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Bach's New Song for a New Year

Austrian sunrise, with light filtered through evergreen trees on a snowy landscape
Alex Gruber
Austrian sunrise

On The Bach Hour, John Eliot Gardiner leads the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the Cantata 190, "Sing to the Lord a New Song," written for New Year's Day.

On the program:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048 - English Baroque Soloists

Partita No. 5 in G, BWV 829 - Igor Levit, piano

Cantata BWV 190 Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (translation) - Daniel Taylor, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Solosits, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor



Brian McCreath (BM): Celebrating the beginning of a new year always has a curious quality about it. On the one hand, it’s really just a bit of paperwork: hang a new calendar on the wall, and remember to write a different number on the checks you send off to pay the bills. On the other hand, who doesn’t welcome an excuse to start fresh, shedding the past to reclaim hope in the future?

This music embodies the sheer adrenalin that hope can inject into our lives, through notes J.S. Bach wrote, and the words he set, “Sing to the Lord a new song.”

Bach’s Cantata 190, written for New Year’s Day, is coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB. Rituals surrounding the turning of the year include Hogmanay in Scotland, where you’ll want the first foot to step through your door on New Year’s Day to be that of a dark-haired man, those with fair hair apparently being too much an echo of Viking invaders. In the southern United States, good luck for the next 12 months comes from having a plate of black-eyed peas. Meanwhile, in Greece, you’ll be lucky if you find the gold coin baked into the cake for St. Basil’s Day. And then there are those media-driven rituals in Times Square and the Rose Bowl. Bach’s Cantata 190 represents a particularly religious take on the New Year, but no matter what your faith tradition is – if any – its combination of exuberance and intimacy is irresistible. 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.

The performance of the Cantata 190 you’ll hear later in the hour comes to us from John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. And here are the English Baroque Soloists in another exuberant work by Bach. This is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, here on The Bach Hour.


BM: The infectious pulse of this music makes it easy to forget that Bach seems to have been having fun with numbers. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is written for three groups of instruments: three violins, three violas, and three cellos, in addition to the continuo. And through the course of its three movements the musical phrases themselves repeat and breakdown in groups of, yes … threes. This 2009 concert performance of the Third Brandenburg featured the English Baroque Soloists.

In a review for the Sinfini Music web site, Harriet Smith writes of Igor Levit’s recording of Bach’s six keyboard Partitas, “Igor Levit is frighteningly good … These six suites fizz with personality (without becoming idiosyncratic); he's not afraid to spice things up with ornamentation, which adds a delightful improvisatory quality to his performances in a movement such as the Courante of the Fifth Partita.”

Here is that performance of Bach’s Partita No. 5, from pianist Igor Levit, here on The Bach Hour.


BM: The Fifth in a series of six Partitas, or suites, by Bach, performed in a 2014 release by Russian – German pianist Igor Levit.

New Year’s Day celebrations of our time are, for most, purely fun, with parades and football games to fill a day off from work. But Bach had a deeper meaning in mind when he wrote his Cantata No. 190 to celebrate New Year’s Day. As with all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, Singet dem Herrn ein neueus Lied, or “Sing to the Lord a new song,” draws inspiration from a passage in the Bible, in this case, the circumcision of Jesus. There is allusion to that story, what’s really behind this piece is a sense of the passage of time, a gratitude for what has come before, and hopes for what is still to come.

Giving thanks opens the piece, a kinetic setting of Psalm 149 offset by rock solid interjections of Martin Luther’s Te Deum.


BM: But it’s a hopeful prayer for the future that forms the emotional center of gravity for this piece. The tenor and bass soloists, singing the name “Jesus” to begin each line, remind the believer that life begins and ends with the divine, as does each year of that life.


BM: After the serene reassurance of that piece, the chorus ends the cantata with the words, “Let us complete the year to the praise of Your name … Turn Your blessing upon us, give peace to every outcome, grant, uncorrupted, …Your sanctifying word.”

You can find a translation of the text for this piece at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

This performance of the Cantata No. 190, Singet dem Herrn ein neueus Lied, or “Sing to the Lord a new song,” features alto Daniel Taylor, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, here on The Bach Hour.


BM: This performance of Bach’s Cantata 190, Singet dem Herrn ein neueus Lied, or “Sing to the Lord a new song,” took place at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York, as part of the last concert of a year-long Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, in which all of Bach’s surviving sacred cantatas were performed in one year. And afterward, Howard Moody, the harpsichordist in the ensemble, wrote, “I was travelling with my wife and two very young children, and the practical implications were a constant reminder of Bach’s own domestic situation, with numerous children and a job in which he not only played, but wrote the music too! Being surrounded by my own children helped me connect with the images of awe and wonder that pervade the texts of these … Cantatas.”

John Eliot Gardiner conducted the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, along with alto Daniel Taylor, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.

Remember, you can hear this and past programs on-demand at our web site, 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.