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Cantata BWV 209
Non sa che sia dolore
Discussions - Part 1

Bach’s Italian Cantatas

Juozas Rimas wrote (October 6, 2002):
While searching the archive of this mailing list, I haven't found the Bach's Italian cantatas mentioned. Those are BWV 203 (Amore traditore) and BWV 209 (Non sa che sia dolore).

I have listened to "Amore traditore" BWV 203, sung by J. Villisech and with Leonhardt at the harpsichord. I found the singer dull though. Are there any other versions you found interesting?

I know D.F. Dieskau has performed it, with a very interesting accompaniment:
Picht-Axenfeld, Edith (pianoforte), Poppen, Irmgard (cello), Nicolet, Aurèle (flute), Keller, Helmut (violin). It could be much more interesting than the Leonhardt's version. I have the following information about the recording: 1960-02 Berlin, EMI (LP), CD 5 68509 2. I have never listened to it, though.

"Amore traditore" is a secular cantata on the banal topic of adultery. How could JSB, the humble servant of God, bother about such things? I suspect this was one of the reasons to doubt the authenticity of the cantata :)

No recordings of BWV 209 are mentioned at too and I have access only to Leonhardt's version with Agnes Giebel as the soprano. It's a soprano-only cantata with an introductory sinfonia (Mvt. 1). Its occasion is "farewell to a scholar called to Ansbach", according to Z.P. Ambrose's website. The text is very peculiar, having naval elements: do you know any other Bach's cantata where the sea is mentioned? :) I don't understand its meaning, however, because according to Google Ansbach is a Bavarian town, so if Bach's friend was going to something as deep in the interior as Ansbach, why mention the sea?

Musically, BWV 203 could blossom with really good bass singing, especially the second aria which has a very pleasant jolly accompaniment (a bit reminiscent of Bach's clavier inventions). Harpsichord plays really quirky music in the first aria - is this style called "burlesca"?

BWV 209 starts with a beautiful sinfonia (Mvt. 1) - the cute line of the flute creates a mood which is balancing between serenity and slight sadness. It made me remember the Menuett from the 2nd orchestral suite, however the sinfonia (Mvt. 1) is over 7 minutes of length (in Leonhardt's reading) - much of a good thing! And it has even some pizzicato in places - could you remind me where else Bach used this technique?

Agnes Giebel sings the recitatives and arias surprisingly well. Although I'd prefer an even more delicate singing in this cantata, her voice has plenty of lushness and warmth for a soprano. Actually, I don't feel I need another version of the cantata currently, unless you have some really exquisite soprano to recommend.

Thanks for your opinions and recommendations.

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 6, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] Thanks for your review.

< While searching the archive of this mailing list, I haven't found the Bach's Italian cantatas mentioned. Those are BWV 203 (Amore traditore) and BWV 209 (Non sa che sia dolore). [snip] No recordings of BWV 209 are mentioned at too >
The only reason you could not find both cantatas either in the archive of the BCML or the Bach Cantatas Website, is that they have not yet been discussused in the BCML. By the end of 2003 we plan to complete the first round of weekly discussions of all the Bach Cantatas. So, do not worry! The time of these two cantatas will come during 2003.

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 9, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] Following your interest in the Italian Cantatas of J.S. Bach, I compiled lists of both cantatas.
Cantata BWV 203:
Cantata BWV 209:

If anybody is aware of a recording I have missed, please inform me.

Juozas Rimas wrote (October 9, 2002):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks, Aryeh!


Discussion in the Week of November 2, 2003

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 3, 2003):
BWV 209 - Introduction

The chosen work for this week’s discussion (November 2, 2003) is the Secular Italian Cantata ‘Non sa che sia dolore’ (He does not know what sorrow is).

The commentary below, quoted from the liner notes to the recording by Elly Ameling with Neville Marriner on EMI, was written by Alec Robertson (1973).

Bach, as far as we know, composed about fifty secular cantatas of which twenty have reached us In complete form. Fourteen of those he composed at Cöthen have either been lost or exist, in part, in other works.

Nothing is known of when or where the two cantatas dealt with in this note (the other is BWV 202) were composed but most of the remaining eighteen can be dated, with Leipzig as their place of origin.

