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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

Cantata BWV 106
Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus)
Discussions - Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 17, 2005):
Paul T.McCain wrote:
>>I appreciate these remarks. I am inclinded to believe that it is an error to suggest that the body of the deceased was not, in many cases, in the church during a funeral. The Lutheran difference with Rome on funerals is not in the fact that the body is in the church, but the offering of the Eucharist as a sacrifice for the deceased.<<
I just found another article treating the connection that Bach had with funerals in Leipzig. This article is by Ulrich Siegele and is found on pp. 18-20 of Konrad Küster's "Bach Handbuch" [Kassel, 1999.] Siegele goes into greater detail than Arnold Schering did in the book I quoted recently; however, there are even fewer details regarding church funerals than in Schering's book. Siegele's emphasis is upon accounting for the declining rate of funerals while the death rate in Leipzig remained relatively constant. Under Kuhnau's tenure in Leipzig there were on average c. 1200 church-related (where the church provides the services for either a simple or grand coffin-in-the-church funeral) funerals a year amounting to about 3 a day at which the services of the Thomaner would be required. This number was on a steady decline both under Kuhnau as well as under Bach's tenure and Siegele believes that this was due to the sociological changes that were taking place among the various classes of citizens. Leipzig had demanded 'corpse' fees long before Kuhnau and Bach. These fees were graduated with the wealthy paying more and poor paying less. It was from a part of these fees that music (director and a small group of Thomaner) were paid a fixed amount for church related duties (for Bach there is a record of payment for 1 Reichstaler.) At some point in time (Siegele was unable to find detailed evidence for this, but does not think this had anything to do with an epidemic or the like), the city initiated a special type of funeral: "eine stille Beisetzung" ["a silent burial."] For this type of funeral there was no music, and even clergy were involved as little as possible and sometimes were not even present. The removal of the body of the deceased from the home took place in darkness with torches or very early morning. Who were the people who were buried in this fashion? Infants, children, single women, widows, students, and very poor people. The connection with the church was absent, but if these people were of the middle classes or lower upper classes (a child or relative as the deceased), there was a secularized version of a funeral. Sometimes a few boys would be hired to sing a chorale at the gravesite and a eulogy would be delivered by a member of the family or relative or friend. There was still a city burial fee for this type of funeral, but it must have been much less than the normal one. A considerable sociological change was taking place: no longer was the church entirely responsible for the funeral. It now became the burden of the relatives of the deceased to take care of whatever was necessary. Obviously these silent burials took place away from the city, not in the church yard as was previously the case.

Siegele defines the various professional or trade groups (guilds) which took on the responsibility for conducting funerals. There were levels apparent here as well: some silent burials were not entirely 'silent': there may have been just one singer singing a chorale melody, or there may have been a quartet of singers doing a chorale, and if the deceased was important enough, they would hire enough musicians privately for a motet. If you were a member of a wealthy trade group, you could almost approach that which the church could offer as a church funeral.

Coming back to Bach: At the beginning of Bach's tenure at Leipzig, the Thomaner were involved in a public burial every month, and by the end of Bach's tenure once every second or third month.

Bach earned more than half of his entire income from funerals. In Köthen Bach could rely upon a steady monthly income no matter what, but in Leipzig his income was dependent upon the vacillations caused not only by a wavering death rate, but also by the sociological change brought about by the secularized funeral, many of them not needing Bach's services.

According to Bach's own estimate of his earnings, an estimate that may be lower than it really was, Bach earned 700 Reichsthaler a year (after deducting the 50 Reichsthaler that he had to pay someone to fulfill his teaching duties.) This would correspond approximately to earning 42,000 Euro a year or 3,500 Euro a month.


If the deceased had a church funeral, usually reserved for important and/or wealthy person, the church funeral service would include having the coffin with the deceased in the church for a special funeral service held during the week.

A funeral-related remembrance service would take place without a coffin in church at the Sunday Vespers service only.

A growing number of funerals in Bach's time were conducted without any church ties. These range from the 'silent' burial to the secularized funeral which did include various types of music and eulogies not delivered by the clergy.

Bach's income in Leipzig was dependent upon funerals. This amounted to more than half of his annual income.

