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Cantata BWV 8
Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?
Discussions - Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Discussions in the Week of March 18, 2012

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 17, 2012):
Introduction to BWV 8 -- Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?

Weekly reminder:

This week we continue Trinity season cantatas with BWV 8, the third of four works for the 16th Sunday after Trinity.

Details of text, commentary, recordings, and previous discussion are accessible via: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV8.htm

The link to commentary by Julian [Mincham], music examples included, is especially recommended as an introduction to listening.

The BWV 8 page has convenient access to notes from the Gardiner [11], Koopman [10] (notes by Christoph Wolff), Suzuki [12], and Leusink [9] (and more!) CD issues, via link beneath the cover photo.

The chorale text and melody are accessible via links at the BWV 8 page. Francis Browne has recently added new commentary on the cantata texts to his interlinear translations, linked via [English-3I]. We can expect these to continue, not necessarily weekly. Douglas Cowling and William Hoffman are also posting relevant to chorales and other music for the Lutheran Church Year, accessible via LCY pages.

I do not always take the time to check all links before posting. Special thanks to the folks who provide timely corrections.

Julian Mincham wrote (March 17, 2012):
[To Ed Myskowski] Very appropriate to current discussions with the high bells suggested in the first movement.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 18, 2012):
BWV 8 -- Themes of Death

Ed Myskowski wrote:
< Introduction to BWV 8 -- Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? >
I've been late in posting the motets and chorales that Bach's choirs sang on Trinity 16. Although it seems puzzling that there is such a strong emphasis on death on a pleasant summer Sunday, it appears that the end-of-life focus is driven by the liturgical context.

Before the cantata, the congregation would have heard the choir open the service with Handl's double-choir motet "Media Vita" (translation below). Then they would have stood before the Gospel and Cantata to sing Luther's German paraphrase of the Latin text, "Mitten wir im Leben sind" (translation below)

The cantatas for this Sunday show a strong thematic arc with both the motet and chorale de tempore.

MOTET: Media Vita – J. Handl (Gallus)

In the midst of life we are in death
of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins art justly displeased?
O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

CHORALE: "Mitten wir im Leben sind" - M. Luther

In the midst of earthly life
Snares of death surround us;
Who shall help us in the strife
Lest the Foe confound us?
Thou only, Lord, Thou only.
We mourn that we have greatly erred,
That our sins Thy wrath have stirred.
Chorus:
Holy and righteous God!
Holy and mighty God!
Holy and all-merciful Savior!
Eternal Lord God!
Save us lest we perish
In the bitter pangs of death.
Have mercy, O Lord!

2. In the midst of death's dark vale
Powers of hell o'ertake us.
Who will help when they assail,
Who secure will make us?
Thou only, Lord, Thou only.
Thy heart is moved with tenderness,
Pities us in our distress.
Chorus:

3. In the midst of utter woe
All our sins oppress us,
Where shall we for refuge go,
Where for grace to bless us?
To Thee, Lord Jesus, only.
Thy precious blood was shed to win
Full atonement for our sin.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 18, 2012):
BWV 8 - Ranking Chorus (Mvt. 1)

The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) could be ranked:

GRADE THREE ­ Moderately Easy

Stile antico motet counterpoint
Simple Chorale fantasias

The interesting feature is that closing chorale is almost identical in complexity as a chorale-fantasy but without the concerted accompaniment of the opening. They are bookends. This seems to be an aesthetic decision by Bach rather than avoiding difficulty because the choir's abilities are compromised by external factors.

Charles Francis wrote (March 18, 2012):
Bach's chorus: against the wall - Joshua Rifkin

Having read the relevant Andreas Glöckner article refuting OVPP, I can recommend Joshua Rifkin's reply: Early Music (2010) 38 (3): 437-440. Regrettably, it is secured by a for-profit organisation, but your local music library can perhaps provide a photocopy. The public domain extract is below, with added emphasis for the reader in a hurry:

"ANDREAS Glöckner's most recent intervention in the matter of Bach's vocal forces raises some serious questions-although not about Bach. For reasons I shall return to, it makes no sense to explore these questions at length. But I must call attention to them nevertheless. Two examples, chosen at random from a virtually endless store of candidates, should make it clear why.

