Bach’s Hidden Treasure Partially Revealed: the Cantata Project at Tanglewood

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Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellow Adriana Velinova, TMC instrumentalists and composer-conductor John Harbison in Cantatas by J. S. Bach
Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellow Adriana Velinova, TMC instrumentalists and composer-conductor John Harbison in Cantatas by J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach
Cantata No. 159, “Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem”
Cantata No. 105, “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht”
Cantata No. 58, “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid [II]”
Cantata No. 109, “Ich glaube, lieber Herr”

Singers and instrumentalists of the Cantata Project, directed by John Harbison, and conducted by Harbison, Gemma New, and Yu An Chang

July 2, 2018, Ozawa Hall

We listen to all kinds of music in concert halls. They seem to provide a neutral setting within which all different genres can make their own statements. In Ozawa Hall I have heard Japanese Gagaku music, Sephardic music from the Middle Ages, opera from Handel to Bizet and Beeson, violin solos, extra-large orchestra pieces (e.g. Mahler’s Third), electro-acoustic music, string quartets, etc. Although this list does not include jazz and rock, there is no reason why this space would not suit them equally well.

But despite its versatility, the concert hall space is not neutral. It carries with it the assumptions of contemporary secular art culture, a particular listening perspective common to many music-loving audiences today and of the past two hundred years. The implicit message is that we, the audience, are there to recognize, appreciate, and experience the beauty and power of the music in itself and as an enhancement to our own lives. We hear programs of diverse works from diverse nationalities, cultures, and centuries, assembled around a performer’s predilection, an ensemble’s capabilities, or a repertory or theme. Last summer, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard offered such a program including part of a larger Messiaen project covering the cycle of bird-song compositions “Catalogue des Oiseaux,” some of which took place outdoors at the Audubon Society bird sanctuary, thereby extending the space into nature for those who attended both performances. (The open back wall and presence of birds within helped make the connection.) Here the music and programing were able to modify the space.

The performance of the music of religious ritual offers a unique problem. Sometimes music manages to ‘sanctify’ a space by virtue of its intrinsic power. A performance of Bach’s B minor Mass in Ozawa Hall with the cumulative force of the work’s duration, which exceeds two hours, may transcend the secularity of the environment. Under such conditions, applause feels like the wrong response, even though the performers have earned it. Did Bach imagine performers smiling and bowing in satisfaction after one of his masses, passions, or cantatas? Its hard to imagine; perhaps someone should investigate and write a history of applause. 

At best, hearing an unfamiliar Bach cantata should serve as a revelation of another facet of Bach’s project to render the universe of (Lutheran) spirituality in musical form. I place the specific denomination in parentheses since I believe that Bach and the poets who wrote his texts were building and developing from Luther’s foundation, but were personalizing it for the moment they were writing (the 1720s) and for their own individual sense of spirituality. This latter purpose emanates from a post-Luther development known as Pietism, in which the expression of personal sentiments toward the elements of religion was highly valued. Bach was officially an orthodox Lutheran, but was heavily influenced by Pietism and forged in his cantatas and passions the musical forms to merge these two streams within Lutheranism. This can be seen in their very structures, in which there is a chorus, often intoning the common congregational song (chorale), and soloists reflecting the anguish and aspirations of the individual soul in the most personal terms, bordering on the operatic. Although Bach demands great virtuosity from his singers and players, its purpose does not include evoking admiration or applause. This could be said of any serious performance, but applause is not an inappropriate response to, say, Gil Shaham playing all of Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas and partitas in one evening as he did two summers ago in Ozawa Hall. If a cantata makes its full effect, it seems to me that applauding at the end is a digression or a distraction. Other composers have subverted the purpose of church music to that of entertainment. But Bach’s purpose is to provoke private meditation, not collective response to a performance. This is easier to do in a sanctuary than in a concert hall. I am far from being a Lutheran. A Jewish agnostic, I have loved Bach’s music almost all my life; but I recognize the ways it is didactic1 in the best sense: it is something from which to learn regarding the organization of our souls and the cosmos through the organization of musical vibrations and tones. For this reason, it seems to me that the best venues for Bach’s cantatas would be sanctuaries of any sort, including places in nature that have an enclosed or sanctuary-like space; in short, sacred spaces. There, the performance could be received with a significant moment of silence in which audience members could be alone with their thoughts for a few minutes before turning attention to an appreciation of the performers as a kind of after-thought. (The most powerful performances have a way of implying this, with audiences loath to break the final spell.)

Performing four little-known but powerful Bach cantatas on a concert program is to be praised: we need to have opportunities to hear them. They are fully mature works that use all of Bach’s rhetorical and contrapuntal powers to deliver a message of transcendence; there is no moment where one can say “that is not really up to Bach’s standards” or “that is another example of a formula that we’ve heard elsewhere.” These works reimagine the basic elements of chorale, recitative, aria, and orchestral music in ever-new combinations uniquely suited to the text and the spiritual-dramatic atmosphere of the specific work. As pointed out in the program notes, Bach did not call these pieces “cantata” or “motet,” but Hauptpunkt, the high point of the service, for which the words and music formed the climactic moment.2 (Applauding it would be like applauding the priest for administering the eucharist.) It is astonishing that most of us who have listened to Bach for decades can still find reams of his music that are both unfamiliar and at the same time as accomplished and powerful our favorite compositions. Therefore all power to the Cantata Project and John Harbison. 

Harbison’s identification with sacred music and Bach’s in particular is deeply embedded in his career as a composer and conductor. I assume that he chose this program, and the choices are interesting. All were chorale cantatas dating from Leipzig, even though Bach had written many before taking up his post there in 1723. Two (nos. 105 and 109) date from his first cycle (1723-4) and the others from later cycles (no. 58, 1727, revised 1733; no. 159 of 1729). 