Douglas Cowling wrote (January 17, 2005):
Paul T. McCain wrote:
< I appreciate these remarks. I am inclinded to believe that it is an error to suggest that the body of the deceased was not, in many cases, in the church during a funeral. The Lutheran difference with Rome on funerals is not in the fact that the body is in the church, but the offering of the Eucharist as a sacrifice for the deceased. >
I think we have to be careful about projecting contemporary funeral customs back into history. In fact, the theology behind the burial of the dead takes us right back to a crucial debate at the Reformation about justification by faith or works -- a theology which can be seen behind all of Bach's "funeral" music and certainly in a work like "Gottes Zeit".

From the 16th century onwards, there are two theologies and liturgical traditions which affect how "funeral" music is composed. Catholic theology maintained that prayer for the dead was efficacious and that the Requiem mass was a propitiary sacrifice that reduced the time of the soul's purification in purgatory and eventual entry into heaven. The requiem prayed for the perpetual rest of the deceased.

Thus, in the immediate pre-Reformation we see an extraordinary multiplication of requiem masses. Henry VIII ordered no less than a thousand requiems sung for the soul of one of his queens! The endowment of choirs to sing requiems on yearly, monthly or even daily anniversaries led to the emergence of the requiem mass as significant musical genre. We see this in the early polyphonic requiems of Okeghem and Brumel through the masterpieces of Victoria and Palestrina and on in unbroken tradition to Campra and Gilles. The requiems of Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi -- even though we only hear them today in concert halls -- were all written as liturgical works in that tradition.

The notion that the number of masses -- "works" -- could lessen a soul's travail in the hereafter was assailed by Luther who maintained that indulgences and multiple masses counted as nothing before "faith", that the believer's acceptance of Christ justified him before God. As a consequence, the whole system of paying for sung requiems was dismantled and essentially moved out of the church into the home and community -- hence the interment moved directly from the home to the grave. The mass or eucharist ceased to be celebrated for the dead. The feast of All Souls on November 2 when mass was sung for all the departed -- a major festival in the Catholic church-- disappeared from the Lutheran calendar.

Music at death, however, still had a place in the Lutheran system. The event was not directed to prayer for the dead but rather as an admonition to the living to remain firm in faith and to amend their lives before death and judgment. Thus, the rise of "funeral" music which preaches to the mourners at commemorative service following the burial. We see this as early as Schütz's "Musikaliche Exequien" and later in Bach's memorial cantatas and motets. Even as eccentric a work as Brahms' "German Requiem" is part of this Lutheran tradition of admonition.

Thus, when we look at a work such as "Gottes Zeit", the focus of the music is not the deceased but the mourners. There are no prayers for eternal rest or perpetual light. We never encounter something like "Ruht wohl" in the St, John Passion (BWV 245) because the fate of the deceased is in God's hands and no prayer or "works" we offer can affect it.

Thus, the work is carried by a series of scriptural "dicta" -- almost like proof-texts for a sermon. The cantata opens by asserting that time is in God's hands and that the time of our deaths is known to him alone. The tenor tells us that our mortality should change our spiritual orientation, and the bass insists that we prepare for the inevitable. The soprano and the alto then remind us to commit ourselves to faith in Christ. We prepare for death by hearing the German 'Nunc Dimittis" and the work closes with a brief foretaste of the heavenly joy which awaits us. The cantata is about us not the deceased.

Very unlike the sappy "words of consolation" or sentimental eulogies which pass for funerals rites today.

Uri Golomb wrote (January 17, 2005):
[To Francis Browne] Francis -- thanks for an excellent review! It's been a while since I listened to this disc, but I put it on again today. I'll write something about the Ricercar's BWV 106 [22] (in comparison with a few others) later. Meanwhile to your question:

< This CD was issued in 1991 and I gather it is part of a series of German cantatas. Are they all this good ? >
I have ten CDs from this series -- including the one you reviewed, and the 2-CD set containing BWV 131 and BWV 38 (along with other composers' settings of Aus der Tiefe/De Profundis). Most of them are indeed superb; I am particularly fond of the CD of soprano solo and duets with Greta de Reyghere and Agnes Mellon (works by Buxtehude, Schein and Tunder, plus a haunting lament by an anonymous composer), and the two discs covering the complete cantatas of Nicolaus Bruhns. But there is much to enjoy in all of them. I think the series continued with a recording of Weckman's cantatas, though unfortunately I don't know this one.

Are these CDs still available, I wonder? I heard some rumors about their being re-issued. I hope that's true -- there are many unjustly neglected gems in there, performed with great passion and refinement. However, the Consort's official website -- -- makes no mention of these recordings, at least as far as I could find.

