In my page on Bach—and Daoist ritual, I cited John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant Music in the castle of heaven. For Easter Week, I’ve been re-reading Chapter 9, “Cycles and seasons”. At least in an increasingly secularised north Europe, our awareness of the rich annual programme has been severely diluted—but it does remind me of the continuing calendrical rituals of Chinese temple fairs.
Bach’s church cantatas were performed not for “concerts” but as part of religious services. As in Chinese ritual, elements within them could be recycled. However, whereas minimal change—both conscious and unconscious—was doubtless a feature of the Daoist soundscape (as in much of the world), Bach’s congregation grew used to hearing new music every week.
Gardiner places the Passions within the cycle of cantatas (note also the vast database on bachcantatas.com).
On the face of it, there is little reason to bother about Bach’s cantatas today. Never intended to be performed or listened to other than as part of a lengthy church service, they were composed (and rehearsed) each week at great speed to act as a foretaste of the Sunday sermon. *
Whereas Charles Rosen disputed the “fashionable” placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principle achievement, seeking to return to the conception of the keyboard works as central to his oeuvre, Gardiner cites John Butt (see Passion at the Proms, and Playing with history):
Cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle.
Bach devoted himself to such cycles, first at Weimar (with twenty-two extant church cantatas) and then in Leipzig, notably in his first few years there from 1723. Even in the “closed” seasons of Advent and Lent, when no figural music was allowed in church, he was busy preparing new works.
Following his cantatas in their seasonal context also allows us to notice how Bach, like Janâček two centuries later, often brings to the surface pre-Christian rituals and forgotten connections that reflect the turning of the agricultural year—the certainty of the land, its rhythms and rituals, the unerring pace of its calendar and the vagaries of rural weather. Saxony in the 18th century was still a predominantly agrarian society in which these seasonal events and happenings were closely linked to the concerns of religion—reminding us how, in today’s predominantly urban society, many of us tend to lose contact with the rhythms and patterns of the farming calendar and even with perceptions of the basic, cyclical round of life and death which feature prominently in so many of Bach’s cantatas. […] For Bach to remind his urban audience of Leipzig burghers of the patterns of seed-time and harvesting existing just beyond their city walls was nothing unusual, and the rhythms and rituals of the agrarian year frequently seep through into his music, giving it topicality and currency as well as a layer of simple rusticity.
Among their doctrinal messages, the cantatas allude to sowing, corn-flattening summer storms, bird damage, crop-failure. Rediscovering this seasonal basis on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000
was markedly different from the conventional practices of music-making we were used to in concert halls, which, however persuasive, cannot help but carry resonances foreign to the intrinsic purpose of the music.
Through his hectic first Leipzig cycle, Bach’s self-imposed task was to keep pace with the weekly demand:
There was the copying out of parts and guiding his (as yet) untried group of young musicians in how to negotiate the hazards of his startling and challenging music with a bare minimum of rehearsal. […] Come the day, there was first a long, cold wait in an unheated church, then a single shot at a daunting target. Then, without a backward glance, on to the next, maintaining a relentless rhythm. […]
One marvels at how he and his performers could have met these challenges. We shall of course never know how well they acquitted themselves and just how well the music was performed under such pressure.
As Gardiner notes,
The underlying theology is at times unappetising [to us today, that is—SJ]—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement.
Here I can only sample Gardiner’s vivid commentaries on individual cantatas. In BWV 25, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, the dark text (such as “The whole world is but a hospital”; Adam’s Fall “has defiled us all and infected us with leprous sin”) is somehow healed by Bach’s setting:
For another of many doom-laden cantatas, see Lukewarm Laodiceans and puffed-up Pharisees.
As autumn passes into winter the themes of the week become steadily grimmer as the faithful are urged to reject the world, its lures and snares, and to focus on eventual union with God—or risk the horror of permanent exclusion.
After Advent the mood is lightened by the glorious explosion of festive music for the Christmas season (for the Christmas oratorio, see under Weimar here). Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121), for the Feast of St Stephen, is “one of the oldest-feeling of all Bach’s cantatas”, adding cornett and trombones to the orchestration.
Replacing the portrayals of dancing seraphim are images of those angular, earnest faces that 15th-century Flemish painters use to depict the shepherds gazing into the manger-stall. […] Bach’s design for this cantata mirrors the change from darkness to light and shows how the moment when Christians celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world coincides with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice.
For a change, here’s Ton Koopman directing:
But there was no respite: Bach composed six new cantatas for the period between Epiphany to the beginning of Lent—including the operatic Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81), with Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here’s Koopman again:
Always pushing the boundaries of the Leipzig councilmen’s warnings about excessive theatricality, such music leads to Holy Week and Bach’s Passions.
Bach opened his second Leipzig cantata cycle on 11th June 1724 with another setting of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20), again evocatively described by Gardiner. Time for some Sigiswald Kuijken:
The opening chorus of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, for the tenth Sunday after Trinity) features a trio of oboes, the voices doubled by archaic cornetto and trombones, and dissonances for the “grave punishment and great distress” of the hymn text. In the “rage” aria for bass the oboes become “a kind of latter-day [sic] saxophone trio”; and the pairing of flute and oboe da caccia that complements the soprano and alto duet foretells Ausliebe in the Matthew Passion. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt:
Gardiner contrasts Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65) and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen (BWV 123), written for Epiphany in successive years. The first is “oriental and pageant-like”; getting a bit carried away, he describes
high horns to convey majesty and antiquity, recorders to represent the high pitches traditionally associated with oriental music, and still more, oboes da caccia so redolent—to the modern ear—of the Macedonian zurla, the salmai of Hindustan and the nadaswaram from Tamil Nadu. […] With their haunting sonority these “hunting oboes” seem to belong the world of Marco Polo—of caravans traversing the Silk Route—and it remains something of a mystery how a specialist wind-instrument-maker, Herr Johann Eichentopf of Leipzig, could have invented this magnificent modern tenor oboe with its curved tube and flared brass bell around 1722 unless he had heard one of those oriental prototypes played by visitors to one of Leipzig’s trade fairs.
(Cf. my fantasy of Bach on the erhu.) Indeed, the riches of Bach’s writing for the oboe are inexhaustible—as are those of world shawms! Returning to Gardiner’s own performances, here’s the Saba cantata:
Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen “opens with a graceful chorus in 9/8, a little reminiscent of an Elizabethan dance”. But as Gardiner reminds us, the central arias are just as captivating as the opening choruses:
In accord with the brief of ethnomusicology (e.g. works like Enemy Way music, or Thinking in jazz; cf. Pomodoro!), Gardiner’s study integrates social life, sound object, and doctrine, which lesser scholars often consider separately.
* * *
Mouldering away somewhere in the attics of [Leipzig] citizens there could still be letters holding what we so sorely lack—direct testimony to the varied responses by members of Bach’s listening public to the music he put in front of them.
Whatever their responses, I never cease to envy them as they dutifully turned up every Sunday to be regaled with such extraordinary new music. And the musicians—imagine Bach’s oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch when he got home after rehearsal:
“Good day at the office, dear?”
“You’ll never believe it when you hear what our new Kantor has given me to play this Sunday! God knows how I’m going to manage it—but it’s amazing…”
For the cantatas, Passions, and much more, see under A Bach retrospective.
* A cantata might even be punctuated by the sermon—bear this in mind when you find your listening on YouTube cruelly disrupted by a smarmy ad for funeral care, a latter-day vision of the torments of hell. On the other hand, the Leipzig congregegation couldn’t click on “Skip sermon”, so Thanks Be to God.