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Cantata BWV 121
Christum wir sollen loben schon
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of May 11, 2003 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (May 13, 2003):
BWV 121 - Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ


Our discussion of last week’s glorious and intense Cantata BWV 119 is still going strong, and we have to start discussing a new one. The chosen work for this week (May 11, 2003) is the Chorale Cantata BWV 121 ‘Christum wir sollen loben schon’ (We should now praise Christ) for the 2nd Day of Christmas [Christmas Monday, St. Stefanus Day]. The cantata is based on Luther’s hymn of the same title rather than on the Epistle or Gospel for the day. Stanzas 1 & 8 of the hymn are quoted by the anonymous librettist, and the other verses are paraphrased for his poem. The entire chorale by Luther and the Latin chorale on whose text it is based, are quoted and translated into English by Francis Browne at the following page:


The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found at the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 121 - Recordings

This cantata has 6 complete recordings, all of which come from familiar forces: Richter (1971-1972) [1], Rilling (1980) [2], Harnoncourt (1982) [2], Gardiner (1998) [4], Leusink (2000) [5] and Koopman (2000) [6].

Additional Information

In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to the original German text and various translations, four of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne), French (Jean-Pierre Grivois), Hebrew (Aryeh Oron), and Spanish (Francisco López Hernández). There are also links to the Score (Vocal & Piano version, located at the BCW) and to commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch, in Japanese by Hideo Kobayashi and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).

This is a spectacular chorale cantata, well balanced and with great musical imagery. The magnificent setting by Bach reflects the joy of Christmas in every movement. The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) and the aria for bass (Mvt. 4) are outstanding.

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

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 15, 2003):
BWV 121 - Provenance:

See: Cantata BWV 121 - Provenance

Commentaries: [Dürr, Schweitzer, Eric Chafe]

See: Cantata BWV 121 - Commentary

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 15, 2003):
Commentary by Eric Chafe:

See: Cantata BWV 121 - Commentary

Hugo Saldias wrote (May 16, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] I thank you very much for all this.I did learn quite a few things after reading. Please keep on writing if you have time,even if some people complaint. Remember that when Bach made music lots of people complaint in the congregation too... It is important to keep music alive in our hearts.

Thanks again.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 18, 2003):
BWV 119 and 121

Bart O’Brien wrote:
< Look Bradley, I didn't join the Bach Cantatas group to read this kind of stuff. (...) Try and exercise a bit of self-discipline before you send us all your messages. >
Fine. This will save us all a lot of time. If nobody cares about the reasons behind opinions, about discernment, about wrestling with the musical issues in the compositions, let's just have blunt statements about the recordings.

In last week's cantata BWV 119 I listened to Herreweghe, Leusink, and Harnoncourt. I liked them all, in different ways. I still thought all the opening movements were too slow.

Then in this week's BWV 121 I studied the music and listened to a recording. This is a boring generic cantata not worth wasting more time on.

There, that's my review of both of these.

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (May 18, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] You disappoint me here and I think you are being unfair, both to the performers of the recordings and the members of this list. In the first place nobody said that he or she did not care about the reasons behind opinions. You can not expect everyone to review a cantata the same way or according to the same criteria as yourself. You are showing contempt here, having listened to only one recording and then dumping the cantata as generic, not worth spending any more words to it. And then, when some members of the BCML ventilate some sarcasm towards you, you of all people get pissed off. Come on. Show us some positive spirit. Or is this a pretence to leave the list as a wronged genius. You can not be serious!

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 19, 2003):
Nobody here has any OBLIGATION to present an analysis of the work or the recordings, in any given week, or any obligation to do anything.

As I said, I went through BWV 121 (playing and reading it) and listened to it, and decided not to waste any more time on it this week; I didn't fancy the piece, didn't find much of interest in it.

It is much more important to me these days to put my work into BWV 894 which I'll be performing on several occasions next month, for money. I have to give that priority over the volunteer time here on this list. 894, now there's a masterpiece!

