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Joy and Depth in Bach's Cantata 31

Ton Koopman leading Amsterdam Baroque
Martina Simkovicova
courtesy of the artist
Ton Koopman and Amsterdam Baroque

On The Bach Hour, Ton Koopman leads Amsterdam Baroque in music that reflects the complexity of belief through one of the composer's most brilliant works, and the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra performs Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 4.

On the program:

Three Chorale Preludes: Erstanden ist der heil'ge Christ, BWV 628, Erscheinen ist der herrliche Tag, BWV 629, and Heut triumphiert Gottes Sohn, BWV 630 - Simon Preston, organ (Klosterkirke, Soro)

Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D, BWV 1069 - Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Andrew Parrott, conductor

Cantata BWV 31 Der Himmel lacht!  die Erde jubilieret (translation) - Barbara Schlick, soprano; Guy de Mey, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, Ton Koopman, conductor

Sinfonia from Easter Oratorio BWV 249 (arr. Empire Brass) - Empire Brass; Douglas Major, organ (National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.)



J.S. Bach’s Cantata 31 has everything you need for a splashy opening: trumpets, drums, and a rhythm that immediately grabs you, all of which launches a dance of pure joy.


It’s celebratory music that rings through the air, and for a believer, there’s nothing more important to celebrate. This is music for Easter, the defining moment of Bach’s faith. But that faith is one of complexity.


Bach expresses an understanding of Easter that goes deeper than the addictive gratification we hear in this opening fanfare.


The joy – and the depth – of the Cantata No. 31, for Easter, is coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from 99.5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. You can find us online at Classical WCRB dot org, and that’s where you’ll find a translation of the Cantata No. 31 from Boston’s Emmanuel Music. That’s also where you can hear this and past programs again on-demand. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

Bach’s life and work were built around the church, and the instrument on which he seems to have felt most at home was the pipe organ. So it won’t be any surprise that, along with organ works for other liturgical feast days, he wrote several preludes on Easter chorales. Here is one of them, Today the Son of God triumphs, all performed by Simon Preston.

[MUSIC – BWV 630]

The preludes Bach crafted on the foundations of chorales are meant to express the meaning of the words of those chorales through purely musical means. Simon Preston was the organist in a prelude written on an Easter hymn, Today the Son of God triumphs.

I’m Brian McCreath with The Bach Hour from 99.5 WCRB. And later in the hour you’ll hear more music Bach wrote for Easter in the form of the Cantata No. 31.

For now, though, here is a piece written at a time when sacred music was taking a back seat in Bach’s work. He was the Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen for about six years during his early thirties. And it was during those years that he wrote many of the pieces we hear these days in the concert hall, like the suites for solo violin and solo cello, and the Brandenburg Concertos. He also wrote what we now call Orchestral Suites. We’re not sure how many he wrote, and only four of them have survived the centuries. Here is the Suite No. 4, with the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and conductor Andrew Parrott.

[MUSIC – BWV 1069]

Since its founding in 1980, there have been countless highlights in the history of the Boston Early Music Festival. And one of them is this performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 by the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and conductor Andrew Parrott, part of a recording on the EMI label of all four of Bach’s surviving Orchestral Suites.

Easter is, by definition, at the center of the Christian faith. For Bach, a person who devoted his entire life and work to that faith, Easter was central both personally and professionally. The belief in the possibility of resurrection and an eternal life in heaven wasn’t just something he aspired to, and it wasn’t even something he just wanted to express. That expression was also his job, and it forms a thematic backbone for just about all of his sacred music. But nowhere is it more explicit than in the works he wrote for Easter.

The Cantata No. 31 was written for Easter Sunday in 1715, and it takes you from exuberant celebration to the very intimate, personal core of faith.

It starts with a joyful instrumental dance with trumpets and drums, immediately followed by a chorus singing, “The Heavens Laugh! The Earth Rejoices … The Highest triumphs and is freed from the bonds of death.”

The bass soloist continues the celebration, reversing the terror and pain of Good Friday through words like, “Prince of life, … Shall your purple wounds be now the rays of Your brilliance?”

But then the perspective shifts, and it’s time for the believer to look in the mirror as the tenor soloist sings, “Adam must decay in us, so the new person can be born … You must be resurrected spiritually … if you are one of Christ's members.”

The soprano soloist then expresses the center of a believer’s faith, singing, “Last hour, break forth … Let me gaze upon Jesus' joyous glow … let me be like the angels!” And as she sings, the orchestra gives her the foundation of a soothing chorale melody entitled “When my last hour is at hand.”


That background chorale tune emerges into the open as the basis of the final chorus, which brings back the trumpet we heard in the opening, now joined by a solo violin to paint a picture in sound of those words from the soprano’s aria: “let me be like angels.”

Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 31, Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, or “The Heavens Laugh! The Earth Rejoices” with soprano Barbara Schlick, tenor Guy de Mey, and bass Klaus Mertens. Ton Koopman directs the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus.

[MUSIC – BWV 31]

As in all of Bach’s cantatas, there’s an explicit symbolism woven through the relationship of the words and music. The very arrangement of the solo voices in the Cantata No. 31, though, is itself symbolic, starting after the opening chorus with the bass, moving through the tenor, and finally ascending to the soprano for the emotional center of a piece about resurrection.

This performance of the Cantata 31, “Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, or “The Heavens Laugh! The Earth Rejoices,” was given by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Ton Koopman. The soloists included soprano Barbara Schlick, tenor Guy de Mey, and bass Klaus Mertens.

Here is one more piece for Easter Day. This is Empire Brass and organist Douglas Major at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, with the opening Sinfonia of Bach’s Easter Oratorio.

[MUSIC - BWV 249]

Just as the Cantata 31 began with an exuberant outburst before taking us into the mysteries of the Easter story, Bach’s Easter Oratorio does much the same thing, on a substantially larger canvass. You just heard one corner of that canvass in the opening Sinfonia of the Easter Oratorio, performed in an arrangement for brass and organ by Empire Brass and organist Douglas Major.

Remember, you can hear this program again at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also find more resources to enable your own Bach explorations. Again, that’s 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.