A jobbing composer under pressure to produce a constant stream of music; an artist and visionary reaching the divine and speaking directly to the heart of the human experience: Bach’s sacred music is unrivalled in the history of art.
In 1723 Johann Sebastian Bach expands an earlier work to create for his Leipzig congregation — the cantata ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’– now famous for its chorale Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
Bach’s career falls into three stages: a series of early appointments in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and especially in Weimar, where he became music director at the ducal court; nearly six years in Cöthen as director of music to Prince Leopold, writing mostly instrumental music as the Prince’s Calvinist faith did not allow for elaborate music to be used in worship; and a 27-year tenure as Director of Music at St Thomas’ School in Leipzig, where he was responsible not only for teaching the pupils, but also for directing all of the music at the city’s four major churches.
As part of his duties in Leipzig, Bach undertook to write a new cantata for every Sunday of the year, plus the major feast days like Christmas and Easter — about 60 cantatas a year. He ended up writing five complete annual cantata cycles; about two fifths of the cantatas have been lost, but that still leaves us with nearly 200! A cantata is a piece for voices (soloists and/or chorus) and instruments, consisting of several movements, which tells a story or elaborates on a theme. Usually the theme is religious, but it doesn’t have to be: Bach also wrote several secular cantatas (the Hunt Cantata and the Coffee Cantata are the most famous examples) as entertainment for his employers.
Music was an important part of Lutheran worship, reflecting the views of its founder, Martin Luther, that music was a gift from God that revealed God’s wisdom. Through music, the Word of God as revealed in the Bible could have its full impact on the listener’s soul. The cantata was ideally suited to Luther’s ideal of ‘preaching in sound’: its multi-movement structure of contrasting arias, choruses and chorales, and the independence of the accompanying instrumental parts (not confined to doubling the singers) gave the composer a rich and complex palette of colours with which to heighten the intellectual and emotional punch of the day’s scripture readings.
Luther was a great enthusiast for involving the congregation in the music of worship through the use of chorales: simple but strong hymn tunes through which the congregation could publicly proclaim their faith. Bach included chorale tunes in many of his cantatas, and also in his settings of the Passion — the story of Christ’s betrayal, arrest, torture and crucifixion.
1. Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) from Cantata No. 147 2. Christe eleison from Mass in B minor 3. Erbarme dich from St Matthew Passion 4. Zion hört die Wächter singen from Cantata No. 140 5. Chorale: Befiehl du deine Wege from St Matthew Passion 6. Ich habe genug from Cantata No. 82 7. Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep May Safely Graze) from Cantata No. 208 8. Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten from Cantata No. 78 9. Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen from Cantata No. 151 10. Motet: Lobet den Herrn 11. Mache dich, mein Herze, rein from St Matthew Passion 12. Mein gläubiges Herze from Cantata No. 68 13. Vergnügte Ruh’ from Cantata No. 170 14. Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt from Cantata No. 4 15. Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen from Cantata No. 82 16. Magnificat anima mea Dominum from Magnificat