Peter Bleoemendaal wrote (May 20, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I am happy you are still with us, alive and kicking as usual. I am not familiar with Bach's keyboard works. I listen a lot to Glenn Gould's rendering of the Goldberg variations, both on CD and DVD. I love it and that extraordinary person behind the piano. I agree with you that probably he would make a lousy harpsichord player, but who cares? I would love to be at your concert where you will be playing the Prelude and Fugue in A minor and thus meet the man who is so articulately present on both Bach lists. Unfortunately, it is a bit too far away from where I live. You did not mention where and when it will be? Maybe it is a good idea that all performing artists on this site inform us about their concerts. I would also like everyone to hand down your profile with photo so that the person behind the message is getting a face.

Thomas Braatz wrote (Maay 19, 2003):
BWV 121 - The Recordings:

This week I listened to the following recordings:

Richter (1971-2) [1]; Rilling (1980) [3]; Harnoncourt (1982) [2]; Gardiner (1998) [4]; Leusink (2000) [5]; Koopman (2000) [6]

The timings (from slowest to fastest):

Total Timings:
Rilling (20:46); Harnoncourt (20:23); Richter (20:22); Koopman (19:34); Leusink (19:04); Gardiner (17:38)

1st mvt.(Choral Motet)
Rilling (3:32); Harnoncourt (3:15); Leusink (3:06); Gardiner (2:39); Koopman (2:35); Richter (2:30)

2nd mvt. (Tenor Aria):
Harnoncourt (5:41); Koopman (5:39); Rilling (5:15); Richter (5:02); Gardiner (4:39); Leusink (4:29)

3rd mvt. (Alto Recitative):
Richter (1:32); Rilling (1:22); Leusink (1:12); Gardiner (1:03); Koopman (1:03); Harnoncourt (1:02)

4th mvt. (Bass Aria):
Richter (8:50); Harnoncourt (8:30); Leusink (8:19); Koopman (8:19); Rilling (8:09); Gardiner (7:27)

5th mvt. (Soprano Recitative):
Richter (1:23); Rilling (1:16); Leusink (0:57); Koopman (0:56); Harnoncourt (0:54); Gardiner (0:49)

6th mvt. (Chorale):
Rilling (1;12); Richter (1:05); Harnoncourt (1:01); Gardiner (1:01); Leusink (1:01); Koopman (0:58)

Mvt. 1:

The Richter [1] and Rilling [3] Vers:
Richter, despite having in this instance the fastest tempo of all the above recordings, generates a powerful statement with an unrelenting, forward-driving force. Compared to other recordings which are nearly as fast (Gardiner & Koopman), it is truly remarkable that such a feeling of strength emanates from this performance. This is made possible, in part, by the larger number of modern instruments and the use of staccato in rendering the many running 8th-note passages in this mvt. There is absolutely no let-up in the almost ferocious intensity with which the voices and instruments sing and play this music. This befits the nature of this ‘archaic’ chorale and evokes the strong feeling of faith that found its expression through this music in Martin Luther’s time. On the negative side, Richter, once again, allows the organ continuo to play occasional chords but also colla parte with the vocal lines using strident (tinny-sounding) stops which sound intrusive and detract from the wonderful texture produced by the quartet of trombones and strings. Certainly Bach, having provided this type of substantial instrumental support would not have allowed this type of organ registration to be used. I have frequently cited Mattheson on this matter. He offers his well-considered opinion on this point which it would behoove conductors (even those of the Thomanerchor tradition) to consider. Despite all of Richter’s best efforts, there are still sections in this mvt. where a voice part becomes muddled and unclear. In my mind I try to imagine the size of this choir and orchestra with a number of string basses ‘chugging’ along with the violoncelli in the bc. This is an immense undertaking with many performance problems to be resolved. I begin to see the massive musical apparatus that Richter has assembled here and the sheer effort of will needed to overcome the many potential difficulties that can arise with a grand undertaking of this sort.

