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Cantata BWV 118
O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of November 16, 2008

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 16, 2008):
Introduction to BWV 118: «O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht»

Cantata / Motet BWV 118: «O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht»

Occasion: for a funeral

Chorale: Herr [or O] Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht

First performance: 1736-37 (or 1740?)

If we are discussing BWV 118 «O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht» this week, it might be thanks to an error. Not Aryeh's error of course, but a dubious classification of BWV 118 among cantatas at the end of the 19th Century. There have been subsequent discussions about its nature: isolated movement of a cantata, or motet? Relevant arguments (and other interesting information) are available on this BCW page:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Guide/BWV118-Guide.htm.

Whether or not BWV 118 is a cantata, it is assuredly wonderful music. I had never heard it before starting preparing this introduction, and listening to Leusink's recording [22], I was immediately captured and deeply moved. I could not say better than Aryeh, in the last round of discussions: "I felt very sad while I was listening this rendition, but I felt even sadder after it came to an end.".

This short piece is among the last original ones written by Bach. We have seen that in his last years, Bach was interested in exploring the resources of more "abstract" music schemes. But here, we have music that goes straight to the heart. By this, it recalls a cantata composed some 30 years earlier, also for funerals: BWV 106 («Actus Tragicus»). Bach often presented (and probably considered) death as a happy event, allowing the soul to enter in eternal bliss. But at the same time, we can feel that when it comes to the departure of loved ones, his music expresses particularly well the feeling of grief (as we have notably seen in BWV 11, discussed 3 weeks ago). Has this to do with his experience of losing his parents at a young age, and then so many children in his mature age? Anyway, Bach's genius in conveying the mixed feeling of grief and of serenity due to trust in God is truly outstanding, and here we can particularly well apprehend it.

Performing music for funerals was normally a regular activity for Bach. The Chapelle des Minimes performed BWV 118 in March 1992, and at this occasion, William Hekkers humorously recalled in his concert notes: "In a letter to his school friend J. Erdmann, Bach complained in 1729 that the air in Leipzig had been so healthy in the past year, that there had not been enough funerals and Bach's income had been short of a hundred dollars ("Thaler")" (translation by Julius Stenzel). Bach also wrote occasionally the music himself, but this seems to have happened only in "special" occasions.

While there is general agreement to date the composition of BWV 118 - at least its first version - from 1736-37, the date of the first performance is less certain. The BCW home page of BWV 118 dates it from the period of composition (but does not indicate for which funerals), while according to the Fayard «Guide de la musique sacrée et chorale profane», it was probably performed for the funerals of Count Friedrich von Flemming in October 1740. As William Hoffman recalled a few days ago, Bach wrote no fewer than three birthday cantatas for Saxon Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming (BWV 249b, BWV 210a, and BWV Anh. 10, whose music is either lost or fragmentary). But if we consider that BWV 118 was written three years at least before von Flemming's death, we would assume that it was not specifically written from him, but rather as a "generic" funeral cantata / motet. It was indeed revised later by Bach (either in 1740, either around 1746) for another funeral ceremony.

Martin Geck, in «Johann Sebastian Bach - Life and Work» notes that "[BWV 118] original scoring - two horns known as litui, one cornet, three trumpets - implies that the work was performed outdoors, either in a funerary procession or at a graveside. This practice does not accord with the normal ritual of Leipzig obsequies and indicates that the occasion of composition was out of the ordinary". The second version of the works keeps the litui, but replaces the trumpets and cornet with oboes, possibly a bassoon, strings and continuo, indicating this time an indoor performance.

Besides the excellent Leusink recording [22] cited above, with the "indoors" instrumentation, I found an interesting French recording of the original version with "outdoors" instrumentation: "From Johann to Johann Sebastian Bach - Motets" conducted by Lasserre with the Akademia ensemble and La Fenice (Jean Tubéry playing the cornet) ([13] in BCW list of recordings). In fact the only work by J.-S. Bach on this CD is BWV 118, most others are by members of his family, and there is even a "sonatina" by Gottfried Reiche, presumably the same Stadtpfeiffer who died after performing BWV 215! All in all a quite enjoyable CD.

