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Cantata BWV 117
Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of July 7, 2002

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 8, 2002):
BWV 117 - 'Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten' - Introduction

The subject of this week's discussion (July 7, 2002), according to Francis Browne's suggested list, is the Chorale Cantata BWV 117 'Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten' (Let there be praise and honour for the highest good) for the unspecified occasion. BWV 117 is typical of the Chorale Cantata that Bach composed in Leipzig, in which the foundation of the entire cantata structure is a traditional hymn or chorale, the musical presence of which is felt in each movement. But contrary to his usual practice, Bach made no change of or additions to the hymn text, but uses its verses for his successive movements. The reappearance of the line 'Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre!' (Give honour to our God!), at the close of each verse, is turned to a magnificent musical effect. Apart from that the hymn tune (from the chorale 'Er ist das Heil uns kommen her') is used only for the opening chorus (Mvt. 1), the middle chorale (Mvt. 4) and the concluding chorale (Mvt. 9). All the other movements are set in free madrigal style.

The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 117 - Recordings
English translation by Francis Browne:
Hebrew translation by Aryeh Oron:

I am aware of 5 complete recordings of this cantata. Three of them come from complete cantata cycles (Rilling [6], Leonhardt [5], and Leusink [7]). The other two are conducted by Günther Ramin (1949, one of his earliest recordings of Bach Cantatas [1]) and Ludwig Doormann (1967, recorded for the German Cantate label [2]). Except for the last one, all the others are easily available. An interesting factor you should note is that the total time of the recordings varies from about 19 to about 26 minutes. Quite a difference! After the first round of listening, I have found that although all the movements have common denominator, they are not of equal merit. Let's find out which of them is the most appealing for you.

I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion.

Dick Wursten wrote (July 12, 2002):
The choral of J.J. Schütz (active in pietist circles of Ph. J. Spener), which is the basis of BWV 117 appeared first 1675 in 'Christliches Gedenkbüchlein zur Beförderung eines anfangenden neuen Lebens', (little christian rememberancebook (?) to help a beginning 'new life' to advance). An educative purpose is intended for the young ones (either spiritually and/or in age). The sound of the hymn is quite 'biblical'. More psalm-like than hymnal. The references to the bible (esp. the Old Testament) are plenty.

And now for something completely different.

This choral must have been immensely popular in the Lutheran tradition late 19th century because Karl May (1842-1912) lets his 'hero' Old Shatterhand quote the first verse at the end of his book "Der Sohn des Bärenjägers" (The son of the bear-hunter).

I didn't find this link myself (Karl May is not my daily lecture) but in the Compendium of the Dutch hymnbook, where a version of this hymn is given in Dutch by Ad den Besten: Liedboek hymn nr. 431 (7 verses).

This is the situation: Old Shatterhand - together with his indian friend Winnetou - has once again overcome evil. The chief of the Sioux - defeated - lies at his feet. Old Shatterhand speaks to the thankful crowd:

<begin of quote>
You should not thank people, you should thank God above, who gave you strength to endure the undescribable misery you underwent. We all only have been instruments in His hand. Let us now send our prayers to Him upwards with the words of that beautiful church-choral of ours:
Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut,
Dem Vater aller Güte,
Dem Gott, der alle Wunder tut,
Dem Gott, der mein Gemüte
Mit seinem reichen Trost erfüllt,
Dem Gott, der allen Jammer stillt.
Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre!

[Give laud and praise the highest good,
The Father of all kindness,
The God who ev'ry wonder works,
The God who doth my spirit
With his rich consolation fill,
The God who makes all sorrow still.
Give to our God all honor!]

Old Shatterhand had taken of his hat and pronounced the words slowly, but loudly and full of piety, so that it sounded just like a prayer. The others also had taken of their hats. The chief of the Sioux, lying tied up on the ground, had witnessed this event with climbing astonishment.
<end of quote>

This story first appeared in a 'magazine for boys' (Knabenzeitung) with the title 'The good companion' (Der Gute Kamerad) from January to September 1887. The educative intention of Schütz is honoured by Karl May in a way he never would have expected. Source:

Dick Wursten wrote (July 12, 2002):
Extract and translation from a letter (apocryph) from P.J. Leusink [7] to the boss of Brilliant Classic,

Geachte heer,
Omdat de productie van de complete cantatecyclus veel tijd kost, vraag ik uw toestemming om deel 9 van cantate BWV 117 niet te hoeven uitvoeren in de bezetting die Bach voorschrijft, maar dit deel te vervangen door een 'schlichter Choralsatz' (zoals deel 4). Dit scheelt toch enkele minuten en is ook veel eenvoudiger.

