Two pieces of funeral music of the highest artistic standing - the Cantatas "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit" (Actus Tragicus), BWV 106, and "Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl", BWV 198 - works with wholly differing destinations and musical characters - occupy the main part of this recording whose content is complemented firstly by a cantata fragment, the aria "Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde", BWV 53. The vision of redemption, so willingly adopted in musical performance too, which links Christianity and death, is enriched by a work of immediately moving charm that heralds the longed-for hour of death with the bright sound of two Campanelle (bells).
The sumptuous sound that Bach unfurls in the Cantata "Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl", BWV 198, is most probably indicative of an important occasion: Princess Christiane Eberhardine of Saxony died on 5th September 1727 and soon afterwards the student Hans Carl von Kirchbach took it upon himself to organise an academic funeral ceremony at the Leipzig University Church. The princess was highly honoured in Saxony since she had remained true to the Protestant faith, unlike her husband, August the Strong, who had been converted to the Catholic faith in order to become king of Poland. For the text of the funeral music Kirchbach turned to the outstanding Leipzig professor of poetics and philosophy Johann Christoph Gottsched; indeed, as president of the German Society, Gottsched may well have been the motive force behind thisfuneral celebration. Bach was called upon to compose the music. This decision soon led to controversy with the University Music Director, Johann Gottlieb Görner but this was overcome through Kirchbach's insistence and a partial payment to Görner on behalf of the Cantor of the St Thomas church. Bach's Cantata, whose score is titled "Tombeau de S.M. la Reine de Pologne" in the composer's own hand, proved more than worthy of the event - a masterpiece whose extensive orchestral demands are reflected in a richly varied musical weft. In order to make this precious music available for further performances Bach later transposed it into other works: movements 1 and 10 in the funeral music for Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1729) BWV 244a, and almost all the movements (except n° 7) in the St Mark Passion BWV 247, written in 1731 but now lost.
Whilst the genesis of Bach's "Trauerode" [elegy] for the Saxon princess is extremely well documented, very little is known about the creation of the Cantata "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit", BWV 106. The definition "Actus tragicus" dates back to one of the two authentic copies made after the 1760s, the autograph score and parts have not come down to us. The work is generally dated 1707-08, in the years when Bach was the organist at St. Blasien in Mühlhausen, and still today, other more certain clues being absent, it is believed that the composition and performance of the cantata may be connected with the funeral ceremony of Bach's Erfurt uncle, Tobias Lämmerhirt, who had died on 10th August 1707. The early dating is supported mainly by the formal and stylistic model which assigns the "Actus tragicus" to the genre of the older Church Cantata, which eschews the recitative and arias of Neapolitan opera that Erdmann Neumeister had adopted from the popular genre of opera. If this categorisation is correct, the young Bach - just twenty-two years old at the time - succeeded in creating a masterpiece, a "piece of world literature" (Alfred Dürr) within the framework of a form that went back to the tradition of the 17th century. In the congenial balance of its grand formal structure and precise interpretation of the text through brief single parts of shifting orchestration and themes, in the intimist reduction of the means which achieves its end with a small ensemble, and in the instrumental part that uses no more than two recorders, two violas da gamba, and a basso continuo to produce that "quiet music" that Bach and his contemporaries always adopted for mourning music.
