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The Roiling River of a Bach Cantata

Whitewater River
Anne Nygård
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River Jordan

The power of water - and its spiritual dimensions - lie at the heart of Bach's Cantata No. 7, and harpist Catrin Finch performs the Italian Concerto on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Italian Concerto, BWV 971 - Catrin Finch, harp

Cantata BWV 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (translation) - Wilke te Brummelstroete, alto;  Paul Agnew, tenor;  Dietrich Henschel, bass;  Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Brandenburg Concerto No. 11 (arr. Bruce Haynes after BWV 35 and 1063) - Montreal Baroque Band, Eric Milnes, conductor

TRANSCRIPT:

[MUSIC]

With its turbulent opening and undulating solo violin, this piece has been called J.S. Bach’s “La Mer,” a reference to Claude Debussy’s meditation on the sea. But it’s not the sea we’re hearing in this music; it’s the mighty River Jordan.

Coming up on The Bach Hour, the waters of the Jordan, and what they symbolize for Bach, in his Cantata No. 7.

Welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of of WGBH Boston; I’m Brian McCreath. Each week our program brings you the power and mystery of Bach’s sacred works, as well as the virtuosity and brilliance of his instrumental masterpieces.

You can explore all of it online at Classical WCRB dot org, where this program is available on-demand. That’s also where you’ll find a translation of the text for Bach’s Cantata No. 7, Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, or Christ our Lord came to the Jordan. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

Before we dive into the power and mystery of the Cantata No. 7, here is some of that brilliance of Bach’s instrumental writing. This is the Italian Concerto, with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 971]

J.S. Bach was fascinated by all kinds of instruments, but there’s no evidence that he wrote any solo works for the harp. As with so much of his music, though, the Italian Concerto, originally for harpsichord, crosses over to the harp world quite seamlessly. This performance of the Italian Concerto featured harpist Catrin Finch.

June 24th is the date on which the Christian church celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist, and it was for that feast day that Bach wrote the Cantata No. 7, Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, or Christ our Lord came to the Jordan. More of a meditation on the meaning of baptism for the believer than a celebration of John the Baptist’s life, the piece is infused with allusions to water. But not the calm, placid waters of the baptismal font found in church sanctuaries, as Bach makes clear in this opening:

[MUSIC]

No, this is the surging, powerful water of the mighty Jordan River, combined with the dotted rhythms of a French overture to symbolize royalty and the entrance of Jesus, who was baptized in those waters.

Against that backdrop, the chorus sings an ancient chorale tune by Martin Luther, inviting the believer to be cleansed from sin.

A brighter, more intimate aria for the bass soloist follows, with a downward-rushing figure in the accompaniment that might bring to mind the image of water being poured out of a pitcher.

[MUSIC]

Then, as the tenor celebrates Jesus’s baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, a violin duet brings us the sound of the words, “The Spirit appeared in the image of the dove…”

[MUSIC]

It’s left to the alto soloist to directly communicate the Lutheran doctrine that, no matter what good deeds the believer performs, it’s baptism and faith as purifying forces that keep that believer from going to “the pit of hell.”

Luther’s chorale from the opening movement then returns in a simple harmonization to close the cantata.

Remember, a complete translation of the text for this piece is available online at Classical WCRB.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 7, Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam with alto Wilke te Brummelstroete, tenor Paul Agnew, and bass Dietrich Henschel. They’re joined by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, all conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 7]

A meditation on the power of baptism for the Christian believer in Bach’s Cantata No. 7, Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, or Christ our Lord came to the Jordan. This performance from June of 2000, in London, featured conductor John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, along with alto Wilke te Brummelstroete, tenor Paul Agnew, and bass Dietrich Henschel.

Coming up, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 11. That’s right, we’re going to 11.

For all the amazing works by Bach that have survived the centuries, there’s no question that a vast amount of his music has not survived. There are probably at least a couple of years worth of cantatas, and we’ll simply never know how many instrumental works Bach wrote, or what they sounded like.

But given what we do know about how Bach worked, it’s possible to take some pretty good guesses. The late oboist and musicologist Bruce Haynes decided to extend the set of six Brandenburg concertos Bach wrote with another six, using music drawn from cantatas, masses, and other concertos.

Here is one of them, the so-called Brandenburg Concerto No. 11, performed by the Montreal Baroque Band and director Eric Milnes.

[MUSIC]

With outer movements taken from Bach’s Cantata No. 35, and a middle movement based on the Concerto for Three Harpsichords, that was Bruce Haynes’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 11, in a recording dedicated to these reconstructions by the Montreal Baroque Band and their director Eric Milnes.

You can revisit this entire program on-demand at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. That’s also where can find more resources to enable your own explorations of Bach’s music. Again, all of that awaits you 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.

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