Arias from the cantatas for tenor and obbligato instruments.
Gregory Massingham and the Bach Soloists
1. Woferne du den edlen Frieden (BWV 41) 9:20
2. Ach, senke doch den Geist der Frieden (BWV 73) 3:30
3. Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht (BWV 78) 3:10
4. Der Glaube ist der Pfand der Liebe (BWV 37) 5:27
5. Wo wird in diesem Jammertale (BWV 114) 11:40
6. Ich traue seiner Gnaden (BWV 97) 6:20
7. Ermunt’re dich dein Heiland klopt (BWV180) 6:00
8. Ich will an den Himmel denken (BWV 166) 7:15
9. Handle nicht nach deinen Rechten (BWV 101) 3:10
10. Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten (BWV 36) 6:00
Gregory Massingham (Tenor) Tr 1-10
Michele Walsh (Violin) Tr 4,6,8
Meta Weiss (Violoncello) Tr 1
Eve Newsome (Oboe & Oboe d’amore) Tr2,8,10
Virginia Taylor (Flute) Tr 7
Vernon Hill (Flute) Tr 3,5
Christopher Wrench (Organ continuo) Tr 1-10
Louise King (Cello continuo) Tr 3,4,5,6,7,9
David Mitchell (Bassoon continuo) Tr 2,8,10
Recorded October/November 2017
Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University
Recording Engineer: David Spearritt
Mastering: David Spearritt
Having spent a lifetime of musical experiences that have continually returned to the works of JS Bach I, like many who have shared that privilege, continue to be in awe of the quality and power of his music. In planning this project, perhaps the hardest thing was selecting just a handful of arias from that vast array of wonders contained in the cantatas. Bach’s consistency and level of invention is simply astonishing, particularly when one considers the speed at which he was required to work.
However, even more than his craftsmanship I marvel how Bach’s works, particularly his sacred works, continue to resonate strongly in an increasingly secular world. His music has a ‘spiritual’ dimension like few others, and while steeped in an established religious tradition, deals with matters that reach beyond dogma. How does the unbeliever, or those of different faiths, approach Bach’s music? Do they attune to the music only and ignore the words? One can certainly achieve a good degree of satisfaction by doing so, however, so wedded to the text is Bach’s musical rhetoric, that the listener receives only a limited experience by doing so. Clearly, the cantatas were written in the vernacular so that the texts would be understood, just as the musical gestures that he weaves owe their genesis to the word. Bach’s music stirs the ‘divine’ attributes that lurk within us all – the realisation of which we often fall short! – and can distil a spiritual lesson from what was originally a doctrinal one.
Thus the universal quest for peace evoked in Woferne du den edlen Frieden (BWV 41) becomes an invocation, extoling those who strive for it. Wo wird in diesem Jammertale (BWV 114) meditates upon the suffering at the heart of earthly existence. The trusting embrace of Christ’s arms can be re-assigned to that of any compassionate soul, and even challenges the more fortunate of us to act in this capacity. Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten (BWV 36) needs to alter little of its text to affirm a universal truth. Even texts that explicitly extol the virtues of Christian faith can accommodate a collective spirituality. Thus, in Der Glaube ist der Pfand der Liebe (BWV 37), the word Faith can be assigned an ancillary quality, such as ‘loyalty’ or ‘trust’ and so align with the essence of Bach’s message.
No doubt Bach would be astonished that his music still had currency centuries after his death but probably more so to know that such appreciation was shared by believers and unbelievers alike.
A commentary on the arias
1. Woferne du den edlen Frieden
Cantata 41: “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset”
Just as you have decreed noble peace for our bodies and situation, so give our souls your word to gladden us. If we engage with this holiness, we will be blessed here on earth and be among the chosen ones in heaven.
A cantata for the New Year, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset predictably focuses upon God’s blessings to his people and the hope of prosperity in the coming year. The tenor aria sustains this idea while adding a new intimacy through the choice of obbligato instrument. As John Eliot Gardiner suggests, Bach’s rare use of the violoncello piccolo is reserved for special occasions and often represents the figure of Christ as Good Shepherd, protector of his people. The instrumental line certainly dominates this aria and calls for virtuoso playing of a high order. Bach’s writing for the instrument, played upon a conventional cello in this recording, ranges from low C to high B as if to encompass the realms of both earth and heaven envisioned in the text.