When Bach was appointed, in 1723, to the St. Thomas Cantorate he might well have looked forward, in this important position, to augmenting his salary by means of commissions for the composition of secular cantatas for special occasions: but in the event his expectations were only partially realised. He received very few orders for cantatas to be performed at official festivals at the University of Leipzig, perhaps because he had fallen out with the authorities over the question as to who should have charge of the services at the University Church, a position he regarded as his right. The result was that the commissions he should have had went to musicians he rightly regarded as much inferior to himself. It is possible, in general, that what was considered his involved style of writing, then outmoded, would preclude him writing the 'graceful and appealing melodies' the public expected in cantatas designed to entertain them. Bach showed himself perfectly capable of providing these in, for example, his "Peasant Cantata'; (BWV 212) but the weaving together of melodies, the polyphonic style, was at the very root of his genius and he would have scorned to follow the new style of equally measured phrases, entirely predictable, with the melody placed on the top line over a simple harmonic foundation.

The commissions Bach received were for royal occasions, such as the birthdays of August III, his visit to Leipzig as King of Poland, for weddings, homage to University professors, but only one from the University Music Society, whose Orchestra he conducted for many years and on whose members he often drew to help out in the performance of his Church cantatas.

Bach was not the man to be content with limiting the performance of specially commissioned cantatas to its occasion and he frequently drew on the music for use in other works, a usual practice of his time. Notes, after all, are simply notes, however used, and in vocal works it is the texts to which they are set that give the clue-to the new use of the material.

Doubts have been expressed about Bach's authorship of the two extant Italian cantatas attributed to him. These are "Amore traditore" (Love the traitor) for solo bass (BWV 203), and "Non sa che sia dolore" (He knows not what grief is). The first of these works consists of two arias separated by a recitative and accompanied on the harpsichord. It presents a dramatic scene of the type much used in Italian chamber cantatas such as those by Alessandro Scarlatti and Händel. It has been suggested that, in this cantata, Bach re-modelled some other composer's work but however true that may be the arias have Bach's signature written all over them and it is equally evident in every bar of the movements of "Non sa che sia dolore".

The libretto of this charming cantata (librettist unknown) the story of a young Italian artist about to return from Germany to his native land to undergo his military service. He is taking leave, on the quay, of his sorrowing friends. The cantata, scored for transverse flute and strings, begins with a Sinfonia (Mvt. 1). The characteristic theme in the opening bars, its frequent repetition and the virtuoso part for the flute suggest a concerto-like movement except that the flute does not come in with the orchestra, as was the custom, but sixteen bars later and then with a theme of its own and there is a complete da capo. The cheerful music reflects the young man's joy in soon seeing again and serving his native land.

The elaborate part given to the flute in both the arias may indicate that he was either a professional flautist or a very skilled amateur. The first aria "Parti pur e con dolore" (But depart with sorrow), the gem of the cantata, is most attractive melodically and touchingly expressive. The middle section alludes to the sea being calm for it appears, in the text of the last aria that the young man is not a good sailor. We learn from the recitative preceding this aria that he has been living in Ansbach, much admired for wisdom beyond his years, and that he has many important patrons.


BWV 209 is one of the most recorded Bach Cantatas, either sacred or secular. I am aware of at least 20 complete recordings of this cantata, many of them are available in CD form. The recordings are listed at the following pages of the Bach Cantatas Website (BCW):
Cantata BWV 209 - Complete Recordings
Cantata BWV 209 - Recordings of Individual Movements

Additional Information

In the page of complete recordings mentioned above you can also find links to useful complementary information:
a. Original Italian text and various translations, two of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne) and French (Jean-Pierre Grivois).
b. Score from BGA Edition.
c. Commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide) and Brian Robins (AMG), and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).

Juozas Rimas started a short discussion of this cantata about a year ago. Since probably most of you have at least one recording of BWV 209, I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion. Only 6 cantatas (1 sacred, 5 secular), including this one, remained to be discussed in the BCML!

