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Cantata BWV 96
Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of October 14, 2001

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 16, 2001):

The subject of this week's discussion (October 14, 2001) is Cantata BWV 96, the first one in Michael Grover's proposed list. In order to allow the members of the BCML preparing themselves for the discussion, I arranged a list of the recordings of this cantata. I put the details of the recordings in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Caantata BWV 96 - Recordings.
You have also a link to this page from the Home Page of the Bach Cantatas Website (in the middle of the right side).

I hope that the new way of presenting the information will encourage more members to participate in the discussion.


As a background to this relatively unfamiliar cantata I shall use this time W. Murray Young’s book ‘The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – An Analytical Guide’. Due to limitations of time I shall review the opening chorus of this cantata. But its other movements have their own merits, especially the two arias, for tenor and for bass.

Elisabeth Kreuziger was the poet for the hymn, upon which the libretto for this 18th Sunday after Trinity was arranged for Bach’s Chorale Cantata. Stanzas one and five are set in their original form for the opening chorus and the concluding chorale verse, respectively. The other verses are paraphrased by the unknown poet for the recitatives and arias.
Matthew 22: 34-46 is referred to in the first recitative for alto: Christ confuses the Pharisees by calling Himself the Son of David (verses 41-46).
The cantata’s main thought is that Christ is the only Son of God, whose love will enter our souls to guide us; we may return His love and thus gain entry into heaven.

Mvt. 1 Chorus
This must surely be one of the most beautiful fantasies that Bach ever wrote. Unison playing of the piccolo flute and piccolo violin in semiquavers persists throughout, with charming flourishes after each line sung by the choir. The altos have the cantus firmus, preceding the imitative entry of the other vocal parts.
From its ethereal melody in the orchestral prelude to its radiant conclusion in the soprano voices at the end, this exquisite number gives a vision of celestial beauty with the imagery of Christ as the morning star. Words cannot adequately describe the wonder of the mystic moment with Bach, as he portrays his Saviour.
The piccolo instruments, imitating the tune of the shepherds’ pipes, endow this pastoral melody with enchanting realism.”

Review of the Recordings of the Opening Chorus

(1) Helmuth Rilling (5:28)
Rilling prefers to use Blockflöte (recorder) rather than the piccolo flute. I do not understand the reason, but this is still a most enjoyable rendition. The structure of this chorus allows us to hear each voice of the choir clearly from the alto at the beginning to the sopranos at the end. And Rilling proves how wonderful, rich and expressive his choir is.

(2) Karl Richter (6:36)
When I heard Richter’s rendition of this cantata in its completeness, the opening chorus sounded to me dignified and serious. But when I heard the opening chorus back to back with Rilling’s, it sounded too slow and heavy. Ah, this is the trap hidden in comparative listening! Richter also avoids the piccolo flute, using regular flute instead. Most of the unique colour of this chorus is getting lost as a consequence, although the playing of the flutist (Peter-Lukas Graf) is impeccable. The choir has homogeneous sound, however it is too big to convey the intimacy of this chorus.

(3) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (6:04)
What a relief it is to hear the piccolo flute at last, especially when it is played so splendidly by Elisabeth Harnoncourt (his sister, his daughter? Certainly not his wife). Everything falls into its place in this rendition, although the tempo is a somewhat fast to my taste. The Tölzer Knabenchor’s (boys’ choir) intimate, delicate, and exquisite singing gives the impression that they are the kind of choir that Bach hoped to have at his disposal when he was writing this chorus. In this performance I could not hear any of Harnoncourt’s deficiencies and eccentricities mentioned by some members of the BCML in previous cantata discussions. On the contrary, this is a charming rendition from every aspect, to which you want to listen again and again.