The sleeve notes of the CD (by Frank Langlois) indicate that: "If Bach used the term lituo rather than corno da caccia here, it is because this motet was written for a funeral procession (whence the fact that there is no continuo); indeed it was traditional in ancient Rome to use three instruments of the brass family for funerals - that is to say, cornus, tuba and lituus. Thus the symbolical reference to Roman antiquity in Bach's choice of cornet, trombone and lituus for this piece is obvious". This questions our previous hypothesis of a "generic" funeral music, as such reference to Roman antiquity suggests that the piece would not fit any funerals - who knows, maybe von Flemming wanted some specific type of music played for his funerals and asked Bach to prepare it well in advance? In the same range of ideas, one of Schütz's masterworks, «Musikalisches Exequien» was commissioned by Heinrich Reuss Posthumus in order to have it performed at his funerals, with very specific requirements.

One side question here: has anyone heard of a "walking" performance of this work, as (probably) in the original setting?

The chorale used here «O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht», must have been one of Bach's favorites, as he used it in four other cantatas (BWV 3, BWV 44, BWV 58, BWV 153). Julius Stenzel, artistic director of the Chapelle des Minimes, who read my draft introduction, indicated me that in January 2009 we will perform precisely BWV 3 and BWV 153, as well as a motet of Johann Michael Bach based on the same chorale.

The hymn comes from a choral book of Martin Behm (1610). The first words of the text are indeed beautiful, and we can easily imagine what they meant for Bach in this last period of his life:
"O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht
Mein Hort, mein Trost, mein Zuversicht
"
"O Jesus Christ, light of my life,
My refuge, my comfort, my reassurance" (translation by Francis Browne).

The soprano voices sing the cantus firmus, while the lower voices adopt a fugal form. Orchestral ritornelli separate the choral parts, as in many opening movements of cantatas (which may explain that the work could have been seen as the first movement of an otherwise lost cantata).

I looked at the complete score while listening, wondering what produces this fascinating, almost hypnotic musical impact. I am all but a musicologist, but for me one key element in the beginning seems to be the ascending motive in the strings (or the cornet in the original instrumentation), which step by step, before descending. I would be interested to have the opinion of other members of the list, as this may be quite personal!

While I love Leusink's version [22], I really appreciate the sound of the cornet in such work. Let me add another quotation of the sleeve notes of Lasserre's recording [13]: Mersenne in his Harmonie Universelle (1636) compares the cornet's sound to "a ray of sunlight shining through shadows or through the darkness when it is heard among the voices in the churches, cathedrals or chapels...".

I will end with a text taken from an interview of John Eliot Gardiner by Alexandre Pham in March 2005. I have not found any English version of it, so I reproduce it here in French, followed by my own tentative translation. Here is what Gardiner says:
"Si je devais citer quelques épisodes mémorables de notre cycle, je garde un souvenir très émouvant des cantates que nous avons jouées le jour de la mort de Bach, le 28 juillet dans une petite chapelle sur l'île d'Iona, sur la côte nord-ouest de l'Ecosse. C'est un lieu de pèlerinage très intimiste. Nous y étions en formation réduite : seize choristes, douze instrumentistes. Le public aussi était peu nombreux : deux cents personnes dans l'espace restreint de la chapelle. C'était dans l'après-midi, dans la chaleur de l'été : nous avons joué la cantate BWV 118 dans ses deux versions, pour hautbois et pour cuivres. Et d'ailleurs, lorsque nous avons joué la seconde version pour cuivres (destinée à une célébration en plein air), les portes du lieu étaient ouvertes : nous avons tous éprouvé un sentiment de communion extraordinaire, en pleine harmonie avec la nature qui nous environnait ; le chant des oiseaux s'est associé à la musique que nous jouions."