The two following works are likewise characterised by undocumented or incomplete data about their genesis and by stylistic categorisation as early productions. Like the "Actus tragicus" the Aria "Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde", BWV 53, is probably a fragment of a cantata that has come down to us in only one copy that names Bach as its author. Whilst Bach's first biographer, Johann Nikolau Forkel, sees the piece as an early composition, Philipp Spitta judges its marked aria-form as indicative of a work of Bach's maturity, written between 1728 and 1734. The 1950s produced another, as yet unconfirmed, hypothesis (Dürr, Bachjahrbuch 1956) that the aria was actually the work of Georg Melchior Hoffmann (circa 1685-1715). In 1705 this composer and conductor from Dresden succeeded Georg Philipp Telemann as music director at the Leipzig Neukirche and as director of the "Collegium musicum", posts which he held until his untimely death in 1715. The cantata "Der Herr denket an uns und segnet uns", BWV 196, is a first sign of Italian influence in Bach, probably absorbed at the court of Weimar where Bach was active from 1708 to 1717 - initially as court organist and from 1714 as chamber musician. The cantata was probably written in the years before 1714 and as such is one of the rare testimonies of the fact that Bach occasionally wrote cantatas for the Weimar court before being appointed "Concertmeister" (a position which involved regular cantata composition). As is the case with the "Actus tragicus" we have no clear destination for this work. The text, which comprises four verses of Psalm 115, deals with divine blessing and could thus be applied to several occasions. Philipp Spitta suggests that Bach may have written this cantata for the wedding of Regina Wedemann, one of his wife Maria Barbara's aunts in 1708, though here again no documentary evidence is available.
The music of the works on our recording, which range over some twenty years, marks out the stylistic shift from Bach's early works in the church cantata mode to the newer model with its succession of recitative, arias and choruses, so familiar to us today through Bach's influence as the Thomaskantor. Yet even in the context of the masterpieces of Bach's Leipzig years, the cantata "Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl", BWV 198, stands out particularly in its impressive use of musical means and its masterly structure, both fitting to its occasion. A contemporary report about the funeral ceremony offers a detailed account of the musical part: "... then did we hear the funeral music, composed for the occasion in Italian style by the Cappellmeister Herr Johann Sebastian Bach, with harpsichord played by Herr Bach himself, organ, violas da gamba, lutes, violins, Fleutes douces [meaning oboes] and Fleutes traverses & c [basso continuo], half of the music before and half after the speeches of praise and mourning." What strikes us in this account is the observation that the organ continuo was complemented by the harpsichord, played by Bach himself. The formal structure is based on three choruses (at the beginning, at the end of the first part and at the conclusion) which incorporate three different musical principles: the first chorus the (group)concerto, in which individual instrumental groups intervene in turn; at the end of the first part a choral fugue follows and as a conclusion to the cantata a choral aria, held in the manner of a dance song. Between the three choruses there are three arias, in which obbligato instruments perform the melody line. The orchestration of the second aria is interesting with its two violas da gamba and two lutes as continuo instruments; yet another example - as we have already mentioned in the "Actus tragicus" - of the "quiet music" reserved for funeral music. The adaptation of the text is an exceptional case: whereas Gottsched conceived an ode, that is a poem in verses, Bach treats this project as free verse, allotting the recitative passages, arias and choruses partially beyond the bounds of the individual stanzas.
Characteristic features of the older church cantata, as it is represented in the cantatas "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit", BWV 106, and "Der Herr denket an uns und segnet uns, BWV 196, are seen in the absence of recitative and in the highly articulated structure in which the individual sections of the composition follow one another; this is based on the principle of the motet, whose music follows the expression of the text much more closely. This musical shaping also influences the text: thus the older form is almost exclusively based on the bible and hymns (chorales), whereas the new cantata form - as in the exceptional instance of the above mentioned cantata BWV 198 - introduces free versification. The outstanding position occupied by the "Actus tragicus" in this framework of the older conception of the cantata emerges chiefly in the way in which the individual parts fit into the whole: opening with a short symphony, the cantata now presents two choruses and short solo parts in symmetry, culminating at the centre of the work with a combination of chorus, soprano solo and chorale. The two main statements - dying according to the law and the New Testament are brought together simultaneously.
The two pieces that follow represent further developments towards the modern cantata form. "Der Herr denket an uns und segnet uns", BWV 196, brings the first appearance of arioso forms in the new Italian sense; the arias are, however, still very concise and follow one another without any linking recitative, whilst the aria "Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde", BWV 53, already proffers the modern form of the da capo aria. In its simple harmonic and melodic structure, however, this delightful work is difficult to collocate stylistically and in terms of its genesis.
Translation: Timothy Alan Shaw