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Bernarda Fink Sings Bach's Transcendant Cantata 169

Bernarda Fink
Julia Wesely

On The Bach Hour, the Argentine mezzo-soprano is the soloist in music that opens a window to the composer's craft and life, with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

On the program:

Harpsichord Concerto in E, BWV 1053 - Christophe Rousset, harpsichord;  Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, conductor

Cantata BWV 169 Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (translation) - Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano;  Vocalconsort Berlin and Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Petra Müllejans, conductor

Sheep May Safely Graze, from Cantata BWV 208 (arr. Ignaz Friedman) - Piers Lane, piano


Bach’s keyboard concertos are some of his most enduringly popular works, whether played on the harpsichord or the piano. But in the case of this concerto, there is another way to hear it, with yet another instrument taking the spotlight.


This introduction to the Cantata 169 not only opens a window to Bach’s craft; it brings us a little closer to Bach the person and his outlook on the world. The Cantata 169 – and its sister concerto – are 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. Our program has a very simple mission: to bring you Bach’s music, in the form of both sacred vocal works and virtuosic instrumental works. Sometimes, those two categories intersect, and not just through the specific notes on the manuscript paper, but also in the mind of the composer. The Cantata No. 169 points us to one example of that dynamic, and you can find a translation of the text of Gott soll allein mein Herze haben – or “God alone shall have my heart” – at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. That’s where you can also hear this program and others on demand and learn more about Bach. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

It was in the late 1730’s that Bach looked through his library to create a concerto for the harpsichord to be performed the ensemble the composer directed, the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. An oboe concerto from several years earlier gave him the framework he needed, and here is the result. Christophe Rousset is the soloist with the Academy of Ancient Music and conductor Christopher Hogwood in the Harpsichord Concerto in E, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1053]

A Harpsichord Concerto in E major by Bach, with soloist Christophe Rousset, the Academy of Ancient Music and conductor Christopher Hogwood.

The first performance of that piece was probably on a Friday night at Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig. So you have to wonder if, maybe, some of those first listeners perked up, recognizing it as something they heard on a Sunday morning in church.

Transcription, or the taking of an existing piece of music and re-writing it for a different setting, plays a central role in Bach’s music. Not only did the composer create transcriptions of works by others, he also transcribed his own music on a regular basis.

There are a couple of ways of looking at that. On a technical level, it demonstrates the versatile and flexible genius of the music itself. On a deeper level, though, the story of Cantata No. 169 gives us a hint of who Bach was as a person and how he looked at the world. For Bach, there really was no difference between the worldly and the divine. His life as a believer was the same as his life as a musician, as a husband and father, and as a professional.

The Cantata No. 169 is symbolic of that perspective. The roots of Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, or “God alone shall have my heart,” are found in an oboe concerto the composer had written years earlier. Thematically, it’s based on what Jesus is said to have told his followers: that the greatest commandment is, “to love the Lord your God with your whole heart,” and second to that, “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

It opens with an organ solo, setting a joyful, relaxed tone in a new version of the first movement of that earlier oboe concerto. Then a mezzo-soprano soloist sings two meditations on the words, “God alone shall have my heart.”

It’s a sentiment that’s then reinforced with a rejection of the “arrogance, riches, [and] greed” of earthly existence, now using the second movement of that same, earlier concerto as its foundation. It’s called a Siciliano, which is a slow dance [pause for music in background] here combined with a bit of wistful mourning, reflecting a text that lets go of worldly life to look forward to life in heaven.


And right after this dance of letting go, the focus shifts to the second part of that commandment from Gospel, with the words, “be faithful to your neighbor!” And suddenly those neighbors appear, symbolically and actually, with a choir singing, “let us feel the fervor of love, so that we might love each other from our hearts and remain of one mind in peace.”

You can find a complete translation for the Cantata 169 by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Bach’s Cantata 169, with mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, directed by Petra Müllejans.

[MUSIC – BWV 169]

The Cantata No. 169, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, by J.S. Bach, in a performance featuring mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and organist Wolfgang Zerer, along with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and director Petra Müllejans.

After taking in some of Bach’s transcriptions of his own music, here is a 20th century transcription of one of Bach’s organ pieces from the Russian composer, Alexander Goedicke. Hamish Milne is the pianist in this Prelude and Fugue in G major.

[MUSIC – BWV 208]

“Sheep May Safely Graze,” a part of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 208, arranged here by Polish composer Ignaz Friedman and performed by Piers Lane.

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.