Rilling: Now we are at the opposite end of the slow/fast tempo scale: this slowest version of all the recordings is a minute slower than Richter’s. Normally this would mean that this could result in a slow, boring version which bogs down under its own weight, but Rilling does not allow this to happen here. He maintains almost the same amount of serious intensity while generating a feeling of a definite 4 beats per measure (rather than 2 as with Richter) with each 8th note very clearly enunciated. Now it is easier to hear many elements that were not quite as clear in Richter’s version: pronunciation/enunciation of the German text, clear delineation of the many fugal entries, a complete balance between each voice part and between the voices and instruments. Everything thing is now very transparent. Rilling makes up for some loss in the sheer power and driving force of the Richter version by placing more attention upon important details which are not as apparent in Richter’s approach.

The Koopman [6] and Gardiner [4] Versions:
Now we come to two versions that are nearly as fast as Richter’s but reveal a completely different treatment and resulting sound: the HIP versions by Koopman and Gardiner. The number of period instruments is pared down to a bare minimum and the entire ensemble plays at a pitch a semitone lower than standard pitch.

The choirs in these performances are mixed unlike the Tölz Boys Choir in the Harnoncourt recording where true boy sopranos and altos are singing these vocal parts. Here, in the Koopman and Gardiner recordings, the altos consist mainly of counter tenors (3 out of 4 in Koopman’s choir and 4 out of 5 in Gardiner’s) while the sopranos in both choirs are all females. From listening to the recordings, I seriously doubt that all the counter tenors listed were really singing in this mvt. and it appears that the female altos (one in each choir) were extremely reticent or not singing at all. This leaves what sounds like only 2 or 3 counter tenors singing the alto parts. These counter-tenor voices have such a non-blending character that when they sing in a choir of this sort, they stand out and disturb the overall choral sound. These Buwalda-type voices do not blend in easily with the other voices because of their unusual vocal characteristics, which predominate particularly in the higher part of their range. In contrast, when these altos (counter tenors) are forced to sing in the lower part of their range (as frequently happens in this mvt.), the alto part almost disappears entirely and the balance between the vocal parts is upset. These counter tenors are not conducive to creating the homogenous sound that a choir ought to have. Perhaps, as a result of the inherent weakness of these demi-voix counter tenors in the low range, both conductors have decided to hold back all the other voices as well by asking them all to sing in a primarily sotto-voce, light manner, thus giving this entire mvt. a completely different feeling or character—one of extreme lightness and speed with occasionally indistinct movement. Take, for instance, two passages in the bc (ms. 28-32 and ms. 48-55) where the running 8th notes are transformed into a distant rumble so that the listener might think or ask, “Hey, what’s that sound? Are there really distinct notes being played or is this simply a low drum sound?” For those listeners more interested in an impressionistic effect with musical lines following a wave pattern of rising and falling volume, or interested in the naturalistic rumble of thunder in the distance with floating breezes (running 8th-note patterns) causing the branches to sway, these recordings are made to order. This type of approach, however, is the opposite to that which tries to convey a staunch faith in the words of the chorale. It becomes a question of choosing between these very different approaches to Bach’s music.

The Harnoncourt Version [2]:
With Harnoncourt, the listener will be able to hear certain aspects of Bach’s music that may be closer to this (Bach’s) intentions, but in other respects Harnoncourt will completely disregard them. Here the listener can finally hear the unified, balanced choir sound undisturbed by female sopranos with too much ‘wobble’ and creating an unsteady line in the c.f. and undisturbed by counter tenors who are completely unable to blend in. The boy altos sing with just enough brightness and strength to keep the alto part from ‘going under.’ This may also have allowed Harnoncourt to add some necessary dignity and power to this mvt. by having them sing with fuller voices without holding back as in the sweeter and softer versions by Koopman and Gardiner. Harnoncourt, however, does undermine his efforts here somewhat when he insists on adding some strong, unnecessary accents (as, for instance, in the final bars) and when he puts musical ‘gestures’ in the wrong places: he has the lower voice parts ‘lift off’ = stop singing in midstream as in the middle of the word such as ‘Sonne’ (ms. 48-61) where, for instance, all the altos at the beginning of ms. 60 (on a hold-over, slurred note on ‘a’ of “Son-“) allow this note to die out prematurely creating a ‘dead spot’ where none exists in the score. This is in the middle of the word “Sonne!” Remarkably, Harnoncourt is one of the few conductors in this group of recordings to use a vocal (sliding without enunciating) legato on most of the running 8th note patterns. The organist, Herbert Tachezi, obviously, has also not read Mattheson’s comment on the playing of organ continuo parts in cantata performances in Bach’s time, because the organ continuo registration is a bit too loud (the stop(s) chosen do not blend well with the choir.)