"If I had to cite some memorable episodes of our cycle, I keep a deeply moving memory of the cantatas we performed on the day of Bach's death, July 28th, in a small chapel on the Iona Island, on the North-Western coast of Scotland. It is a very intimate pilgrimage place. We were there in small formation: sixteen choir members, twelve instrument players. The audience was also small: two hundred persons in the limited space of the chapel. It was a Saturday afternoon, in the heat of summer: we played cantata BWV 118 in its two versions, for oboes and for brass instruments. And by the way, when we played the second version for brass instruments (meant for a celebration outdoors), the doors of the building were open: we all experienced an outstanding feeling of communion, in full harmony with the nature which surrounded us; the song of birds joined itself to the music we
played."

As a support to the discussion, you will find as usual a lot of interesting information on the BCW home page of BWV 118: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV118.htm.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 16, 2008):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
< One side question here: has anyone heard of a "walking" performance of this work, as (probably) in the original setting? >
I suspect that the "walking" music was chorales doubled with the wind -- that's the effect that I've always thought Bach was trying to evoke with the wind band in the opening chorus of "Es Ist Nicht Gesund". I wonder if there was a place in the cemetery or at the tomb where final orations were delivered and more ornate music was sung. For instance, Lassus' motet "Ecce Quomodo Moritur" was a funeral staple as well as being sung for the "funeral" of Christ after the performance of the Passion on Good Friday. I remember seeing arched cupolas in Austrian Catholic cemeteries, but the cult of the dead of course was much more elaborate in that tradition.

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 16, 2008):
[To Douglas Cowling] I found this reference of Nathalie Beck about motets and funerals:
"In regards to the question of accompaniment of the motets it is necessary to discuss the traditional service for which some of the motets were composed. In Leipzig, the funeral service began at the home of the deceased and continued to the grave site (8, 94). At both of these locations simple, Latin motets were sung and accompanied by a small portable organ (4, 11). Bach's motets were sung in the church at the commemorative service which followed the funeral at the grave site (8, 94). The rules of the St. Thomas Church forbad the use of instruments at funeral services (3, 84). Once again, however, scholars differ in respect to whether this instrumental ban extended to the organ."
http://www.calstatela.edu/centers/Wagner/bach.htm
Once again it underlines the singularity of BWV 118...

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 16, 2008):
In addition to my previous message:

According to this: http://www.paulinerkirche.org/chroni.html , von Flemming's funerals happened in the Paulinerkirche on October 19th, 1740. This is the same church where BWV 198 was performed for the funerals of princess Christiane Eberhardine. Maybe the rules were different there?

However I cannot find his name in the list of graves: http://www.paulinerkirche.org/graeber.htm
So where was he buried?

Peter Smaill wrote (November 16, 2008):
[To Thérèse Hanquet] Thank you especially Therese for the John Eliot Gardiner account of the wondeful rendering of this Cantata given on Iona on 28 July 2000, the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, which event I was lucky enough to attend and even record as this was permissible outdoors. So we had the brass/litui version and the atmosphere was indeed as charged as he describes.

As regards the possible individual(s) for whom the work was created, as often the best source is Hans-Joachim Schulze. He focusses on notables, since such a display would not have been otherwise normal or permitted.

For the first performance likely in 1736/7 the local suspects are:

Johann Friedrich Steinbach, senior Deacon of the Neukirche d. October 1736
Christian Weiss, Pastor of St Thomas, d. December 1736
Johann Ernst Kregel, Ratsherr, d. February 1737. Funeral procession

Second performance ? 1746

Duke Johann Adolph II of Weißenfels. Died at Leipzig 16 May 1746. Litui and horns ordered from Weißenfels.

In view of Bach's Weißenfels title the indication is that there is a strong possibility that BWV 118 was also used on this occasion, and maybe Bach even performed the work ten years earlier, after the death on 28 June 1736 at Sangerhausen of Duke Christian of Weißenfels, making it an "ex officio" work.

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 16, 2008):
[To Peter Smaill] Thanks a lot Peter, this is very interesting.