Dear sir,
Since the production of the complete cantata-cycle costs a lot of time, I ask your permission not to perform mvt 9 of cantata BWV 117 with the instruments as prescribed by Bach, but replace this movement with a 'schlichter Choralsatz' (like mvt 4). The difference will be some minutes and it is much easier too.

At least this is what I understand that has happened, comparing the instructions and the desciption of the cantata (A. Dürr)

Dick Wursten wrote (July 13, 2002):
Since I have a soft spot for choral-cantatatas I made a dutch translation (based on the rhymed and metrical translation of Ad den Besten, liedboek voor de kerken gezang 431; I only added two verses and a few times made the translation of Ad den Besten more concordant to the original):

The cantata itself is a beauty.

In the version I listened to (=Leusink [7]) the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is the longest movement (4.27) and already a beuatiful example of Bach's ability of contrasting a lively instrumental part with the choir reciting the choraltext 'at ease'.

The aria's are quite short and there is no repeating of the first section (Bach respected the fact that a hymn often is the expansion of one line of thought).

There are some obvious things everyone will notice: The repetition of the final line in every verse (Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre): 8 of the 9 times Bach makes something special of it. Only in the 8th verse he leaves it 'as is', probably because exactly in that verse this same line is already repeated. It becomes a 'structural' element of this verse.

For me the absolute highlight of the cantata, the surprise, is Mvt. 7. Bach’s invention-power was probably inspired by the text. A beautiful melodic line makes this verse to a song of praise of the highest standard, both musically (listen to the flutes and the violin) as regarding the e... Really rejoicing !
[All my life long I want, O God, to honour you.
The song of praise, should be heard everywhere.]

Only 3.01 minutes this aria last... Too short, although a kind of ABA is created by repeating the lats three lines...

I recommend this cantata and esp.. this movement to all.

And again I regret not having another altus/alto sing this movement (Mvt. 7), though Buwalda clearly does his utmost (esp. for the highest notes).

Jane Newble wrote (July 13, 2002):
The more I hear this cantata, the more I like it, even though I only have Leusink [7], and cannot compare it with others.

The instruments in the first movement are so up-beat and joyful that it sets the mood for the whole cantata.

Even those verses where need and suffering are mentioned, end in a triumphant 'give glory to God', both vocal and instrumental.

In the recitatives I love the contrast between the first six lines and the triumphant seventh.

The alto aria (Mvt. 7) is absolutely beautiful, and is almost like a dance, in its dedication to a life of honouring God.

Although I would love to hear other versions, I am quite happy to listen to Leusink [7] for the time being.

By the way, I compared the Dutch translation in the Liedboek with Dick Wursten's, and I like the amended version very much, as it is more true to the original.

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 13, 2002):
BWV 117 - Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut - Background

The background below is taken completely from W. Murray Young’s book ‘The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – An Analytical Guide’ (1989). The English translation is by Francis Browne, a member of the BCML.

See: Cantata BWV 117 - Commentary

The Recordings

During last week I have been able to listen to 5 complete recordings of this cantata.

[1] Ramin (1949)
The playing of the orchestra under Ramin’s hands leaves too much to be desired. The singing of the choir is not coherent and unbalanced. The tempo is very slow. And yet, despite all these factors, the right atmosphere of joy and praise comes out. Gert Lutze has a good and strong voice. He is enthusiastic and sings from the heart. Had he use his expressive tools more sparingly and we could get a very satisfying performance of the aria for tenor. And then we have to remind ourselves that this recording was made 53 years ago, when the modern approach to Bach’s interpretation has not even started to develop! I know nothing about Friedrich Härtel, but it seems that he was relatively old when he did this recording, or that he had a bad day. The voice is inflexible, unstable and unpleasant and the expression is not interesting, as if he is going nowhere. Confidence from this kind of interpretation is hard to get. About the contralto singer please read below, under Doormann.

