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The Serenity and Exuberance of Bach's Third Orchestral Suite

Academy of Ancient Music
Marco Borggreve
Academy of Ancient Music

Richard Egarr leads the Academy of Ancient Music in a vibrant account of one of Bach's most iconic works, and Craig Smith leads Emmanuel Music in the Cantata No. 2 on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 (selections) - Les Voix humaines Consort of Viols

Cantata BWV 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (translation) - Susan Trout, alto;  William Hite, tenor;  Paul Guttry, bass;  Emmanuel Music, Craig Smith conductor

Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BWV 1068 - Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, conductor



Brian McCreath: The calm serenity of this Air from J.S. Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite has been heard in all kinds of settings, from memorial concerts to commercials to cell phone ring tones.


But that serenity is really just a short breather in what’s actually a vigorous romp for the orchestra.


Richard Egarr leads his crack group of London musicians of the Academy of Ancient Music in one of Bach’s most popular pieces, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, and welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, a part of WGBH. I’m Brian McCreath. We’re online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll find this program available on demand, as well as the translation for Bach’s Cantata No. 2, Ach, Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, or “Ah, God, look down from heaven,” which is coming up in just a bit. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Bach was a multi-dimensional composer, at times expressing his own devout faith, and at times harnessing the instruments of his time to create those vigorous dances suites. And then there are the works that seem like nothing less than intrepid intellectual explorations into the most far-flung possibilities the combination of sound waves could produce in our ears. The Art of Fugue is in that category, and here are selections from that massive set of short works that all trace their DNA back to a short sequence of notes. This is the Canadian viol consort Les Voix Humaines.

[MUSIC – Art of Fugue selections]

When Bach wrote his Art of Fugue he didn’t specify any particular instruments to play the 20 different iterations of counterpoint that are all based on the same theme. These selections from that set were cast in the beautiful, ancient sound of viols by the Canadian ensemble Les Voix Humaines [lay vwah ew-men].

Around two and a half decades before he wrote his Art of Fugue, and about a year after he took up his position in Leipzig, Bach wrote his Cantata No. 2, Ach, Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, or “Ah, God, look down from heaven.” Like just about all of Bach’s cantatas, it brings the listener into an experience of transformation, in this case from a dark, dense world of earthly sin to purifying clarity that’s compared to the glint of silver.

The darkness is evident from the outset in a chorus that takes a setting of Psalm 12 by Martin Luther and casts it in a motet, a particularly ancient sounding structure. Luther’s theme appears as a cantus firmus, the long, sustained notes of that theme set in the alto part, giving it a symbolic role as an earthly voice in contrast to the sopranos above, looking down from heaven. Meanwhile, below those voices, three trombones give the piece an extra measure of solemnity and darkness.


A recitative for the tenor picks up on the chorale theme but then immediately deviates from it, lamenting the foolish choices made by sinners.

Then the alto soloist sings an aria that uses a solo violin to depict “heresy and dissenting spirits.” On the surface it sounds more or less carefree, but the seriousness of the opening returns with a fragment of Luther’s hymn on the words, “we defy Him who would govern us!”

A recitative from the bass soloist re-orients us to the voice of the divine, who sings, “I will take pity on their suffering, my healing word shall be the strength of the weak.”

The transformation is then complete with an aria for the tenor soloist on the words, “Through fire, silver is purified, through the cross the Word is verified.” And if you think back to that dense motet-style chorus that opened the piece, the clarity of this music of purified silver is even more striking.


Remember, you’ll find a complete translation of the text for this piece online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 2, Ach, Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, with alto Susan Trout, tenor William Hite, and bass Paul Guttry. They’re joined by the chorus and orchestra of Boston’s Emmanuel Music, all conducted by Craig Smith.


“Bach never leaves the listener unchanged by his musical experience.” Those are the words that sum up the late Craig Smith’s thoughts about the Cantata No. 2 by Johann Sebastian Bach. This performance of Ach, Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, or “Ah, God, look down from heaven,” was conducted by Craig Smith, with the ensemble he founded, Emmanuel Music. The soloists included alto Susan Trout, tenor William Hite, and bass Paul Guttry.

Bach’s music gives us a picture of a complex individual. We’ve heard two sides of that personality so far today: the Art of Fugue represents his fascination with the intersection of the intellectual and the musical. And we just heard another side of Bach: the devout, faithful Lutheran who composed cantatas for weekly church services.

And here is a third angle of Bach: the extroverted showman, who knew how to grab an audience by the lapels and pull them on to the figurative dance floor. The musicians of the Academy of Ancient Music in London tapped into that spirit with this performance of the Orchestral Suite No. 3.

[MUSIC – BWV 1068]

There seems to be little question that J.S. Bach wrote several suites like this over his lifetime, but sadly, only four Orchestral Suites have survived the centuries. This performance of what we know as the Orchestral Suite No. 3 was given by the Academy of Ancient Music and their director and harpsichordist Richard Egarr.

Remember, you can hear this program again and much more at our web site, 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.