Neil Halliday wrote (November 4, 2003):
People can listen to the beautiful central aria (movement #3) at: Cantata BWV 209 – Music Examples

This recording, by Göttsche/Spek and the Heidelberg Chamber Orchestra [5], presents a considerable contrast with Rilling's new light, brisk, quasi-HIP approach, and shows how Bach's intricate music seems to flower when presented in the traditional slower, fuller, non-HIP approach. (A lot of the movements in Rilling's new secular cantatas recordings seem light and uninvolving, to me; in fact, for this cantata, the total duration time listed at the BCW shows him with the fastest recording).

Spek's (with Goettsche) restrained vibrato perfectly matches that of the flute, and we can listen to an extended lovely 'dialogue' between voice and transverse flute, in one of Bach's 'heavenly' arias of considerable length. (The duration must be over 9 minutes; Rilling's cosiderably faster rendition is 7:45). And while this movement is still enjoyable with Rilling, I would guess that my lack of interest in the last aria is in fact due to the too-fast speed which he adopts.

The saving grace of the Rilling recording [25] is its technical excellence; and I suppose this generally light, fast approach will please many listeners. However, I note that Rubens comes close to employing a vibrato that is unpleasantly strident, at times.

The opening sinfonia (Mvt. 1) is a gem, reminding me of the middle 'fast' section of the overture from the B minor Orchestral Suite. You won't be able to resist 'conducting' the rhythm, while listening.

Neil Halliday wrote (November 7, 2003):
I have just noticed that Francis Browne has contributed examples of Mvt. 4 and Mvt. 5, (as well as the 3rd movement which I commented on a few days ago) at: Cantata BWV 209 – Music Examples

Sure enough, the slower speed and stronger playing of the Heidelberg Chamber Orchestra under Göttsche endow movement #5 with the 'substance' I thought was lacking in Rilling's [25] new 'light and brisk' recording; Rubens' insistent vibrato is also a drawback with the Rilling. Spec (or Spek?) [5] is noticably more restrained and pleasant, in this regard.

I don't need to comment on Mvt. 4 (secco recitative) to people who have been reading this list.

Francis Browne wrote (November 7, 2003):
This cantata is both a puzzle and a delight.

It is a puzzle because despite the best endeavours of the commentators the occasion for which it was written remains obscure and the text itself is baffling inplaces.. In a note to my translation I have given some information about the origin of the text, but I find it difficult to believe in the various conjectures about a flute-playing, intellectual prodigy, who is called up for military service and has a tendency to seasickness. Although I have tried to translate the text, I remain unsure about exactly what it is trying to say in several places. Whittaker's comment that the second movement 'is scarcely notable for any logical connection of thought, but jumps irrelevantly from one thing to another' could be applied to other parts of the text.

No matter. Whatever the occasion that led Bach to set such dubious Italian, the music is sheer delight . I bought the recording with Nelly van der Spek [5] many years ago by chance very cheaply and this cantata has remained one of my favourites. I have never understood why the opening sinfonia (Mvt. 1) is not better known. As Neil suggests, it bears comparison with the music of the orchestral suites. Both arias for soprano provide marvellous opportunities for any singer. As well as the Göttsche/van der Spek LP I have listened to the recordings by Peter Schreier and Edith Mathis [14], the Naxos recording with Friederike Wagner [20] and Nancy Argenta with Monica Hugget [22]. With a reprehensible lack of discrimination I have to confess I have enjoyed all of them - so delightful is the music.

[14] As with other secular cantatas that we have listened to recently, Peter Schreier gives a creditable performance. For whatever reason - is it singing in Italian? - the cantata seems to suit the abilities of Edith Mathis, a singer about whom I have had reservations elsewhere. Aryeh has found the accompaniment heavy handed in some previous cantatas. There is perhaps a certain finesse lacking at times, but anyone who listens to this recording will gain an excellent idea of the work.

[20] The Naxos recording with Friederike Wagner and Christian Brembeck conducting the Capella Istropolitana is well worth investigating ( I assume it can be heard on the Naxos website - the reference number is 8.550431). Neither BWV 209 nor the other cantatas BWV 199 and BWV 202 receive outstanding performances but Wagner has a pleasant voice and sings with intelligence. She is perhaps at her best in the final aria. The accompaniment is more than adequate and the flautist - Vera Raskova - is rightly given credit. This performance leaves me wishingthat Naxos could be persuaded to include more cantatas among their extensive output.