[2] Doormann (1967)
Doormann catches you in the throat from the very beginning. The instrumental playing and the choral singing blend splendidly together. The expression and the spirit give you anything you could have wished for. It belongs to the too rare phenomenon of being sound RIGHT. I mean that there is nothing here I would like to change. Feyerabend’s voice is solid and full and his succeeds in making the aria for tenor more interesting that it might sound with other singers. Hudemann in the aria for bass is a major improvement over his predecessor, Härtel. He has a rich and warm voice, and his singing has a unique delicacy, which does not stand in his way of expressing internal confidence. It is interesting to compare the two recordings of the aria for alto (Mvt. 7) by Lotte Wolf-Matthäus. With Ramin her voice is in its prime, a real contralto voice, with richness and depth. Her expression is too operatic, with strong vibrato and accentuation, which sound unsuitable for Bach. With Doormann she is more restrained and her expression flows with the musical line, rather than against it. But her voice, although not unpleasant, has lost some of its beauty and stability.

[5] Leonhardt (1981)
I wonder who can hear glory and congregational singing or comfort in this rendition of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1). The singing and playing is heavy and lifeless, and the fragments of this otherwise glorious chorus lay one besides the other like blocks of wood in the open field. Equiluz knows the secret of expressing himself convincingly with the outmost restraint. By that he almost always gives the impression that he is in the service of the music and the text, only a tool to convey the message. Egmond's delivery is also subdued, but he does not always give you the feeling that he derives all the potential of his part. This is the case hear. Maybe this is the habit of ‘half-voice’ described by Braatz. Next to Schmidt (with Rilling) he sounds almost anaemic in the aria for bass. Jacobs has a recognisable counter-tenor voice, which he uses to its best to express the longing combined with cheerfulness of the aria for alto (Mvt. 7).

[6] Rilling (1979)
Rilling’s opening chorus (Mvt. 1) has all the components needed for a successful rendition. Solid singing which reflects clearly the exuberant joy, colourful playing, and spirit. However, Doormann has a slight edge here in terms of polish and homogeneity. Kraus excels in the aria for tenor, with beautiful voice and slight enthusiasm, which gives his interpretation an edge over the other singers of this aria. Schmidt is the right man for the job in the aria for bass. His deep, rich and warm voice gives one all the confidence he needs. You believe him that ‘the creator himself looks down with a father's eyes on those who nowhere else find inner peace’. Mechthild Georg has a light contralto voice (actually mezzo-soprano), but she performs the aria for alto (Mvt. 7) with such freshness and naturalness that you can easily identify with her when she sings ‘let my spirit and body rejoice’.

[7] Leusink (2000)
The instrumental playing has always been one of the strongest factors in Leusink’s cantata cycle. The playing of the introductory ritornello is light and airy and joyful. The singing of the choir is not bad either, although I would like them to have more volume and more coherence. Knut Schoch does not do much with the aria for tenor in expressive terms, and I know too many tenor singers, whose voices are more to my liking. Ramselaar is an improvement in the aria for bass. His voice does not have enough bottom to give the same level of confidence to the believer that Schmidt does. Two weeks ago I heard a wonderful counter-tenor – the Canadian Matthew White, in a concert of two Hercules cantatas - by Händel and by Bach (BWV 213). What impressed me the most was the naturalness of his voice production. It seems that he was born with this voice, the same feeling that I have with Andreas Scholl. When I heard Buwalda in the aria for alto (Mvt. 7) of BWV 117, I realised why I do not like his singing in too many recordings. The simple reason is that his voice production sounds most of the time unnatural. You have the feeling that he is going to slide out every second. The gift of true counter-tenor voice is indeed uncommon. Indeed, Buwalda is trying hard, he is doing his best, but he does not belong to the class of the real counter-tenor singers.