[4] Pieter Jan Leusink (5:37)
If I thought that Harnoncourt’s rendition could have benefited from a little bit slower tempo, than comes Leusink and proves how damaging too fast performance can be. All the right components are there: the boys' choir is in good shape, the piccolo flute is delicate and technically good, and even the intimate approach suits so well the atmosphere of this chorus. But the fast tempo works against the other factors to give a less than satisfactory rendition. The thrill from the morning star should be expressed with more grandeur and slower tempo!


Personal priorities in this order: Harnoncourt (3), Rilling (1), Leusink (4), and Richter (2).

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

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 17, 2001):
The Text / The Instrumentation

See: Cantata BWV 96 - Provenance

Some specific things to listen for

See: Cantata BWV 96 - Commentary

Review of the Recordings

The recordings that I listened to: Rilling (1973) (1); Richter (1977-78) (2); Harnoncourt (1979) (3); and Leusink (1999) (4)

Mvt. 1

Based on the flauto piccolo part alone which plays such a prominent role in this mvt, I would list my preferences top down as Rilling (1) , Harnoncourt (3), Leusink (4), Richter (2). Richter deserves this lowest position for a number of reasons, the most important being that Bach never used a 'flauto traverso' in any of the three performances of the cantata that he gave in his lifetime. It is a cheap substitute if you have already hired a transverse flute for the 3rd mvt. The modern flute plays an octave lower here and has no special sparkle. Richter uses an abominable organ stop (sounds like one from a large theatre organ) and combination or mixture with one part in the flauto piccolo's range, but then he adds the tremulant to all of this. Listen to the mvt. carefully. Then you will hear Richter's tasteless choice sometimes emulating the instrumental parts, at other times playing along with the sopranos. When you first hear it, it is not very loud, you will immediately think, "What's that???" Leusink's flauto piccolo [4] sounds as though it had been placed behind a baffle to suppress its volume. That was a mistake. If anyone belonged behind a baffle, it would be double bass/string bass player who is always too loud. Elisabeth Harnoncourt was unable to overcome intonation difficulties on her instrument.

Surprisingly there is only one true winner in the German diction department: Rilling. Leusink's choir [4] almost always loses in this category as it did not seem to be a priority worthy of greater effort. The other two losers should have placed more importance on clear enunciation. When Harnoncourt's choir sings "Gottessohn" or "entsprossen" you willhear the 'ss' either as a lisp or barely at all. It is almost as if they did not know German well enough to sing it properly.

Precision in singing (intonation, attacking the notes, balance, control, etc.) : First Rilling, then Richter, followed by Harnoncourt, and finally Leusink [4]. Leusink has his yodelers and voices that do not blend in, Harnoncourt has sloppiness in the attacks (sopranos in ms. 56, as a good example).

More Harnoncourt Doctrine: Note values shorter than indicated by Bach; primitive orchestral sound - intonation between instruments is shaky, even within the instuments themselves (oboes). Placing the heavy accent on the final syllable of "Gottessohn" which is also the end of the phrase with a comma following it directly, shows how little Harnoncourt respects the German language and natural diction, not to mention how completely unmusical (no in a truly singing style) this accent sounds when it appears in the middle of a measure where the voices naturally diminish slightly in volume before taking a breath at the comma. By singing on the word, "Morgensterne," the final quarter note as an eighth note on "ster," Harnoncourt creates an hiatus before the eighth note on "-ne," the final syllable. This does not make sense from any musical or linguistic standpoint, particularly it affect the vocal aspect of this piece. It is not graceful. It is trying to be different for the sake of being different rather than striving for aesthetically pleasing musicality. You can see clearly, where Harnoncourt has placed his priorities in creating a performance of this type.

Mvt. 2 Alto recitative

(1) Höffgen is much too operatic and heavy-handed in her treatment of this text. There is even a momentary loss of voice control.
(2) Schmidt is also operatic in her approach but very listenable nevertheless.
(3) Esswood's vibrato causes intonational uncertainty about which note precisely he is singing. His consonants are not clearly enunciated or sung firmly enough ("ein auserwählter Leib").
(4) Buwalda: Intonation is an even greater problem for Buwalda than Esswood. The same statement made about Esswood's vibrato can be applied here as well.