Do you mean that there were three performances, if there was one for von Flemming in 1740?
How lucky you were to attend this concert. Julius Stenzel wrote me the Iona Island has such special atmosphere.

Do you think you could upload your recording on the BCW?

Peter Smaill wrote (November 16, 2008):
[To Thérèse Hanquet] BWV 118 is I think a John Eliot Gardiner specialty, for he recorded it with Erato first in the 1980's [11].

My recording at Iona is a video and a very amateur one at that (there is on the market a professional DVD for the Pilgrimage). Somehow YouTube is not quite right for it and unless the BCW has an upload facility..!!!

I am unsure about Flemming being the subject for BWV 118. He is an important figure and certainly significant to Bach. Had he been closer to the composition date then Hans-Joachim Schulze would have listed him. Sadly BWV 118 is ignored by Duerr (because it is a Motet) and by Melamed ( because it is listed as a Cantata!)

I have always agreed Whittaker:

"The work is of profound beauty, one of the most deeply moving chorale settings in the whole of Bach's church music."

Neil Halliday wrote (November 17, 2008):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
>I looked at the complete score while listening, wondering what produces this fascinating, almost hypnotic musical impact. I am all but a musicologist, but for me one key element in the beginning seems to be the ascending motive in the strings (or the cornet in the original instrumentation), which proceeds step by step,....<
You are onto something here. Later today, after hearing BWV 118, another "hypnotic" phrase - from the SMP (BWV 244) - popped into my head: the very first opening seven notes of the 'melody' of the SMP (BWV 244) (played initially on unison 2nd flute and 2nd oboe) are identical to the opening seven notes of BWV 118's ascending motive played on the cornet (BGA score). Just transpose the requisite BWV 118 notes down a semitone, to get the SMP's (BWV 244) notes! (Ofcourse, the music of the SMP (BWV 244) is in the minor key - E minor and 12/8, whereas the BWV 118 is in the major key - B flat and 2/2 time.

Not surprisingly, the 'harmonies' of BWV 118 are quite complex in places.

I also enjoyed Leusink's version [22], with its relaxed tempo - perhaps suggesting the walking pace of coffin-bearers? - producing an impressive - and moving - effect.

Rilling [17] sounds almost rushed and therefore perfunctory, IMO.

William Hoffman wrote (November 18, 2008):
BWV 118: Fugitive Thoughts

Fugitive Notes:

The best source article on Cantata BWV 118 is Hans-Joachim Schulze's "'O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht': On the Transmission of a Bach Source and the Riddle of its Origin," trans. Paul Brainard, in the festschrift, <A Bach Tribute: Essays in Honor of William H. Scheide>, Eds. Paul Brainard & Ray Robinson (Bärenreiter/Hinshaw, 1993; pp. 209-220).

Regarding the "nature" of this work, Schulze simple concludes, "we are not dealing with a motet but a `special' <Trauermusik> (funeral music)." Most of Bach's "motets" (BWV 226-230) were for funeral or memorial services, some with accompaniment. Beginning in the early 1730s with Bach's adaptation of Johann Kuhnau's "Der Gerechte kommt um," BC C 8, until the late 1740s, Bach was involved with memorial or penitential "motets" by other composers, including arrangements and members of the Bach Family. See http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Other/Work-Perform.htm. They include an arrangement of Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater," BWV 1083; Sebastian Knüpfer's "Erforsche Mich, Gott," BWV Anh. 165, three movements from Johann Ernst Bach's funeral cantata, "Mein Odem ist schwacht," BWV 222; and three "motets" of Johann Christoph Bach. In addition, Daniel Melamed in his <J.S. Bach and the German Motet> (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995, p. 37), also identifies four works of Johann Michael Bach, including "Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe" (which uses the BWV 118 chorale), in Table 3-2, "Motets from J.S. Bach's library and their texts."