[22] The clarity of the playing of Ensemble Sonnerie reveals beauty and detail not so apparent in other recordings. The brisk tempo for the first aria is convincing and yet somehow misses some of the depth to be found in the music. Argenta seems superficial at times but also succeeds better with the final aria (Mvt. 5).

[5] But the version to which I return with most delight is Nelly van der Spek. I am aware that a recording by which you come to know a work often assumes an unjustifiably privileged authority, and I have to confess that this is one of the recordings which have shaped my instinctive idea of what a cantata should sound like. But listening to it once more and comparing it with the other versions I am again struck by the warmth and depth of Nelly van der Spek's voice. From the opening phrases of the first recitative she sings with a restrained nobility and expressive insight that gives constant delight. She expresses the tone of 'Parti pur etc' exquisitely – neither superficial nor excessively emotional- , and the military flourishes of the central section are finally judged. Neil (whose regular and perceptive comments on the cantatas I value) has already drawn attention to the 'lovely dialogue' between the soprano and the unnamed flautist. His/her contribution to the recording is substantial, and it is a pity no name is given on the LP published in England - would any German member of the list know who the musician was? I doubt whether a modern ensemble would play as the Heidelberg Chamber Orchestra do under Göttsche but from the opening sinfonia (Mvt. 1) to the concluding bars of the second aria I find their playing engaging and convincing. In the final aria van der Spek's singing and the tempo chosen are more measured than Wagner or Argenta, but the effect achieved is by no means less joyous.

My vote therefore has to go for Nelly, the love of my youth. Thanks to Aryeh's kindness in making some of the recording available on the website members of the list can judge for themselves whether memory and partiality have misled me.

Reading through the long list of recordings that Aryeh has provided I am struck also by the three recordings by Elly Ameling, an artist for whom I have a great admiration. It would be interesting to know how they compare. My expectation is that a singer of her ability would bring a subtle and varied insight to each version.

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 16, 2003):
BWV 209 - Instead of Background

Cantata BWV 209 is so well-known, at least in Bach’s lovers circle, that I do not feel the need to supply a background. Furthermore, its number of recording speaks for itself. I do not mean that popularity by itself is an indicator for a quality of a work. In many cases the opposite is true. But with Bach’s music, especially his vocal works, one can find gems in almost every work, even the most neglected cantatas. The most popular include many gems, and Cantata BWV 209 is a typical example of this assumption.

I shall skip the usual background to the review of the recordings this time, because:
a. I have already supplied an excellent one (by Alec Robertson) with the introduction message to the discussion of this cantata.
b. You can easily find good commentaries included in most liner notes to the recordings of this cantata.
c. Lack of time. I am already behind schedule.

I shall only summarize the main feelings that should be conveyed by the performers, especially the soprano singer and the flute player. The main motifs in the first four movements of this departure cantata are of sentiments, longing, and grief, where the message of the concluding aria is the joy and happiness the voyager will feel as he makes his homeland voyage.


During last week I have been listening to 14 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 209:
[1] Teresa Stich-Randall w/ Anton Heiller (1952)
[5] Nelly van der Spek w/ Heinz Markus Göttsche (Mid 1960’s?)
[6] Elly Ameling w/ Collegium Aureum (1964-1968)
[8] Elisabeth Speiser w/ Rudolf Ewerhart (1966)
[7] Agnes Giebel w/ Gustav Leonhardt (1966)
[10] Elly Ameling w/ Neville Marriner (1973)
[14] Edith Mathis w/ Peter Schreier (1979)
[16] Isabelle Poulenard w/ Ferdinand Leitner (1987)
[19] Mária Zádori w/ Pál Németh (1990)
[20] Friederike Wagner w/ Christian Brembeck (1991)
[22] Nancy Argenta w/ Monica Huggett (1993)
[23] Lisa Larsson w/ Ton Koopman (1996)
[24] Teresa Radomski w/ Dale Higbee (1996)
[25] Sibylla Rubens w/ Helmuth Rilling (1998)

Short Review of the Recordings

Cantata BWV 209 is not short of good recordings. Some of them are really outstanding. To be qualified as outstanding the rendition should meet three simple criterions:
a. You are comfortable with it, and do not feel the necessity to improve anything.
b. You want to listen to it over and over again, and each time to find something new.
c. You feel that the performers are doing their outmost to convey the message of the cantata.

