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Cantata BWV 156
Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe!
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of January 17, 2000

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 17, 2000):

This is the week of cantata BWV 156. By writing to the group about this cantata, I follow Ehud Shiloni suggestion, although if I am not mistaken, this is the week of 2nd Sunday after Epiphany and not the 3rd. I have a special affection for this week, because I was born on January 18.

Aria with Chorale (Tenor with Soprano)

Mvt. 2 Aria with Chorale (Tenor with Soprano)
Soprano, Tenor, 2 Violins, Viola, all unison, Continuo

Regarding this somber movement I would like to quote from Robertson’s book and Simon Crouch (of our group) Listener’s Guide to the Cantatas of J.S. Bach.

Robertson wrote:
"The words show the link with the Gospel for this Sunday, the leper’s plea ‘Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean’, but none of trustfulness that he will be cured from his disease, in this case symbolic of his sinful state. That is supplied by the chorale sung by the Soprano (or better still by the Chorus Sopranos), ‘Do with me, God, according to Thy goodness’ which comes in the fourth bar after the tenor entry. It is the first verse of J.H. Schein chorale with this title and its own melody (1628). The sustained note for the strings at the start of the movement and the downward syncopated scale passages for the continuo, depict the gradually sinking into the grave, and this is poignantly stressed by the falling chromatic phrases that follow.
The words in the next section express acceptance and readiness to depart when it please God, and conclude ‘Nur laß mein Ende selig sein’)’Only let my end blessed me’) repeated five times, with long held notes on ‘blessed’."

Crouch wrote:
".... Soon falls my weary corpse therein. This cantata probably gets the prize for the most outlandish title from our modern point of view! (But BWV 199 is a strong competitor)… The following tenor aria (with the stark words above) is overlaid by the soprano intoning a Chorale: Do with me, God, according to Thy goodness. It's very effective and helps to explain what this work is about - acceptance of our fate and happiness in our (holy) destiny. There's a nice touch in the accompaniment, if you like the morbid: A descending figure representing the descent into the grave!"

Personal Viewpoint

And something personal:
The melody in this movement is not the main cause of its attraction. Bach wrote much more haunting melodies in other cantatas, some of which have been discussed in this group during the previous weeks. I think that it is deliberate. As though the dying man has been left with no power or will to really sing. He repeats over and over again on a very small motive, which is repeated by the strings, until he accepts his fate. The use of Chorus Sopranos is preferred here over one Soprano, because it strengthens the feeling of despair of the morbid situation.

Review of the Recordings

See: Cantata BWV 156 – Recordings.
The 3 performances I have listened to (in the order of listening) are:

[1] Helmut Rilling with choir (soprano) & Kurt Equiluz (tenor) (1973; Aria with Chorale: 5:40)
[2] Nikolaus Harnoncourt with choir (soprano) & Kurt Equiluz (tenor) (1985; Aria with Chorale: 5:25)
[3] Jeffrey Thomas & ABS with choir (soprano) & Jeffrey Thomas (tenor) (1992; Aria with Chorale: 6:26)

It is a very strange conclusion after repeated hearings of the 3 complete performances and second hearings of the Aria and Chorale alone. There is very little to choose between the performances of Rilling and Harnoncourt of this movement. Equiluz voice has not changed much between his 2 recordings, despite the 12 years difference. His interpretation is almost the same, despite the 2 different conductors. This is one of the cases were the interpretations of Rilling and Harnoncourt are almost identical. They still have their fingerprints (new VS old instruments, women VS boys Sopranos, accents on the beat VS more legato, etc.), so that they can be identified quite easily. But they adopt the same approach to the performance of this movement. They let the music and the words speak for themselves in a very convincing and moving way. The construction of this movement is very delicate and therefore over interpretation might ruin it. As much as I like the original interpretations of Jeffrey Thomas and his American Bach Soloists in other cantatas, I think that he failed somehow in this movement. Maybe the double role of Conductor and Tenor caused him to put too much emphasis on the Tenor’s role, and the delicate balance of all parts (Tenor, Sopranos, Strings, and Continuo) is broken.

The conclusion above, although it is of course personal, proves once again that the interpretation, musicality, understanding and sensitivity of the performers and not the instruments, are the important factors in the performance of music in general and Bach’s cantatas in particular. Those who are stuck to only one side are missing a lot (this remark is also related to the other thread in Bach Recordings Group about Helmuth Rilling). I know it by now from many years of listening to Jazz. The great Soprano Saxophone and Clarinet player Sidney Bechet wrote in his biography: “Oh, I can be mean – I know that. But not to the music. That’s a thing you gotta trust. You gotta mean it, and you gotta treat it gentle. The music, it’s the road. There’s good things alongside it, and there’s miseries. You stop by the way and you can’t ever be sure what you’re going to find waiting. But the music itself, the road itself – there’s no stopping that. It goes on all the time. It’s the thing that brings you everything else. You have to trust that. There’s no one ever came back who can’t tell you that”.

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

Enjoy and Happy Bach Year,

Ehud Shiloni wrote (January 18, 2000):
[To Aryeh Oron] HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Aryeh! I take this opportunity to express my thanks for your highly informative postings on this List, and for your insightful analysis. Your input is a great reason for any cantata fan to join the List! Keep it going!

