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Cantata BWV 39
Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of October 21, 2007

Uri Golomb wrote (October 22, 2007):
Week of October 22: Cantata 39, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot

Cantata BWV 39 (Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot) was composed for the 1st Sunday after Trinity -- June 23, 1726. It is divided into two parts, which means (presumably) that it was originally split in two parts, with the sermon taking place between the alto aria (Mvt. 3) and the bass aria (Mvt. 4). Previous discussions -- and links to details on the work's provenance and various commentaries about it -- can be found on http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV39-D.htm.

The work seems to be celebrated primarily for its opening chorus -- one of Bach's longer movements, combining an elaborate structure, a rich texture (with myriad word-paintings) and profound expressiveness. In his 2001 discussion (see link above), Aryeh Oron argued against those writers who view this opening chorus as superior to the others, stating the work's remaining movements -- recitatives, arias and chorale (Mvt. 7) -- "have a lot to offer and deserve special attention". I agree with this claim, but nonetheless came from my renewed listening feeling that the cantata is somewhat top-heavy. The other movements -- especially, for me, the alto (Mvt. 3) and soprano (Mvt. 5) arias, and alto accompagnato -- are indeed beautifully delicate and touching, yet I find that I can enjoy them more listening to them on their own; coming after that opening chorus, they sound almost anti-climactic. Bach's very best cantatas sound "all of a piece"; here, I felt that the whole was lesser than the sum of its parts, as if Bach assembled movements from different sources. (Except that there are works where Bach really did assemble movements from different sources -- the cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), for instance -- that nonetheless seem more satisfying as a whole).

I always feel ill-at-ease, when criticising anything Bach did -- and especially when talking about a work that does, after all, contain such a magnificent opening chorus. One of the many fascinating features of this movement is how Bach manages to squeeze so many word- and mood-paintings into this movement yet also maintain an overall dramatic arch. To illustrate what I mean about paintings, consider the debate between Spitta and Schweitzer abut the opening text. It's there in the link above, but for convenience, I'm reproducing it:

Philipp Spitta (1873-1880):
“The cantata brings out the meaning of that text in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’, and the cantata is fitly concluded with the sixth verse of the paraphrase of the beatitudes. It is an affecting picture of Christian love, softening with tender hand and pitying sympathy the sorrow of the brethren, and obtaining the highest reward. The peculiar accompaniment, allotted to flutes, oboes, and strings, was very likely suggested to Bach by the idea of the breaking of bread. But how little he cares for such trivial realism is seen, as the number goes on, in a passage where the accompaniment is continued to entirely different words. It gives the piece a tender, dreamy tinge, and this is what Bach chiefly wanted.”

Albert Schweitzer (1908, rough translation from Hebrew into English):
“Another example of movement description can be found in the first chorus of cantata BWV 39. [snip] The music has initially something fragmented. Spitta assumes that the origin of this fragmentation is the cutting of the bread. But he cannot avoid of adding a reservation [see above].

Here the explanation of the musical picture and its justification are totally improper. It is totally unjustified to claim that Bach continues the imagery into a place in which it is not existed in the text. Furthermore, no listener can hear in this music the breaking of the bread. What is the meaning of this music? The monotonic instrumental accompaniment with the rhythmic movement of the quavers in the Basso continuo reminds us more of a march. The voices break the calm, in such a way that we can imagine feeble and unstable steps [musical example]. Therefore, the music describes the poor people, supported and brought into the house. When the words ‘into thy house’ pass, the accompaniment abandon this description and it is built gradually from other themes.”

I think Schweitzer is more convincing than Spitta regarding the orchestral word-painting. What both of them missed, in my view, is that Bach does paint the breaking of the bread -- in the choir. When the choir enters -- in Gardiner's [11] words, "in pairs, and with imploring gestures, emotionally chocked, their pleas breaking and stuttering" -- the bread-breaking is clearly evident (I hope my line-divisions come out OK):

Brich

     

dem Hun-gri-gen

   

dein Brot

   

Brich

   

dem Hung-gri-gen

 

dein Brot

As the movement progresses, Bach finds room to illustrate the words "Elend", "fuehre ins Haus", "wird schnell wachsen", and others; and the richness of the texture is enhanced when different word-paintings are brought simultaneously. The main point, however, is that all these word-paintings intensify -- rather than distract from -- the overall powerful emotional message, which conveys both the suffering and the poor and compassion towards them.

