Bach 360°: The Cantatas

Just How Universal is the Message in Bach's Music?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Free Download: Lorraine Hunt Leiberson sings 'Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut'
Download (Facebook*) • About the recording

The Bach Cantata series on the Soli Deo Gloria label is a high point of recording history. The performances by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner are thrilling, and the sound quality is superb, especially given that the cantatas were recorded in different venues over the course of a liturgical year.

Their cover photos are remarkable: portraits of people from traditional cultures, most or all apparently non-Christian. Gramophone cited them when honoring the series with a special achievement award:

"Each volume is illustrated by a striking Steve McCurry photograph, the message being that Bach’s music transcends race and creed. And listening to any one of these astounding works is to be brought face to face again with Bach’s towering yet deeply human (and humane) genius."

With all due respect, “transcends race and creed” misses the point. Bach’s cantatas transcend nothing, and that is their glory. Bach was a pious Lutheran, and to deny him his particularity is to wrong him and those who share his beliefs—and to wrong others, as well.

In words and music, many of Bach’s cantatas reflect the theological doctrine of “total depravity”: the idea that original sin, according to the Formula of Concord, is “so profound a corruption of human nature as to leave… nothing uncorrupt in the body or soul of man.” The cantata BWV 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,” opens with a blissful evocation of heavenly rest, but its music takes a sinister turn when the soloist sings of earthly life as a “house of sin” teeming with creatures who relish “vengeance and hate.” The triumphant chorus of “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben,” BWV 77, gives way in the cantata’s fifth section to an aria that bemoans humanity’s defective love and inability to fulfill the Bible’s commandments. The aria is a tortured sarabande, a dance whose dragging steps suggest lameness and sloth.

The notion of “total depravity” is specific to Lutheranism and certain other Protestant denominations. Among the Abrahamic faiths, Orthodox Christians and Catholics have substantially different teachings on original sin, and Muslims and mainstream Jews have no such concept at all. Bach’s cantatas, then, do not “transcend” creed; they purposefully affirm it, in music of unsurpassed eloquence and might.

In celebrating Bach, we can consider other ways he differed from us. He would have been bewildered by the idea of people listening to his sacred compositions for aesthetic pleasure alone. He crafted them as functional music, in the same way that paintings, to quote one art historian, were “functional objects… produced for defined sacred or secular purposes” until (roughly) Michelangelo’s time. As for Bach’s “genius,” the Soli Deo Gloria label takes its name from the initials SDG that he inscribed on his manuscripts: “glory to God alone,” at once a profession of humility, a paraphrase of 1 Timothy, and one of the Protestant Reformation’s Five solae.

Regarding Bach as “universal” brings other dangers. Richard Taruskin has noted that Germanic music, including Bach’s, came to be constructed as “unmarked” in the nineteenth century. “That is how one naturally tends to hear the music that surrounds one,” he writes, “until one is made aware of the existence of other musics. Thereafter one’s own music can be heard as unmarked not by default but only by ideology.” The result can be a “patronizing” view of musics construed as other than universal.

All of this said, what to make of the beautiful faces that grace the Soli Deo Gloria recordings? I think that they do not belong there. Bach’s church taught that human beings were “poor sinners” who were “saved alone by faith in Christ.” Why associate that dogma with Rajputs and Afghans? And what might Bach have thought of them, or indeed of us in the WQXR community? The answer might displease us, but we best honor Bach by seeking to understand him on his own terms and not by making him over in our own partial (and nebulous) image.

Weigh in: What do you think of the message in Bach's cantatas? Does it transcend time and religion? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Free Download: Lorraine Hunt Leiberson sings "Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut"

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died in 2006, was one of the celebrated mezzo-sopranos of the modern era. In 2003, she recorded Bach cantata “Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut” (My Heart Swims in Blood) with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and conductor Jeffrey Kahane. (Around the same time she starred in a critically praised staging of the cantata by the director Peter Sellars.) Download the final aria from the cantata, as featured on a new recording called “Lorraine” (Yarlung Records).

