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William Walton Channels Bach in "The Wise Virgins"

The Parable of the Ten Virgins, by Phoebe Anna Traquair, at Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh
Steven C Dickson
Wikimedia Commons
"The Parable of the Ten Virgins," by Phoebe Traquair

Yoav Talmi leads the Quebec Symphony Orchestra in the British composer's imaginative vision for a ballet based on Bach's music, and Thomas Quasthoff sings the heart-wrenching Cantata No. 56 on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Gamba Sonata in G, BWV 1027 - Steven Isserlis, cello; Richard Egarr, harpsichord

Cantata BWV 56 Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (translation) - Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone;  Berlin Baroque Soloists and members of the RIAS Chamber Choir, Rainer Kussmaul, director

Suite from The Wise Virgins (arr. William Walton) - Quebec Symphony Orchestra, Yoav Talmi, conductor



The images that normally come to mind with Bach’s music often involve the glint of pipe organs, sober expressions on the faces of serious performers, and the vaulted ceilings of churches. But sometimes Bach comes to us in from the other-worldly lightness of ballet. As the world descended into world war in 1940, William Walton harnessed Bach’s music to create the score for a ballet, one that injected inspiration into a crumbling civilization. The Suite from William Walton’s The Wise Virgins 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. There seems to be no end to the ways in which Bach’s music crosses into territory the composer never would have dreamed of. Ballet is an arena that has the potential to bring completely new perspectives to Bach’s music, the movement of dancers highlighting organic inner processes like no other art form can. William Walton’s score for The Wise Virgins brought a collection of pieces from across Bach’s catalog together in a beautiful concert suite, and it’s coming up later on.

Also on the program today is the Cantata No. 56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, or “I will gladly carry the Cross,” with the remarkable bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff. If you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece, visit us at Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll also find this and past programs available on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

First, here is a Sonata Bach originally wrote for the viola da gamba, played here by cellist Steven Isserlis and harpsichordist Richard Egarr, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1028]

That’s a Viola da Gamba Sonata by Bach, performed by Steven Isserlis on what he calls that ancient instrument’s “younger brother, or at least cousin,” the cello, along with harpsichordist Richard Egarr.

I’m Brian McCreath, and this is The Bach Hour from WCRB.

The journey of a solitary believer is at the heart of Bach’s Cantata No. 56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, or “I will gladly carry the Cross.” From the very outset, the soloist sings of his determination to carry the cross for God. But there’s no doubt that it’s a difficult journey, with an accompaniment that’s dark and heavy, like weights around the soloist’s ankles.


After the journey takes to the sea, with undulating waves of water in the cello accompaniment, the soloist sings of God’s mercy as an anchor in the midst of that sea. Then the cello stops, the water becomes still, and the believer steps from the ship onto dry land. The tone changes immediately to one of lightness and joy, as the yoke falls away.


The believer has “an eagle’s power” and “will journey from this earth and run without becoming fatigued.”

The final chorale reflects the community voice, referencing – through a chorus – that difficult journey at sea and the arrival in a safe harbor with the divine.

You can find the entire translation of this piece at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is the Cantata No. 56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, with bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, the Berlin Baroque Soloists and members of the RIAS Chamber Choir, with director Rainer Kussmaul.

[MUSIC – BWV 56]

J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 56, a piece that depicts a single believer’s struggle, determination, and, ultimately, transcendence. That process is quite familiar to the soloist in this performance, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff. As a so-called Thalidomide baby in post-war Germany, he never grew past four-feet-four-inches tall, possessing only vestigial legs, hands, and feet. But he overcame those daunting physical challenges to become one of the great singers of the last century before retiring from the stage in 2012.

Thomas Quasthoff was joined in this performance by the Berlin Baroque Soloists, members of the RIAS Chamber Choir, and conductor Rainer Kussmaul.

How’s this for an odd visual juxtaposition: The industrious, devout, church musician Bach, and the physically idealized, lighter-than-air grace and beauty of the ballet world. They’re not quite as separate as those visions may suggest. The legendary Frederick Ashton of the Royal Ballet became enchanted with Bach’s music, and the result was a ballet called The Wise Virgins. British composer William Walton arranged a set of movements from Bach’s cantatas, and the production premiered in 1940.

But after a second performance in Holland, the troupe had to evacuate because of the advance of the German army, leaving the sets, costumes, and music behind. A few of the movements didn’t survive the war, but a concert suite from The Wise Virgins did. Here is that collection, with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yoav Talmi.

[MUSIC – Wise Virgins]

William Walton’s concert suite from The Wise Virgins, a ballet choreographed by Frederick Ashton in 1940. Yoav Talmi conducted the Quebec Symphony Orchestra.

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.