The Leusink Version [5]:
In Leusink’s performance, the cantus firmus is loud and clear as it should be. However, in the lower voices, a unified choral sound is definitely lacking because of the unusual, non-blending vocal characteristics of the Buwalda-type altos and the raspy, grating, tenor voices. Generally there is less finesse profundity present here. It sounds too much like a reading that has not undergone any polishing, nor did the choir really have much of an opportunity to properly digest this music.

Mvt. 6 Chorale:

All the versions are of the very good to excellent quality. Leusink’s [5] choral sound, for reasons just mentioned, is deficient and Harnoncourt [2], for reasons known only to the genius that guides him, is the only conductor who defies and contradicts the meaning of fermata: each dotted half-note at the end of each line has a fermata over it, but Harnoncourt is the only conductor to subtract a beat from each of these notes, thereby completely undoing the normal understanding of what a fermata over a note really means.

Mvt. 2 Tenor Aria:

In a class of excellence all by themselves are Schreier (Richter) [1] and Kraus (Rilling) [3]. These full voices have the necessary vocal range and volume that allows them to present a palette of genuine expression that outshines the other versions. Kraus’ ease of singing the coloraturas is quite impressive.

Equiluz (Harnoncourt) [2] seems not to be quite at home with Harnoncourt’s choice of the slowest tempo in this lot. Despite his otherwise superlative qualities as an excellent singer of Bach arias (which he proves at the beginning of the middle section on the words “Wie groß…”), Equiluz has some problems with the leaps and the coloraturas: notice how his voice quivers and trembles more than usual so that each 16th note of the coloratura passages has a fast, trembling vibrato indicating a sense of insecurity in vocal control. Also the interval leaps sound somewhat strained.

Prégardien (Koopman) [6] belongs to this 2nd-best level. There is a feeling here that he is holding back constantly. This is a rather restrained, soft-spoken (sung) version of this aria, pleasant to listen to, but not really intensely engaging.

Müller (Gardiner) [4] is definitely of the demi-voix category, for here everything is sung sotto voce. His voice is of a better quality than Schoch (Leusink) with limited expression, but when he reduces his volume to ‘piano’, there is almost nothing left to his voice.

Schoch (Leusink) [5] has a rather bland expression and an unappealing ‘dead’ sound on many of the high notes that he sings (minimally flat.)

Mvt. 3 Alto Recitative:

The full voices, although somewhat operatic, have a much greater depth of expression with a resonant, warm quality on the low notes of the range. To this category belong Reynolds (Richter) [1] and Soffel (Rilling) [3].
In the middle somewhere are the female voices with less depth (borderline demi-voix): Markert (Koopman) [6] and Mingardo (Gardiner) [4].

In the lower category are the counter tenors, Esswood (Harnoncourt) [2] and Buwalda (Leusink) [5] both of whom have a few very good moments, but also too many aspects elsewhere that make them not as easy to listen to. Esswood indulges in some light, sotto-voce moments and Buwalda allows a few glimpses of promise to shine through.

Mvt. 4 Bass Aria:

In the excellent category here are the fully trained voices of Fischer-Dieskau(Richter) [1] and Schöne(Rilling) [3] that sing this aria with such fervor and variation that it becomes difficult to imagine it to be performed in any other way.

