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The Vibrant Colors and Deep Meaning of Horns in a Bach Cantata

Horn detail
Elizabeth Yu
Horn detail

On The Bach Hour, the composer's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 takes on new dimensions as part of the Cantata 52, and horn soloist Radek Baborák brings the instrument's dynamism to a concerto originally for harpsichord.

On the program:

Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 - Lisa Batiashvili, violin; Radio Symphony Orchestra of Berlin, Nikoloz Rachveli, conductor

Cantata BWV 52 Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht! (translation) - Gillian Keith, soprano; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Concerto for Horn and Strings in E-flat, after BWV 169, 49, and 1053 - Radek Baborák, horn; Berlin Baroque Soloists

selections from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach
- Daniil Trifonov, piano



In the vast landscape of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is among the most commonly heard. But, while it sounds like it, that concerto is not what you’re hearing.


No, this is the opening of Bach’s Cantata No. 52. And while the re-purposed concerto does a beautiful job of introducing the cantata, it also goes beyond that, holding a deeper meaning.


Bach knew just what he was doing when he raided his own catalog to launch his Cantata 52. And you’ll hear all about it, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. It wasn’t terribly often that Bach used horns in his music. So, when he does, it’s worth looking behind and around the music for context. Bach wasn’t a composer who made choices on a whim. And when you pull the curtain back on his Cantata 52, Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht, or “False world, I do not trust you,” you find more than might appear on the surface. That piece is coming up, and you’ll find a translation of its text, from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, when you start at Classical WCRB dot org.

First, though, here is violinist Lisa Batiashvili, with an arrangement of the chorale prelude Ich Ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, or “I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” Nikoloz Rachveli leads the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 639]

The meditative chorale prelude Ich Ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, or “I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” Violinist Lisa Batiashvili was joined by conductor Nikoloz Rachveli and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. It’s one selection from Batiashvili’s 2020 release called City Lights, in which a huge variety of short pieces reflect the important places of the soloist’s life, in this case Germany, the country she moved to as a teenager from the Republic of Georgia.

In November of 1726, as Bach set about writing a cantata for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, he went to his files and brought out his First Brandenburg Concerto. There’s no indication that the piece had any theological meaning. But Bach knew that its opening movement could take on a new meaning in the Cantata No. 52, Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht, or “False world, I do not trust you.” Specifically, the rustic, blaring horns in this piece, for Bach’s audience, symbolize the very earthly, human pursuit of hunting.


But to a believer, that pursuit is just one example of the “false world,” in which “honest is banished, falsehood having driven it away.”


She goes on to sing that “if the false world is my enemy then God will be my friend.”


And eventually, the believer’s anger at the world gives way, with the pastoral sound of three oboes, to a devotion to the divine, through the words, “I keep faith with the loving God; the world may remain all by itself.”


Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you start at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 52, sung by soprano Gillian Keith. John Eliot Gardiner leads the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 52]

Bach’s Cantata No. 52, Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht, or “False world, I do not trust you.” in a performance by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, led by their founder and conductor, John Eliot Gardiner. Gillian Keith was the soprano soloist.

Bach’s use of the horn in the Cantata 52 fulfilled a very specific role in the message of that piece. But musically, the capabilities of the instrument in Bach’s time were limited, just as they were for other brass instruments, like trumpets and trombones. In the centuries since, though, the evolution of the horn has opened up possibilities unavailable to Bach. And in 2020, one of the great horn players of our time took those possibilities and applied them to a set of Bach concertos. Here is one of them. Radek Baborak is the horn soloist, with the Berlin Baroque Soloists, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – Concerto after BWV 169, 49, 1053]

Radek Baborak was, for a number of years, the Principal Horn player for the Berlin Philharmonic. And some of those colleagues joined him as members of the Berlin Baroque Soloists for this concerto, adapted from a harpsichord concerto by Bach.

In its original form for harpsichord, that piece would have been heard at the Friday night concerts at Gottfried Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig, where Bach led a group known as the Collegium Musicum. Between those concerts, his work for the churches of Leipzig, and his teaching, it was a full life. And on top of that, we can tell through his letters and other evidence that he was devoted to his family. At one point, he expressed his affection for his wife Anna Magdalena with a notebook of music, with short pieces by himself and others. Pianist Daniil Trifonov included those pieces in a release he calls “Bach: The Art of Life.” Here are selections from that recording of the Anna Magdalena Bach notebook. Daniil Trifonov is the pianist, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – Anna Magdalena selections]

That’s Daniil Trifonov, bringing an amazing soulfulness to what’s usually considered just beyond beginner music for piano students. From Trifonov’s release entitled “Bach: The Art of Life,” you heard selections from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, short works collected - and in some cases written - by Anna Magdalena’s husband, Johann Sebastian.

Remember, you’ll find more of The Bach Hour 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.