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Suzuki and Bach's Musical Portrait of a Cultural Icon

Masaaki Suzuki
Marco Borggreve
Masaaki Suzuki

On the program:

Keyboard Concerto No. 7 in G minor, BWV 1058 - Murray Perahia, pianist and conductor; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Christus, der uns selig macht, BWV 620 - Gerhard Weinberger, organ (Joachim Wagner organ at Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway)

Cantata BWV 198 Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (translation) - Joanne Lunn, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Gerd Türk, tenor; Dominick Wörner, bass; Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, conductor


[MUSIC – BWV 198]

Even as monarchies have been consigned to ceremonial and decorative roles around the world over the last century, public fascination with royalty doesn’t seem to let up at all. You might think of The Crown, on Netflix, or Victoria, on PBS’s Masterpiece, or even the fact that that vaunted galaxy far, far away still had a princess at the center of the action.

But there was a time when fascination with royalty had a lot to do with everyday life, and even identity. The music you’re hearing captures the sadness of one population upon the loss not just of a princess, but, through her death, an embodiment of what that population held as the core of its identity.

The Cantata No. 198 - the Trauerode - and its revealing cultural subtext is coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath.  Welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. Every culture looks to particular people as guiding lights, those who help to define that culture’s character. That was the case with a particular member of the royalty in Bach’s day, and you’ll hear more about her, why she was cast in that role, and how all of that played into Bach’s Cantata 198 later in the hour. And you can see a translation of the text of that piece, from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, when you start at Classical WCRB dot org. 

Parts of the Cantata 198 turned up later in another masterpiece by Bach. And here’s another instance of the composer refashioning his own music. Originally written for the violin, here is Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 7, played here by pianist Murray Perahia, with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1058]

Pianist Murray Perahia, with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, in Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 7, a piece the composer originally wrote for violin.

And coming up, it’s another piece - on a somewhat larger scale - that was itself forged into another masterpiece.. 

You’re listening to The Bach Hour from WCRB, online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a short piece Bach based on a chorale associated with the season of Lent. This is organist Gerhard Weinberger, with “Christ, who has made us blessed.”

[MUSIC – BWV 618-624]

At the Joachim Wagner instrument in Trondheim, Norway, that’s organist Gerhard Weinberger, with Bach’s prelude on the chorale “Christ, who has made us blessed,” a short piece written for the season of Lent, and based on a hymn that Bach would also use in his St. John Passion.

In Bach’s time, the Protestant Reformation had pretty much settled the question of which religion would be the most prominent on a local basis in Leipzig. But on the larger geo-political map, the struggle for dominance between Catholicism and Protestantism continued. Which is why the passing of Christiane Eberhardine in 1727 was more than the loss of a public figure. As the wife of Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony, she refused to follow her husband to Poland, where he converted to Catholicism in order to become the King there. She stayed in self-imposed exile, becoming, in the process, something of a cultural icon.

For a memorial service in Leipzig, Bach composed his Cantata No. 198, Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, with an opening text that translates as “Let, Princess, let one more beam shoot from Salem’s starry heavens.” It’s a non-Biblical ode for mourning, written by Johann Christoph Gottshed, a teacher at the local university. Capturing that sense of loss, the text continues, “see, with what floods of tears, we surround your monument.”


Later, another chorus turns from mourning to celebrating who this woman was to her community, a fugue expressing multiple dimensions of her identity, from a “great woman” to “exalted queen” to “nurturer of the faith.”


And the last part of the cantata expresses what this princess has left as her legacy, the final chorus translating as “She was the property of virtue, the delight and glory of her subjects, the foremost among queens.


Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece when you start at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata 198, with soprano Joanne Lunn, alto Robin Blaze, tenor Gerd Türk, and bass Dominik Wörner. Masaaki Suzuki leads Bach Collegium Japan, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 198]

Bach’s Cantata No. 198, Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, or “Let, Princess, let one more beam,” in a performance by Bach Collegium Japan and their founder and conductor, Maasaki Suzuki. The soloists included soprano Joanne Lunn, alto Robin Blaze, tenor Gerd Türk, and bass Dominik Wörner. 

It’s likely that this piece was only performed once during Bach’s lifetime, at the memorial service for which it was written, honoring the Electress of Saxony, Christiane Eberhardine. But ever the resourceful composer, the core components of this piece were turned into the musical scaffolding of the St. Mark Passion, a large-scale work that is likely the most substantial of Bach’s pieces that apparently hasn’t survived the centuries.

Remember, you’ll find more of The Bach Hour 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.