Two above-average versions are given by Mertens (Koopman) [6] and Loges (Gardiner) [4] both of whom suffer from the ‘lite’ treatment undertaken by their conductors. As a result, both sing primarily sotto voce throughout the aria. This reduces the gamut of expression available to these singers who can best be described as being demi-voix. These are excellent chamber music productions.

Both Huttenlocher (Harnoncourt) [2], a full voice, and Ramselaar (Leusink) [5], a demi-voix, suffer from the same problem in singing: there is an obvious disingenuousness that makes it appear that they are overdoing certain aspects of expression. While Huttenlocher has comparable power to that of the best mentioned above, Ramselaar’s attempts at expression are wooden and create a barrier of artificiality between the music and the listener.

Mvt. 5 Soprano Recitative:

None of the sopranos is really completely satisfying.

In the above average group I would place Augér (Rilling) [3], who does quite well with this recitative, but leaves something to be desired when she reaches for the high notes (not effortlessly!)

Below average are: Larsson (Koopman) [6] - too much in the manner of an operatic recitative
Monoyios (Gardiner) [4] intonational problems, insecurity, definitely demi-voix
Holton (Leusink) [5] mainly instrumentally expressionless with half-whispered phrases betraying the demi-voix capacity of this voice.

More serious problems:
Mathis (Richter) [1] complete inability to adjust to a simple Bach recitative; persists in using operatic mannerisms; her ‘forte’ passages border on screaming, some lack of vocal control.
Huber (Harnoncourt) [2] his usual insecure self; this recitative is definitely beyond his ability to sing it.

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (May 19, 2003):
BWV 121, an impression

As pointed out by several others, this chorale cantata is based on Luther’s Christmas hymn, derived from an ancient Latin hymn, dating from the 5th century AD. Both are to be found elsewhere on this site, thanks to Francis Browne, who put them side by side. Bach composed the cantata for the 2nd Day of Christmas 1724, so one needs some imagination on this sunny Saturday afternoon in May to see Bach at work during his second Christmas as Thomas cantor in Leipzig.

Look how he is walking from the school, where he lived and worked, to the nearby church and back, several times a day, trying hard in this hectic season to find some tranquillity and inspiration. For as “Kantor” and “director musices” of the Thomasschule he had to provide the four major Lutheran churches in Leipzig with music. He was supposed to teach latin and music and was responsible for the four boys choirs, drawn from the resident pupils of the school, singing in those four churches. He worked hard to get the status of “Kapellmeister”, composing the necessary church music and conducting the “Chorus musicus”, implying the instrumental band and the choir, usually from behind the organ. His responsibilities were enormous, his means limited, his income did not match the importance and quality of his activities.

Imagine his relief at the start of the Christmas holidays when he got rid of the boys for a while. Hear him warning his choristers to spare their voices. For boys will be boys, frolicking and rollicking with joy, having a great time in the snow and on the ice. See him walking in the sleet, wading through the slush. Imagine him working in his study, sitting at his desk, at times pacing up and down the tiny room. What would he look like without wearing a wig? Would he go rummaging in old manuscripts to find inspiration? Could he be looking forsome piece in particular he wanted to adapt for a new cantata or would he just sit there, having it all inside his head, just waiting to come out? Hear him fulminate at no good choristers during rehearsals, praising them some minutes later when they finally showed some improvement. No doubt, he knew from experience it was no use grumbling all the time, even when musicians were letting you down. He would have to make do. It must have weighed heavy on him.

And then, it had already been a busy year with the completion and first performance of the St John Passion in April and modifications being composed for a renewed performance in March 1725. And now within two weeks he was to deliver seven cantatas and a Sanctus, in time for his choristers and instrumentalists to study and rehearse before their actual performances.

