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Vocal: Cantatas BWV 1-224 | Motets BWV 225-231 | Latin Church BWV 232-243 | Passions & Oratorios BWV 244-249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Lieder BWV 439-524
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Bach Books



Les cantates de J.-S. Bach


Textes, traductions, commentaires



J.S. Bach Works:

BWV 201-224


Gilles Cantagrel





March 2010






PB: 23,4 x 15,2 x 6,6 cm




ISBN-10: 2213644349
ISBN-13: 978-2213644349



See discussions below

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Cantagrel: Major New Work on the Bach Cantatas

Peter Smaill wrote (April 14, 2010):
I have pleasure in reviewing a major new publication which came out in March 2010 on the Cantatas, in French (German texts included).

It is :

"Les Cantates de J-S. Bach" by Gilles Cantagrel.

At 1665 pages this is the most comprehensive full study of the Cantatas yet (Duerr is 984, H-J Schulze 960; Whittaker was originally 717 pps. ). Cantagrel, the leading French Bach scholar, has here achieved a scholarly assimilation of these pillars of Bach Cantata research, adding a verve and style all his own; and frequently reflecting new discoveries and insights. Cantagrel is also a Curator of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig and has already published several works relating to Bach.

For those who can read French passably, his descriptions are accesible, lucid and at times passionate. It is refreshing, too, for the reader to tackle the Cantatas from outside the Anglo-Saxon tradition; not suprisingly, much reference is made to fellow francophones Schweitzer and Pirro. Equally delightful is the revelation of the significance of of the Cantatas and their milieu to Cesar Franck, Richard Wagner, Brahms, Mendelssohn and other romantic composers: Cantagrel thinks forward from the Cantatas and offers an array of parallels and observations which enliven the interest in what is otherwise, as he says himself, a reference book. As an example, he mentions that the village of Stormthal, whose restored organ's consecration was the subject of the Bach Cantata "Hochterwunchtes Freudenfest", BWV 194, was subject to planned total demolition by the East Germans to facilitate lignite extraction; it was only savd by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such fascinating details abound.

The whole is preceded by a well-balanced essay of just under 100 pages, which concludes with the mission statement of the work "pour faciliter l'acces a ce monde enchanteur et inepuisable des Cantates de Jean-Sebastien Bach" (I apologise for the absence of accents when writing in ASCII text for the internet). There follows, organised by the Church Year, an exhaustive analysis of every movement in order, and including all that is known in precis about the lost works and the secular cantatas.We really do feel with Canatgrel that it is a world of inexhaustible enchantment that is entered upon.

Cantagrel puts French idiom to good use . At times one imagines he is not so much a contemporary of ours, but more in the mindset of a visitor to Saxony in the 1720's, returning to Paris full of enthusiasm for what has just been heard afresh. For example, the final Chorale of the last Cantata in the XO is summed up in one word: "Boulversant!" And it is indeed a knock-out. For BWV 106, the "Actus Tragicus", the description of the amazing final chorus with its innumerable amens is succeeded by one word: "Silence".

The placing of the readings for the day fully set out before each Sunday is helpful. He has slightly improved on Duerr's layout by creating a table of the length of each Cantata, meaning this extraneous detail does not clutter up the text. Alas no general index; for example, he reveals somewhere the origin of the chorale set brilliantly by Wagner in Meistersingers, "Dazu dir der Heiland kam", but if you don't remember this photographically or note it down, swimming through 1600 pages to find it again will be quite tricky.

Of the Cantata diaspora, he declines to review the inauthentic Schmieder BWV's but also BWV 118 on the grounds that it is actually a motet. Nevertheless BWV 1127, "Alles mit Gott" the recently discovered strophic aria is analysed. ("ravissante" he says , not everyone agrees!) He detects the word play based in the text on the name of Duke Wilhelm Ernst, but not the acrostic BACH in the final chorus text for BWV 150. All the fragments of otherwise lost Cantatas are covered.

Not generally one for numerology (("aventuriers intrepides") or somesuch he calls the numerologists, and is particularly scathing about BWV 50 ("Nun ist der Heil") and BWV 75 and 76 analyses based on there being 14 movements ). Theological and symbolical insights are relatively thin on the ground; neither Renate Steiger or Robin Leaver feature in the bibliography, although the writings of Martin Petzoldt have had a bearing. Nevertheless, the work is very strong on identifying chiastic forms as well as word-painting. In a lyrical moment he imagines Bach in his study composing BWV 104, "Du Hirte Israel, hoere", looking out of the high-up window and seeing the sheep and shepherd in the fields beyond on a fine summer's day. Such apercus bring Bach to life and, even if somewhat hypothetical, do not mar the academic integrity of the work.

Some things he spots; in others he repeats Duerr. He notes that the Luther text of the Chorale of BWV 195 in 1748 is the same as set in BWV 76, the first Cantata performed in the Thomaskirche; but you still have to go to Wolff to identify that Burgomaster Lange is the likely author of the 1723 composition and dies that very year the "last chorale" for choir is composed, 1748. The final chorale of BWV 159, "Wir gen hinauf..", which Whittaker rightly identifies as an exceptional harmonisation, full of suspensions and chromaticism, is stated here as in Duerr, to be plainly set. Not so! But these are minor cavils set against the achievement of the whole.

In order to keep weight and costs down, the work is on thin paper and priced at Euros 40. The b/w illustrations, though interesting, are thus not brilliant in quality; but there are two good colour ones, the ducal chapel at Weimar in pastel colours comng out well. The work is published by Fayard:

This is surely the most important book on Bach in French since Andre Pirro wrote his " J S Bach" in 1910 and fittingly appears at the centenary of that significant work. Much pleasure can be anticipated in consulting Cantagrel in the years to come and I warmly recommend this production to all lovers of the Bach Cantatas.

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (April 14, 2010):
[To Peter Smaill] Thanks for the review, Peter.

I really enjoyed his book "Le moulin et la rivière - Air et variations sur Bach" - much shorter but still 600+ pages:
The kind of book you read like a novel.

Huge book in French about Bach's cantatas

Kirk McElhearn wrote (May 27, 2010):
I just came across this huge book about Bach's cantatas in French. It's nearly 1700 pages long, and apparently contains translations of the texts along with commentaries for each cantata. It's a big softcover book, at the reasonable (for that page count) price of EUR 38.

I haven't got mine yet, but will be ordering it today. As far as I know, there's no other book about Bach's cantatas this big, though size is, of course, not everything.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 27, 2010):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Excellent! Cantagrel also produced the huge "Bach en son temps", which is thFrench counterpart of the Mendel/David/Wolff "[New] Bach Reader".

Evan Cortens wrote (May 27, 2010):
[To Bradley Lehman] After Peter's excellent review: (, I requested that our library order it, and coincidentally, it just came in the other day. Regrettably I'm out of town now, but looking forward to getting into the book next week! I'm interested especially to see what he has to say on the secular cantatas.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (May 27, 2010):
[To Bradley Lehman] Yes. His writing style can be a bit "heavy" at times, but this looks as though it's a very important book.

I'll post more when I get it next week.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (May 27, 2010):
[To Evan Cortens] Ah, I didn't see Peter's post; I haven't been keeping up on this list lately…

Peter Smaill wrote (May 27, 2010):
I'm delighted that other BCW participants have discovered this new work. As the suggested link may be problematic here is the text of the original review: [See above]

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