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The Tectonic Forces of Bach's Cantata 101

Nicolas Poussin
Kunsthistorisches Museum
The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalm

On The Bach Hour, destruction on a literally Biblical scale is at the foundation of music that grapples with mysteries and uncertainties that remain as relevant today as when Bach composed it.

On the program:

Gamba Sonata in G minor, BWV 1029 - Steven Isserlis, cello; Richard Egarr, harpsichord

Cantata BWV 101 Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (translation) - Caroline Stam, soprano; Michael Chance, alto; Paul Agnew, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, Ton Koopman, conductor

Contrapuncti I, IV, & IX, from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 (arr. Frackenpohl) - Canadian Brass  



The rich darkness of Bach’s Cantata 101 exudes a mysterious world, almost beyond our understanding, in which large-scale tectonic forces drive the events that surround us.


Like all of Bach’s cantatas, it’s music that grapples with the challenges of life. But in this piece those challenges, inspired by destruction on a literally Biblical scale, reverberate across centuries.


The timelessness of heartbreak and hope, through the Cantata 101, is coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH. It’s often too easy to put Bach and his time in a historical box, separate from the way we live our lives today. But no matter how much civilization and technology progress, some deeper experiences remain constant across centuries. And those common threads are the backbone of the Cantata 101. You’ll find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can hear this program again on demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Also on the program today, one of the most objectively mathematical of Bach’s creations takes flight through the brilliance of Canadian Brass.

First, here is a sonata Bach wrote for the viola da gamba. Played on the modern cello by Steven Isserlis, with harpsichordist Richard Egarr, this is the Sonata in G minor, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1029]

In the final of this Gamba Sonata in G minor, Bach layers a lyrical theme over a three-voiced fugue. Cellist Steven Isserlis finds in that lyricism the prototype of music by composers yet to be born when Bach wrote this piece, evidence of Bach’s “predilection for clothing transformative ideas in traditional forms.” Steven Isserlis was joined in this performance of the G minor Gamba Sonata by harpsichordist Richard Egarr.

It’s easy to look at the news on practically any day and feel like the world must be coming apart at the seams. But then it’s helpful to remember that that feeling has been a part of human existence in every time. In Bach’s time, that same perception was driven by the memories of he devastating 30 Years War and political turmoil continuing through the early 1700’s. All of that made the Cantata No. 101 - based on a dark text written in 1584 during a time of plague and inspired by the destruction of Jerusalem in the Bible - a particularly relevant piece.

The opening movement of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, which translates and continues as “Take away from us, Lord, faithful God, ... heavy punishment and great suffering” evokes the timelessness of that feeling of the world being unhinged through a multi-layered chorus.

A conversation between the tenor soloist and a solo violin prays for avoidance of destruction like that of Jerusalem. [MUSIC] And the soprano sings of hope for comfort in troubled times instead of divine punishment.

But just to be clear, the bass soloist describes what that punishment would look like, singing “The flames of vengeance strike down ... upon our heads.”


That fearsome imagery is countered, though, in a duet for the alto and soprano soloists, reminding that Jesus suffered to avoid that punishment, set to a gentle siciliano, a dance symbolizing the relationship between the divine and the believer.


Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 101 in a performance that features soprano Caroline Stam, alto Michael Chance, tenor Paul Agnew, and bass Klaus Mertens. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir are conducted by the group’s founder, Ton Koopman, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 101]

Bach’s Cantata No. 101, in a performance by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, directed by Ton Koopman. The soloists included soprano Caroline Stam, alto Michael Chance, tenor Paul Agnew, and bass Klaus Mertens.

Late in his life, when Bach wrote a collection called The Art of the Fugue, he composed in the purest way possible, only writing the notes themselves, with no specific instrumentation. As five part fugues, they’re ideally suited to brass quintets. Here is Canadian Brass with the Contrapunctus Nos. 1, 4, and 9, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC - BWV 1080]

That’s Canadian Brass, with three of the pieces from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, including Contrapunctus Nos. 1, 4, and 9.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program on demand, just visit us online 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.