Not long into a section headed 'Bach's own specifications', Glöckner quotes some familiar words from Bach's Entwurff einer wohlbestallten Kirchen Music of August 1730: Every musical choir should contain at least 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and as many basses.

'Bach also', Glöckner continues, 'goes on to add': It would be better still if the group were such that one could have 4 subjects on each voice and thus could provide every choir with 16 persons. From this, Glöckner draws two conclusions. First, and not surprisingly, 'Bach's preferred vocal forces thus amounted to four singers per part'; second, and consequently, 'Anyone seeking to cast doubt on these unambiguous specifications would have to show that Bach set out deliberately to mislead city, church and school superiors'.

Despite the obvious insinuation, I for one have never thought that Bach set out to mislead anyone. But what of Glöckner? The unsuspecting reader would not know that he tacitly omits a portion of the first quoted sentence: after what Bach wrote as a comma but Glöckner reproduces as a full stop, the composer explains, so that even if one should fall ill (as very often happens, particularly at this time of year, as the prescriptions written by the school physician for the apothecary must show) at least a double-chorus motet may be sung."

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 23, 2012):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) could be ranked:
GRADE THREE - Moderately Easy
Stile antico motet counterpoint
Simple Chorale fantasias
The interesting feature is that closing chorale is almost identical in complexity as a chorale-fantasy but without the concerted accompaniment of the opening. They are bookends. This seems to be an aesthetic decision by Bach rather than avoiding difficulty because the choir's abilities are compromised by external factors. >
For those who may have missed it the first time around, here is Dougs suggested reference list, inspired by BWV 95 from last week, I believe:

** GRADE ONE - Extremely Difficult

Lengthy coloratura
Complex counterpoint
Shifts in style
Chromaticism
Extreme tessitura
Complex rhythms

Cum Sancto Spiritu - Mass in B Minor (BWV 232)
Gott ist Unsrer Zuversicht, BWV 197
Ehre Sei Gott, Part 5, Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)

** GRADE TWO - Moderately Difficult

Restrained coloratura
Straightforward rhythms
Moderate Counterpoint

Christ Lag in Todesbanden, BWV 106 (BWV 4 intended?)
Kommt Ihr Töchter, St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
Wachet Auf, BWV 140

** GRADE THREE - Moderately Easy

Stile antico motet counterpoint
Simple Chorale fant

Wir Danken Dir Gott BWV 29
Kyrie Eleison II, Mass in B Minor (BWV 232)
Sicut Locutus Est, Magnificat (BWV 243)

**GRADE FOUR - Very Easy

Simple Chorale harmonizations in a concerted movement

Christus Der ist Mein Leben, BWV 95
Was Gott Thut. BWV 98

There is a lot there to absorb in one gulp, but I would suggest that both the current rankings, and the reference set itself, make interesting listening, and discussion for those who can manage it.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 23, 2012):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< ** GRADE ONE - Extremely Difficult
Lengthy coloratura
Complex counterpoint
Shifts in style
Chromaticism
Extreme tessitura
Complex rhythms >
I glanced at a video on Youtube of the Magnificat conducted by JEG given at a church concert. JEG's tempo is really fast, and the proof in the pudding (or in the hearing ) why it was this was likely performed by a quartet of soloists and NOT a choir.

Matthew Laszewski wrote (March 23, 2012):
[To Ed Myskowski] The ranking of ‘complexity’ that Cowling proposes is actually a ranking of technical difficulty. Why this should be seen as interesting is not self-evident. The fact that BWV 95 involved no coloratura for the choir to sing is rather irrelevant against Bach’s use of Vox humana, as an instrument in this opening ‘chorus’ (Mvt. 1) of incredible beauty, in the held sonorant and dissonant harmonized tones while reeds and strings thrill the musical and emotional landscape in exquisitely complex unfolding. So too, we witness the singing of angelic voices in the simplest descant terms above the masses of choristers in the St Matthew’s passion. Their simple chorus evoking brilliant innocence before the Saviour’s crucifixion, above and beyond complex and difficult melodic lines would not be enhanced by pyrotechnic turns in their part.

