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The Sun and Shield of Bach's Cantata 79

reflection of sunlight, entitled "Vision"
Wikimedia Commons

Ton Koopman conducts music that reflects both the inspiration and defiance of the composer's community, and Jeffrey Thomas leads the American Bach Soloists in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, all on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

French Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814 - Murray Perahia

Cantata BWV 79, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (translation) - Sandrine Piau, soprano; Bogna Bartosz, alto; Klaus Mertens, bass; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, Ton Koopman, conductor

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F, BWV 1046 - American Bach Soloists, Jeffrey Thomas, conductor



When you belong to a group, there are two sides to that “belonging.” You’re drawn together by the core values of the group. And you see those values in opposition to the world around you. It’s the pairing of a vibrant source of inspiration - as if it were the sun itself - and the instinct to protect that inspiration as if you’re carrying a shield. Those images are at the heart of Bach’s Cantata 79.


It’s a celebration of one particular group’s sense of belonging and the foundational story of the belief and defiance that binds them together.


This musical reflection of the cornerstone of Bach’s life and work is 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. Every community has its origin story, and the story of the Protestant Reformation is one that has echoed through western civilization since the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. It’s not surprising then, that Bach wrote magnificent music to commemorate the occasion. You’ll find a translation of the Cantata No. 79, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, or “God the Lord is Sun and Shield,” 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.

As you just heard, the Cantata 79 includes terrific writing for horns. And coming up later is another piece that puts the horn into the spotlight in a performance by the American Bach Soloists.

For now, though, here is one of Bach’s keyboard masterpieces. This is pianist Murray Perahia, with the French Suite No. 3, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 815]

When it was released, this performance of Bach’s French Suite No. 3 was described by critic Jed Distler as “gorgeously articulated,” with a “combination of lyrical introspection and shapely mobility.” It’s a performance by one of the great Bach pianists of our time, Murray Perahia.

The calendar that served as the organizing principle for Bach’s sacred music is, more or less, the same as the calendar that organizes the year for all western Christian churches. But one day stands out as unique for the faith Bach followed. Reformation Day commemorates Martin Luther’s act of defiance against the dominance of Catholic Rome, an act that ignited the Protestant Reformation.

In Bach’s time, Reformation Day brought together most of 18th century Leipzig in a celebration of the origin story of Lutheranism and its core beliefs. Those beliefs look towards a God who is bright and generous, as well as, especially at that time, strong, forceful, and protective against those who would try to persecute the community.

The Cantata No. 79, “God the Lord is Sun and Shield,” expresses those beliefs in music using a text from Psalm 84. The opening is exuberant, those words sung by a chorus that symbolizes the voice and solidarity of the entire community.


But belief is multi-dimensional, and Bach immediately pivots away from that depiction of the group to restate the same idea - “God the Lord is Sun and Shield” - from the perspective of an individual believer.


The contrast is striking, not just in pure sonic terms, but also in the message that contrast sends: the divine is in relationship with both the entire world, and with each individual within it.

The horns of the opening movement return in the next chorale, bolstering the hymn tune we know today as “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Then a bit of urgent drama invades this brightly lit piece, as the soprano and bass soloists express the occasional doubt of the believer, singing, “God, abandon your own never again.”


The final chorale brings back those high horns from the beginning, but now in a more lyrical voice, the celebration settling into calm and security.

Remember, you’ll find a translation of the text for this piece from Emmanuel Music when you visit our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata 79, “God the Lord is Sun and Shield,” with soprano soloist Sandrine Piau, alto Bogna Bartosz, and bass Klaus Mertens. Ton Koopman leads the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 79]

Bach’s Cantata No. 79, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, or “God the Lord is Sun and Shield,” in a performance by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir and director Ton Koopman. The soloists included soprano Sandrine Piau, alto Bogna Bartosz, and bass Klaus Mertens.

I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast of the bare facts of Bach’s life and the works of genius that life generated. If you had met Bach in 1721, you would have found an ambitious 36 year old professional; someone who had goals for his life, but who had also seen his share of personal difficulty, both as he grew up and very recently, when his first wife died the previous year. You would have found a man who picked up his life and continued on, taking care of his kids, doing the work he loved to do, and hoping that work might lead to bigger and better things.

It all led to a set of pieces that was meant as a sort of calling card, a portfolio of work that could, just maybe, be the catalyst to move up in the world. Whether they ever accomplished that function we’ll never know. But we do know that the six pieces that make up that calling card are brilliant.

Here is the first of them, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. It’s performed by the American Bach Soloists and director Jeffrey Thomas.

[MUSIC – BWV 1046]

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 by Bach, in a performance by the California-based American Bach Soloists. Jeffrey Thomas was the conductor.

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.