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Bach's Music for Angels

St. Michael stained glass at St. Rochus, Duisdorf-Bonn, Germany
Wikimedia Commons
St. Michael and the dragon in stained glass from St. Rochus Church, Duisdorf, Germany,

On The Bach Hour, the composer's Cantata No. 19, for St. Michael and All Angels, expresses a terrifying, visceral quality of battle, and a hope for protection and safety.

On the program:

Sonata in E for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1016 - Viktoria Mullova, violin, and Ottavio Dantone, harpsichord

Cantata BWV 19 Es erhub sich ein Streit (translation) - Malin Hartelius, soprano;  James Gilchrist, tenor;  Peter Harvey, bass;  Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 944 - Angela Hewitt, piano

Brandenburg Concerto No. 9 (after BWV 11 and 34, arr. Bruce Haynes) - Montreal Baroque Band, Eric Milnes, conductor


Do you believe in angels?


It’s an open question in our time, but for Johann Sebastian Bach, it was a settled matter. Angels played an active role in the Lutheran belief system of Bach’s time. And one of his most powerful cantatas was actually written as a prayer to angels.

The Cantata No. 19, for St. Michael and All Angels, is coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I'm Brian McCreath, and welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH. Whether you believe in angels, or even share Bach’s faith tradition, there is no denying the emotional power of the Cantata No. 19. Bach created that power through words both sung and implied. And you can FIND those words online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll find a complete translation of the text from Boston’s Emmanuel Music. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Also coming up on the program today, you’ll hear the Brandenburg Concerto No. 9. That’s right – No. 9. And if that sounds a bit odd to you, well, stay tuned.

For now, here is a Sonata in E major, with violinist Viktoria Mullova and harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone.

[MUSIC – BWV 1016]

This Sonata in E major sound like a perfectly beautiful Bach duo today. But at the time he wrote it, Bach was asking the harpsichord to take on a much more prominent, up-front musical role than the one it usually played at the time, as continuo, or accompaniment. In fact, Bach’s title for the set of these pieces put that instrument first as “sonatas for concertato harpsichord and violin.”

The performance you just heard of the Sonata in E major was given by harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone and violinist Viktoria Mullova.

I’m Brian McCreath, with The Bach Hour from WCRB. A few years ago, Time magazine published the results of a poll about our belief in angels. It turns out 55 per cent of respondents said that they believed they had been protected by a guardian angel at one time or another.

That result wouldn’t have been a surprise at all to Bach and his audience. In fact, they probably would have thought, “what’s wrong with the other 45 per cent?” This belief in angels made September 29th a day to look forward to every year, as it was the Feast Day for St. Michael and All Angels.

It’s a date for which Bach wrote a series of dazzling cantatas over the course of several years, including the Cantata No. 19, Es erhub sich ein Streit, or “There arose a war.”

The passive voice of that title is in no way reflected by what happens in the piece. It launches, with no preparation from the orchestra, into a riveting depiction of the battle between Michael the archangel and Satan, represented by dueling, intertwining lines of counterpoint. It’s Bach’s equivalent of an action movie, at once terrifying and exhilarating, punctuated by trumpets spurring on the chorus, who sing of “the raging serpent, the infernal dragon [that] storms against heaven with furious vengeance.”


That opening must have floored the audience at St. Thomas Church in 1726, and it remains just as effective today.

The bass soloist follows with the announcement that, yes, Michael and the angels have conquered the dragon. The soprano responds with a gentle aria that references Mahanaim, the place where Jacob encountered angels in the Book of Genesis, letting believers know that angels are protecting them.


Then the tenor soloist brings us to a sweet but heart-breaking aria, pleading for the continued presence of angels in the face of life’s difficulties. And as the tenor sings, “Stay, you angels, stay with me,” a solo trumpeter intones a separate chorale tune, one that Bach’s audiences would have immediately connected with the words, “Lord, let your dear little angel … take my soul to Abraham’s bosom. Let my body … without any anguish or pain, rest until the last day!”


It’s Bach’s way of acknowledging the simultaneous desires of the believer, both to be protected here on earth, as well as to escape the pain of earthly existence.

During the final chorus, angels remain in the picture through the words, “Let your angels travel with me on Elijah's red chariot and guard my soul well,” and through the soaring but now gentle sounds of the high trumpet and strings.

You can find a complete translation of this piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 19 with soprano Malin Hartelius, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists and conductor John Eliot Gardiner, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 19]

The final, soaring bars of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 19 symbolize in sound the images of angels referenced throughout the entire piece. This performance of the Cantata 19 featured the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with conductor John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists included soprano Malin Hartelius, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.

Bach’s keyboard works include the well-known, like the French Suites, and the Goldberg Variations. But there is also so much we don’t hear on a regular basis, like this short Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, performed here by Angela Hewitt.

[MUSIC – BWV 944]

There’s a dynamic, youthful energy in this Fantasia and Fugue in A minor by Bach, a piece he composed when he was in his early twenties and performed here by Angela Hewitt.

Bach’s so-called Brandenburg Concertos of several years later are some of his most familiar works in our day. And they inspired the late musicologist Bruce Haynes to extend the series with six more concertos, based on movements from cantatas and other pieces. Here is his Brandenburg Concerto No. 9, performed by the Montreal Baroque Band and conductor Eric Milnes.

[MUSIC – Brandenburg 9]

With music taken from Bach’s Ascension Oratorio and Cantata No. 34, that was the Brandenburg Concerto No. 9. It was arranged by musicologist Bruce Haynes and performed by the Montreal Baroque Band.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program again 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.