California Bach: Brevis and Bekümmernis

Johann Sebastian Bach would have been surprised by California Bach Society’s upcoming performances: his church music on a concert stage, and more than 250 years after his death. Apart from Luther’s chorales, he would never have performed music that old! We don’t know if Bach expected his works to be performed after his death. However, based on the fact that he himself studied music of older masters (such as the Kuhnau piece on the second half of the program), he probably did envision his compositions to be known for a generation or two, and might have planned for that.

After revising the St. Matthew Passion in 1736, he made a neat copy of the score in two colors of ink, obviously intending it for others to use and admire. Between 1725 and 1735 he painstakingly filled in the gaps in his chorale cantata cycle of 1724–1725. He creatively reworked some of his older music into the Mass in B Minor in 1733 and into the Christmas Oratorio in 1734–1735, which can be seen as giving new life to music that might otherwise be forgotten. After all, a royal birthday cantata could only be performed once, and a church cantata could only be performed on the particular Sunday for which it was initially written.

So it might have been out of a wish to preserve some his favorite Leipzig church cantatas that Bach “recycled” several of them into four short masses between 1736 and 1739. If this was indeed Bach’s intention, he was unsuccessful: the short masses were never as famous as the Mass in B Minor or any of his oratorios, and it wasn’t until 1990 that ensembles in Europe started recording them.

The Missa Brevis in G Major is based on movements from four different cantatas written between 1723 and 1726. For the “Kyrie” Bach selected the opening chorus of Cantata 179, Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, of August 1723. This was an inspired time for Bach; for three weeks in a row he wrote music which he would use in later works. He seemed to be especially fond of Cantata 179: he used it in this Mass for the “Kyrie” and the “Quoniam,” and also for the “Qui tollis” of his earlier Missa Brevis in A Major (BWV 234).

Apart from adding oboes to the orchestra, Bach made minimal changes to the original. He did, however, give a new meaning to the composition, especially through his use of the text “Christe eleison” (Christ, have mercy) for the third musical theme in the fugue. When that third theme comes back at the very end of the movement, Bach again put the “Christe eleison” text on it. This means that the last words of the movement are “Christe eleison” instead of the standard “Kyrie eleison.” It is almost as if Bach selected a three-themed fugue on purpose, to communicate that this is a Christ-centered Lutheran Mass, not a Roman Catholic one.

The lovely opening of the “Gloria,” sung by sopranos and altos only, was originally not sung at all, but played by two horns, in the opening chorus of Cantata 79, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, written for Reformation Day, October 31, in 1725. It has been suggested that the soprano and alto voices represent the angels in the Bible story of Jesus’ birth, from which the “Gloria” text of the Mass is derived.

The bass aria, “Gratias agimus tibi” is based on the aria “Auf Gott steht meine Zuversicht,” from Cantata 138, Warum betrübst du dich mein Herz, written in that productive period of late summer 1723, one month after Cantata 179. Because of this aria’s unusual A-B-A-C-A or rondo form, Bach uses the initial text “Gratias agimus tibi” (A) as a “refrain” after the “Domine Deus” text (B), as well as after the “Domine Fili” text (C), again breaking the rules for setting a Mass text.

The soprano-alto duet, “Domine Deus,” is a more elegant piece of music than its original, a soprano-bass duet from Cantata 79 (see the “Gloria”). Bach makes significant changes in the violin part and the meter (alla breve instead of 4/4), and sets the “Qui tollis” text to completely new music.

The tenor aria, “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” flowing beautifully thanks to some drastic changes to the original aria from Cantata 179 (see the “Kyrie”), has an intriguing feature at the end. Just where one would expect an instrumental ritornello, the music “stops” at a fermata, which does not exist in the original. It is a typical “pay attention!” message from Bach. What then follows is a repetition of the “tu solus altissimus Jesu Christe” text, which, you guessed it, is contrary to the Roman Catholic standard for this part of the mass.

For the closing chorus, “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” Bach again recycles an opening chorus, this time from Cantata 17, Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich, written in 1726. Bach replaces the twenty-seven bars of instrumental introduction with six bars of homophonic choral writing. The fugue that follows shares a feature with the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor: each voice entering the fugue is “announced” by rhythmic declamations of the text “in Gloria Dei Patris” in the other voices.

Bach knew Tristis est anima mea by Johann Kuhnau very well and reworked it into a short motet entitled Die Gerechte kömmt um. Kuhnau was Bach’s predecessor as Kantor in Leipzig and was a famous organist and harpsichordist. Motets such as this, written in the Renaissance style of Victoria and Palestrina, were a great inspiration to Bach. He wrote the opening of his Mass in B Minor as well as the opening of the Missa Brevis in G Major in this same stile antico (old style). The text of this motet, Tristis est anima mea, is the second responsory of the Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday. It refers to Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and thus forms a good connection to the anguish expressed in Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis.

To understand the “making of” Cantata 21, we have to move back in time to the summer of 1713 and go sixty miles southwest from Leipzig to Weimar to meet the twenty-eight-year-old Bach: a gifted and already rather famous organist, ambitious composer, violinist, and devout Lutheran, who probably loved company.

Paul Flight

In July 1713, seventeen-year-old Prince Johann Ernst, the half-brother of one of Bach’s employers in Weimar (yes, he had two; read more here), returned from a study trip to the Netherlands, bringing printed music by Vivaldi, Corelli, and others to Weimar. One of the pieces was Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor, Opus 3, no. 11, for two violins, from Book II of L’Estro armonico (RV 565), which had been published in Amsterdam in 1711. Johann Ernst was an amateur composer and, according to a contemporary testimony, “an incomparable violinist.” It is likely that he and Bach played through this music in the palace, which was right around the corner from Bach’s apartment. Bach transcribed this entire Vivaldi concerto into an organ concerto (BWV 596) and also used the theme in an organ prelude and fugue (BWV 544).

It was that same theme that Bach used for the opening chorus (now movement 2 of Cantata 21) of a funeral cantata he was asked to write for a prominent Weimar citizen in October 1713. That cantata, which only contained six movements (movements 2–6 and 9 of Cantata 21), and in which all arias were sung by a tenor, would form the basis of Cantata 21 as we know it today. We don’t know what Bach’s relationship was to the deceased, Aemilia Maria Harress, but it is clear that her death had deeply touched the community.

Eight months later, in June 1714, for the monthly cantata service in the Ducal chapel that Bach had been performing since March of that year, Bach added the opening sinfonia (in the same style as the one from Cantata 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, written two months earlier), the soprano-bass duets (in the same style as the duet from Cantata 172, written one month earlier), the second tenor aria, and the closing chorus. He then probably performed that version again in July 1714, for the send-off events for his dear friend Prince Johann Ernst. (It turned out to be a final good-bye because the prince died a year later, away from the palace.)

Bach probably also selected this cantata when he went to audition for an organist/music director position in Hamburg in 1720. For this performance he used only soprano and bass soloists, with the soprano also singing the tenor arias. Three weeks into his new job in Leipzig, in June 1723, Bach performed Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis again, this time making a distinction between soli and tutti in some of the choral movements.

California Bach Society performs J.S. Bach Missa Brevis & Cantata 21 at 8:00 p.m., Friday, October 20, at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell Street in San Francisco; 8:00 p.m., Saturday, October 21, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 555 Waverley Street, in Palo Alto; and 4:00 p.m., Sunday, October 22,at First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way in Berkeley. For tickets or more information, visit