Listening Highlights for Sunday, March 24 (all times are approximate)

7 am Cantata BWV 202, "Weichet nur, betruebte Schatten" (The "Wedding" Cantata)

8 am Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042

10 am Cantata BWV 147( features "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" chorale)

11 am Cantata BWV 156, "Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe" ("I stand with one foot in the grave" - features the same music as the slow movement of the F Minor Keyboard Concerto BWV 1056)

Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067

12 pm Cantata BWV 140, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (features "Sleepers awake" chorale)

1 pm Cantata BWV 211, "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be quiet, stop chattering" - known as the "Coffee" Cantata)

2 pm Cantata BWV 80, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress is our God")

3 pm Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV 1050

5 pm Cantata BWV 174, "Ich liebe den Hochsten" ("I love the Almighty")

English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808

6 pm Cantata BWV 106, "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit" ("Of all times God's is the best")

7 pm Cantata BWV 51, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" ("Praise God in every land") 

8 pm Cantata BWV 82, "Ich habe genug" ("I have enough")

9 pm Lute Partita in C Minor, BWV 997

*Not into Facebook? The download will be included in this week's WQXR E-Newsletter, which goes out on Friday.


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Comments [14]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Frankly, as a romantischer Wagnerian heldentenor with a three octave range which even on my acuti, highest pitches, remains masculine, even heroic, I am not obsessed by the timbre of thre voice so much as the musicianship and beauty of the toine quality. BACH has been transposed to many formats, including the MOOG and other electronic representations. BACH's music is universal and appreciated by the most unlikely panorama of chamber music enthusiasts, punk rock singers and their fans and everyone in between in terms of style or format appreciation. WAGNER's DIE MEISTERSINGER owes much in its composition to WAGNER's amazement at the contrapuntal schematic of BACH's music. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare" and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. My websites where one may download, free, my singing of 37 out of the 100 selections that I have sung in four solo concerts at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall by going to Recorded Selections on;, and
Roles that are represented in my singing to be heard on my websites are: Tristan, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegfried, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Florestan, Federico, Eleazar. and Judas Maccabaeus.

Apr. 02 2013 02:10 PM
Jonathan Miller from Forest Hills

My compliments to all of you at the station for this brave venture into the wonders of Bach. Only complaint: The names of the cantatas ought to be given with their proper German title, not the English translation. Unless you're hoping to attract and educate a generation of Bach newbies with something "familiar sounding", there is no reason for this as most of us know the cantatas with their German titles and will have an easier time researching recordings and scores with the German.

Mar. 31 2013 08:25 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

I too enjoy Bach's works while not understanding the German text or reading a translation. The music is great and may be enjoyed independently of the text and possibly DESPITE the text!

My enjoyment of a cantata focused on the doctrine of "total depravity" is the result of the music and my ability to ignore its meaning, not recognition of anything universal.

Similarly, my enjoyment of the Faure Requiem is the result of the beauty of music written for a sacred occasion by a non-believer.

Mar. 29 2013 08:15 PM
Mark from buffalo, ny

Bill from Gowanus is spot on. Why would we ever engage with art based solely on the artists intentions? the historical and spiritual context in which Bach created this music is certainly interesting, but of little impact on how they may make one feel when hearing them. Frankly i dont often follow the translation from German to English when listening. it doesnt matter to me. (listen to Sigur Ros sing in their untranslatable made up language and tell me that you are not moved by the shear beauty of the music and the "words") Does that make my experience with the music less authentic or meaningful than a german lutheran? The transcendent in Bach is that he may not have intend for his music to be universal, yet there is no denying that it has achieved just that. For no other reason that is is just so damn good!!
"a text's [or work's] unity lies not in its origins, but in its destination," Roland Barthes

Mar. 29 2013 09:57 AM

The older I get the more I love Bach.

Mar. 28 2013 07:56 PM
Monty from Brooklyn, NY

No question, Bach was a genius. What he could do with a single violin, an organ fugue or harpsichord (Well Tempered) was miraculous. But I think 360 Bach is misguided. Better Bach a bit at a time. Your broadcast of all the Cantatas showed how much of Bach was make-work, routine, and to be frank dull, boring. The Cantatas were meant to be played or sung at weekly intervals. Some of the solo arias were interminable. No more marathons. Bring back Shostakovich, one symphony at a time. Or Mozart.