2. Ach, senke doch den Geist der Freuden
Cantata 73: “Herr, wie du willt, so schick's mit mir”
Ah! Instil the spirit of joy within my heart.
Often, my spiritual frailty causes joy and hope to waver and be timid.
If there was any doubt that the “Geist” referred to in the text was indeed “der heilige Geist” (‘the Holy Spirit’), the third person of the Trinity, such doubt is laid to rest by the prevalence of the number three that permeates the musical texture. Furthermore the descending figure, announced initially by the oboe, is surely indicative of the Holy Spirit’s descent from Heaven into the hearts of mankind, itself being constituted of three parts. While the middle section maintains this gesture it also adds a reflective tone that alludes to human frailty. Appropriately, Bach fashions some apt musical metaphors on words such as zaghaft (‘timid’) and wanken (‘waver’).
3. Das Blut so meine Schuld durchstreicht
Cantata 78: “Jesu, der du meine Seele”
That blood which cancels out my guilt makes my heart light again and sets me free.
If the throngs of Hell call me to battle, then Jesus stands by my side, so that I am heartened and triumphant.
BWV 78 is rightly regarded as among the greatest of Bach’s cantatas. The opening choral fantasia is of such a scale and intensity as to rival those found in the great Passions and the famous duet for soprano and alto that follows (Wir eilen mit Schwachen) is one of Bach’s most intoxicating creations. An extended tenor recitative plunges us back into the world of guilt and sin where the allegory of ‘leprosy’ (Aussatz) is used as a potent symbol of sin. The mood of this intensely self-absorbed recitative is somewhat alleviated by this aria that follows. Here, Christ’s sacrifice is celebrated as liberating the soul, making the spirit light – a concept that Bach underscores by the aria’s dance-like character and choice of flute and pizzicato cello continuo.
4. Der Glaube ist der Pfand der Liebe
Cantata 37: “Wer da gläubet und getauft wird”
Faith is the pledge of love which Jesus nurtures in his own people. So, when he wrote me into the book of life, he bestowed this jewel upon me purely from an impulse of love.
This is the first Ascension cantata that Bach wrote but curiously contains no explicit reference to that event. Rather the text focuses upon Christ’s last words to his disciples just prior to his ascent to Heaven.
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved … (Mark 16:15-16)
And so, it is that aspect of faith that is the central issue addressed in this aria No extant violin part remains yet it is clear one is required and needs to be reconstructed. While the aria is in the expected da capo form, it is interesting and unusual, that the material used in the B section is very closely related to that of the A section. Such elements are rarely arbitrary in Bach’s works and here it is interesting to speculate upon the rhetorical purpose of Bach’s writing. Could it be that his opening statement is so compelling that it requires no alternative or supporting proposition? Are we to conclude that Bach sees Faith as steadfast, unchanging and resolute? Or is it that the ‘impulse of love’, that is at the heart of the gift of Faith, is as unfaltering as the gift itself?
5. Wo wird in diesem Jammertale
Cantata 114: “Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost”
Where, in this vale of sorrows, can my spirit find refuge?
Although weak, I will entrust myself solely to the fatherly hands of Jesus; otherwise I do not know where to turn.
The extraordinary opening chorus, where Bach integrates opposing themes of both anxiety and consolation, leads us directly into this harrowing aria. Bach tends to reserve the key of D minor for movements of intense emotion and to augment the bleakness of this text, this tonal texture is sparse and arid. The improvisational style of the flute part powerfully conveys the disposition of the lost soul searching for release. Seven times the singer asks the prevailing question, as the poignant flute writing searches probingly for a way through the vale of misery. The persistent question is finally answered by a totally new spirit wherein the lamentation is turned to joy in the protective arms of Christ. But the return to the austerity of the A section is inevitable and it serves not only as the expected structural device of a da capo aria but, perhaps more meaningfully, to remind us that suffering is an integrated part of our lives and while there may be episodes of joy to temporarily relieve us, the inevitability of its return is ever present.
6. Ich traue seiner Gnaden
Cantata 97: “In allen meinen Taten”
I trust in his grace, which protects me from all harm and evil. If I live according to his laws, then there is nothing that can hurt me, nor is there anything of any importance that I lack.
This cantata is one of Bach’s least well known or performed. Ton Koopman suggests that it may have originally been written for the occasion of a wedding and the generally positive aspects of the text might confirm this. The recurring theme is that of God’s protection and mankind’s security if aligned to his precepts.