About BWV 156 I can add little [I have only the Thomas version (3)], but I have a question for you: Equiluz is a GREAT voice. Can you say, Aryeh, which of the two versions [R (1) or H (2)] is the better pick overall for this particular cantata?

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 18, 2000):
[To Ehud Shiloni] Thanks Ehud for your kind words. In the final line, everything I'll pick is personal and temporary and I do not pretend to be a definitive authority in choosing a special performance over the others. Regarding the cantata BWV 156 as a whole, I prefer today slightly Harnoncourt (2) above the competition. He has in this cantata a special kind of charm, where the others (Rilling [1] and Thomas [3]) sound to me more 'ordinary'.

Jane Newble wrote (January 18, 2000):
[To Aryeh Oron] Happy birthday! Thank you for all your comments. I do not have any version of this cantata yet, but I shall save your e-mail for when I do!

Marie Jensen wrote (January 21, 2000):
I cannot add much to the BWV 156 discussion. I only know the Thomas version (3). I just wanted to tell those who don't know the cantata, that there is in fact one movement from it, I'm sure they do know: the heavenly adagio overture, one of Bach's most famous pieces, which also is known as the 2nd movement of BWV 1056. It brings the listener exactly in the right mood for listening to the "Aria with Choral".


BWV 156 sinfonia vs. BWV 1056 concerto "Largo"

Juozas Rimas wrote (November 17, 2005):
It is quite obvious thatthe last few bars from BWV 156 sinfonia (Mvt. 1) and the slow 2nd part of the BWV 1056 concerto differ in their detalisation.

Is there reliable information on which of the score versions is more authentic? Who added the marvelous embellishment in those last bars? (I hear it in every piano/oboe rendition of the piece, while Harnoncourt's cantata sinfonia (Mvt. 1) rendition [2] omits the embellishment)

Thank you!

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 17, 2005):
[To Juozas Rimas] BWV 156/1 and BWV 1056/2 stem from an original source which is lost. Ulrich Siegele wrote his dissertation on this subject (Stuttgart, 1957), among other things, and had a book published in Stuttgart in 1975, "Kompositionsweise und Bearbeitungstechnik in der Instrumentalmusik Johann Sebastian Bachs" in which this subject was treated on p. 129ff. Joshua Rifkin dealt with this subject in the Bach Jahrbuch (1978, pp. 140-147) in his article: "Ein langsamer Konzertsatz Johann Sebastian Bachs."

Another much more recent source of greater interest is Martin Geck's report published as part of a symposium: "Zur Werkgeschichte von Bachs Cembalokonzert BWV 1056" [Witten, 1997] pp. 256-282.

In the Harpsichord Concerto (BWV 1056), as the NBA KB VII/4 explains on pp. 150 and 156, Bach, it would appear, kept transposing and revising this concerto mvt. through a number of different stages. One of these stages, either a score or only parts, is missing so that a complete picture of the transmission of this mvt or concerto is not possible.

On p. 150-151, the NBA KB prints a version of the right hand (BWV 1056/2) comparing the before and after versions by Bach as he kept adding further embellishments. (The final version has even more embellishments than the earlier version.)

BWV 156 was first performed on January 3, 1729. For a long time it was thought that BWV 1056 was originally in the form of a violin concerto in G minor. This is no longer believed to be the case. Both BWV 156/1 (Mvt. 1) and BWV 1056/2 come from yet an earlier form that has been lost. The NBA offers a reconstruction of the Violin Concerto in G minor by Wilfried Fischer, but the middle mvt. is not a reconstruction, but rather is provided only so that there might be a middle mvt. for any public performance of this work.

Rifkin suspected that BWV 1056/2 was originally the middle mvt. of an oboe concerto in D minor, the outer mvts. of which Bach used again in BWV 35 and which eventually served him as the basis for the Harpsichord Concerto BWV 1059.

In BWV 156 there is an oboe solo with string accompaniment. The oboe solo has less embellishments than the later BWV 1056/2 and also ends differently in the dominant as preparation to the next movement in the same key and not creating a bridge to a parallel key as in BWV 1056. The two final measure of BWV 156 sinfonia (Mvt. 1) are expanded to 3 measures in BWV 1056/2 to accomplish this goal.

Juozas Rimas wrote (November 18, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< In BWV 156 there is an oboe solo with string accompaniment. The oboe solo has less embellishments than the later BWV 1056/2 and also ends differently in the dominant as preparation to the next movement in the same key and not creating a bridge to a parallel key as in BWV 1056. The two final measure of BWV 156 sinfonia (Mvt. 1) are expanded to 3 measures in BWV 1056/2 to accomplish this goal. >
Thanks for the exhaustive answer! If I understood it correctly, the additional embellishments in BWV 1056/2 have been added by the author himself (and not by later editors) as a process of further enrichment of the already written material. AFAIK this was the case with many parts of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) that were polished by Bach. Anyway, it shows the greater attention of the composer to certain of his creations that he must have been considering as especially succesful.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 156: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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