The tone of serious and complex ideas and music was set by the opening work, “Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem” no. 159 for the Sunday before Lent, a work that foreshadows the St. Matthew Passion which had its premier three weeks afterwards. It offers a good example of how Bach gave each cantata a unique shape. This one begins with a dialogue between arioso and accompanied recitative: a conversation between alto and bass as the Soul and Christ. (A more usual beginning for Bach would be an elaborate chorus or chorale fantasia as found in the other three works on this program.)

The chorale appears in the second movement, a soprano-alto duet with the higher voice floating the chorale3 above an active pastoral theme shared by alto and oboe. Two interwoven lyrics are heard: that of the chorale and the poetic contemplation of the singer who commits herself to follow the dying savior to his final moments and beyond. The pastoral tone of the beginning might lead the unsuspecting listener to imagine a comforting scenario in which the Soul imagines itself safe within the care of a good Shepherd. But the actual words are more grim: “I follow after you through spitting and shame…” and an unprejudiced listener will notice that Bach’s soothing harmonies gradually morph into sterner, harsher territory, as the text traces the bitter journey of both savior and sinner. The affect of the flowing pastoral lines represents not an easy assurance of salvation, but an unwavering connection that steadily navigates the dissonance-strewn path thanks to Bach’s astounding mastery of dramatic counterpoint.

After another recitative and aria, the final chorale summarizes the paradox already set forth: “Your wounds, thorns and shame / my heart’s pasture.” The cantata is not simply a succession of beautiful movements; it is an interrelated structure of musico-poetic ideas, with Bach responding in complex and attentive ways to the textual framework set forth by the poet Picander (Christian Freidrich Henrici) who deserves significant shared credit for this work.

The other three cantatas on the program were equally rich and inventively structured. No. 105 of 1723 foreshadows the mood and materials of the St. John Passion with a magnificent G minor opening movement shot through with calls to the Lord, “Herr,” and a densely woven contrapuntal texture propelled by a slow, throbbing bass-line. The two parts, Adagio and Allegro, separate the psalmist’s plea for mercy from an acknowledgement of the inevitability of God’s judgement in the form of a fugue on two subjects, with the law described by a descending scale in long notes that moves inexorably from voice to voice. 

The instrumental introduction to the soprano aria “Wie zittern und Wanken” (How tremble and waver [the thoughts of the sinner]) again can at first be misconstrued as a portrait of benign heavenly forces. The slow major tremolo chords in the violins, the absence of bass, and the floating cantilena of the oboe melody, would seem to be tropes evoking an angelic presence (as in the annunciation scene in Handel’s Messiah) but they are turned to a different purpose, depicting the sinner’s trembling and anguished introspection. Soprano and oboe trade phrases, with the voice stretching out the syllable “-klag-“ in the verb “verklagen” (to accuse) at great length to dramatize the element of lamentation accompanying the sense of guilt. It is difficult for performers to balance the dream-like texture with the intensity of self-accusation, while negotiating fearsome technical challenges, all contained in this deceptively beautiful package. 

The final chorale offers yet another brilliant variation on the typical simplicity of a final homophonic setting. Here, the agitated trembling strings return as accompaniment, and over the course of the music they gradually calm down as the congregation’s collective anxiety is soothed by the vision of salvation.

Similar commentary could be offered for the rest of the program, which provided further brilliant examples of the dramatic fusion of text and music; but the point to emphasize is that the subtleties and dynamic unfoldings of these pieces require performances of great insight as well as technical resource. The Tanglewood singers and players certainly approached these works with respect and impressive technical accomplishment. The conductors chose judicious tempi and were careful to adjust balances in complex textures. The modern instruments used restrained their habitual vibratos to seek a leaner, more transparent sound, but there was still a soft halo of romanticism present. 

The chief impressions were made by the singers, all of whom had attractive voices and most of whom showed the vocal agility to handle Bach’s demands. Few, however, embodied the core spiritual and emotional demands of the material. The most outstanding exception was the soprano Robin Steitz, whose performance of the aria described above captured the persona of the self-accusing sinner at the height of fear and repentance, while negotiating one of the most challenging vocal lines of the evening. The intensity of drama was conveyed within a clear delineation of the coloratura without any excess of romanticism that marred others’ attempts to dramatize their arias or recitatives. For many of the other singers, it was enough to beautifully vocalize their way through their labyrinthian parts, but here was a moment when the depths truly revealed themselves. 

The other star of the evening was John Harbison, whose conducting coaxed from chorus and orchestra a greater degree of dramatic intensity in direct relation to the spiritual forces being evoked by the music. His authoritative, undemonstrative presence directed all attention to the expressiveness of the music, presented soberly and without exaggeration. In some movements, the complex textures became blurred or impressionistic, owing to the resonance of modern instruments and the need to subdue the strings to achieve good balance, as in fifth section of Cantata 105, an aria for tenor with a swirling string obligato that may represent the “Mammon” that has become worthless. A more incisive, not to say ironic, delineation would have pointed up the underlying contradiction. But under the circumstances, Harbison’s leadership was all that could have been expected, and his demeanor kept pointing in the right direction.





  1. One could argue that the instrumental chamber music and secular cantatas are the closest Bach came the primary objective of entertaining his audiences; but even the latter are steeped in moral purpose.
  2. This page on the Bach Cantatas Website provides an interesting discussion as well as some useful bibliography about where the cantatas occurred in the liturgy as practiced in Leipzig, often divided into two sequences :—ed.
  3. This is verse 6 of the so-called “passion chorale” “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” that pervades the St. Matthew Passion.
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