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St. Michael's Battle in Bach's Cantata 130

painting of St. Michael, standing with his sword in a suit of armor, by Hans Thoma
Hans Thoma, via Wikimedia Commons
St. Michael, by Hans Thoma

On The Bach Hour, John Eliot Gardiner leads the Monteverdi Soloists and English Baroque Soloists in the composer's reflection on the Archangel's confrontation with the Dragon.

On the program:

English Suite No. 1 in A, BWV 806 - Murray Perahia, piano

Cantata BWV 130 Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (translation) - Malin Hartelius, soprano;  James Gilchrist, tenor;  Peter Harvey, bass;  Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Italian Concerto, BWV 971 (arr. Greg Steinke) - Corona Guitar Quartet



If you ever start the day feeling like you need to be prepared to do battle, you’re not alone. For J.S. Bach, that sense of combat against the challenges life throws at us took on specific imagery, involving a seven-headed dragon and a saint named Michael.

In the Cantata No. 130, that battle is played out in music, ending with a soaring affirmation of belief.


The ferocious combat and the grace-filled resolution of the Cantata 130 – for St. Michael’s Day – 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. The power of a story to deliver a message usually doesn’t rest in its plot. A good story implants its message in our minds through the pictures our imagination generates. That’s what makes the cantatas Bach wrote for St. Michael’s Day – September 29th – so rich, all of them based on Michael’s battle against the dragon in the Book of Revelation. The story itself – and what it means for a believer – is compelling to begin with. And the combination of the imagery of the battle itself and the virtuosity of Bach’s musicians in Leipzig resulted in some of the composer’s best music that we almost never hear today. You’ll find a translation of the Cantata No. 130 – Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, or “Lord God, we all praise you” – online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program on-demand and find more resources to explore Bach. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

First, though, here is pianist Murray Perahia with the first of the six pieces known as the English Suites, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 808]

That’s Murray Perahia with the first in Bach’s series of six collections of dances we know as the English Suites. It wasn’t a name Bach himself used, and, in fact, it has practically nothing to do with the music itself.  In fact, the DNA of the English Suites is derived from Italian and French forms of dance music, which, during Bach’s early days as a composer, he absorbed and re-fashioned in his own voice.  It was a process that gave him the tools to pursue his true life’s passion, the expression of his religious faith through music.

In the belief system of Bach’s time and place, angels played a pivotal role in human existence and were celebrated each year on St. Michael’s Day as God’s protectors of humans. Based on a story from Revelation, Michael battles Lucifer, who’s taken on the form of a dragon with seven heads, ten horns, and ten crowns. To tell that story in the Cantata No. 130, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, or “Lord God, we all praise you,” Bach begins with a chorus of thanks to God for the angels, with music that many would recognize as the Doxology.

And that’s followed by the question of an individual believer: “How necessary is this protection in the face of Satan’s wrath and power?” The answer to that question comes from the bass soloist, who sings, “The old dragon burns with envy and constantly scripts new sorrows,” as a three trumpets negotiate some of the most fearsome parts Bach wrote for that instrument, symbolizing either the wagging of the dragon’s tail or the metallic glint and flash of Michael’s sword – take your pick.


And right after this spectacular battle scene, Bach draws in a couple of other biblical stories, first alluding to Daniel among the lions as a picture of steadfast faith, and then, in a beautifully graceful dance for the tenor, Elijah’s chariot, transporting believers to heaven.


The piece ends by returning to the same tune – Doxology – with the chorus, now with the trumpet section floating upwards … like angels.

Remember, you’ll find a translation of this piece from Emmanuel Music at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 130, featuring soprano Malin Hartelius, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 161]

The Cantata No. 130 by Bach, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, or “Lord God, we all praise you,” recorded in a concert in Bremen, Germany, during conductor John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pigrimage in 2000, with soprano Malin Hartelius, tenor James Gilchrist, bass Peter Harvey, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists.

The invention and craft of Bach’s keyboard works seem to retain those qualities no matter what other instrument takes them on. Here is the Italian Concerto, performed by the Corona Guitar Quartet, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 971]

That’s Bach’s Italian Concerto, originally for harpsichord and performed here by the Corona Guitar Quartet.

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