Look and wonder:

BWV 91 – “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” for Christmas Day, and for that day also the latin church hymn, BWV 232 ''' - “Sanctus”,

BWV 121 – “Christum wir sollen loben schon” for St Steven’s Day (26 December),

BWV 133 – “Ich freue mich in dir” for 27 December ,

BWV 122 – “Das neugeborne Kindelein” for 31 December,

BWV 41 – “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” for New Year’s Day 1725,

BWV 123 – “Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen” for the feast of Epiphany,

BWV 124 – “Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht” for the 2nd day of Epiphany (7 January)

And for the weeks to follow BWV 3 – “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid”, BWV 111 –“Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit”.

In between he might have composed a choral hymn, maybe a keyboard work or a sonata on top of all that. No time for family life. Poor Johann Sebastian. Just straining under his obligation to give other people a musical, merry Christmas, hardly finding any time for himself and his loved ones. Poor Anna Magdalena. Just married for three years, a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, a nine-months-old baby son and another boy on the way. Besides, by marrying Johann Sebastian Bach Anna Magdalena had become the stepmother of the four surviving children from his first marriage with Maria Barbara, who had died only a year before JSB had proposed to Anna Magdalena. Their mutual love and admiration must have been considerable to keep their marriage a happy one with Bach being extremely productive as a composer and fathering thirteen children with Anna Magdalena. Before her marriage she had a reputation as a gifted singer and chamber musician and Bach honoured his wife’s keyboard skills by presenting to her two Clavierbchlein. And she in return copied his manuscripts neatly and accurately. In spite of all the Christmas pressure, there must have been satisfaction when Johann Sebastian had finished another wonderful cantata, joy when during a performance things were coming together at last. Pride when Anna Magdalena’s husband received the praise he deserved for his efforts. I would very much like to think that after all the two of them still had something of a merry Christmas themselves.

Bach used the motet style only sparsely in his cantatas. He had done so in 1707 (BWV 4) and 1714 (BWV 182), not returning to it until June 1724 with BWV 2, “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein”. That same year he would again turn to it in October with BWV 38, “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” and once more with the Christmas cantata we are discussing right now. Why Bach returned to the motet style in 1724 and for the first movement of cantata BWV 121 in particular, we can only guess at. Prof. Daniel R. Melamed, in the Oxford Composer Companion, tells us that the motet proper was particularly associated with Thuringia where the Bach family lived and worked. Johann Sebastian’s ancestors had written quite a few of them and he himself had composed at least two at the time. German-language motets were still in regular use in smaller towns, especially in the Christmas season. Melamed mentions that in six of his church cantatas Bach applied motet style exclusively for the oldest chorale melodies, suggesting that the style held strong historical associations for him.

Thus the motet style fitted the occasion as well as the old Lutheran hymn with an even older origin. There is no doubt in my mind, that in applying the motet style Bach’s thoughts must have gone back to his father’s first cousins Johann Christoph and Johann Michael Bach, the latter being the father of his deceased wife Maria Barbara, who had both been distinguished and prolific motet composers. Reflecting on a year gone by, thinking of loved ones lost, isn’t that what we all do in moments of contemplation, when the end of the year is drawing near? Bach, going on for forty, may have been too absorbed by his duties to get into a real midlife crisis. Yet, looking back, memories sad and happy would have crossed his mind. Orphaned at the age of ten, he had already lost a brother and a sister. Two more brothers he had buried not long ago. He had stood at the graves of his wife Maria Barbara and three of their seven children. And then, he had experienced several disappointments in his professional career, even being held in detention for four weeks before his dismissal from the Weimar court. In these dark winter days, when the nights are longest and hearts can be heavy, the reference to Christ as the sun, the light of the world, in the first movement of the cantata is sure to have warmed Bach’s heart.

I listened to the Leusink recording [5]. The first chorale is sung by the choir, only accompanied by the continuo playing colla parte with the voices. The cantus firmus is sung beautifully by the trebles, while the other voices fugally support the chorale melody in imitative counter point. I would love to have heard the cornetto and three trombones, but – alas – Leusink left them out. Is my hearing that bad or did not anyone notice?

