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Herreweghe Conducts Bach's Transformative Cantata No. 12

Conductor Philippe Herreweghe, standing with his arms crossed, looking at the viewer
Michiel Hendryckx
Philippe Herreweghe

On The Bach Hour, the composer's "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" charts a course from dark sorrow to resolute peace in a performance by Collegium Vocale of Ghent and their director, Philippe Herreweghe.

On the program:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G, BWV 1049 - Daniel Stepner, violin;  Christopher Krueger and Roy Sansom, recorders;  Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, conductor

Cantata BWV 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (translation) - Daniel Taylor, alto;  Mark Padmore, tenor;  Peter Kooy, bass;  Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor

Concerto in A minor, BWV 593 (after Vivaldi) - Gerhard Weinberger, organ (Zacharias Hildenbrandt organ at St. Wenceslaus Church, Naumberg, Germany)



Brian McCreath: J.S. Bach was only in his late 20s when he wrote his Cantata No. 12. But the theme of life’s struggles as a path to ultimate happiness and redemption was already familiar to him. You’ll hear the struggle and the joy in the Cantata No. 12, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. The Cantata No. 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, or “Weeping, lamenting, worry, despair,” embodies so much of the belief and world-view of Bach and his time that it’s hardly surprising that it’s one of the pieces he returned to throughout his life. You can find the words Bach set in this piece by visiting us at Classical WCRB dot org. That’s also where you can hear this and past programs on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Also ahead, you’ll hear from Harvard University’s Christoph Wolff on how Bach’s insatiable curiosity led to some of the greatest music for the composer’s favorite instrument: the organ.

First, here is Boston Baroque, with founder and director Martin Pearlman, in a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.

[MUSIC – BWV 1041]

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, featuring violinist Daniel Stepner and recorder soloists Christopher Krueger and Roy Sansom. Martin Pearlman directed his ensemble, Boston Baroque.

The light-hearted virtuosity of that concerto is just one side of Bach’s music. Something very different comes through in the Cantata No. 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, or “Weeping, lamenting, worry, despair.” It’s a piece he wrote right around his 29th birthday, and it explores sadness and struggle as a pathway to peace and consolation. It’s a central part of the Christian faith, especially the particular brand of Lutheranism practiced by Bach.

An opening instrumental Sinfonia sets the tone, with the chorus entering to draw a line from the daily struggles of a believer to Jesus’s suffering on the cross. The alto soloist puts it all in a nutshell with a quote from the book of Acts: “We must enter the Kingdom of God through much sorrow.”


Bach draws out those thoughts through a set of arias, culminating with a solo for the tenor, who sings, “After the rain, blessing blossoms, all storms pass away.” A solo oboe plays the chorale tune Jesu, meine Freude, or “Jesus, my joy,” which reinforces Bach’s message with music his audience would have recognized and embraced.


You can find a translation of the text for this piece at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is the Cantata No. 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, with alto Daniel Taylor, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooy. Philippe Herreweghe conducts Collegium Vocale of Ghent.

[MUSIC – BWV 12]

The final chorale of Bach’s Cantata No. 12 represents the final transformation for a believer. After its opening chorus on the words, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, or “Weeping, lamenting, worry, despair,” the words of that last statement by the chorus translate as,

What God does, is well done,I will cling to this.Along the harsh path trouble, death and misery may drive me.Yet God will,just like a father,hold me in His arms:therefore I let Him alone rule. 

This performance of the Cantata No. 12 featured alto Daniel Taylor, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooy. Philippe Herreweghe conducted Collegium Vocale of Ghent.

The transformation Bach depicts is one he may have felt more personally than that of some of his other works. Bach came to know the sadness of loss and struggle early on. He lost his both of his parents by age 11, completely upending his life. And that may be part of why Bach returned to the Cantata No. 12 later in his life following its first performance in 1714 in Weimar. He returned to it 10 years later in Leipzig. Then, in writing one of his most monumental masterpieces, he used the opening chorus for the Crucifixus in the Mass in B minor.

For J.S. Bach, there was nothing like looking through the work of other composers. His curiosity was insatiable, and it led to the incorporation and transformation of styles from all over Europe into his own work.

But according to Harvard University’s Christoph Wolff, the world’s leading Bach scholar, that curiosity is only one part of the process.

Christoph Wolff Bach had the opportunity, living for 27 years in the international center of the book trade, to really put his hands on things that many other people could not get hold of. And I think this helped a great deal for him to put together a collection of remarkable scope. But it goes back before Leipzig. I think it is, as you mentioned, Bach's curiosity that provides the key. And he didn't have to travel. He was so interested in reading scores and in listening to traveling musicians, which brought him new things and confronted him with new experiences in terms of performing styles and so forth. So if you look at the breadth of Bach's collection, we could see that he is reflecting on the styles and trying to learn from them and also communicate in his own music the experience that has grown in his compositional mind.

Brian McCreath And so for something like a Vivaldi concerto that he takes and makes into an organ piece, how does he stamp his voice on this music from Vivaldi? It's not -- or is it -- a straight ahead transcription of the notes from one setting to another?

Christoph Wolff Well, it is a transcription because Bach's piece has the same number of measures as the Vivaldi piece, but it is still selective. The emphasis of certain parts, perhaps the addition of certain elements that Vivaldi did not pay attention to. So it is, in a way, a clear transcription, but it is an improved version of the Vivaldi piece, but specifically then for the idiomatic possibilities of the organ or the harpsichord.

Brian McCreath Professor Christoph Wolff, author of Johann Sebastian Bach:  The Learned Musician.

Here is one of those transformed Vivaldi works. Gerhard Weinberger is the organist in the Concerto in A minor.

[MUSIC – BWV 593]

The Concerto in A minor, originally a concerto for two violins by Antonio Vivaldi, and transformed by J.S. Bach for his own favorite instrument, the organ. Gerhard Weinberger was the soloist at the Zacharias Hildebrandt instrument at St. Wenceslaus Church in Naumberg, Germany. That organ, by the way, is one that Bach himself tested and approved when it was new in 1746. And later, it was played regularly by Bach’s own son-in-law, Johann Christoph Altnickol, who held a post at that church.

Remember, you can hear this and past programs on-demand 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.