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Bach's Music for the Soul and for the Dance

Ton Koopman
courtesy of the artist
Ton Koopman

On The Bach Hour, the composer's Cantata No. 86, led by Ton Koopman, reflects a devotion to the sacred, while an enthusiasm for weekend social gatherings comes to life in the Orchestral Suite No. 1, directed by Richard Egarr.

On the program:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048 (arr. Reger) - Anderson and Roe

Cantata BWV 86 Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch (translation) - Sybilla Rubens, soprano;  Bernhard Landauer, alto;  Christoph Pregardien, tenor;  Klaus Mertens;  Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, Ton Koopman, conductor

Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C, BWV 1066 - Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, conductor



Like all of us, J.S. Bach lived what you might call multiple lives, simultaneously. His faith and determination led him to compose profoundly deep sacred works …


… while his cosmopolitan side spoke to an audience that was out for coffee, conversation, and pure entertainment on a Friday night.


Bach’s multiple lives may at first seem disconnected or incongruous. But when you get beyond the surface and dig into the music of either side of the equation, you find an integration of purpose and focus that creates a self-reinforcing circle of creativity.


Music for the soul and music for the dance are coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, and welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, a part of WGBH. I’m Brian McCreath. It’s never less than astonishing to me to recognize the utter normalcy of Bach’s life, at least in its general outline. Yes, certain facts are out of the ordinary if not completely unheard of, like losing both parents by the age of 11. Or fathering 20 children. But mostly, his is a story of working hard through a middle-class life to provide for his family and do good work. And that’s where things become extraordinary. For whatever normalcy we can detect in the story of his life, what Bach accomplished in his work is stunning. We’ll experience a small part of that work during the next hour through Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 and his Cantata No. 86, Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch, or Truly, truly, I say to you. You can find a translation of the text for that piece at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. That’s where you can also hear this program and others on-demand, and learn much more about Bach. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Bach’s work has inspired countless other composers over the centuries, including Max Reger, who arranged the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 for two players at one piano. This performance is by the duo Anderson and Roe, who take a few liberties with an improvised cadenza in the second movement.

[MUSIC – BWV 1048]

When Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson – the Anderson and Roe Piano Duo – set out to record Max Reger’s arrangement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, they added their own little twist, and one that Bach himself would have probably appreciated. The second movement of the piece is really only a short chord progression, so Anderson and Roe improvised their own way through most of it. But along the way they also injected a bit of another piece by Bach, the Chromatic Fantasy.

I’m Brian McCreath, and you’re listening to The Bach Hour from WCRB. The struggle to trust in the divine in the face of earthly challenges is a constant theme in Bach’s sacred cantatas. The Cantata No. 86 takes on that theme in the context of the post-Easter Jesus preparing his disciples for his ascension. It begins with a bass soloist singing in what’s known as the Vox Christi, or voice of Christ, with an excerpt from the Gospel of John: “Truly, truly I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, so will it be given to you.”

The theme of trust then comes from the voice of a believer. The alto soloist compares life to plucking roses, complete with the danger of being pricked by thorns and the trust that prayers are heard. Bach writes the brokenness of the rose stems straight into the music with the broken chords of a frenzied solo violin accompaniment.


The trust is confirmed in a chorale setting for the soprano soloist, with a pair of oboes d’amore swirling around the chorale tune, and maybe even evoking the words, “Whatever … God has promised … he will uphold … May He help us reach the throng of angels…”


The tenor soloist fills out the scenario further, singing of the empty promises of the world and the security of God’s promise, even if that promise feels delayed to humans. The chorus picks up that idea for the closing chorale, singing, “Hope awaits the right time, which God's word has promised.”

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. 86, Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch, in a performance with soprano soloist Sybilla Rubens, alto Bernhard Landauer, tenor Christoph Pregardien, and bass Klaus Mertens. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir are conducted by Ton Koopman, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 86]

The Cantata No. 86, Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch, by J.S. Bach. Ton Koopman conducted the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, with soprano soloist Sybilla Rubens, alto Bernhard Landauer, tenor Christoph Pregardien, and bass Klaus Mertens.

The people of Leipzig during Bach’s time had the chance to hear his musical genius virtually every Sunday in the main churches of the city. But they also had the chance to hear that genius on Friday nights, at the coffee house of Gottfried Zimmermann. To be clear, this wasn’t a coffee house in the way we think of the small, casual Starbucks type. This was a large establishment, with what was essentially a concert hall in the building.

And even as Bach continued to provide direction for the musical activities of the city’s churches, and even as he continued to teach students at the St. Thomas School, he also produced a series of concerts for Café Zimmermann, through an organization called the Collegium Musicum. Over the course of about a dozen years, that series amounted to roughly 500 concerts.

But it’s not just the quantity that’s significant. Just as Bach’s cantatas provided a creative platform to reflect his own devotion and faith, the Zimmermann concerts provided a platform for a creative exploration. To program those concerts, Bach drew on music by several composers, some of whom were his predecessors at the Collegium Musicum, like Telemann and Johann Kuhnau. And he also included works by Handel, Scarlatti, Locatelli, and many others from far-flung locations Bach never visited in person.

Those scores allowed Bach to experiment with styles and forms in his own music. Whether those coffee drinkers really knew that they were hearing music that would last the centuries during those Friday evenings at Zimmermann’s we don’t know. What we do know is that the dance forms that made up much of what Bach wrote, especially for his orchestral suites, circled back to feed the creative possibilities of those sacred works the same coffee drinkers heard on Sundays at St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches in Leipzig.

Here is one of the pieces that laid that groundwork: the Orchestral Suite No. 1. Richard Egarr conducts the Academy of Ancient Music, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1066]

That’s J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1, performed here by the Academy of Ancient Music and their conductor and harpsichordist, Richard Egarr.

Remember, you can hear this program again and much more at our web site, 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.