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ClassicsOnline Home » HEAVENLY VOICES - BACH, J.S.: Arias
Heavenly Voices – JS Bach’s most beautiful arias
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolific musical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 in Eisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elder brother in Ohrdruf after the death of both his parents. Following a series of appointments as organist, and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708, court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elder of the two brothers who jointly ruled the city. In 1714 he was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period of imprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke’s service, he abandoned Weimar to become Court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750 he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches. In 1729 he assumed direction of the university collegium musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702. At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and his compositions of the period include a considerable amount written for the instrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At Cöthen, where Pietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties and was responsible rather for court music. The period brought the composition of a number of instrumental works. The final twenty-seven years of Bach’s life brought a variety of preoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision of church music he was able, among other things, to provide music for the university collegium musicum and to write or rearrange a number of important works for the keyboard.
The first three arias are selected from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. The alto aria ‘Bereite dich, Zion’ (‘Make Ready, Zion’) is accompanied by violin and oboe d’amore and is followed by the alto aria ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ (‘Sleep, my beloved’), contemplating the sleeping child. The soprano echo aria ‘Flösst, mein Heiland, flösst dein Namen’ (‘Does your name, my Saviour’), with solo oboe and continuo, follows convention in allowing a second soprano to give monosyllabic agreement to the propositions of the first.
The cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (‘Heart and Mouth and Deed and Living’), BWV 147, written for performance on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 20 December 1716, represents an original work from Bach’s period at the court of Weimar. The first part ends with a chorale, one of the best known of all Bach’s cantata movements, commonly referred to as ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’.
The first aria of the three represented from the St Matthew Passion, ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz’ (‘Bleed now, thou dear heart’) reflects on the betrayal of Christ by Judas and is sung by a soprano. The tenor aria ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ (‘I will watch by my Jesus’), with chorus and oboe obbligato, echoes the words of the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. The second part of the Passion opens with the interrogation of Christ before the high priest. Peter’s denial, the crowing of the cock and Peter’s bitter tears lead to a contralto aria ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ (‘Have mercy, my God’), with obbligato violin.
The cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! (‘Praise ye God in every nation!’), BWV 51 was written for performance on the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, possibly 17 September 1730, in Leipzig. It is scored for a solo soprano, trumpet, strings and basso continuo.
The cantata Schwingt freudig euch empor (‘Soar joyfully aloft amidst the starry grandeur’), BWV 36 was written for the first Sunday of Advent 1731 and is an arrangement of a secular birthday cantata of 1725. It is scored for oboe d’amore, strings and continuo, with four voices. The A major da capo soprano aria, ‘Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen’ (‘Even with hushed, weak voices’) has a solo violin obbligato in 12/8.
Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (‘Make ready the ways, make ready the path!’), BWV 132 is an earlier work, written during Bach’s period of service in Weimar for the fourth Sunday in Advent in 1715. It is scored for oboe, strings and continuo, with four voices, and consists of three arias, separated by two recitatives. The lively opening A major da capo aria ‘Bereitet die Wege’ is for soprano.
The secular cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd! (‘The lively hunt is all my heart’s desire’, known as the ‘Hunt’ Cantata), BWV 208 makes use of four solo singers, including two sopranos representing Diana and Pales. The instruments involved include two corni da caccia, recorders, two oboes and an oboe da caccia, basson, strings and continuo. Diana, in an opening recitative, sings of the pleasures of the hunt, continuing, in an aria appropriately accompanied by the two corni da caccia (hunting-horns), to declare hunting the pleasure of the gods. Later in the cantata, Pales, the goddess of sheep and flocks, follows suit. Her recitative leads to one of the most famous of all arias, widely known in English as ‘Sheep may safely graze’ (‘Schafe können sicher weiden’), words that, in context, have no religious connotation.
Bach wrote few secular cantatas but Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (‘Be still, stop chattering’), BWV 211, known as the ‘Coffee’ Cantata, is a response to the fashion for drinking coffee which had spread through Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century. This work is scored for soprano, tenor and bass, with flute, strings and basso continuo The arias ‘Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse’ (‘Ah! How sweet the coffee’s taste is’) and Heute noch,Lieber Vater, tut es doch! (This day, still,O dear Father, do it, please!) are the two arias for soprano from this cantata.
Bach wrote four Passion settings, one for each of the gospel writers. Of these, only two, the St John and the St Matthew, have survived in their entirety, but the ‘entirety’ of the St John Passion is difficult to determine, since Bach made four different versions of it, over a span of almost twenty-five years. The first aria here, ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritteni’ (‘I will follow you likewise with joyful steps’) is for soprano. Before the final chorale in Part II, the chorus brings a feeling of repose and comfort in ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine’ (‘Rest in peace, you sacred limbs’).
The Anna Magdalena Notebook refers to two notebook manuscripts that Bach presented to his second wife. Although mainly comprising keyboard music, they also contain a small number of arias for soprano, including ‘Bist du bei mir’ (‘Be thou with me and I’ll go gladly’).
The cantata for soprano, oboe, strings and basso continuo Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (‘My heart is bathed in blood’), BWV 199 was written in 1714 for performance on 12 August, the 11th Sunday after Trinity.
Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (‘Yield I say, ye brooding shadows’), BWV 202, scored for soprano, oboe, strings and basso continuo, was seemingly written during the composer’s contented stay in Cöthen, a period brought to an end by the marriage of Prince Leopold to a woman that Bach later described as ‘amusica’ [ie. completely unmusical]. The work is a wedding cantata, a composition intended for performance during a wedding banquet; its text is a poem about spring and love, the author of which remains unknown. Four of the five arias are featured on this CD.
Two Italian cantatas by Bach survive. The second, Non sa che sia dolore (‘He knows not what true grief there is’), BWV 209, for soprano, flute, strings and basso continuo, is conjecturally dated to 1734. The text deals with the desired return of an Italian from Germany to his own country, after years spent at Anspach, but the identity of the subject, if the words reflect real circumstances, is unknown. The music is Italianate in character, introduced by a Sinfonia that, it has been suggested, resembles Bach’s D minor violin concerto.
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HEAVENLY VOICES - BACH, J.S.: Arias