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Genius Out of Intolerance in Bach's Cantata 126

J.S. Bach

On the program:

Arioso, from Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056 (arr. Alfred Cortot) - Stephen Hough, piano

Cantata BWV 126 Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (translation) - Robin Tyson, alto;  James Gilchrist, tenor;  Stephan Loges, bass;  Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F, BWV 1046 - Les Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall, director

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 (arr. Alfred Cortot) - Stephen Hough, piano


Every culture, including ours, has its enemies, both real and perceived.  And sometimes that leads us down less than honorable paths, exposing the weakness we all carry to categorize, fear, and dismiss those who aren’t like us.  J.S. Bach was no more immune to this than the rest of us.  But the difference with Bach is that within his prejudices were the seeds of musical genius.

The Cantata 126 exposes the intolerance of Bach and the people of 18th Century Leipzig.  It also gives us some thrilling music, and it’s coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I'm Brian McCreath;  welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston.  For over forty years, Bach’s sacred music has had a place on the radio in Boston, and at times that tradition takes us to more or less hidden corners of Bach’s time.  There’s no denying that, for all its transcendence and uplift, Bach’s music comes out of an imperfect culture.  You’ll hear evidence of that in the words of the Cantata 126, Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, or “Sustain us, Lord, with your word,” and you can find a translation of those words from Boston’s Emmanuel Music online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand.  Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Also coming up later in the program, pianist Stephen Hough performs one of Bach’s most recognizable works, transcribed by Alfred Cortot.  And for now, here’s another short transcription by the legendary Franco-Swiss pianist.  This is the beautiful Arioso from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5.  Stephen Hough is the pianist, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1056]

Pianist Stephen Hough, with a peaceful little transcription by Alfred Cortot.  That was the Arioso from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5.

When it comes to Bach’s Cantata No. 126, that sense of peacefulness seems as far away as it can possibly be.  Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, or “Sustain us, Lord, with your word,” is a combative cantata, depicting danger and existential threats that only the divine can protect against.  It’s ostensibly based on the parable of the sower of seeds from the Bible, but that connection is tenuous at best.  What it’s really based on is the threats Martin Luther perceived in the 16th century coming from the Roman Church and aggression from the Ottoman Empire.  In Luther’s shorthand, the Pope and the Turk.  And while those specific threats weren’t anywhere near as present by 1725 when the cantata was written, they hung in the cultural air, retaining a hold on the consciousness of Bach and his audience.  

Whatever its cultural origins, the Cantata 126 is a brilliant piece of music.  The opening chorus is riveting and defiant, with a solo trumpet piercing through the chorale tune that’s sustained in the voices.  The chorus focuses on the words  “Erhalt uns” or “Sustain us,” going on to sing “thwart the murderous rage of the Pope and Turk, which would overthrow Jesus Christ…” 

The tenor soloist follows with an aria that asks for power from the divine to “delight the church” and destroy the enemy, both depicted by some especially athletic singing from the soloist.


The alto soloist joins the tenor for a duo recitative, the two voices joining together for chorale statements that ask for help from the divine in more peaceful terms.

The combative side of the matter returns as the bass soloist sings, “Hurl to the ground the pompous proud … Let the abyss suddenly devour them,” complete with cello accompaniment to give us a view down that abyss.  


The turn of the 20th century Bach scholar W.G. Whittaker wrote that Bach’s “righteous indignation at the enemies of his faith was never expressed more fiercely than in this aria.”

After all the contentiousness of that aria and the previous movements, the final chorale is surprisingly warm and inviting, the text translating as “Give our rulers … peace and good government, that under them we might lead a quiet and peaceful life…”

You can find a translation of this piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.  The translation by Pamela Dellal for Emmanuel Music includes both the original text, as well as an alternative for some of the more intolerant words Bach set.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 126 with countertenor Robin Tyson, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Stephan Loges.  John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, during his Bach Cantata Pilgrimmage of 2000, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 126]

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner calls the final three-bar “Amen” of Bach’s Cantata 126 “a miraculous fusion of Tudor polyphony and Bachian counterpoint.”  And after all the anger and defensiveness of what came before, that final chorale points to the fact that what Bach and his audience wanted was what anyone wants out of life:  peace.

This performance of the Cantata No. 126, Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, was conducted by Gardiner and featured countertenor Robin Tyson, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Stephan Loges, along with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.

Coming up, a legendary pianist distills Bach’s most iconic organ work, through a French prism.  

There is more of Bach’s music awaiting you at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.  That’s where you’ll find The Bach Hour on-demand, along with more resources to enable your own Bach explorations.  Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

If the Cantata 126 gave us a Bach of fierce defiance, here is a piece that leavens that picture, showing us a composer who knew how to generate luxurious textures and rhythmic drive.  This is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, with Jordi Savall directing his ensemble, Les Concert des Nations. 

[MUSIC – BWV 1046]

We often find the viola da gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall in explorations of far-flung corners of early music that others haven’t discovered.  But he and his ensembles also use the energy from those explorations to inform their performances of more familiar music.  You just heard Savall’s ensemble Les Concert des Nations in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1.

I’m Brian McCreath, bringing you The Bach Hour from WCRB. 

British pianist Stephen Hough is an explorer of a different kind, but his performances are no less compelling.  Here is Stephen Hough with a transcription by the Swiss-born French pianist Alfred Cortot.  This is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

[MUSIC – BWV 565]

In contrast to others who have transcribed Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, like Ferruccio Busoni and Percy Grainger, Alfred Cortot wasn’t really a composer.  He was first and foremost a pianist.  And that perspective led to a transcription of the piece that’s perhaps clearer and more transparent.  Stephen Hough took Cortot’s transcription and offered a few of his own tweaks and adjustments for this performance from “Stephen Hough’s French Album.”

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.