Thomas Shepherd wrote (January 17, 2005):
[To Uri Golomb] There is nothing like whetting appetites. Anyone know where to purchase this box set? An interesting review of the same at:

Uri Golomb wrote (January 17, 2005):
Although I am convinced that Bach wrote most of his cantatas with an OVPP ensemble in mind, this never stopped me from enjoying choral performances, whether live or on record. The Actus Tragics is different: to my ears (which are normally quite willing to accept Bach on the piano, and on other definitely a-historical media), it actually SOUNDS wrong when performed with anything more than one singer per vocal line; the middle section, which contrasts "es ist der alte Bund" in the lower voices with "Ja komm Herr Jesu" in the soprano, particularly suffers. The soprano line sounds too self-confident, even aggressive, in most choral renditions. Some directors try to solve this by allocating the soprano line in this particular section to a soloist -- but then it doesn't sound convincingly balanced with the choral rendition of the lower voices, and the instruments are also poorly balanced. So in this case, I feel there are strong MUSICAL (as well as historical) reasons to prefer OVPP.

I have four OVPP versions of this cantata: Rifkin [20], Consort Ricercar [22], Jeffrey Thomas [23], and Konrad Junghänel [37] (I know that more exist). They all have their strong points, but my favourite is Junghänel's.

Rifkin [20] sounds to me a bit bland. One of the chief advantages of OVPP is that it makes it easier to project this cantata's expressive richness and contrasts without seeming too blatant and exaggerated; with solo singers, the performance can be both intimate and dramatic. Rifkin and his musicians, however, seem somewhat reluctant to seize this potential. Their reading is very sensitive and musical, but to my ears it sounds too careful.

Thomas's version [23] starts with the most startling version of the Sinfonia it has been my pleasure to hear. Whereas most performances create a sense of near-unity between the two recorders, here you get a palpable sense of fluid, flexible dialogue (replete with subtle clashes), which enhances the movement's mournful expression. Many other moments (including the alte Bund/Herr Jesu contrast) are also very convincing; however, there are some wooden moments, and I didn't enjoy Drew Minter's wobbly production. An excellent performance, overall, but there are better...

The Ricercar Consort [22] and Cantus Cölln [37] are the two best; I ultimately prefer Cantus Cölln, but only by a fraction. They offer different, yet equally viable, views of this work. Thus, in the alte Bund/Herr Jesu section, the Ricercar's rendition [22] of the "You must die" text sounds long-drawn and world weary (as if the singers resign themselves to their fate), and the soprano's "Komm Herr Jesu" sounds delicate and hopeful, not as eager. In Cantus Colln (who take this section at a faster tempo), "der alte Bund" is rendered with sharp, biting articulation -- more active warning than passive resignation -- and the soprano is more ardent and passionate in her expression of hope.

I think that Cantus Colln communicate one central idea in this cantata -- the hopeful anticipation of both death and salvation -- more effectively than any others. There is more eagerness, more gladness, in their rendition. This is first apparent in their reference to life ("in ihm leben, weben und sind wir" - "in him we live, move and have our being", in Rifkin's translation), but it is also clearly apparent in their eager rendition of "Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein" ("Today thou shalt be with me in paradise") and in the final chorus. In other readings (Including the Ricercar's [22]), such moments are rendered with a restrained, lyrical joy; in the Junghänel/Cantus Cölln version [37], there is a more ardent, active expression. They maximise the vivid dramatic potential of this work, without sacrificing intimacy and humanity.

I rarely find myself extolling one performance of a Bach cantata as THE best, bar none; at most, I'll say I have several favourite performances. Here, however, I have no hesitation in saying that Cantus Cölln's version [37] is my single favourite version of BWV 106, much as I love and admire several other readings.

Uri Golomb wrote (January 17, 2005):
< Theris nothing like whetting appetites. Anyone know where to purchase this box set? >
I don't know if it's currently avaiable. I e-mailed the Ricercar Consort through their website to enquire about this; I'll forward their answer to the list as soon as I get it. However, if someone on this list already knows, an update would be most welcome.

Thanks for the link!

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2005):
BWV 106 Text Origin

Origin of the Text for BWV 106.

