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July 11, 2014

Bach Cantatas (50): Trinity XVII

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity. Both readings for this day emphasize humility and modesty: the exhortation of Paul to the Ephesians for generosity and selflessness, and the parable of the man invited to the rich man's dinner from Luke, which concludes with the words: For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. This parable also contains the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees about whether one is allowed to do good works on the Sabbath, or should completely abstain from all activity.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Ephesians 4:1–6, "Admonition to keep the unity of the Spirit"
Luke 14:1–11, "Healing a man with dropsy on the Sabbath"


  • Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, BWV 148, 19 September 1723

    Chorus: Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens
    Aria (tenor, violin): Ich eile, die Lehren des Lebens zu hören
    Recitativo (alto, strings): So wie der Hirsch nach frischem Wasser schreit
    Aria (alto, oboes): Mund und Herze steht dir offen
    Recitativo (tenor): Bleib auch, mein Gott, in mir
    Chorale: Amen zu aller Stund

    ("Bring to the Lord honour of His name") One of most sunny cantatas Bach wrote, scored with festive trumpets. The text does not directly refer to the readings for this Sunday, but emphasizes that one should honor God on Sabbath. The lyrics are based on a poem by Picander – the first time Bach used a text by this poet. The opening chorus - a work of tremendous vigor - begins with an instrumental sinfonia, presenting the themes, followed by the choir singing two fugues. The dense texture gives the impression of a large crowd singing these ringing words. In the first aria, for tenor, the florid solo violin illustrates both the joy in God and the “running” (Eilen) mentioned in the text in a happy 6/8 rhythm. The recitative for alto is accompanied by long notes in the strings, as if to give extra warmth to the desire for God which is expressed here. In the next aria, also for alto, the mystical unity of the soul with God is given musical form in the unusual scoring for two oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia. When the alto voice starts singing, the continuo is momentarily silent, to express the letting behind of worldly concerns. The closing chorale is a warm harmonization - Bach specified a melody here, but no text has come down to us, so different texts are used by different performers to supplement the lacuna.

  • Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, BWV 114, 1 October 1724

    Coro: Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost
    Aria (tenor): Wo wird diesem Jammertale
    Recitativo (bass): O Sünder, trage mit Geduld
    Chorale (soprano): Kein Frucht das Weizenkörnlein bringt
    Aria (alto): Du machst, o Tod, mir nun nicht ferner bange
    Recitativo (tenor): Indes bedenke deine Seele
    Chorale: Wir wachen oder schlafen ein

    ("Ah, dear Christians, be comforted") Chorale cantata based on a song of penitence in six stanzas by Johannes Gigas (1561) and its associated melody by Justas Jonas. The text shows no close connection to the readings for this Sunday, but expresses a philosophy often found in Bach's cantatas: that believers should bear tribulation with patience (after all, they deserve it, for they are sinners) and look for comfort in the world to come. The opening chorus is a glorious piece of music. It starts with an orchestral introduction, after which the soprano sings the chorale melody as a cantus firmus, doubled by the horn, with the three lower voices more actively employed (the doubling by horn of the soprano voice also has a practical use: the sopranos available to Bach in the church were boy sopranos, with weak and relatively untrained voices). Bach expresses two thoughts of the text, comfort and fear, by contrasting themes that appear simultaneously in the instruments: an assertive theme played by the two oboes and first violins and an anxious one in the second violins and the continuo. The choral lines are separated by instrumental ritornellos. This is followed by a long aria for alto accompanied by hyperactive flute obbligato, expressing both the anxious question "Wo wird in diesem Jammertale vor meinen Geist die Zuflucht sein?" (Where can the refuge of my spirit be found in this valley of woe?) and the trusting answer "Allein zu Jesu Vaterhänden will ich mich in der Schwachheit wenden" (Only to Jesus's paternal hands do I wish to turn in weakness). The recitative contains an arioso on the Gospel words "erhebst" (exalt) and "erniedrigt" (humbled). In the rather unembellished central chorale the soprano soloist (again doubled by horn, as well as by oboes and violins) intones one of the verses of the hymn. The ensuing alto aria again is a straightforward da capo aria but features a beautiful orchestral accompaniment. It is the only part of the cantata set in a major key, making the shift to minor on the words "Es muß ja so einmal gestorben sein" (One day, indeed, one must die) all the more striking. The cantata concludes with a four-part setting of the chorale melody.

  • Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden, BWV 47, 13 October 1726

    Coro: Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden
    Aria (soprano): Wer ein wahrer Christ will heißen
    Recitativo (bass): Der Mensch ist Kot, Stank, Asch und Erde
    Aria (bass): Jesu, beuge doch mein Herze
    Chorale: Der zeitlichen Ehrn will ich gern entbehrn

    ("Who exalts himself, will be humbled") The text of this cantata is by the court poet Johann Friedrich Helbig (1680–1722), who in 1720 published an annual cycle of cantata texts (Telemann set several of his texts to music, Bach only used this one). The poet takes the final line from the Gospel as his starting point in the first movement, after which he concentrates on the warning of pride, leading to a final prayer for humility. The opening movement is one of Bach's most imposing fugal choruses, a reworking of material from the well-known Prelude and Fugue in c minor BWV 546 for organ. The rising motif played by the oboes illustrates the haughty self-exaltation in the first half of the Gospel text ("Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased"); a counter-subject moving in the opposite direction is meant to demonstrate humility ("He that humbleth himself shall be exalted"). This complex choral movement, that also by its length dominates the whole cantata, is followed by a simpler soprano aria, again depicting both humility and pride, the latter associated with the Devil - there are some harsh, broken chords here that aptly illustrate arrogance. In the bass aria oboe and violin are equal partners to the bass voice in a prayer for humility. The closing chorale is set for four parts and again expresses utmost humility.

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