I listened to three recordings that have not been discussed in the previous round -- Werner [4] (recently released), and the newer performances by Koopman [14] and Gardiner [11]. They all have their virtues (though Koopman is perhaps the least satisfactory -- feeling too light at times). However, it is Gardiner who ultimately emphasises both the depth of expression and the rich details of Bach's score. His choir and orchestra are constantly alert to all nuances (thereby also showing us just how much detail Bach can bring into a single bar of music); the choir, especially, uses every means -- from dynamic nuance to the shaping of consonants -- to breathe life into virtually every word. The soloists are also superb, giving alert and moving interpretations to their recitatives and arias. Werner is also movingly lyrical, but in a more generalised manner: the textures are clear (though his choir is not nearly as focused as Gardiner's), but the details are simply there: he seems less aware than Gardiner of their significance (or at least less interested in projecting it).

I have access to other recordings, and hope to reacquaint myself with them in the course of the week, and perhaps post about them. In the meantime, I hope there's enough here to launch a discussion!

Neil Halliday wrote (October 23, 2007):
Uri Golomb wrote:
>When the choir enters -- in Gardiner's [11] words, "in pairs, and with imploring gestures, emotionally chocked, their pleas breaking and stuttering" -- the bread-breaking is clearly evident.<
This is a marvellous description, by Gardiner [11], of the effect of the first choral entry, regardless of the imagery concerning the breaking of bread. Leonhardt [6], with the slowest tempo of all (9.10), captures this emotion beautifully, with the two "pairs" of the choir sounding in opposite speakers for a stereophonic effect. Much detail can be heard in this magical recording, eg, in bar 35 (last beat) the basses leap above both the altos and tenors who are descending in parallel thirds, and the melisma on "führe" (bars 38-40) is ecstatic.

In bar 45 the tenors begin the subject of first fugue in the movement, but since this begins before the end of the preceding s- which ends on the first beat of bar 47 - some study of the score will be required to hear this tenor entry in the recordings.

The last fugue ("and the glory of the Lord...") has the entries (in varied form) in the order B,T,A, recorders, S; the basses and tenors have extraordinarily long phrases - 18 and 21 bars respectively! - set to the single syllable "neh-(men)".

----------

Gardiner's [11] and Koopman's [14] bass arias are rather fast, missing out on the broad, pleasingly expansive nature of the continuo theme and on a clear presentation of the quasi-canonic interaction between voice and cello. Richter [5] especially has a pleasing organ realisation with 2-foot stop, etc; Leonhardt [6] is excellent; some the the other organ realisations are dull.

I found the the charming alto (Mvt. 3) and soprano (Mvt. 5) arias pleasing in most recordings (though I have my favourites). Richter [5] shows the soprano aria works very well with modern flute, in place of the unison recorders.

I like the solid, relatively 'gesture-free' performances of the final chorale (Mvt. 7) from Gardiner [11] and Koopman [14]. Werner [4] is pleasing; Richter [5] is too forceful for this closing chorale.

Depending on mood, the fastest of the opening choruses - Rilling (6.45) [7] - with its precision and accuracy, can also be enjoyable, which demonstrates the amazing range of interpretations that Bach's music is able to survive.

Bart O'Brien wrote (October 25, 2007):
I bought the Gönnenwein LP [2] with its sleeve image of the Grunwald Crucifixion soon after it came out in 1966. Since then this has always been my favourite Bach cantata of all. Whenever I listen to that opening chorus it is a real occasion. So in this week of all weeks I suppose I ought to find the energy to make a contribution to the group.

The only CD of the work that I have is the Herreweghe [8]. What a difference! Gönnenwein's [2] opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is sublime while Herreweghe's is delicate. With Gönnenwein the music just flows with irresistible power and beauty. Herreweghe, on the other hand, finds and exaggerates a fragmented, halting character in the music. After hearing the Gönnenwein yesterday I put on the Herreweghe straight away, and it was going from the sublime to, well, literally, the ridiculous. The opening bars seemed so jerky that it sounded as if someone was deliberately making fun of the piece. I just had to stop the CD. Nevertheless, when I haven't heard the Gönnenwein for a while, the Herreweghe interpretation can have a certain attractive elegance.