Mar. 28 2013 10:53 AM
Thomas from NWNJ

How many cantatas can a person listen to? Please make it stop.

Mar. 26 2013 12:39 PM
David Schwartz from Ossining,NY

Just because Lutheranism and Bach's representation of it emphasized "total depravity," i.e. original sin, and then death as deliverance, does not mean that the underlying significance of this concept is absent from other cultures and times. Indeed, I would argue that these complex and conflicted sentiments -- that evil is ubiquitous and life is essentially tragic -- are to be found to greater and lesser degrees in most other cultures, the only differences being of degree and emphasis. It is one face of the human struggle with death and meaninglessness. Bach's art is particular and universal at the same time. That is why I, and other atheist Jews, can weep with full sincerity during the St Matthew Passion.

Mar. 25 2013 10:13 PM
David M. Burge from Kirbyville, Missouri

First, I want to say that, as a Lutheran Pastor, I appreciate the seriousness with which Ms. Rosenberg takes Bach's faith. Next, I want to say that gg makes a very valid point about Bach's reuse of music from church compositions in non-church compositions. It reminds us that any music depends for a good deal of its "meaning" on the context in which it is used. At the same time, I think it is worth keeping in mind that Bach would not have distinguished between "sacred" and "secular" as we do. As a pious, orthodox Lutheran, he would have believed, in line with the the Lutheran teaching about vocation, that a well-written "secular" composition could just as much glorify God as a well-written "sacred" composition. Finally, concerning the cover photos, it should be noted that Bach, just as much as he believed in "total depravity", also, as a pious, orthodox Lutheran, believed in "universal atonement" and "universal, objective justification." These are Lutheran doctrines that teach that Jesus lived, died, rose, and ascended for all people and that, because of Jesus' saving work, the Father declares all people forgiven, that forgiveness becoming part of an individual's life as the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel, brings one to faith in Jesus as savior (this work of the Spirit in working faith is known as "subjective justification" in Lutheran systematic theology). Given Bach's acceptance of these teachings,
he would, in all probability, see the photos as pictures of all of the different people whom Jesus has saved and be pleased with their diversity.

Mar. 24 2013 11:43 PM
Joe Cooper from Fearrington Village, NC

WQXR, for me, has always been the "gold standard" for classical radio music. First introduced to the AM Station after WWII as a veteran and student at Duke, and through a small desk-top radio being able to pick up the broadcast from about early evening until early in the morning, then as the dawn broke, the station faded away.

Mar. 24 2013 06:30 PM

I am so LOVING Bach 360!And today, with the cantatas, I'm in heaven. As an organist, I'm so glad that you're playing his organ works. Organ music gets short shrift on the air. So I'm kind of playing the "air organ" today. And I've been a choir director as well, so I'm grooving on the cantatas and conducting to a remote choir when I feel like it.

Thank you!

Mar. 24 2013 02:47 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

I never gave any money to WXQR because your programs are very repetitive.
I do not like anymore to listen to your broadcasting.
I cannot listen Bach music all day.
Your marathon broadcasting all Bach music is a BAD IDEA.
I HAD TO DISCONNECT WXQR and tune other radios because it is impossible for me to listen a radio broadcasting only Basch music.
i can also listen beautiful classical music programs streamed online by radios from all over the World.
It is not good for the cause of Bach and much less for the cause of WXQR because all kind of EXCESSES give negative results !!

Mar. 24 2013 01:36 PM
Bill Slater from Gowanus, Brooklyn

Bill from Gowanus
All art must be a rendering of the particular, for we are human & located in space & time, but it is in the perfection of this rendering that Art strives towards universality, no matter the particularity of the artist's intentions.

Mar. 24 2013 12:46 PM
gg from syosset

The cantatas - are they specific for the Lutheran faith ? Yes. But, as you are currently discussing, Bach used part of his own cantata music (or passion music, or the b minor mass) in other works, vocal (secular) and instrumental. So it tells us that Bach did not think of his religious music as being inherently (by nature) Lutheran. We may infer from this 'recycling' that Bach was open to the concept that his music could be used in different ways & have (deep) meaning in different types of circumstances. As means for transcription to today's times, the CD cover pictures make sense.

Mar. 24 2013 09:49 AM

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