The tenor aria is in fact a beautiful duet between the singer and the oboe. Knut Schoch misses some refinement necessary here, whereas Peter Frankenberg plays his oboe part magnificently.

The first half of the cantata, dealing with the wonderful mystery of the divine nativity, is concluded with an alto recitative, with good expression performed by Sytse Buwalda and the continuo.

The lovely bass aria has a very lively and joyous instrumental introduction, anticipating “Johannis freudenvolles Springen”, referring to the gospel of St Luke, chapter 1:44, where Elisabeth welcomed her niece Mary, who had just been told by the angel Gabriel she would be mother of the Son of God. “As soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” Bas Ramselaar is a bass to my taste. No operatic bellowing, no artificial dynamics, but a convincing musical rendering of the rather far-fetched metaphor.

Ruth Holton is the perfect angelic voice for the recitative, expressing a childish wondering and amazement at the sight of the divine boy child laying in the manger.

The concluding chorale is a hymn of praise to God, to Christ the Son, to the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, sung on Luther’s words and Bach’s unsurpassed chorale music.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 19, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal, in his interesting background piece on Bach's life surrounding the composition of this cantata, wrote:
>>And she [Anna Magdalena Bach] in return copied his manuscripts neatly and accurately.<<

There is an extremely limited number of manuscripts (of all those still available to us today) which she actually she actually copied. Dürr's comment on the quality of her work is quite revealing:
"Dürr characterizes the quality of her work as very undependable ("unzuverlässig") with serious errors ("grobe Notentextfehler.")"

Read more about this at:

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (May 19, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Dürr must have been mistaken. Reginald L. Sanders, a Ph.D. candidate in music history at Yale University, as well as a masters degree in music history at San Francisco State University, qualifies her copying in Bach's Leipzig period (in the OCC) as neat and accurate. He drew his conclusions from publications by Schubart (1953), G. von Dadelsen (1957) and L. Lockwood and E. Roesner (1990). Von Dadelsen needed almost four pages in his book to enumerate the copies AM made for her husband. Christoph Wolff in "BACH, The Learned Musician" informs us that Anna Magdalena's "hand shows up in a variety of manuscripts, containing Bach's music. She prepared, in particular, fair copies of the Cello Suites, BWV 1007-1012; the Violin Partitas and Sonatas, BWV 1001-1006; the Organ Trio Sonatas, BWV 525-530; major sections of The Well-Tempered Clavier, parts I and II; the Kyrie and Gloria from the B-minor Mass, BWV 232; several cantatas and other vocal and instrumental works." Wolff calls AM Bach's "assistant" ("The Learned Musician") and "collaborator" ("The New Bach Reader"). He mentions three pricipal copyists of Bach's works, the first of whom being his wife, AMB. Would Bach have entrusted her with such an important assignment over the years if her work had been sloppy and full of errors. Moreover, in "The New Bach Reader" there is a photocopy of a page from BWV 529/2, the Trio sonata in C major for organ, copied by AMB (c. 1727). The copy is looking fine and fair. Anna Magdalena also took good care of her husband's legacy. Her share, 44 Parts from Jahrgang II of the Leipzig Cantata Cycle, she gave to the St Thomasschool where they have survived.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 19, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaal] I was aware of some of the fair copies of instrumental music from her hand. Sometimes these are described as being very close to J.S. Bach's own handwriting.

Did you notice that the weekly cantatas, where Bach definitely needed a hand in order to complete his copying tasks (as you pointed out around the busy holiday season {Christmas & New Years}, she is visibly absent. Your statement about "Her share, 44 Parts from Jahrgang II" is misleading in that it might imply that she copied them. The fact is that she copied very few of the actual cantata "Stimmen" (individual parts) as I already indicated. Very likely your statement should read "44 sets of parts" for these, as I have been reporting for many weeks now on various cantatas, she soon presented to the St. Thomas School (now located in the Leipzig Bacharchiv).

