Suzuki & Voxtet | Cantatas of J. S. Bach

Event time: 
Saturday, February 16, 2019 - 7:30pm
Admission: 
Free; no tickets or registration
Location: 
St. Thomas's Episcopal Church See map
830 Whitney Ave.
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

Yale Voxtet
Masaaki Suzuki, guest conductor

Emily Donato and Adrienne Lotto, soprano
Ashley Mulcahy and Karolina Wojteczko, mezzo soprano
Haitham Haidar and Corey Shotwell, tenor
Harrison Hintzsche and Edward Vogel, baritone

Program

Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13

Alles nur Gottes Willen, BWV 72

Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, BWV 127

Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe, BWV 156

Program notes

In accepting the prestigious post of municipal music director for Leipzig and cantor of the St. Thomas School in 1723, Bach pledged “to preserve the good order” in the city’s four principal churches and to “so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.” The thirty-eight-year-old composer threw himself forthwith into the life of a hard-working church musician, churning out a prodigious quantity of cantatas, passions, motets, and other sacred music to satisfy the inexorable demands of the Lutheran church calendar. He produced his first Leipzig cantata, Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, for the first Sunday after Trinity on May 30, 1723, barely two weeks after reporting for work. By the end of his first year in Leipzig, he had compiled a full liturgical cycle of some sixty cantatas (though he cut corners by including a number of works he had written previously in Weimar and Cöthen), as well as the St. John Passion. Between then and 1729, the period in which the four works on tonight’s program were written, he produced three more cycles, by which time he reckoned he had enough cantatas in the hopper to relax his frenetic pace and turn his attention to other kinds of music. As it happens, 1729 was also the year in which Bach became director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum–a kind of pro-am instrumental ensemble including musicians from the local university–and began presenting regular concerts of secular music to a paying public.

Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13

As an integral part of the Lutheran liturgy, Bach’s cantatas were expected to reinforce the gospel lesson of the day, serving in effect as sermons in music. Like spoken sermons, they combined biblical exegesis with moral instruction, and typically ended with congregational prayers in the form of simple four-part chorales. The libretto for BWV 13, by the poet Georg Christian Lehms, traces the soul’s journey from despair to hope as the prospect of God’s help becomes manifest. Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen (My Sighs, My Tears) was first performed in St. Thomas Church on January 20, 1726. The reading for that day, the second Sunday after Epiphany, was John the Apostle’s account of the Wedding at Cana, in which Jesus miraculously transforms water into wine. “God can turn the wormwood sap quite easily into wine of joy,” the soprano sings in the second recitative, marking the pivotal point between the cantata’s first three grief-laden movements and the more buoyant, confident character of the last three.

The plaintive, even tragic tone of the tenor’s opening aria is accentuated by the unusual orchestration for two recorders and oboe da caccia, whose dulcet timbres offer a consolatory counterpoint to the singer’s anguish. In the middle section, the oboe spins a florid coloratura above the long-held word “Pein” (woe), a figure that is soon echoed in the vocal line as the tenor laments that “misery does not vanish.” The darkness begins to dissipate in the third-movement chorale, leavened by the violins’ dancing string accompaniment in F major, only to return in the poignant, richly harmonized bass aria “Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen” (Moaning and pitiful weeping). Yet even here Bach highlights the prospect of salvation in the vocal line’s repeated octave leaps on the words “gen Himmel” (toward heaven), and the message of resilient optimism is driven home in the homespun chorale.  

Alles nur Gottes Willen, BWV 72

Premiered exactly one week after BWV 13, on January 27, 1726, Alles nur Gottes Willen (All Just According to God’s Will) features a libretto by Salomo Franck, a Weimar poet and court official who supplied texts for many of Bach’s cantatas. This time the theme is submission to God’s will, the lesson drawn from the biblical parable about Jesus and the leper from the Gospel of Matthew. Just as the sick man places his trust in Christ’s healing powers, Franck tells us, so we are enjoined to accept the will of God “in both pleasure and sorrow, in both good and bad times.” The vigorous, relentlessly marching sixteenth-notes of the opening chorus underscore the urgency of the command, though Bach provides a brief respite in the movement’s central interlude, a light-textured canonic treatment of the line “Gottes Wille soll mich stillen” (God’s will shall calm me).