I definitely prefer the Gönnenwein performance [2]. I wish it was on CD. I do enjoy and admire the Herreweghe performance [8] - when played at a safe distance from the Gönnenwein - but if Herreweghe's had been the performance placed on one side of that LP in 1966 I don't think that Cantata BWV 39 would have become quite so special to me these four decades.

But, some may say, Herreweghe's interpretation [8] is the more appropriate: the music of that chorus (Mvt. 1) ought to have a fragmented, halting character to fit the words about the destitute, stumbling, imploring people. Although, on the other hand, maybe Herreweghe is just too elegant to do justice to the misery of hunger and homelessness? So perhaps a halting but grimmer interpretation of this music would be better?

I read such opinions with interest and then move on. What I enjoy in a Bach cantata is the sound that I hear and I don't care how well or badly the music fits the words or whether one performance fits the words better than another. This is much too big a topic to tackle rigorously here. I've just jotted down some notes about the text of this cantata in no particular order:

1 This music is extremely beautiful. Being destitute is extremely unpleasant. So, extremely beautiful music representing something that is extremely unpleasant? How would that work exactly?

2 The opening text (Mvt. 1) speaks of `breaking bread' with the hungry To `break bread' with someone normally means to share a meal. Yes, the word `break' is there, but only as part of an established expression; it has no sense of literally breaking anything like a vase or a window. So - if I did care about the relation between words and music, which I've said I don't - I'd think it a bit silly of a composer if he wrote music meant to represent the word `break' in this expression.

3 Among the comments already made in this group are phrases such as "the tottering of the weak", "the feeble footsteps of the hungry", "distributing of bread to the hungry", "tottering, staggering steps of the poor", "the leading of the destitute", "the feeble steps of the poor people", "feeble footsteps of the hungry people". I can see how people find hints of some of these things in the music, but just to be clear: there is nothing at all in the text about poor people lining up or processing in any way, or about their having difficulty in standing or walking. Indeed if the music did depict poor people lining up on a street corner for soup, that would contradict the notion of `breaking bread' with the poor - not donating money to run soup-kitchens, not giving away leftovers, but inviting them into your home to share your own meal.

4 For the opening text (Mvt. 1) about feeding the hungry and housing the homeless Bach writes music that can be related to (or at any rate can be performed as relating to) stumbling, imploring, hungry and homeless people. For the following text about clothing the naked, he begins a more vigorous fugue. This music can be related to . . . what? Well, in 2001, one member visualised Anna Magdalena Bach knitting clothes, but I doubt that anybody else has managed to hear that. If I did care about the relation between words and music - which I've said I don't - I might feel disappointed that, after dealing with the hungry and homeless, Bach's inspiration ran out, he couldn't think of any music to paint the words of the next part of the text about the naked, and so he just composed an ordinary fugue.

5 The whole text of this chorus (Mvt. 1) sets out a cost-benefit analysis. The first half is about doing works of charity, and the second half, with just as much emphasis, is about the benefits you yourself will then gain. Incur the costs of giving away food and clothes to the poor now, and your return on that investment will be that you go to Heaven for all eternity (I think that is what the text is saying). Is it likely that the listener who believes that this is indeed a correct cost-benefit analysis will enjoy the music more than one who thinks it is, well, not true at all because there isn't any Heaven? And what about somebody who loathes these sentiments, believing that you should do good deeds without considering any longterm payback for yourself?

As I said, I'm only interested in the beauty of this music, and I've loved it for a very long time. I've just listened to the Gönnenwein performance [2] again, and the sheer sound that I hear is so sublime that for me the question of whether the words of the text actually mean anything sensible is quite irrelevant.

Jean Laaninen wrote (October 25, 2007):
[To Bart O'Brien] I listened to this cantata the day before we found out about the problem with IE and Real Player since I had been out of the loop for several weeks.And I have to agree the listening is beautiful--perhaps deep in places. Maybe what you described below is a kind of Lutheran thing. A few years ago there was an appeal at church for people to support a church based program for children in need in other countries than the US. To make the appeal, the organist pre-programed the modern organ with various musical works that were intended at points to wrench the heart and extract from the pocketbook., and she also played along with these numbers. All the while this was going on images of the work of distant adoption of children in need were flashed on several walls of the interior of the church for people to see. There were already supporters of this program in the church, but more were added that day. Today famous musicians also lend their gifts to world issues, including the very needy.