As the Schulze article's title suggests, the transmission of this non-service chorale-based Cantata BWV 118 could be rooted in Leipzig sources of the publisher Breitkopf, possibly the Thomas School, and other unknown sources. Schulze reviews the literature regarding particular decedents for whom the music in two versions was performed: Schering's suggestion (BJ 1933) of Count von Flemming in 1740, Martin;s Geck's (Bach-Studien 5, 1975) for Count Sporck (Vivaldi patron and Missa 232 copy recipient) in 1738; and other possibilites from the Nikolas and Thomas Churches' account books and the contemporary <Personenregister>. Schulze discusses the possibility of the funeral of Bach's pastor, Christian Weiß Sr., 13 December 1736, in an "elaborate funeral service" with illuminated St. Thomas church service lasting until 6 p.m. Schulze speculates that the BWV 118 second version of 1746-47 may have involved Duke of Weißenfels, Johann Adolph II, 16 May 1746, successor to Bach's beloved Duke Christian who diedon 28 June 1736.

I would dare to speculate that the original outdoor version of BWV 118, involving wind instruments, would have been performed by members o the Leipzig Collegium musicum and the local Stadtfeiffer.The music could have been performed for Gottfried Zimmerman, the operator of the famous coffeehouse, who owned large instruments played by members of the Collegium musicum and who died on 30 May 1741, and whose passing may have caused Bach to relinquish the reigns of the ensemble.

Coming late in Bach's creative career, "Herr Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht," is a unique work among Bach's compositions. As with its "mixed feeling of grief and serenity" (Thérèse Hanquet's compelling discussion introduction), the music uses both the stile antico of the motet form with the style galante involving the chorale elements of a singable melody, homophonic texture, and symmetrical phrasing. This blend of two styles is called "stile misto," or mixed stile, best exemplified in Bach's time by the Jan Dismas Zelenka "Miserere," ZWV 57, using Neopolitan-style aria ("Gloria patri") with Renaissance motet and ostinato ("Miserere mei"). This Zelenka work cited by speaker George Stauffer introduced the evening concert of the "Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11" and Pentecost Cantata BWV 74, preceded by the afternoon concert of the Easter Oratorio, BWV 249, opening with Cantata BWV 118 in the indoor (church) version, followed by Cantata BWV 198 - all at this year's Bethlehem Bach Festival, "Bach and the Oratorio Tradition," with the American Bach Society biennial meeting in May.

Finally, Schulze in his study of Cantata BWV 118 wonders: "We are unfortunately bereft of a similar record (Juhnau's widow's burial in 1743) showing a dispensation of fees for Johann Sebastian Bach's burial, but we can assume that in July 1750, as in other cases, the St. Thomas singers performed a funeral motet. How dearly one would like to know what work was chosen for the occasion! - but that would be another topic."

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 18, 2008):
[To William Hoffman, regarding Fugitive Thoughts] Thanks a lot William for all this detailed information, notably about motets performed by Bach.

For the occasion of performance, I like the hypothesis (also mentioned by Peter) of the Duke of Weißenfels (or maybe the two Dukes, which could explain the use of the same music...).

But your own hypothesis of Zimmermann would be indeed very interesting to explore!

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 18, 2008):
William Hoffman wrote [Fugitive Thoughts]:
< I would dare to speculate that the original outdoor version of BWV 118, involving wind instruments, would have been performed by members o the Leipzig Collegium musicum and the local Stadtfeiffer. >
Handel produced two versof the Royal Fireworks Music, the outdoor version with winds only, and the indoor version which added strings.

I heard a Proms concert which recreated the numbers of performers for the original outdoor premiere. The sound of 14 period oboes tuning up was worth the price of admission alone!