Mvt. 3 Tenor aria

Kraus (1) and Schreier (2) both have excellent renditions using the modern flute, with Schreier's rendition at a faster tempo and using a heavier bc. Equiluz (3) has an excellent rendition backed up by good balance in the instrumental ensemble. This is a good example of HIP. Van der Meel's versions (4) is taken at a faster tempo than all the rest. This rendition lacks substance because of the extremely 'lite' approach. The flute has irregularities in intonation and van der Meel has difficulty distinguishing between "Zeilen" and "Seilen" in his pronunciation.

Mvt. 4 Soprano recitative

(1) Donath - definitely operatic and unfortunately very 'narrow' with a warbly vibrato that distracts from her interpretation of the text.
(2) Mathis - very similar to Donath, perhaps slightly better, but not by much. The fact that a "Glottisanschlag" (allowing a gutteral, lower-pitched sound to be heard before 'landing' on the correct note) is evidence of her lack of control and is unforgivable in such a short segment.
(3) Wiedl - this boy soprano is generally flat and very insecure about the correct pitch in many places. Sometimes he slides from note to note. There is affectation and exaggeration in the manner in which he sings (or tries to speak.) Just another 'inkblot' in the H/L series.
(4) Holton - a half-voice who sings all the notes accurately, but that is where this effort stops. Notice here the use of the mistaken Harnoncourt Doctrine: the long, held notes in the bc are abruptly reduced to roughly a quarter of their intended value. Leusink adopts this 'wisdom' directly from Harnoncourt, in whose version with Wiedl you can hear the same thing.

Mvt. 5 Bass aria

(1) Nimsgern has a very powerful, operatic voice that gets the message of the text across in this very energetic interpretation by Rilling.
(2) Fischer-Dieskau has a wider expressive range with many more unexpected subtleties. The angularity of the beginning section becomes much more restrained and controlled in the middle section where Christ appears with a measured step and remains present until the end.
(3) Huttenlocher sings in a version that begins more like a tragic march with sad, drooping steps. It is difficult to discern the difference between Huttenlocher's trilled notes and those that are not. In the middle section he becomes disingenuous, an attitude that causes the listener to become distracted from understanding the words directly. He exaggerates a pious attitude. With his uncertain steps, one does not feel the presence of Christ who should be walking alongside.
(4) Ramselaar has a thin, half-voice compared to all the others. The entire rendition lacks energy and commitment.

Mvt. 6 Chorale

(1) Rilling - very good
(2) Richter - also very good even with the occasional extra long fermati.
(3) Harnoncourt - unnecessary breaks in the continuity of the musical phrase and the application of extra accents that are not needed to delineate the text. The altos and tenors are very weak for the most part.
(4) Leusink - has the usual swallowing up of the final syllable at the end of a phrase, a syllable that is not given sufficient value. There is imprecision in the attacks, but otherwise this rendition is reasonably legato.

Final overall choices follow the chronological order of their recording dates:
(1) Rilling
(2) Richter
(3) Harnoncourt
(4) Leusink

This seems to imply that we are going downhill in the quality of the cantata recordings that are being made, but we have yet to hear from Koopman [6], Herreweghe, Gardiner [5], and Suzuki [7]. Perhaps these will lead us out of this recording 'slump.'

Riccardo Nughes wrote (October 17, 2001):
Aryeh Oron wrote:
< What a relief it is to hear the piccolo flute at last, especially when it is played so splendidly by Elisabeth Harnoncourt (his sister, his daughter? >
Elisabeth Harnoncourt is the daughter of Nikolaus & Alice H. After her marriage she's became Elisabeth von Magnus (in some pressings of the H&L complete cycle she is listed with the double surname Harnoncourt-von Magnus)

Steven Guy wrote (October 17, 2001):
Are we sure that the 'flauto piccolo' was not intended for a soprano or sopranino recorder? I would have thought that in Bach's time 'flauto' refereed to recorders and 'traverso' or 'flauto traverso' refereed to side blown flutes?

