J. S. Bach and his cantatas

By September 16, 2012History, Music

So long ago that I now cannot remember when, I bought a recording of something called a Bach cantata. It was ‘Ich habe genug’ (‘I have/It is, enough’) BWV 82. It bowled me over, and I played it again and again. On the other side was another cantata, ‘Ich Will den Kreuzstab gerne Tragen’, or ‘I would gladly bear the cross’ (often translated as ‘Gladly the cross I’d bear’, which can give one the instant image of a teddy bear with cross-eyes, whose name is ‘Gladly’). I loved this cantata, too.

I had certainly heard of J. S. Bach, and in my one year of piano lessons I had seen his name on the top of a couple of pieces in my music book. But in the early 1950s LPs were just beginning. I bought the third Decca LP, which had Clifford Curzon playing the Grieg Piano Concerto, but the first Bach recordings I bought were the Brandenburg Concertos. I still have them.

What were these cantatas? Could I buy another couple? Who was this singer — Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? His voice was superb, and his articulation, and the way he dealt with the arias, were also wonderful. I couldn’t find out much, and there were no more cantatas for a while.

But I learned, and bought and listened. Many years later I have them all, all 209 of them, the church cantatas in the Archiv set and the secular ones by Peter Schreier. In the whole of the Western musical canon, I think that these cantatas stand on their own as the work of an extraordinary craftsman, a man who is in a strong sense the father of Western classical music. We know that some of the cantatas he wrote have been lost, and we know that 130 or so, or more, were written in just three years, after he arrived in Leipzig. They have the same form — six musical items, recitatives, arias and chorales. Sometime a sinfonia just for orchestra. Just a few strings. Sometimes some brass. They last around twenty minutess, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.

To me they are instantly recognisable, but they are never the same, never boring. Some arias are utterly beautiful. The chorales are hymns at their finest. It has been said of Vivaldi that he wrote the same concerto several hundred times; I don’t think you would ever say the same about Bach and his Cantatas. I still love No. 82, and I have half a dozen or so versions of it, including later ones by the extraordinary Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, perhaps the best singer of the last century, male or female.

The odd thing is that I am quite unreligious, and the words of the cantatas have no particular meaning for me. They did for Johann Sebastian Bach, however, and each of the church cantatas has its own precise place in the annual progression of the Lutheran service. The secular cantatas have much the same form as the religious, but only a dozen or so of them survive. One that has a special appeal for me was written to celebrate the appointment of a new professor of Law at Leipzig University, and it contains a short but dazzling piece of musical triumph — trumpets, percussion and excitement. Alas, the new professor of law died not long after his appointment. I can’t think of any professor of Law in Australia who had a musical work written to celebrate his appointment, but it’s a good idea.

Bach was an amazingly hard worker. He had the music of four churches to supervise and the church school of St Thomas to run. He was an obstinate and rather quarrelsome person too, and was often in strife with the City Council. But his music sits in my mind and is refreshed by my LPs and CDs — and now by the capacity to download this or that. People keep on recording the cantatas, I think there are five complete sets; the Archiv one took twenty years to complete, and I guess I took even longer to acquire the volumes. And the cantatas are only a part of his massive output.

Two of Bach’s four churches have gone, as well as Cafe Zimmermann, where a lot of his instrumental music was performed. Georg Philipp Telemann also had a connection with Cafe Zimmermann, one of Europe’s early and celebrated coffee houses, and the amateur orchestra (Collegium Musicum) that assembled there is one of the origins of  the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The Churches of St Nicholas and St Thomas are still in place. I have visited them and heard music there several times, though never a cantata, alas. The altar in St Thomas’s church is lined with the portraits of the famous Kantors (musical directors) of the church, and on its floor is the grave of its most celebrated Kantor, J. S.  Bach, his name in large lettering.

Why not? Thousands and thousands of people come each year to Leipzig, to visit the church and hear the music of Leipzig’s most famous man. I doubt that most of them are religious, but they love Bach’s music.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Barbara says:

    I couldn’t agree more about Bach cantatas or about the mighty Fischer-Dieskau. Thank you. I can remember the first time I was aware of hearing ‘Ich habe genug’. It was played on Radio National late one night. I didn’t know what I’d been listening to except that the composer was Bach and the singer, Fischer-Dieskau, had a name I’d heard before. I was relentless in hunting it down. Consulting my cantata spreadsheet, I see that I’ve collected 68 of them so far in various versions. You say I have 141 to go?

    • donaitkin says:

      My best count is 209, but the authenticity of a few of them is disputed. I understand that the Bach Collegium of Japan is undertaking to do a complete set. I like what it does – and Phillip Herrwhege – and John Eliot Gardiner. There is a now a feast of Bach cantatas.

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