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The Divine Friendship of Bach's Cantata 139

chorus and orchestra of Bach Collegium Japan on a concert stage
K. Miura
Japan Arts
Bach Collegium Japan

On The Bach Hour, Masaaki Suzuki leads music rooted in a warm and inviting divine presence, and Seiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony in an extroverted orchestration of the "St. Anne" Prelude and Fugue.

On the program:

Aria and Menuet from French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813 (trans. Frederick Neumann) - Renaud Capuçon, violin; Gautier Capuçon, cello

Cantata BWV 139, Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott (translation) - Yukari Nonoshita, soprano;  Robin Blaze, counter-tenor;  Makoto Sakurada, tenor;  Peter Kooij, bass;  Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041 - Renaud Capuçon, violin; Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552 St. Anne (arr. Schoenberg) - Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, conductor



Because it relies completely on an individual’s own faith, images of the divine are as varied as the world’s belief systems. There’s the idea of a God of law and retribution. Or a God of such otherworldly splendor as to be totally out of the reach of our earthly existence. But some picture a different kind of God – one of warmth and friendship.


It’s a picture J.S. Bach expressed in his Cantata No. 139, and it’s coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB. There’s no question that faith was a constant in Bach’s life. Not only did he write some of the most moving and creative works dedicated to an expression of religious belief; he also studied the Bible, making careful annotations in the margins to clarify the intersection of Lutheran theology and his own individual experience. In the Cantata 139, Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, a particular vision of the divine emerges, and you can find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. That’s also where you can also hear this and past programs on-demand. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

Also on the program today is a violin concerto with one of today’s most graceful and elegant players, Renaud Capucon. And here’s a short sample of that playing. With his brother, cellist Gautier Capucon, this is the Aria and Minuet from Bach’s French Suite No. 2, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 813]

The Aria and Minuet from Bach’s French Suite No. 2, originally for harpsichord and performed here by violinist Renaud Capucon and his brother, cellist Gautier Capucon.

I’m Brian McCreath, and you’re listening to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB.

Sometimes the German text of Bach’s cantatas don’t lend themselves to particularly graceful titles in English. To me, the Cantata No. 139 falls into that category. Its title, Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, is the beginning of an opening text that translates and continues as, “Fortunate is the person who upon his God can place a truly childlike reliance!” Grammatically correct, but also a bit clumsy. And beyond that, the real key word that unlocks the meaning of the cantata 139 doesn’t even come up until the end of that chorus, when the believer is assured that, no matter what, all will be well if “he has won God as his friend.”

The idea of friendship with the divine runs through the whole piece, beginning with that opening chorus, one that creates a warm and inviting sonic blanket. And it’s followed by an aria for the tenor soloist that begins with the words, “God is my friend; what use is the raging which an enemy might raise against me?” And just to make sure we get the point, two violins join along to depict friendship itself in sound.


But all this warmth and friendship changes when the bass soloist enters the scene to sing that life’s difficulties are like being bound by heavy weights.


Suddenly, though, the texture lightens up as, “his helping hand appears. The light of consolation appears to me from afar. Then I learn for the first time that God alone must be the best friend of humanity.”


And just as our own personal friendships can form a solid foundation for us, Bach ends the piece with a chorale, once again musically communicating the solidity of friendship with the divine for the believer.

Here is a performance of Bach’s Cantata No. 139 with soprano Yukari Nonoshita, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Makoto Sakurada, and bass Peter Kooij. Masaaki Suzuki conducts Bach Collegium Japan, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 139]

The Cantata No. 139 by Bach, Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, in a performance by Bach Collegium Japan and conductor Masaaki Suzuki. The vocal soloists included soprano Yukari Nonoshita, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Makoto Sakurada, and bass Peter Kooij.

When violinist Renaud Capucon decided to record some of Bach’s music, he decided, rather than devote an entire project to Bach alone, to set it next to one of today’s most visionary musical voices, the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. Capucon writes that, while of completely different worlds, each composer’s music has “purity of line, apparent simplicity, [and] celestial harmony. … This is music which brings calm, which revitalizes, which gives hope. And the most striking thing of all is the humility of these two composers in the service of beauty.”

Here is Renaud Capucon with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1041]

Violinist Renaud Capucon and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor.

When the story of music over the last hundred years is told, the name Arnold Schoenberg inevitably plays a pivotal role, moving the language of music in new and unexpected directions that have resonated ever since the early 20th century. But Schoenberg also revered the past, including music by Bach. In 1928 he created this vision of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, known as the “St. Anne,” and performed here by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Seiji Ozawa.

[MUSIC – BWV 552]

An extroverted, big-boned interpretation of Bach’s music from Arnold Schoenberg, who orchestrated the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, the “St. Anne.” Seiji Ozawa conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Remember you can hear this program again on-demand when you 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.