Also a 'corno' in Bach cantatas when playing in unison with soprano voices often means a cornetto ('Zink' in German) or a cornettino. 'corno' was the common abbreviation of 'cornetto'. (Cornetts were woodwind instruments played with a small cup mouthpiece and featured seven finger holes)

I forgot to mention that high pitched recorders were often labelled 'flautino' in Baroque scores as well as 'flauto piccolo'.

Joost wrote (October 17, 2001):
[To Steven Guy] You are absolutely right. Bach's 'flauto piccolo' is a sopranino rec, one octave higher than the usual alto recorder. This is the instrument Elisabeth Harnoncourt is playing in BWV 96, as she is (used to be) a recorder player. By the way, I like her recorder playing a lot more than her singing...

My favourite flauto piccolo part is in cantata BWV 103, where it is played by Frans Brüggen.

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 17, 2001):
Steven Guy stated:
< Are we sure that the 'flauto piccolo' was not intended for a soprano or sopranino recorder? >
After my discussion of the NBA KB's conclusions, it should be clear, once
and for all, that:
1)'flauto piccolo' is a sopranino recorder (not a soprano recorder which has the wrong range)
2) that is instrument was the inspiration for Bach's unusual instrumentation in Mvt. 1 of this cantata because he very likely had a very good 'flautist' who would have played both this part in Mvt. 1 on the 'flauto piccolo' and Mvt. 3 on the 'flauto traverso'.
3) any other substitutions such as the 'violino piccolo' or combinations such as both instruments playing simulataneously (or in octaves) are based on later performances or misinformation. The substitution of the 'violino piccolo' was forced upon Bach as he very likely had no excellent flautist available at the later performances of this work. This means that best choice for performance today is the sopranino recorder, if you can find a performer such as Frans Brüggen (not Harnoncourt's daughter who did not truly master the instrument). It will be left to either Koopman [6] or Suzuki [7] to supply us, for the sake of interest, with two separate recordings of BWV 96, one using the 'violino piccolo,' but any conductor performing or recording this cantata only once would be incorrect in choosing the orchestration of Bach's later performances.

< Steven Guy also stated: Also a 'corno' in Bach cantatas when playing in unison with soprano voices often means a cornetto ('Zink' in German) or a cornettino. 'corno' was the common abbreviation of 'cornetto'. >
The 'corno' here is doubling the alto voice. The question remains open and the evidence is inconclusive. Read what the NBA editors concluded (in my discussion of this cantata.)

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 17, 2001):
A Footnote:

In pointing out some details about that marvelous passage in Mvt. 1 when the choir sings, "Er ist der Morgensterne," I gave particular attention to the sudden shift to E major on the word, "Morgensterne," which is, of course, a symbolic reference to Christ. I have found some statements by Eric Chafe to underscore the significance of this tonality/key in Bach's sacred music and wish to share them with you. Essentially everything that follows is quoted directly from both of his books on the Bach cantatas:

E major tonality represents the sharpest tonal region in the Bach cantatas (the F# sharpness of BWV 121 is very debatable.)

There are no closed mvts. in any of the Bach cantatas in key signatures of more than four sharps.

E major, therefore, represents a special choice of key for Bach, one made in full knowledge that the other mvts. of a cantata in that key will be on the subdominant side of the key.

In the almost panoramic key spectrum of the SMP (BWV 244), E major is the sharpest mvt. key, the 'goal' of two extended progressions (anabases - upward-moving steps [anabasis and catabasis(downward) are the terms of choice with Chafe]) from 'deep' flats to 'deep' sharps in part 1. "O Mensch, bewein" is the goal of one of these anabases.