I found that seven recordings (half of the recordings I have listened to!) of this cantata should be qualified as outstanding, although they are not necessarily similar. These are: Spek/Göttsche [5], Speiser/Ewerhart [8], Giebel/Leonhardt [7], Ameling/Marriner [10], Zádori/Németh [19], Argenta/Huggett [22], and Rubens/Rilling [25]. Indeed, a lucky cantata to be blessed with so many first-rate recordings.

Is there any common denominator between these seven recordings except the factors above? I would say that all seven singers have excellent, stable, bell-like voice in good shape, with clean delivery along the whole range, and tasteful singing attentive to the words. And all seven have sensitive accompaniment with fine, limpid and expressive playing by the flutist.

Last word. I am aware that Bach’s authorship of this work has sometimes been questioned. I do not understand why. How could anybody other than J.S. Bach write the opening Sinfonia (Mvt. 1)? This movement could easily be included in one of Bach’s concertos. And what about the other four movements? Bach’s fingerprints are heard in almost every bar. I have even more crucial proof. I do not know any other composer to whose work I could listen about 40 times in a course of one week without getting bored.

I would like to hear other opinions.

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 19, 2003):
BWV 209 – Music Examples

I have uploaded into the Bach Cantatas Website Music Examples (mp3 format) of the Concluding Aria (Mvt. 5) from 10 recordings of Cantata BWV 209. See: Cantata BWV 209 – Music Examples

I would like to hear your opinions.

Neil Halliday wrote (November 22, 2003):
[To Aryeh Oron] I found I had to listen to a few examples of this aria (Mvt. 5) before I found one which was completely satisfying.

The first I heard was my own recording by Rilling [25], which I found to be brisk, light and insubstantial (but see below).

The second was that contributed by Francis Browne [5] at: Cantata BWV 209 - Music Examples

This, with its slower, heavier approach, I found better expressed the tunefulness and beauty of the aria, but the orchestra does seem to 'plod' somewhat. (However, I do like Gottsche/Spek in the 1st aria - Mvt. 3).

The next examples were those supplied later by Aryeh at the same web-page noted above; at last I 'hit the jack-pot' with a number of these recordings.

1. Ameling/Aureum [6]
This is the slowest of the lot, but it's well performed, flows nicely, and reveals interesting detail in the orchestra, as well as the lovely writing for flute, along with Ameling's superb voice.

2. Spieser/Ewehart [8]
At a slightly faster tempo, this is another pleasing rendition.

3. Wagner/Brembeck [20]
Same as above, very good.

4. Zadori/Nemeth [19]
This is the one of the better period instrument versions, and flows nicely without too much exaggerated articulation, (but already some weakness in the strings is starting to appear). Zadori's voice is sweet, even if a little soft in the lower register.

Notice that Leonhardt's version [7] at 6:11, is more melodious than either Schreier [14] or Huggett [22], at 5:11 and 5:18, respectively. Rilling [25], at 5:06, is too fast to allow the aria's lovely melody to 'bloom' - or is it that Rubens employs a too-strong vibrato for the vocal line? (I have just re-listened to the Rilling, and it does not seem as 'light' as I first thought; perhaps now that I have come to know the piece better, I am more able to understand what Rilling is doing with it; the orchestra sounds bright and is actually quite good, but I expect my reservations about the speed will remain).

Higbee's version [24] with recorder, is bright and articulate; it sounded strange to my non-HIP ears at first hearing, but I seem to like it on repeated hearings. Again, we have strong playing, without too much exagerrated articulation, such as distracting bell-shaped tone production on the strings.

Anyway, we know from the current discussions at the BRML, that much of this is subjective, and changeable...but what beautiful music this is! (All of us on this list would agree, I'm sure).

The worst soprano? I won't be so cruel...


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 209: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2

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