When I was a child in a pastor's home, people used to come to our backdoor asking for a little job so they could have a meal. I remember that Dad let them mow the lawn, and then mom cooked a good sized meal for them which they would eat in the back yard. They ordinarily did not come at dinnertime.

So music has been used for a long time now to get the idea of sharing across, and when the music is beautiful or grand despite the misery of the message I think it conveys nobility in the act of sharing. But whether the words and text always fit together to the ears of any, certainly Bach was a musical master and he could bring depth or beauty to any subject--even drama on so many occasions. And it helps to remember that his writings were often based on texts for a given Sunday.

I did have to chuckle at the end though, because certainly you a poking a little fun at the contrasts and the elements some folks see or hear in the text. On the other hand, the creation of music also includes efforts toward inspiring the mind and imagination, and it's easier to see connections in the context of the Lutheran worship service, in my opinion, than outside of it.

Thank you for adding your thoughts to this discussion. Bach is serious music, but every moment surrounding is not.

Neil Halliday wrote (October 25, 2007):
Bart O'Brien wrote:
>>But, some may say, Herreweghe's interpretation [8] is the more appropriate: the music of that chorus (Mvt. 1) ought to have a fragmented, halting character to fit the words about the destitute, stumbling, imploring people. Although, on the other hand, maybe Herreweghe is just too elegant to do justice to the misery of hunger and homelessness? So perhaps a halting but grimmer interpretation of this music would be better? I read such opinions with interest and then move on.<<
You raise some interesting points.

In Aryeh's excellent introduction back in 2001 (see previous discussions at the BCW) the main 'images' up for discussion were the "breaking of the bread" (Spitta) or the "feeble footsteps" (Schweitzer) but a third image, which in some ways I find altogether more satisfactory, has since been suggested by Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music [13], who wrote:

"The short notes from the recorders, oboes and strings can either be read to represent the breaking of the bread or, more compellingly (my emphasis), the teardrops of the hungry. In any case the orchestra is a stunning brackdrop for what is at the beginning a deeply felt and emotional fugue and later on an energetic call to arms."

Teardrops! For me, this image seems more appropriately and more compellingly to capture the meaning of the ritornello's unique orchestration, although different conductors' interpretations undoubtably stress one image or the other. With Herreweghe [8], I hear elegant motion; Rilling [7], vigorous steps; but consider the first sentence of the text (German word order):

"Break (for) the hungry your bread, and those that in misery are, lead into your house".

Is not this sentence's chief focus the sorrow of and compassion for the poor and downtrodden?

The tears are definitely there in Leonhardt [6], Werner [4] (but his choir lacks focus), Richter [5] (but his choir is too strong), and Smith's own performance [13] of the ritornello (BCW sample).

>>This music is extremely beautiful. Being destitute is extremely unpleasant. So, extremely beautiful music representing something that is extremely unpleasant? How would that work exactly?<<
and
>>The opening text (Mvt. 1) speaks of `breaking bread' with the hungry To `break bread' with someone normally means to share a meal. Yes, the word `break' is there, but only as part of an established expression; it has no sense of literally breaking anything like a vase or a window. So - if I did care about the relation between words and music, which I've said I don't - I'd think it a bit silly of a composer if he wrote music meant to represent the word `break' in this expression.<<
Agreed. That's why I prefer the 'teardrop' image as the focus of the first half of the movement. [The setting of the first sentence quoted above comprises more than half the movement. After that, the text and music become progressively more upbeat].

As fas as the setting of the remainder of the text is concerned, I would say (and I think this is Bart's point) that we don't need to look for literal word painting in the music (though there may be some instances of word painting).

"If you see a naked (person), so clothe him, and withdraw not from your flesh". The important thing is the change of tempo (4/4 time) and the more positive, upbeat mood.

"so then will your light shine forth like the glow of dawn". The first of the 'strong' fugues (in 3/8 time, contrasting with the 'gentle' fugue in the middle of the first choral section).

"and your improvement will quickly grow". A non-fugal passage, as is also the following section "and your righteousness shall go before you".

