Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 21

Several years into his tenure as music director to the court of Weimar, Johann Sebastian Bach was instructed to write one cantata a month for the chapel services. Near the beginning of this series Bach wrote what was to be his largest sacred Cantata, "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis," BWV 21.  Not only was this work written to go with the readings for the third Sunday after Trinity, but it served as a farewell to the gravely ill Prince Johann Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar. The young prince, who had been one of Bach's favorite and most talented pupils, was on his way to a spa in Swabia where he later died.  Bach uses the main tune from a movement of Vivaldi's D Minor Concerto, Opus 3 #11, as the theme for the opening chorus.  The concerto had been a favorite of the prince and with its moving text describing a grave illness, the whole movement should be seen as an homage to the young prince.

The work itself covers many different styles. The second and last choruses probably date from very early in Bach's career.  The opening and the great chorale prelude "Sei nun wieder zufrieden," were written in 1714. Many of the movements were extensively revised for Bach's first Leipzig Cantata cycle in 1723.  Certainly the work has a refinement and finish to it unknown in his early Weimar years.

The cantata opens with a marvelous sinfonia for oboe and strings. It is virtually a duet between the first violins and the oboe. After the complexity and density of the first chorus, the soprano aria with oboe obbligato "Seufzer, Tränen" is spare and startlingly angular. The tenor recitative and aria returns to the richness of the opening music.  These two solo pieces are set to texts of Bach's favorite poet, Salomo Franck. Franck was probably the best contemporary poet that Bach ever set; certainly these intense texts inspired the composer to write some of his greatest music.  The first two choruses are from Psalm texts.  Between the first and second parts of the cantata was a sermon with further commentary on the designated texts for the third Sunday after Trinity.  The second part of the cantata begins with a dialogue between Christ and the Soul. This was a favorite didactic device of Lutheran theology of the period. These dialogues are often associated with the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs. A popular example are of this genre are the love duets in the cantata "Wachet auf!"  Today's cantata was one of the few Bach pieces in Baron von Swieten's library in Vienna. Clearly Mozart saw this piece there, for the duet is inspiration for both "La ci darem" from Don Giovanni and the third act Susanna-Count duet from Le Nozze di Figaro.

The gigantic chorale prelude "Sei nun wieder zufrieden" is in a way the most ambitious and advanced piece in the cantata. It is one of the few chorale settings in the cantatas in which the darkness of the chorale text is undercut by the hope of the words sung by the other three voices. The sprightly tenor aria with continuo is a jolly interlude between the two monumental choruses that end the cantata. Trumpets and drums finally make their entrance in the last chorus punctuating the bravura choral writing.  The fugue that ends the cantata is one of the composer's most brilliant creations.

©Craig Smith

Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21 - in two parts - is the longest and grandest of all the cantatas. It has a complicated history. The first nine movements may have constituted a cantata per ogni tempo [for any occasion] written in Weimar as early as 1713. There were many subsequent revisions, culminating in today’s 1723 version (minus the trombones!) which includes two additional movements.

Given the wide range of styles found in this cantata, it is a piece of remarkable dramatic cohesion. It moves progressively from darkness into light. The mysterious opening sinfonia is a dialogue between oboe and solo violin (accompanied by a halo of strings) which seems to lead directly into the first chorus.

Almost all of the choruses of BWV 21 are based on psalm texts. In Part I, the choral writing is very text specific. Like the great motet composers of the previous generation, Bach finds a striking new character for each line of text. In some cases even a single word is given its own special color (the freeze-frame moment on the word aber [but] in the first chorus is one example). Bach was mocked by his contemporaries for the stuttering repetition of the first word (Ich, ich, ich…);today it seems a moment of breathtaking drama. 

The soprano aria “Seufzer, Tränen”, in spite of its overwrought text, is a marvel of stark simplicity, especially given the density of everything that surrounds it. The anguish of the text is mirrored in the tortured intervals found in the voice and oboe part. The tenor recitative and aria are on a different scale entirely. Bach’s response to this highly dramatic text is appropriately extravagant, with especially picturesque orchestra writing.

Part II opens with a dialogue between the bass and soprano (Jesus and the Soul). Craig Smith wrote: “These dialogues are often associated with the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs. A popular example of this genre [can be found] in the love duets in the cantata Wachet auf! Today’s cantata was one of the few Bach pieces in Baron von Swieten’s library in Vienna. Clearly Mozart saw the piece there, for the duet is inspiration both for “La ci darem”from Don Giovanni and the third act Susanna-Count duet from Le Nozze di Figaro.

The monumental choral prelude “Sei nun wieder zufrieden” moves in yet another stylistic direction. The interpolated chorale text appears first in the tenor section surrounded by complex counterpoint in the solo voices. Later it is taken over by the sopranos upon the entrance of full chorus and strings.

The intimate tenor aria that follows is scored only for continuo - its lightness and optimism providing a perfect bridge to the final brilliant chorus. The text of the closing chorus is the same as that which concludes Handel’s Messiah (‘Worthy is the Lamb’). The entrance of the trumpets and timpani is a thrilling moment. After a brief introduction, the piece concludes with one of the most viscerally exciting fugues that Bach ever wrote. It cranks along at an almost hyperventilating pace before exploding ecstatically heavenward.

©Michael Beattie