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The Contradictory Perspectives of Bach's Cantata 78

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig
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statue of J.S. Bach in Leipzig

On The Bach Hour, Philippe Herreweghe leads a work that grapples with oppositional forces of light and dark, and pianist Igor Levit performs the composer's Partita No. 2.

On the program:

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 - David Russell, guitar

Cantata BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele (translation) - Ingrid Schmithüsen, soprano;  Charles Brett, alto; Howard Crook, tenor;  Peter Kooij, bass;  Collegium Vocale Ghent, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor

Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV 826 - Igor Levit, piano



How many different realities do you hold in your mind simultaneously? That’s not meant to be a trick question, or the pitch for a science fiction movie. It’s a question that’s central in J.S. Bach’s music, including the Cantata 78.


This gorgeous duet, with its bouncy cello accompaniment, reflects one take on a believer’s relationship with the divine. But that relationship isn’t simple. A dark thread runs through it, in spite of its brilliance.


You’ll hear those simultaneous realities in the Cantata 78, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston.

One of the astonishing complexities of the human mind is its ability to hold within it contradictory truths. That’s not something we tend to dwell on consciously. But it’s a characteristic Bach reflected in his music over and over again, and his Cantata 78 is one example. And if you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Also on the program is another piece that communicates a harrowing emotional journey, but without words. It’s the Second Keyboard Partita, with pianist Igor Levit.

Before all of that, though, here is a serene chorale prelude. David Russell is the guitarist with “Sleepers, Wake.”

[MUSIC – BWV 645]

Originally part of Bach’s Cantata No. 140, and later transcribed for organ as a chorale prelude, that was “Sleepers, Wake,” in a performance by guitarist David Russell.

When Bach took the job in Leipzig that defined his career and legacy, it was the fulfillment of a goal of his. He wanted to write a multi-year set of original sacred works that would grapple with all the theological issues, contradictions, and problems embedded in his Lutheran faith. And, he did it. As it turns out, the people who hired him didn’t fully realize how much Bach would challenge them, both theologically and musically. Eventually, that would lead to some degree of disenchantment on Bach’s part, which, in musical terms, translated into works like the one you’ll hear later on, the Keyboard Partita No. 2.

But before that, when he had only been in Leipzig for about a year, and his enthusiasm and energy for writing new works on a weekly basis was at its peak, Bach wrote his Cantata No. 78, a piece that challenges us in just the way Bach’s audience eventually found to be a bit much

The first words, Jesu, der du meine Seele, or, “Jesus, You, who my soul” launch a meditation on the meaning of Christ’s Passion for an individual believer. And it does that at first with a choral movement that expresses both Jesus’s pain and the believer’s fear and thankfulness, all set amidst the inexorable passage of time through eternity, as symbolized in a seemingly never-ending bass line called a passacaglia.


It’s not simple, pretty, feel-good music. It’s churning and difficult. Which makes the second movement seem like the proverbial breath of fresh air.


The darkness and weight of the first movement have been cast off, and it’s all light and air now, right? Well, mostly. That inexorable passage of time is actually still there, now in the bouncy cello line under the two singers:


The believers “lift up their voices to beg for help,” and it’s really the other side of the same coin expressed in the first movement. Through these two movements Bach reflects the contradictory realities and experiences each of us carries in our lives, often at the very same time.

Later the tenor soloist sings the words, “The blood that cancels my guilt makes my heart light again and pronounces me free.” It’s the central theme of the whole piece – that Jesus’s suffering has erased human suffering, an erasure that’s expressed in the graceful lines of a flute accompaniment.


Remember, you can find a translation for this piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you start at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is the Cantata No. 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, with soprano soloist Ingrid Schmithüsen, alto Charles Brett, tenor Howard Crook, and bass Peter Kooij. Philippe Herreweghe leads Collegium Vocale of Ghent, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 78]

Bach’s Cantata No. 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, in a performance by Collegium Vocale of Ghent and conductor Philippe Herreweghe. The soloists included soprano Ingrid Schmithüsen, alto Charles Brett, tenor Howard Crook, and bass Peter Kooij.

It might be easy for us to hear the challenge and weight of cantatas like that as masterpieces. But at the time, Bach’s audiences weren’t so sure. And eventually that led Bach to try something different.

As Bach began to feel rather unappreciated for his brilliant cantatas and other sacred music in Leipzig, he collected a set of individual suites for keyboard and published them as his Opus 1 as a way to build his reputation – and bank account. And from that collection, here is the Partita No. 2. Igor Levit is the pianist, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 826]

J.S. Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 2, in a 2014 recording by pianist Igor Levit.

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.