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A Declaration from the Heavens in Bach's Cantata No. 76

Nighttime stars, Rocky Mountain National Park
Jeremy Thomas
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Nighttime stars, Rocky Mountain National Park

On The Bach Hour, Philippe Pierlot leads Collegium Vocale Gent and the Ricercar Consort in music that begins in the wonder of the cosmos and ends in quiet, individual commitment.

On the program:

Prelude in D minor, BWV 999 (orig. C minor) - Jakob Lindberg, lute

Cantata BWV 76, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (translation) - Maria Keohane, soprano; Carlos Mena, alto; Julian Prégardien, tenor; Matthias Vieweg, bass; Collegium Vocale Gent and Ricercar Consort, Philippe Pierlot, director

Concerto for Horn and Strings in B-flat, after BWV 1055R - Radek Baborák, horn; Berlin Baroque Soloists

[MUSIC]

As with all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas, the brilliant sound of the music you’re hearing is just the first layer of what this piece carries in meaning and story. But in the case of the Cantata No. 76, those layers go, perhaps, even deeper than usual. [0:17]

[MUSIC]

While this opening is lively and spirited, Bach also throws down some hard truths and difficult challenges. And as the piece evolves along a pathway towards resolution, it reveals a particular outlook on the world, as well as the ambitions of its composer. The Cantata 76 - “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God” - is coming up on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC]

<marker 5> Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. The Cantata 76 is a work that stands out among the 200 or so cantatas that have survived the centuries. Not only does it express a lot of the central ideas that sparked Bach’s creativity, it was also written at a pivotal moment in the composer’s life, a time in which his vision - musically and personally - had reached a new high. You’ll hear how that vision took form in the Cantata No. 76, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, or “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God,” later in the program. And for a link to a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just go to Classical dot org.

First, here is a short Prelude by Bach, played by lutenist Jakob Lindberg, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 999]

This very short Prelude by Bach was performed by Swedish lutenist Jakob Lindberg, using an instrument built around 1590, and, quote, modernized in 1715.

Eight years later, in 1723, when Bach was 38 years old, he made a decision that would change his life - and the course of music in Europe and beyond. He left a job in which most of what he wrote and performed was instrumental music for the concert stage to take one that was centered around music for the church. And when he arrived in Leipzig, Germany, to begin this new chapter, brought a set of new works that would dazzle his new community. Among them was the Cantata No. 76, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, or “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.” Written in two parts, the first was to be performed before the pastor’s sermon and the second after it, leading to two very different sound worlds.

Part 1 opens with an extroverted chorus, with trumpet accompaniment, on words from Psalm 19: “The Heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.”

[MUSIC]

As the piece continues with words by an unknown librettist, the soprano soloist answers that with an expression of pure belief. But the bass soloist responds with a darker message: that the greatest crowds are drawn to false idols. He goes on - in the voice of a believer - to resist that attraction, singing, “Away, idolatrous guild.”

[MUSIC]

And then he sings something truly fascinating in relation to the time and place in which Bach lived: “I will honor Christ; he is the light of reason.”

[MUSIC]

It’s not just faith, but also the human mind that leads the believer. Part 1 ends with a chorale that asks for grace and strength, not only for believers, but also for all of humanity, with the trumpet that opened the piece now offering a more lyrical tone.

[MUSIC]

Remember, you’ll find a translation of this piece when you start at Classical dot org.

Here is Part 1 of Bach’s Cantata No. 76, “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God,” with soprano Maria Keohane, alto Carlos Mena, tenor Julian Pregardien, and bass Matthias Vieweg. Collegium Vocale of Ghent and the Ricercar Consort are led by Philippe Pierlot, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC - Cantata 76]

Part 1 of Bach’s Cantata No. 76, “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God,” in a performance by Collegium Vocale of Ghent and the Ricercar Consort, conducted by Philippe Pierlot.

If what we’ve heard so far can be thought of as an invitation to a believer, the intimate tone of the second part of the Cantata 76 might be characterized as the answer to the question, “Now what?”

Part 2 of the Cantata 76 moves us away from the grandiosity of Part 1 and its declarations of belief, and into a more intimate sound, expressing the perspective of an individual believer. That interior tone is set by an instrumental opening for the soft-voiced oboe d’amore and viola da gamba. A recitative for the bass soloist states that, while the believer is trying to create heaven on earth, it’s in the midst of serious threats from a dangerous world, a theme echoed by the tenor in a jagged musical construction on the words, “Hate me well, enemy race; to embrace Christ faithfully, I will abandon all joy.”

[MUSIC]

But the support and nourishment of the divine gives a sense of hope, musically moving back into the soft, intimate sound world that opened the second half, as the alto sings, “Love, Christians, through your deeds.”

[MUSIC]

It’s what a believer does with his or her life that matters, a sentiment reinforced in a return to the text of Psalm 19 to close the cantata on the words, “May you, oh God, be thanked and praised by people in good works.”

[MUSIC]

Here is Part 2 of Bach’s Cantata No. 76, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – Cantata 76]

Bach’s Cantata No. 76, “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God,” in a performance featuring soprano Maria Keohane, alto Carlos Mena, tenor Julian Pregardien, and bass Matthias Vieweg. Collegium Vocale of Ghent and the Ricercar Consort were led by Philippe Pierlot.

That piece was one of the first cantatas heard by Bach’s new community when he relocated to Leipzig in 1723, beginning a job in which weekly cantatas would dominate his compositional output for years. He had left a job in which concertos and chamber music were much more the order of the day. And here’s one of those concertos, originally for the oboe, and performed here on the horn by soloist Radek Baborek, with the Berlin Baroque Soloists, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC - Horn Concerto in B-flat]

A concerto originally for oboe, later refashioned by Bach for harpsichord, and in a new version for the horn, performed by Radek Baborek, with the Berlin Baroque Soloists.

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.