"and the glory of the Lord shall be your reward". (literally, shall you to itself take). The powerful fugue returns for the last time, and the movement concludes with an exultant short coda.

So we have a marvellous structure of many sections, with the music becoming more and more positive/upbeat as it progresses. BTW, notice that the first sentence itself (with sorrow as the music's focus) is set in three sections, ie, an ABA form with B being a gentle, 'heavenly' fugue.

Thanks for your thought provoking post.

--------

Smith [13] has written this of the bass aria:

"The stern, preachy bass aria is a splash of cold water - Bach at his most severe and Lutheran" but I find that the rich, warm acoustic in the Richter [5] and Werner [4] recordings creates a less austere effect than Smith suggests.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 2, 2007):
BWV 39 recordings

Thanks to everyone who posted comments regarding specific recordings of BWV 39. I especially enjoyed the remarks on the Gönnenwein [2] LP, I have a recently acquired copy. In the traditinal vein, the Werner [4] CD reissue is comparable. My preference is for Herreweghe [8], in a more contemporary (if not exactly HIP) style, but this distinction is based on personal taste. In any event, it is rewarding to make the comparisons in the context of ongoing discussions.

BWV 39 is a good example of some of the typical strengths and weak points of the Koopman [14] series: all the soloists are at least good, and alto Bogna Bartosz is superb in Mvt. 3. The chorus is fine, but the continuo is often abrupt (lacking in continuity?) Compare the Gardiner live performance [11] for a different, and IMO better, level of energy, difficult to define precisely.

I am writinmainly to point out the Craig Smith [13] performance, which has not previously been mentioned in the discussions. The two CD set of cantatas for Trinity 1 and 2 was originally issued as the beginning of a complete series, but additions have not yet been financially possible, and do not appear likely. Nevertheless, the available recordings provide a nice record of the accomplishments of this group, Emmanuel Music [13], which has been dedicated to the performance of Bach cantatas for over thirty years.

It is not exactly an essential recording, but I find the performances of alto Pamela Dellal, oboe Peggy Pearson, and violin Danielle Maddon in Mvt. 3 of BWV 39 to be as good as any. You may also enjoy the multiple skills of Pamela Dellal, whose subtle translations of the entire cantatas are linked via BCW (English 6). Worthy of exploration by those who wish to sample the full spectrum of Bach cantata performance.

Apologies that I do not presently have a reply function available to respond interactively to other writers. Once again, all were appreciated.

 

BWV 39 [was: BWV 156]

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 10, 2008):
JAP wrote:
>I've been thinking about your final comment about the second movement of BWV 39. It's true that the text you cite is not a direct biblical quotation, but surely the intention is that the hearer should think of the injunction in the Gospel According to St Matthew to "love thy neighbour as thyself'<

My comment actually relates back to a previous post of mine:
>At some point, I will take the trouble to recover a few texts Bach set which are <optimistic> about the results of human behavior in this world, as well as the next.

The first example which comes to hand, at random, from BWV 39/2:

<Mercy that rests on ones neighbor,
Can, more than all gifts, go straight to His heart.>

I agree that there is a Biblical reference for <love thy neighbor as thyself>, but I also believe the more important point is that the thought (indeed, commandment) is central to every religion on earth, as well as non-deist philosophy. Providing a universal reference for the spirituality of Bach's music.

Both the text Bach set, and the actual Gospel for the 1st Sunday after Trinity (Luke 16: 19-31), the liturgical day for BWV 39, support my point. Because my original post was on a thread which the moderator has asked us to discontinue, I have been as brief as possible. I did not think it would be polite to ignore James post, without a response.

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 10, 2008):
JAP wrote, citing BWV 39/2:
>*"But mercy which is to one's neighbor shown
Can more than any gift be to his heart compelling." *(Ambrose)<
I originally emphasized the capital H, interpreting <His heart> as the sacred heart of Jesus. Did you intentionally change this, suggesting that <his heart> refers to the <neighbors heart>; is it an oversight; or is it Ambrose interpretation?