In the first of the cantata’s two recitatives, the alto soloist is accompanied by the continuo instruments alone, the more clearly to convey the poem’s spiritually edifying message. This segues into a more melodious arioso, punctuated by repeated invocations of the Lord (Herr), which in turn leads to an energetic aria accompanied by two violins in which the singer vows to “leave myself to Jesus,” even though God’s will remains unfathomable. A second secco recitative, this time for bass, provides a musical and textual bridge to the soprano aria “Mein Jesus will es tun” (My Jesus will do it), in the “happy” key of C major, with oboe and strings setting a lively pace. The concluding chorale piously observes, “Whatever my God wills, may that happen always.” Bach thought highly enough of Alles nur Gottes Willen that he recycled some of the music in the Gloria movement of his Mass in G Minor, BWV 235, in the late 1730s.   

Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, BWV 127

Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott (Lord Jesus Christ, True Man and God) was first performed in 1725 on the Sunday before Lent, also known as Quinquagesima Sunday. One of Bach’s so-called chorale cantatas, it is based on a Lutheran funeral hymn by Paul Eber dating from the mid-sixteenth century, which adduces Christ’s passion and crucifixion as inspirational guides to unflinching faith and moral probity. The opening phrase of the sturdy hymn tune is first heard in the oboes, set against the slower-moving strains of the passion chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes (Christ, Thou Lamb of God) in the first violins. These two cantus firmus–like melodies permeate the musical fabric of the first movement, migrating from one voice and instrument to another and giving the cantata much of its exceptional weight and emotional depth.

The Quinquagesima reading, taken from the Gospel of Luke, references both Christ’s passion and the healing of a blind man through the power of faith. The latter theme provides the keynote for the cantata’s two ornate and colorfully dramatic solo arias, the first for soprano, the second for bass. In “Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen” (My soul rests in Jesus’s hands), the vocal line is seconded by an obbligato oboe, with pizzicato strings mimicking the remorseless tolling of death-bells. A more literal instance of tone-painting occurs in “Wenn einstens die Posaunen schallen” (When one day the trumpets sound), whose scoring for trumpet and strings emblematizes the Last Judgment. The final chorale links faith in God with forgiveness, patience, and the blissful sleep of death.  

Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe, BWV 156

Like Alles nur Gottes Willen, BWV 156—from Bach’s fourth and last cycle of cantatas–was composed for the third Sunday of Epiphany, most likely in 1729. As the title suggests, Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe (I Stand with One Foot in the Grave) is preoccupied with mortality and the longing for release that death provides. But the text by Bach’s long-time collaborator Picander (who also wrote the libretto for the St. Matthew Passion) is concerned above all with making the point that submission to God’s will leads to health and salvation. As both noun and verb, the keyword “will” is repeated so insistently that it serves as a textual and musical leitmotif, reinforcing the biblical injunction for the sick and dying to consign themselves to God’s loving hands.

Once again, the mellifluous timbre of the oboe figures prominently in Bach’s orchestration. Indeed, the soloistic character of the opening instrumental Sinfonia has led some scholars to speculate that it was based on an earlier oboe concerto by Bach that has not survived. The first aria, a duet for soprano and tenor with string accompaniment, interweaves Picander’s morbid ruminations with a spacious hymn by Johann Hermann Schein, imploring God to “help me in my suffering.” The oboe returns in the joyous alto aria “Herr, was du willt” (Lord, what You will), this time joining the solo violin and singer in a florid trio sonata texture. Each aria is followed by a sparer, more expository recitative for bass, and the cantata ends with a choral paean to God’s beneficence.

Notes © by Harry Haskell
A former music editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, and other venues, and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.
Open to: 
General Public

203-432-5062