Personal preferences:
Mvt. 1 Chorus: Doormann [2], Rilling [6], Ramin [1], Leusink [7], Leonhardt [5]
Mvt. 3 Aria for Tenor: Kraus/Rilling, Equiluz/[5], Feyerabend/Doormann [2], Lutze/Ramin [1], Schoch/Leusink [7]
Mvt. 6 Aria for Bass: Schmidt/Rilling [6], Hudemann/Doormann [2], Egmond/Leonhardt [5], Ramselaar/Leusink [7], Härtel/Ramin [1]
Mvt. 7 Aria for Alto: counter-tenors: Jacobs/Leonhardt [5], Buwalda/Leusink [7]
Contraltos: Georg/Rilling [6], Wolf-Matthäus/Ramin [1] ~ Wolf-Matthäus/Doormann [2]
Overall performance: Doormann [2], Rilling [6], Ramin [1], Leonhardt [5], Leusink [7]

And my favourite movement? The aria for alto - Mvt. 7, of course!

As always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.

Andrew Oliver wrote (July 14, 2002):
I have heard and enjoyed each of the cantatas of recent weeks, but none of them has caught my attention so much as this one. It seems to be on a different level. I wonder, could that be because Bach empathised with the sentiments of this one particularly? I note that the subscription he sometimes used, 'Soli Deo gloria', is similar in meaning to the closing line of each verse of this cantata: 'Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre'.

[5] The Leonhardt version sounds good to me; the only sections I did not really like were numbers 4 and 9, where the beat of the chorales is overstressed. Apart from that, I like it all. Also, although I don't dislike Paul Esswood's voice, I am pleased that René Jacobs was chosen for the counter-tenor part in the beautiful third aria, and I just love its slow dance-like structure.

All in all, this cantata, which I did not know before, will rank amongst my favourites.

Philippe Bareille wrote (July 14, 2002):
For some of us who discovered Bach through recordings using period intruments (HIP) it is difficult to fully enjoy listening to cantatas played on modern intruments. (To claim that Bach would have used modern intruments if he had them at his disposal is missing the point. Bach music would be completely different). I love some of the great voices of the past (Ernst Haefliger, Aafje Heynis, Janet Baker..etc) but the excessive legato, romanticisation and lack of textual contrasts of the orchestras often fail to convey the expressive depths of this music. I find listening to Richter - let alone Ramin [1] - often tiresome and sometimes oppressive. It is simply not Bach but a kind of adaptation to suit our "modern" ears. I don't want to express a definitive and peremptory judgement but we are shaped by our education so I presume that seventeeth century people would find modern performances very strange indeed. But this music is so rich with so many levels that many conceptions are possible.

[5] Leonhardt in the first movement of the cantata under discussion this week gives out a Bach of dancing rhythm, completely revitalised. One feels like dancing! (it never happens with romantic music and rarely with romanticised baroque music). The interprets bring out the joy of this movement even though they could have been more extrovert. Equiluz is outstanding again in his comforting aria (it is my favourite aria
of the cantata).

Egmond doesn't have a "strong" voice but his sense of melodic shaping coupled with his intelligence more than compensates for his limited ambit. He rarely fails to move.
Esswood gives a fairly good account of the alto aria (Mvt. 7) another highlight of this work.

After reading Aryeh review I intend to buy Rilling disc [6] but I must confess that I often find but not always (marvellous BWV 16 !) his interpretations bland.

This cantata is very rewarding; strongly recommended.

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 14, 2002):
Philippe Bareille wrote:
[5] < Esswood gives a fairly good account of the alto aria (Mvt. 7) another highlight of this work. >
I assume that you mean René Jacobs. His timbre of voice is so completely different from Esswood's... and he excels in this aria.

Philippe Bareille wrote (July 14, 2002):
[5] Sorry the counter-tenor is Jacobs not Esswood in the Leonardt version!

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 15, 2002):
Since I will be away for some time I will not be able to check my mail on a regular basis. Would you please stop sending me my daily digests until September 1st? I would love to receive them again from that day on.

[7] I would like to react on what was written about Sytse Buwalda. I have heard him perform live hundreds of times, and every time I am impressed by his singing and his presentation. Never have I felt that he was going to slip or was being unnatural. On the contrary, his presentation and artfulness has never failed to captivate the audiences he was singing to. It is a pity that on CD this only sometimes comes over to some of you who have never heard him live.

Philippe Bareille wrote (July 16, 2002):
[To Aryeh Oron] [5] Not only do they have a different voice, but they also use a different technique. Jacobs uses his "chest voice" more often whereas Esswood as a typical English countertenor never does.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 117: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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