Kraemer Conducts Bach —
Masterpiece Cantatas

Nicholas Kraemer, conductor

J. S. BACH

Cantata 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”

Cantata 82, “Ich habe genug”

Cantata 119, “Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn”

A spectacular 45th Anniversary Season begins with the greatest master of them all. From the immense grandeur of “Preise, Jerusalem,” to the humanity of “Wachet auf” and intense intimacy of “Ich habe genug,” these opening concerts celebrate Bach’s extraordinary range of musical expression in three of his best-loved cantatas.

Carl Grapentine will give a preconcert lecture on Monday, October 19, 6 pm, at the Chicago Cultural Center in the Garland Room on the first floor (near the Washington entrance of the building, west side).

Media sponsor: WFMT 98.7FM

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LISTEN

Bach

  • Cantata 140, Wachet auf, Chorus, "Zion hört die Wächter singen"
  • Cantata 82, Ich habe genug, Aria, "Schlummert ein"
  • Cantata 82, Ich habe genug, Aria, "Ich habe genug"
  • Cantata 119, Preise, Jerusalem, Chorus, “Der Herr hat Guts an uns getan”

PROGRAM NOTES

After interviewing several candidates in 1723 for the vacant position of Kantor,the Town Council of Leipzig finally concluded, “since the best could not be obtained, mediocre ones would have to be accepted.” They subsequently settled upon Johann Sebastian Bach—a decision that engendered bitter disputes, notorious differences of opinion, and some of Bach’s most famous and best-loved vocal music. The position was demanding, and success depended upon Bach’s ability to be a jack of all trades: music teacher, disciplinarian, and role model for the young men attending the Thomasschule were only a few of the responsibilities Bach was handed (of the fourteen requirements outlined in the contract that Bach signed, only five make direct mention of music at all). Furthermore, Bach had to fulfill the musical needs of church and civitas, producing music for all the Sundays and feast days of the Lutheran liturgical calendar, as well as for other occasions upon request. By 1727, the composer had written at least three cycles of cantatas (at a rate of approximately one per week), the Magnificat, and the St. John Passion. Bach’s relationship with his patrons was less than harmonious; his eventual disenchantment with his position occupies a place of renown in music history. Despite composing in circumstances that were less than satisfactory, however, Bach managed to negotiate the perilous straits of artistic integrity and demands of his patrons—ultimately producing many of the works that are considered today to be among his greatest.

Cantata No. 140, “Wachet auf”

Cantata No. 140 was composed in 1730 for the 27th Sunday after Trinity (November 25). While today it is among the most beloved of Bach’s chorale cantatas, it was infrequently performed in its day. In essence, Bach’s cantatas are miniature theology lessons: the scripture of the day is presented, Bach offers his own commentary through arias and duets, and the main conceit is eloquently summarized in a chorale.

Cantata 140 follows this model. Based on the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13, the reading for the day in the Lutheran lectionary, “Wachet auf” tells the story of ten women who retired for the evening—five with oil in their lamps, and five without. Because one never knows when Christ will appear, one’s soul must always be ready to meet him. Thus, when during the night Christ, portrayed as a bridegroom, appeared to the virgins, only the five women who were prepared became his brides.

It is easy to hear why Cantata 140 has become a perennial favorite. The opening chorus is actually a chorale fantasia—a movement constructed around a chorale tune, heard in the soprano, which becomes a sort of musical foundation. In the duet with violin obbligato which follows a short tenor recitative, the soprano represents the soul, while the baritone is the voice of Christ. The fourth movement features segments of the earlier chorale cast against a famous melody heard in the strings. (Bach did not actually compose this tune, but rather borrowed it from a Lutheran pastor named Philipp Nicolai.) A recitative for baritone depicting the unification of Christ, the bridegroom, with his “chosen bride” leads to another duet for the soul (soprano) and Christ (baritone), this time with oboe accompaniment. The cantata closes with the entire choir singing the third verse of the chorale.

Cantata No. 82, “Ich habe genug”

If Cantata 140 is Bach’s most popular chorale cantata, Cantata No. 82, “Ich habe genug,” is perhaps his most well-known for solo voice. First performed in 1727 in Leipzig for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or “Candlemas,” “Ich habe genug” is one of five cantatas Bach composed for what is today a relatively obscure feast day. At the time when Jesus was born, women who had given birth were considered to be “impure” and were forbidden from entering the temple for 40 days. At the end of that period, they presented their babies and completed a ritual purification. The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin commemorates this milestone—both Mary reentering the community, and Jesus’s official introduction. While the occasion was joyous, it also marked the first step on the road to Jesus’s torture and death.

The anonymous libretto—none of which comes directly from the Bible although it is loosely based on the Song of Simeon in Luke 2—seizes upon the paradox inherent in the event. Life is joyful, but there are inevitable sorrows; and death is sorrowful, but Heaven promises eternal joy. While the text hints at these themes, the music Bach provides adds many layers of complexity—as Ludwig Finscher writes, it exhibits “an intensity of text interpretation which does not let up for an instant,” and which reflects “the introversion and fervent, mystically hued yearning for death in the text.” In the opening aria, the singer longs to be reunited with God: “Nun wu¨nsch ich, noch heute mit Freuden/Von hinnen zu scheiden” (Now I wish, even today with joy, to depart from here). Bach’s music, however—both the slow, eloquent vocal line and the dolorous obbligato oboe—suggests a different, more sorrowful reality. The second aria, “Schlummert ein,” is a profound lullaby, mimicking the attraction of sleep—and, therefore, death. The final aria, “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod,” is a sort of sprightly dance, aptly capturing the speaker’s welcoming of death and heaven.

Cantata No. 119, “Preise, Jerusalem”

Cantata No. 119 was composed for an election—more specifically, for the inauguration into office of the newly elected Leipzig town council members. Performed at the Nikolaikirche in August 1723, the cantata was one of Bach’s early compositions for Leipzig, and it is tempting to hear the piece as intended to impress his new employers. Bach uses huge forces—four trumpets, timpani,two flutes, and three oboes plus strings and continuo—more instruments than in the B Minor Mass. Even though it is technically a sacred piece, Cantata 119 has the sound of festive, even regal music for the most solemn of civic occasions.

Written by an anonymous poet, the text of “Preise, Jerusalem” incorporates Psalm verses and an excerpt from Martin Luther’s German Te Deum to celebrate the town of Leipzig, express gratitude for blessings, offer prayers for help in the future, and present authority as a gift coming from God. Bach sets the text in nine movements, including three choral movements as well as the traditional alternation of arias and recitatives, with music that puts a distinctive stamp on his new home town. The tenor aria, “Wohl dir, du Volk der Linden,” uses gently swaying motives to evoke the linden trees that line the streets of Leipzig. Bach introduces the bass recitative “So herrlich stehst du, liebe Stadt!” (So gloriously you stand, dear city!) with trumpets and timpani, punctuated with the unusual colors of winds and recorders. The cantata concludes with a verse from Luther’s German Te Deum, “Hilf deinem Volk, Herr Jesu Christ.” While the setting is relatively straightforward, the “subtlest touches of flamboyance” recall the cantata’s ceremonial mood.

Perhaps because of its civic leanings as well as its festive tone, Cantata 119 has received some noteworthy performances. On April 23, 1843, Felix Mendelssohn performed the work at the Leipzig Gewandhaus to commemorate the unveiling of a Bach monument. And on June 12, 2015, the Thomanerchor performed the piece in the Nikolaikirche itself, commemorating the 850th anniversary of the church as well as the 1000th anniversary of the first mention of Leipzig.

© Jennifer More Glagov, 2015