Steven Guy wrote (October 18, 2001):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thanks for these comments. I am understand much better now.

Could have been a tenor cornett? (also known as a cornone, lyzarden, cornetto tenore or cornetto storto) There is a small picture I have seen of an 18th century performance of a cantata and a cornett and a tenor cornett are clearly visible hanging on the wall. The tenor cornett has a range that closely matches an alto human voice. Maybe a tenor cornett was required? A heck of a lot of tenor cornetts have survived.

Sorry, just speculating.

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 18, 2001):
Another footnote on the significance and scope of E major in Bach's oeuvre:

It all begin with that sudden shift to E major in Mvt. 1 on the word, "Morgensterne," then came Eric Chafe's study of tonalities and what they may have meant to Bach, particularly in regard to his sacred music. In Mvt. 1 it was the feeling of being uplifted suddenly at this particular point in the mvt. and in Chafe I discovered E major at the 'extreme' tonality to which everything else progresses, and having reached E major is the equivalent to having reached one's 'goal.' I have another extensive quote and a few shorter ones that I will include that are excerpted from Chafe's books. But first allow me to pose some leading questions based on the premise that Bach first developed this notion in his mature Leipzig period, beginning in 1723:

We are looking at goals or conclusions, either the key of the final work, or the final chord of the final work in a series.

What key is the final Partita for Solo Violin (BWV 1006) in?

What key is the final Suite of the French Suites for Keyboard (BWV 817) in?

What is the last chord of the Gigue in Partita 6 (BWV 830) that concludes the series of 6 Partitas for Keyboard?

What is the final chord of the following (manualiter) chorale preludes (BWV 672, 673, 674, 681, 682, 686)?

Which other major works are in this key?

Harpsichord Concerto BWV 1053
Violin Concerto BWV 1042
Sonata for Harpsichord and Violin BWV 1016
Sonata for Flute and Continuo BWV 1035

What happened to the English Suites (all before 1720), the 6 Suites for Solo Cello (1720), the 6 Harpsichord and Violin Sonatas (before 1725)? The first two were too early for consideration and the last partially from an earlier period as well. How about the Inventions and the WTC? They both follow a very regular scheme of key tonalities.

Eric Chafe on the SJP (BWV 245):

When Bach repeated the music of "Wir haben ein Gesetz" as "Lässest du diesen los," he indicated the antithesis by transposing the chorus from flats to sharps. E major was the obvious choice, not only because of a mi-contra-fa relationship to the F of "Wir haben ein Gesetz" but also because the key of E major, the upper limit of the sharp spectrum, has its own associations with salvation in Bach's work. "Wir haben ein Gesetz" is followed by a recitative that modulates to sharps on the phrase "Weissest du nicht, daß ich Macht habe, dich zu kreuzigen, und Macht habe, dich loszugeben." The modulation in this line suggests that crucifixion (the introduction of sharp accidentals) [sharp=Kreuz=cross] and freedom (the completion of the move to sharps) are joined, an association made explicit by the entrance of "Durch dein Gefängnis" in the key of E major. The recitative itself contains Jesus' significant answer to Pilate, "Du hättest keine Macht über mich, wenn sie dir nicht wäre von oben herab gegeben," which closes in C sharp minor and sets up Pilate's E major cadence on "Von dem an trachtete Pilatus, wie er ihn losließe." This sequence of tonal events illuminates the thought process that led Bach to devise the tonal plan for the whole 'Passion'. That is, associating crucifixion and freedom with one another as well as with power from above resonates strongly with both classic Lutheran and Johannine thought. Within John's frame of reference the cross lifts Jesus up and with him, mankind; for Luther power from above means the supreme knowledge and all-determining nature of God as well as the salvation of mankind resulting from God's sending his Son into the world. For Bach the turn to sharps at this point was no mere rhetorical punning with the double meaning of the word 'Kreuz' as crossand sharp (even though he carefully placed the modulations into and out of the sharps to illustrate this connection). Rather, it must be understood as the kind of tonal event that took place, on a smaller scale, in works such as Cantatas BWV 60 and BWV 181: the 'schwerer Gang' of the hard upward modulation has a positive outcome.