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 10, 2008):
The Pamela Dellal translation (Emmanuel Music, via BCW, English 6), of BWV 39/2:

<The bounteous God casts His abundance
on us, we who without Him do not even have breath.
It is His, what we are; He gives only the use,
although not so that we alone
are refreshed by His treasures.
They are the touchstone
whereby He makes known
that He has dispensed poverty, also necessity,
as He, with a gentle hand,
bestowed to us richly what is needed by those.
We need not return, for His loaned good,
interest into His storehouse;
mercy that is shown to one's neighbors
can reach His heart more surely than any gift.>

It is clear, to me, that after <bounteous God> in the opening line, subsequent pronouns (He, Him, His) refer back to that initial statement.

The Dürr translation agrees.

James Atkins Pritchard wrote (June 10, 2008):
[To Ed Myskowski] I was just cutting and pasting the Z. Philip Ambrose translation from this site:
www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/BWV39.html

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 10, 2008):
BWV 39 - Spelling

Ed Myskowski wrote:
< It is clear, to me, that after <bounteous God> in the opening line, subsequent pronouns (He, Him, His) refer back to that initial statement. >
The use capital letters to inidcate references to God is only an orthographic convention adopted in the late 18th and 19th century and does not appear in earlier bibles such as the influential King James Bible or in more modern translations. The convention is extended to many Bach translations because it was an editorial principle in the old Novello vocal scores. These anachronisms should be eliminated in Bach translations, just as the pseudo-Tudor style of language abandoned (e.g. Thou, Ye). Students of Bach are better served by clear accurate translations in modern prose which do not tryto emulate a Victorian poetic style. Many of the discussions on here have been hampered by vague and inaccurate translations.

James Atkins Pritchard wrote (June 10, 2008):
[To Douglas Cowling] I'm inclined to agree about not using special capitalization rules for pronouns referring to God because as far as I know such rules were not used in the original German texts. But I'm not sure I agree about words like "thou" (which is cognate to the German "du"). It's surely a matter of great interest that God is addressed as "du" (it suggests an intimacy with the divine or infinite that is arguably central to the Cantatas and indeed Bach's music generally) and I like the idea that the nuances present in the German are as far as possible conveyed in the translations.

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 10, 2008):
Douglas Cowling wrote, in response to my previous post:
EM:
< It is clear, to me, that after <bounteous God> in the opening line, subsequent pronouns (He, Him, His) refer back to that initial statement. >

DC>
>The use capital letters to inidcate references to God is only an orthographic convention adopted in the late 18th and 19th century and does not appear in earlier bibles such as the influential King James Bible or in more modern translations. The convention is extended to many Bach translations because it was an editorial principle in the old Novello vocal scores. These anachronisms should be eliminated in Bach translations, just as the pseudo-Tudor style of language abandoned (e.g. Thou, Ye). Students of Bach are better served by clear accurate translations in modern prose which do not try to emulate a Victorian poetic style. Many of the discussions on here have been hampered by vague and inaccurate translations.<
Perhaps, but it remains clear, to me, that <His heart> refers back to <bounteous God, from the very first line, rather than to <his (the neighbors) heart>. The capital H helps (even Helps?) make that clear.

When in doubt, a noun is preferable to a pronoun, I always say. At least, from this moment on.

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 10, 2008):
James Atkins Pritchard wrote:
< But I'm not sure I agree about words like "thou" (which is cognate to the German "du"). It's surely a matter of great interest that God is addressed as "du" (it suggests an intimacy with the divine or infinite that is arguably central to the Cantatas and indeed Bach's music generally) and I like the idea that the nuances present in the German are as far as possible conveyed in the translations. >
I gotta disagree with you here. In the 16th century "thou" and "ye/you" were used like French "tu-vous" and German "du-Ihr/Sie" to indicate second-person singular and plural, as well as degrees of informality to formality. Those distinctions didn't survive the 18th century and, in fact, "Thou" oddly became a "divine" pronoun which by the 19th century was used only in reference to God.

It is very difficult for native English speakers to see the nuances in tu-vous and du-Sie. Add the historical distance between us and Bach, and I wouldn't be surprised if even native German speakers had a working knowledge of the nuance and idiom of Bach's literary German unless they were a scholar of 16th - 18th literature.

James Atkins Pritchard wrote (June 10, 2008):
[To Douglas Cowling] It's certainly true that the use of "thou" (and the verb forms associated with it) is not characteristic of contemporary English. But so what?