Terejia wrote (November 22, 2008):
Neil Halliday wrote:
http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/29316
< You are onto something here. Later today, after hearing BWV 118, another "hypnotic" phrase - from the SMP (BWV 244) - popped into my head: the very first opening seven notes of the 'melody' of the SMP (BWV 244) (played initially on unison 2nd flute and 2nd oboe) are identical to the opening seven notes of BWV 118's ascending motive played on the cornet (BGA score). Just transpose the requisite BWV 118 notes down a semitone, to get the SMP's notes! (Ofcourse, the music of the SMP (BWV 244) is in the minor key - E minor and 12/8, whereas the BWV 118 is in the major key - B flat and 2/2 time. >
Thank you for this inspiring comment. Yes, I concur with both you and Therese here in that ascending motive is absolutely beautiful and has similarity with the wind-instuments' notes in opening chorus of SMP.

< Not surprisingly, the 'harmonies' of BWV 118 are quite complex in places. >
Both BWV 106 sinfonia and BWV 118 is in B flat and for me these two sound like similar in the constant movement of bass. I am by no means musicologist either but in my very narrow and humble experience I find this type of bass movement often has complexed harmony in higher parts.
http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/29307

This is my first encountering with this beautiful piece. Thank you for wonderful introduction.

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 18, 2008):
[To Terejia] Thanks for your comment!

BWV 118 was also a splendid discovery for me.

I had much pleasure writing the introductions, and I wish you the same in the coming weeks...

 

BWV 118 / Funeral Motet

Peter Smaill wrote (January 11, 2009):
Harry W. Crosby wrote:
< Paul McCain contributed these thoughts:
"As many have asserted on this discussion list, one does not have to agree with Bach's beliefs to appreciate his music, but it is always amusing to me on a list devoted to his Cantatas, the vast majority of which were composed for use in the Lutheran Church that there are those who seem to be quite concerned to cast doubt on Bach's faith."
To which I wish to add that there is at least one, I to be specific, who does not subscribe to any religious beliefs whatever, not as such at least, but I very much appreciate what religion has meant to others and I find in the sincerity of Bach's religious expression what I consider to be proof positive of his religious conviction and the beauty that it led him to perceive --- or, if you wish, the beauty that he perceived in it.
My sense of art is that one can be intensely moved by it without being privy to or sharing that which inspired it. I cannot, nor will I argue that I can experience all that a religious person may derive from art of a religious nature, but I can tell you that Bach inspires me as has no other musical creator known to me, and I have made a real effort to cast a wide net during my sixty years of exploration. Tears came to my eyes in the year 2000, as all manner of cultural, educational, and humanitarian organizations in the Western world chose their persons of the millennium, and in the field of music virtually all elected Bach. >
I promised a while back the short and very ad hoc amateur video made of BWV 118, "O Jesu Christ mein Lebens Licht", being John Eliot Gardiner's conclusion to the exact 250th anniversary on Iona, Scotland , on 28 July 2000. Harry's recollections of 2000 make it apposite to mention it now. An excerpt is on YouTube, searchable under "Bach Cantata Pilgrimage", specifically: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=PD0nkgY7FOY

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (January 11, 2009):
[To Peter Smaill] Thanks a lot, Peter.
Very moving, as expected.

Jean Laaninen wrote (January 11, 2009):
[To Peter Smaill] I also want to add my appreciation.

Paul T. NacCain wrote (January 11, 2009):
[To Peter Smaill] Many thanks for posting this. I appreciate contributions like this to the list.

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 12, 2009):
This video (which I also like) can now be viewed through the BCW.
See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Video/Gardiner-Vocal.htm

Terejia wrote (January 12, 2009):
Paul T. McCain wrote: http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/29950
< Many thanks for posting this. I appreciate contributions like this to the list. >
Me, too. I watched this video and listened to Helmuth Rilling's BWV 118 [17]. Interesting thing does happen that Rilling's tempo is FASTER than that of Gardiner.

May I ask you a question, if you don't mind, Paul, how you think of Rilling, whose grandfather was a reverend in Protestant church and who had music education in a Protestant Church Seminary (according to Japanese wikipedia) is demonstrating his biographical background in this particular rendition of BWV 118 [17], if you have recording (I do not think the answer would be offensive, if limited to the topic of concrete performance)?

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 118: Details & Complete Recordings | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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