The principle of sharp/flat antithesis allowed Bach to allegorize the ideas of John's theology in the structure of the 'Passion' as a whole. In general, when we examine the roles assigned to the flats and sharps respectively, we find that they bear a striking association to the Johannine worlds of below and above, or the realms of flesh (flats) and spirit (sharps). The scenes of Jesus' capture, scourging, crucifixion, and burial are all in flats, with special modulations into deep flats for the narrative of the crucifixion itself (B flat minor), the reference to Judas (F minor), the Ecce homo (F minor), the interpretation of the fact that Jesus' legs were not broken and the piercing of his side (B flat minor), the chorale "O hilf, Christe, Gottes Sohn, durch dein bittres Leiden" (F Phrygian) and the aria "Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluthen der Zähren" (F minor). Then, Peter's repentance marks the move from flats to sharps, ending in A major, in Part One, "Durch dein Gefängnis" voices the redemptive meaning of Jesus' suffering in E major, the triumphant D major middle section of the aria "Es ist vollbracht" -- "Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht" -- expresses the Johannine view of the crucifixion as a triumph, the D major dialogue "Mein teurer Heiland" interprets even the fall of Jesus' head in death as a voluntary action ("und neigte das Haupt und verschied"), the nod of assurance to the individual of this redemption, and so on. Even Jesus' reference to truth (Wer aus der Wahrheit ist, der höret meine Stimme") interrupts a structurally important move to flats with a modulations to D major, while Pilate's unbelieving response, "Was ist Wahrheit," begins the change of direction down to flats (it is followed by E minor, A minor, D minor, and finally, G minor, setting up the E flat that begins the "Herzstück" (Smend's term for a limited passage in the middle of the 'Passion.'

Above all, the sharp/flat antithesis in the tonal plan of the 'Herzstück' expresses the idea of conflicting Johannine worlds that are reconciled through the cross. In the SMP the key of E major, which is most clearly associated with power from above, culminates two extended progressions that move upward through the circle of keys from F minor, the flat extreme. Likewise, the 'Herzstück' of the SJP moves, although less regularly, from its starting point in E flat (the arioso "Betrachte, meine Seel'") up to the E major of "Durch dein Gefängnis" and "Lässest du diesen los," then back to close in the E flat of "In meines Herzens Grunde." Following the G minor ending of the scourging the keys of the closed mvts are: E flat, C minor, B flat, G minor, F, E, F sharp minor, B minor, G minor, B flat, E flat (a pattern that is, incidentally, very close at the start to the ordering of keys in Heinichen's Musicalischer Circul).

... Such abstract preplanning can be viewed as a correlative of John's deterministic worldview, while the symmetrical plan of key areas with the sharpest keys, ("Kreuztonarten") at the center seems unmistakably to join the name and cross of Christ in a huge sign whose ultimate meaning is the inseparability of Christology and the theology of the cross....

The message of redemption in the SJP is most characteristically presented in the three sharp-key scenes of E major, A major, and D major. Although it would be going too far to suggest that a spiritual hierarchy of sharpness is involved, with the extreme of E major associated with Christ alone, the choice of A major rather than E at the end of Part One suggest a subtle level of allegory....

At or near both ends of the flat/sharp continuum some keys are associated with suffering and tribulation (G sharp minor, F minor, B flat minor, and E flat minor), others with redemption (E major, A flat, and E flat)....

E a key that transcends the physical events of the 'Passion.'

End of Chafe

Summary: The transcendental key of E major = Morning Star (Christ); the world above; the power from above; extreme, highest goal; conclusion; salvation - lifting up of mankind to a positive outcome; redemption; freedom;


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 96: 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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