nimst ja selbst mein Fleisch und mein Gebeine, so nimm auch meine Armut hin; genug, dass mir aus Gottes Überfluss das höchste Gut noch werden muss, genug dass ich dort reich und selig bin. Was aber ist von mir zu erben, als meines Gottes Vatertreu? Die wird ja alle Morgen neu, und kann nicht sterben.
O world, keep my goods! You surely take my flesh and my bones, so take away my weakness as well. It is enough that the highest good from God’s abundance must yet be for me, enough that I am rich and blessed there. But what will I inherit as my God’s fatherly trust? It will indeed be renewed every morning, and cannot die.
In the final chorale, the believer prays for a courageous spirit in death and burial in honor. The setting of this chorale verse is devoid of the external “stuff” that enriched previous movements.
Herrscher über Tod und Leben, mach’ einmal mein Ende gut, lehre mich den Geist aufgeben, mit recht wohl gefasstem Mut! Hilf dass ich ein ehrlich Grab, neben frommen Christen hab, und auch endlich in der Erde nimmermehr zu Schanden werde.
Ruler over Death and Life, one day make my death good; teach me to give up my spirit with right good courage! Help me to have an honorable grave near pious Christians, and also, finally in the earth, nevermore to be disgraced.