This aria features one of the most elaborate of Bach’s violin parts. With its substantial introduction and interlude, the violin dominates the texture of the movement and this exuberant gesture is surely Bach’s way of indicating the all-encompassing protection of God’s love. In response, the singer’s restatement and highlighting of the word ‘nichts’ (wird mich nichts verletzen – ‘nothing can ever hurt me’) is the faithful soul’s supreme declaration of trust.
7. Ermunt’re dich dein Heiland klopt
Cantata 180: “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele”
Stir yourself! Your shepherd knocks. Quickly, open the door to your heart! Even though, in enchanted delight, you only have stuttering words of joy to speak to your Jesus.
This cantata, written for the 20th Sunday after Trinity, illuminates the central reading for that day being Christ’s parable of the King issuing an invitation to a wedding banquet. When the chosen invitees do not respond, he sends his servants out into the highways and byways summoning the lowest of society to join him in their stead. It is this invitation to holiness, especially as a call to the disenfranchised, that dominates the theology of the cantata. This delightful aria is confirmation – if such was needed - that Bach indeed did have a sense of humour. We first hear the gentle, yet insistent, ‘doors knocks’ in the cello continuo - a repetitive figure that is echoed by the flute. The breathlessness of the pervading joy (Schweitzer’s three note ‘joy’ motif permeates the aria) is not only evoked by the vocal and instrumental demands that Bach puts upon his performers’ lungs but also rhetorically by the suspension of time on words such as ‘entzückter’ (delight) and ‘gebroch’ne’ (broken) in order to ‘catch one’s breath’.
8. Ich will an den Himmel denken
Cantata 166: “Wo gehest du hin?”
I will think upon heavenly things and not give my heart to the world.
Whether I go or stay, this question preys on my mind: ‘Ah! Mankind, where are you heading?’
As the title of this cantata, suggests (“Where are you going?”), the theological theme pursued considers mankind’s potential for waywardness and unpreparedness for death. There is a missing instrumental part to complement the existing oboe part in this aria (generally assumed to be a violin) which, given Bach’s extant material is easily enough reconstructed. The ensuing canonic entries of these obbligati instruments, clearly indicate the path that the voice (an allegory for mankind?) should take. The text of the B section presents elements of doubt as we are compelled to reflect upon Man’s wayward nature. Here the hitherto faultless leads given by the instruments are more fragmented as the insistent question that preys upon the mind is posited. Never has a ‘da capo’ been more rhetorically appropriate than Bach’s return here, confirming the pathway back from any doubt that may have been hinted at in the B section.
9. Aria: Handle nicht nach deinen Rechten
Cantata 101: Nimm von uns Herr, du treuer Gott.
Do not deal with us according to your law, we who are evil slaves of sin.
Let your sword of vengeance rest. Most High, hear our pleas, so that through our sinful actions we may not perish like Jerusalem.
Cantata 101 is an austere and imposing work. The opening chorus speaks of 'Seuchen, Feur und großem Leid' (‘contagion, fire and grievous pain’), language to which Bach responds with some of his most chromatic writing. The text of this opening, large scale, chorus is a plea to annul our guilt and protect us from war and pestilence, a theme that is elaborated in this aria, which immediately follows. The obbligato violin (originally for flute but re-assigned by Bach in this later version) acts like the hand of God, menacingly wielding the ‘sword of vengeance’ but also benignly beckoning the hopeful soul heavenward, in contrast to the plummeting vocal line that evokes the destruction of Jerusalem.
10. Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten
Cantata 36: “Schwingt freudig euch empor”
With gentle steps, love steadily draws the true beloved forth.
Just as a bride feels delight when she sees her bridegroom, so too the heart follows Jesus.
This aria focuses upon the allegory of Christ as the bridegroom of his church and while the music is mostly the reworking of an earlier secular cantata, there is a surprising aptness to the Advent text. The beguiling tone of the oboe d’amore (the instrument of love!) introduces a gentle yet noble theme that surely draws its contours from the ‘sanften Schritten’ (‘gentle steps’), a phrase that was retained from the original secular model. The adverb ‘allgemach’ (‘gradually’) is peculiar to the sacred text, yet is subtly evoked by the voice’s long melisma - mirrored by that of the oboe d’amore - climbing tone by tone to its climax. In the B section, where the bride/bridegroom allegory is explicitly stated, the continuo takes on a life of its own that gracefully suggests the delight prompted by the ‘entzücket’ in the text.