Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Uncertainty and Resolve in Bach's Cantata 166

Monteverdi Choir
Bruno Moussier
Monteverdi Choir

On The Bach Hour, John Eliot Gardiner leads the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the composer's musical confrontation with the capriciousness of life.

On the program:

Trio Sonata in E minor, BWV 528 - Robert Quinney, organ (Frobenius organ at The Queen's College, Oxford, England)

Cantata BWV 166 Wo gehest du hin? (translation) - Robin Tyson, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; Stephen Varcoe, bass; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Chorale Prelude:  Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten,  BWV 647 - Martin Roscoe, piano

Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C, BWV 1066 - Brazilian Guitar Quartet


When Bach sketched this line for string instruments, he had in mind a sort of wandering quality. It’s a reflection of the way life’s uncertainties can throw us into a sort of aimlessness. But then, Bach adds this.


Bach sends the message that, “yes, we wander.” And “yes, there is also certainty.”


Fear of the capriciousness of life, and Bach’s response to it, in his Cantata 166, 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. Each of us, at one time or another, confronts the fragility of our lives, whether it’s through the sudden loss of a loved one or friend, or through our own close calls. It’s those moments that Bach had in mind when he wrote his Cantata 166, Wo gehest du hin?, or “Where are you going?” You’ll find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can hear this program again on demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Before the Cantata 166, though, here is Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 4. Robert Quinney performs on the Frobenius organ at Queen’s College, Oxford, England, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 528]

There are times when J.S. Bach explored the possibilities of the pipe organ as a producer of massive amounts of sound, dazzling us with cascades of notes and harmonies. But the six trio sonatas he wrote for his son Wilhelm Friedemann are really more about intimacy. The three voices – one for each of the two hands and one for the feet – interact in the same way as the Italian chamber music that inspired them, resulting in a beautiful clarity of voice and line. Robert Quinney was the organist at the Frobenius organ, built in 1965, at The Queen’s College, Oxford.

If beauty and clarity were Bach’s goals in that trio sonata, something very different is at work in his Cantata No. 166. Wo gehest du hin?, or “Where are you going?”, is a piece that explores the confusion and mixed messages of the immediate post-Easter landscape Jesus’s followers, and how that landscape is relevant to a believer.

That first line, “Where are you going?”, comes from the Gospel of John. And they’re sung by a bass soloist, making it clear that it’s Jesus, giving voice to the question that’s actually on the disciples’ minds as they wonder what will happen as Jesus ascends to heaven.

Then, as the tenor soloist meditates on the tension between heaven and earth, we realize that the question is actually meant to be turned around, asking, “Humanity, where you are you going?”


The answer comes in a chorale setting for the sopranos of the choir that’s really a prayer for resolve in the face of uncertainty. Later, the alto soloist sings a light-hearted reminder that good fortune is capricious and that we really don’t know what’s awaiting us around the corner at any given moment.

The full chorus responds with a final, solemn prayer, acknowledging that the future is unknown - and that only the divine can provide security.

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

Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 166, Wo gehest du hin?, in a performance with alto Robin Tyson, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Stephen Varcoe. They’re joined by the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and conductor John Eliot Gardiner, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 166]

The Cantata No. 166, Wo gehest du hin?, by J.S. Bach. John Eliot Gardiner conducted the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with alto Robin Tyson, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Stephen Varcoe.

The chorale tune Bach used for the finale movement of that cantata is also one the composer used at least 13 times for different cantata movements, chorales, and instrumental works. Here is one of them. This is Samuil Feinberg’s transcription of Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten with pianist Martin Roscoe.

[MUSIC – BWV 647]

A chorale prelude on Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, transcribed from the organ original by the Russian composer Samuil Feinberg. Martin Roscoe was the pianist.

When the Brazilian Guitar Quartet released their own arrangements of Bach’s Orchestral Suites in 2000, the recording was an instant classic. Hearing one of those works in concert, a reviewer for the Washington Post wrote, “It’s hard to imagine Bach played with more seductive beauty … the guitarists allowed Bach’s contrapuntal writing to emerge with buoyancy and clear, structural logic, while bathing this rigorous German score in the warmest Brazilian sunshine.”

Here is the Orchestral Suite No. 1, performed by the Brazilian Guitar Quartet, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1066]

That’s the Orchestral Suite No. 1, arranged and performed by the Brazilian Guitar Quartet.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program 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.