I have a friend who teaches Greek literature in translation and recently I tried to persuade him to use a translation of Homer other than Richmond Lattimore because there are now plenty of them that make it easier for students to get through the text. He replied (rightly, I now think) that he wasn't primarily looking for accessibility; he was looking for a translation that would to the extent that it was possible convey something in English of what it was like to read the original Greek. It was the very strangeness of the Lattimore translation, along with its closeness to the original (there's a close line-by-line correlation between Lattimore and the Greek, and it makes a great crib as countless students over the years have discovered), that so attracted him to it and that led him to make it his translation of choice. He also encourages those who want to know what it's like to read the New Testament in Greek to read Lattimore's translation of it.

Similarly I gather that plenty of English professors still encourage students to read Pound's translation of the Seafarer, not because any of them imagine that lines like "Moaneth away my mind's lust" were much in accordance with English as it was spoken in 1912 when Pound published his translation (let alone with English as it's spoken now), but rather because Pound's translation, even though it's very free, nevertheless conveys more than any other a sense of what the original is like.

Much the same case can be made for encouraging people to read Montaigne in Florio's translations: they give the reader a feel for what it's like to read the original.

So I suppose what I'm getting at is this. If what's desired is a translation that aims primarily at immediate accessibility then of course the older pronouns and verb forms ought to be avoided. But given that in the case of the Bach Cantatas we're looking at very short texts (the case for accessibility is stronger I think when the text is something long like an epic poem) it seems to me that the case for a translation that helps to bring the listener without German a little closer than might otherwise be possible to the experience of attending a service in the Thomaskirche in Bach's time and experiencing these incomparable expressions of Lutheran piety in the context in which Bach created them to be experienced might be a good thing. So why not prefer translations that sound as though they might have been set by William Croft or Maurice Greene? As far as I know no one is proposing that we alter the texts of their works so as to make them more accessible to the contemporary listener, so the presence in them of older forms can't be that much of an obstacle.

I suppose you think I'm crazy.

Jens F. Laurson wrote (June 11, 2008):
James Atkins Pritchard wrote:
> But I'm not sure I agree about words like "thou" (which is cognate to the German "du"). It's surely a matter of great interest that God is addressed as "du" (it suggests an intimacy with the divine or infinite that is arguably central to the Cantatas and indeed Bach's music generally) and I like the idea that the nuances present in the German are as far as possible conveyed in the translations. <
I don't quite agree with the importance of this matter, either.

A.) "Thou" now connotes the very formality of "Sie", whereas "You" connotes informality... even though the meaning was once (or is, technically) the reverse.

B.) "Du" in this instance doesn't really suggest any particular intimacy. It is the only logical choice of addressing God -- the "Sie" would sound hilariously silly to native German ears.

Although at that time it wasn't uncommon for kids to use the formal with their parents, the idea of God being thus addressed isn't likely ever to have found much consideration. Perhaps because the idea of creating distance of formality to "he-omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent" would be very odd?

In any case the "Du" in that instance never connotes any ideas of 'buddying up' or any closer familiarity than the concept of God would already be felt.

Perhaps a more mundane reason: "Gott" isn't though of as a last name, nor a title. So Germans are on 'first-name' basis with God and you just can't say "Sie - [First Name]".

 

BWV 39, for First Sunday after Trinity, June 14, 2009

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 15, 2009):
Although I did not have the opportunity to listen in real time, I did check the playlist for Brian McCreaths weekly cantata series on www.wgbh.org (89.7 FM locally, in Boston USA). The choice was BWV 39, from the Gardiner pilgrimage series. I did listen to my own recording, but not quite as rewarding (IMO) as sharing the communal experience of radio. Thanks for continuing the tradition, Brian, and for adding the orientation to the church calendar.

I wonder if there are folks around the planet who have access to other weekly presentations of Bach cantatas, oriented to the liturgical calendar, or otherwise? Note that yesterday, Trinity 1, begins the second half (approximately) of the Lutheran calendar year. I expect there may be others who enjoy both the weekly BCML discussion (now winding toward the end of Xmas), and listening in accordance with the liturgical calendar. Francis Browne humorously noted the dichotomy in his current introduction to BWV 248/3.

In turn, the communal experience of broadcast does not supplant the experience of live music performance. It is worth the effort to get out and listen (for you other non-players), if you can.

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 39: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Last update: ýSeptember 8, 2011 ý12:39:44