Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Emmanuel Music and Bach's Cantata 39

Emmanuel Church
Wikimedia Commons
Emmanuel Church

On The Bach Hour, one of Boston's cornerstone ensembles performs a piece that begins in weakness and frailty, transforming into a vigorous picture of strength.

On the program:

Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052 (recons., Midori Seiler) - Midori Seiler,  violin;  Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Stephan Mai, director

Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 870, from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier - Peter Sykes, harpsichord

Cantata BWV 39 Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (translation) - Jayne West, soprano;  Pamela Dellal, alto;  Mark McSweeney, bass;  Emmanuel Music, Craig Smith, conductor



Brian McCreath: It begins in a state of weakness…

But as Bach’s Cantata No. 39 continues, a bit of strength takes hold…


Growing into a vigorous picture of health.


You’ll hear that entire transformation in the Cantata 39, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB and Classical W C R B dot org. That’s where you can hear this program on demand and where you’ll find a translation for the Cantata No. 39. Again, that’s all at Classical W C R B dot org.

For all the music we have from Bach, there is a huge amount that’s been lost to history, especially from the instrumental works he composed when he was a newly minted professional, proving and establishing himself with amazing masterpieces during his time in Weimar and Cöthen.

But a bit of detective work can lead us to some solid educated guesses about what some of those lost pieces may have sounded like. Here’s one example. Violinist Midori Seiler is the soloist with the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin in a concerto reconstructed from what we usually hear as a piece for the harpsichord, the Concerto in D minor, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1052]

It’s not often that we get to hear this Violin Concerto in D minor by Bach because, well, it doesn’t exist. Or at least, it no longer exists in the precise way Bach wrote it. He did use it later, though, as the basis for a couple of other versions of the piece. And that gave Midori Seiler the foundation to reconstruct the work in its original version. She was the soloist in this Concerto in D minor, with the Academy of Ancient Music Berlin.

By the way, you can hear one of the later forms that concerto took by visiting us online at Classical W C R B dot org. Just look for Midori Seiler, and you’ll find a link to another episode of The Bach Hour that features the Cantata 146, in which that solo part is given to the organ in a roiling introductory sinfonia to open the piece.

Bach’s Cantata No. 39 is coming up, with conductor Craig Smith and Emmanuel Music. But first, here is another great Boston musician, harpsichordist Peter Sykes. This is the Prelude and Fugue in C major, from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

[MUSIC – BWV 870]

Peter Sykes is one of those many musicians who make Boston one of the richest musical environments in the country. He’s performed with just about every ensemble in town at one time or another, and he visited our studio in October of 2004 with selections from Book II of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. That was the Prelude and Fugue in C major.

The First Sunday after Trinity marks a shift in the Lutheran Church Calendar that Bach followed. It’s when the themes of the Biblical readings for the day leave behind stories about the life of Jesus, which are told from Advent through Pentecost, and begin to take fundamental aspects of Christian doctrine.

In the Cantata No. 39, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, or “Break your bread for the hungry,” that aspect is generosity towards those in need. The piece is framed by two Biblical passages, one from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and the other from the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament.

The piece starts with a chorus setting of first of those passages, and it’s one of the most vivid, extraordinary settings in Bach’s works. A figure of two quiet, repeated notes is passed around through the orchestra, establishing a halting, tentative atmosphere. The chorus enters, singing, “Break your bread for the hungry.”


There’s a charge of energy, when Bach moves to the next part of the text, “If you see a naked person, then clothe him…”


the momentum picks up a bit more on the words, “Thereupon will your light burst forth as the red dawn of morning.”


And finally, a fully charged, vigorous character takes hold on the words, “the glory of the Lord will embrace you.”


So from those first tentative notes symbolizing the weakness and sadness of hunger to that final outburst of strength, Bach takes us through the actual experience of transformation from frailty to health.

The recitatives and arias that follow that opening chorus begin by praising the divine for abundance and hoping to follow the example of generosity.

An aria for the bass soloist provides that New Testament bookend to the opening chorus, once again reminding believers of the importance of generosity. And an aria for the soprano takes us to that trademark intimacy Bach often builds into his cantatas as the soloist expresses humility and thanks over the accompaniment of two unison recorders.

The final chorale brings us back into the voice of the community with the words, “Blessed are those who, out of mercy, take on themselves others' need…”

Remember, you can find a complete translation of the Cantata 39 from Emmanuel Music by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

And here is Emmanuel Music, with soprano Jayne West, alto Pamela Dellal, and bass Mark McSweeney, all directed by Craig Smith. This is the Cantata No. 39, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 39]

J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 39, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, or “Break your bread for the hungry,” in a 2001 performance by Boston’s Emmanuel Music. Jayne West was the soprano soloist, and she was joined by alto Pamela Dellal and bass Mark McSweeney, all directed by Craig Smith.

Remember, you can hear this and past programs on-demand at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.