While it is true that AMB made some very clean 'fair copies' of mainly instrumental works, Dürr is not mistaken about his description of her copy work which may have been done hurriedly. It still does appear to me that she had very little to do with copying out the parts from the cantata scores. If Wolff, or others, seem to imply that copying out parts for next Sunday's service was a regular family endeavor in which AMB played a significant part (many historical novels about Bach's life like to paint this picture), I think that they will find in reality that 'several' cantatas really means exactly what I wrote before: usually a single doublet part out of all the parts that make up a full set of parts and this is only true for a very small number of cantatas when we consider Bach's entire output in this category. In these her handwriting was anything but exemplary.

Aryeh Oron wrote (May 19, 2003):
BWV 121 - The Recordings

Last week I have been listening to 5 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 121:

[1] Karl Richter (1971-1972)
[3] Helmuth Rilling (1980)
[2] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1982)
[4] John Eliot Gardiner (1998)
[5] Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)

Unfortunately, I could not listen to Koopman’s recording [6], because in the box set I have, the relevant CD (1st) was replaced by another copy of the 3rd CD.

Very short review of the recordings of the two arias (Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 4)

The two arias are both optimistic and tuneful. Nevertheless, they are quite different from each other. The first (Mvt. 2), for tenor accompanied by oboe d’amore and continuo, is more declamatory. The second (Mvt. 4), for bass with strings, is more melodious. In the first, the main focus of interest for the occasional listener is the delicious and delightful playing of the oboe d’amore, while the tenor part is not related directly to the text. In the second, the strings play a joy-motif to evoke the imagery of the baby leaping in Elisabeth’s womb while Mary greeted her. Through the string and the joyful singing of the bass, the scene becomes almost a reality. I have to admit that both arias are somewhat lengthy and could have benefited from some editing by the master.

In the first aria five tenors are competing on our attention. Four of them are first rate singers; the fifth is not really in the race. Schreier (with Richter) [1], Kraus (with Rilling) [3], Equiluz (Harnoncourt) [2], and Müller (with Gardiner) [4] are four different individuals who present, each one in his own way, a convincing approach to the aria. All four have rich voices, expressive abilities, and care for details.

In the aria for bass the difference between the five singers is more distinct, so that they could be rated from excellent to unsatisfactory in the following order: DFD (Richter) [1], Schöne (Rilling) [3], [big gap], Ramselaar (Leusink) [5], Loges (Gardiner) [4], Huttenlocher (Harnoncourt) [2].


I am not sure that I want to take away with me any of the recordings. Well, in this case, not because the list of recordings is short of first rate singers, but because Bach himself has had better moments.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 19, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< (...) The fact is that she copied very few of the actual cantata "Stimmen" (individual parts) as I already indicated. (...) While it is true that AMB made some very clean 'fair copies' of mainly instrumental works, Dürr is not mistaken about his description of her copy work which may have been done hurriedly. It still does appear to me that she had very little to do with copying out the parts from the cantata scores. (...) In these her handwriting was anything but exemplary.' >
Let's get the logic straight here, just to have it straight. By your own admission at:
you started with an Internet site, wanting to save time, and your search about this topic returned 16 records out of the ~250 cantatas. Then you looked up only those 16 in the NBA KB volumes, and found "only 10 could be definitely verified" as the work of AMB. And from this limited search, you have extrapolated statements such as "THE FACT IS that she copied very few..." (above) and "Dürr IS NOT MISTAKEN...".

My impression is: you have lenient definitions of "fact" and "not mistaken" which amount to little more than hero-worship (of Dürr) and wishful thinking, based on backwards research (as I pointed out in a different message). You also seem to have forgotten that the modern meaning of the word "exemplary" is something that serves as an example. How can an example of something be anything other than exemplary?

Things "appear to you" because you wish them to.

Reality check.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 121: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion
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Last update: Sunday, May 28, 2017 05:29