Would we prefer that every chorus be equally and completely complex in every Cantata? Bach experimented and achieved so much. Would you prefer that *Jesu joy of man’s desiring * be relegated to the permutations of
coloratura in the chorus rather than complexity in the instrumental line?

I don’t really “get” Doug Cowling’s purpose. Not every simple chorale or chorus would be improved by simply being difficult to sing.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 23, 2012):
Matthew Laszewski wrote:
< I don¹t really ³get² Doug Cowling¹s purpose. Not every simple chorale or chorus would be improved by simply being difficult to sing. >
I agree, my schema is purely arbitrary. However, the extremes of technical difficulty in Bach are so wide that we have to ask the question:

Are less-demanding choruses the the result of:

A) The practical inability of Bach's singers through illness, absence, or statutory stipulations.

Or

B) Aesthetic decisions by Bach.

We really don't have much documentary evidence for A) other than Bach's concern that the boys shouldn't running around town singings carols outside when the church music demanded their best. So too the off-hand comments that solo cantatas were written because Bach's singers were exhausted. There's no evidence that the instrumentalists were tired and they had to work a lot harder than the singers.

I would firmly come down on the B side of the debate. BWV 8 is beautifully bookended by two relatively easy chorale fantasies, one concerted and the other colla parte. That has to be an aesthetic decision by Bach.

So too the range of technical difficulty varies widely within particular works. If you've ever sung the B Minor Mass, you wait with trepidation for the Sanctus because the fugal coloratura is perhaps the most difficult Bach ever penned. And yet a few minutes later, you know you will have the sublime simplicity of the "Dona Nobis Pacem."

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 24, 2012):
Matthew Laszewski wrote:
< The ranking of ‘complexity’ that Cowling proposes is actually a ranking of technical difficulty. Why this should be seen as interesting is not self-evident. >
See Doug’s response, which covers one aspect of interest.

ML:
< Would we prefer that every chorus be equally and completely complex in every Cantata? Bach experimented and achieved so much. Would you prefer that *Jesu joy of man’s desiring * be relegated to the permutations of coloratura in the chorus rather than complexity in the instrumental line?
I don’t really “get” Doug Cowling’s purpose. Not every simple chorale or chorus would be improved by simply being difficult to sing. >
EM:
I did not interpret Dougs intent this way. Indeed, just the opposite. An interesting point of discussion is the very point that Matthew makes, and which Doug suggests as evidence for aesthetic rather than pragmatic choices by Bach.

Some of Bachs simplest, or least technically challenging choruses, are also among the most aesthetically satisfying. I expect we can also point out examples of complexity in instrumental lines effectively outshing simpler vocal lines, another recent thread of related interest.

I meant to emphasize the interest in the discussion, not that the conclusion is self-evident.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 25, 2012):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) could be ranked:
GRADE THREE - Moderately Easy
Stile antico motet counterpoint
Simple Chorale fantasias
The interesting feature is that closing chorale is almost identical in complexity as a chorale-fantasy but without the concerted accompaniment of the opening. They are bookends. This seems to be an aesthetic decision by Bach rather than avoiding difficulty because the choir's abilities are compromised by external factors. >
Before moving on from BWV 8, I hope everyone intrigued by Dougs suggested hierarchy of chorus ranking has followed subsequent posts, and also referred to Julian Minchams web essay re BWV 8/1 (Mvt. 1). No point in saying one of his finest, they are all excellent.

Those who truly enjoy the details will also have noted an early draft of Julians comments in the BWV 8 discussions in the BCW archives, second series, from 2006.

See also: Bells in Bach’s Vocal Works [General Topics]

 

Cantata BWV 8: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: 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: ýApril 1, 2012 ý10:11:48