From the NBA KB I/34 p. 18, 26:

[Mvts. and text numbered as follows]

2a Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit
2b In ihm leben, weben und sind wir
2c Bestelle dein Haus; denn du wirst sterben und nicht lebendig bleiben
2d Es ist der alte Bund, du mußt sterben!
3a In deine Hände befehl ich meinen Geist; du hast mich erlöset, Herr, du getreuer Gott
3b Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (1st verse)
4 Glorie, Lob, Ehr und Herrlichkeit
In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr (7th verse)

A prayer book has been found that uses the same sequence of quotations (from 2c to 3b). This book was prepared by Johann Olearius (born 1611 in Halle, died 1684 in Weißenfels) who also is the librettist for a number of famous German chorales still in the present-day hymnal such as "Wunderbarer Gnadenthron," "Gelobet sei der Herr," "Herr, öffne mir die Herzenstür," "Gottlob, der Sonntag kommt herbei," "Herr Jesu Christ, dein teures Blut," and "Wohlauf, mein Herz, zu Gott."

The prayer book is in the 3rd edition which appeared in print in Leipzig, 1668. Its title is:

"Christliche Bet-Schule auff unterschiedliche Zeit, Personen, Verrichtungen, Creutz, Noth, und Zufälle im Leben und Sterben wie auch insonderheit auff die ordentlichen Sonntags- und Fest-Evangelia gerichtet.von Johanne Oleario."

["A Christian Handbook/Method/Instruction directed toward learning how to pray at different times, for other people, when personally burdened by chores, heavily-weighing obligations/duties, general difficulties and accidents as occurring during life as well as while dying, but, in particular being related to the Sunday and Holiday Gospel readings for the liturgical year."]

The pertinent chapter is entitled:

"Der III. Titul. Tägliche Seuffzer und Gebet um ein seliges Ende"

["Chapter III title: ,Daily Sighs and Prayer(s) for a Blessed End (death)'}

The actual text reads [translations for this are found on the BCW - here it is important to note exactly the way the words appear on the printed page]:

BEstelle dein Hauß
denn du wirst sterben
und nicht leben-
dig bleiben

Es ist der alte Bund
du must
. Sir. XIV/18.

Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden
und bey Christo zu seyn
. Philipp. I/23.

Ja komm HErr JEsu. Offenbahr. XXII/20.
In deine Hände befehl ich mei-
nen Geist
du hast mich erlöset
HErr du treuer GOtt
. Ps. XXXI,6

Heute wirstu mit mir im Pa-
radieß seyn
. Luc. XXIII, 43.

For more information on this, the KB refers the reader to the following where the claim is substantiated that Bach took the text for this cantata from this source. The question raised by Renate Steiger is "Was this Bach's own prayer book?"

Renate Steiger, "J. S. Bachs Gebetbuch? Ein Fund am Rande einer Ausstellung" in ,Musik und Kirche' Jahrgang 55, 1985, pp. 231-234,

also by the same author:

"Actus tragicus und Ars moriendi. Bachs Textvorlage für die Kantate "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbest Zeit" (BWV 106) in 'Musik und Kirche,' Jahrgang 59, 1989, pp. 11-23.

Doug Cowling wrote (January 18, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< "Actus tragicus und Ars moriendi. Bachs Textvorlage für die Kantate "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbest Zeit" (BWV 106) in 'Musik und Kirche,' Jahrgang 59, 1989, pp. 11-23. >
Do these scholars discuss whether the rise of commemorative music is a result of Pietism or a development within mainstream Lutheranism.

Rianto Pardede wrote (January 18, 2005):
[To Uri Golomb] I really enjoy reading this one. Thanks, Uri. I'll keep it to help my listening on BWV 106.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2005):
Doug Cowling asked:
>>Do these scholars discuss whether the rise of commemorative music is a result of Pietism or a development within mainstream Lutheranism?<<
I do not have access to this journal, but do check the following links:

Eric Bergerud wrote (January 18, 2005):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Summary:
If the deceased had a church funeral, usually reserved for important and/or wealthy person, the church funeral service would include having the coffin with the deceased in the church for a special funeral service held during the week.
A funeral-related remembrance service would take place without a coffin in church at the Sunday Vespers service only.
A growing number of funerals in Bach's time were conducted without any church ties. These range from the 'silent' burial to the secularized funeral which did include various types of music and eulogies not delivered by the clergy.
Bach's income in
Leipzig was dependent upon funerals. This amounted to more than half of his annual income. >
I wouldn't think of Leipzig as a hot spot of the early Enlightenment, but according to Peter Gay's recent biography of Mozart the secular funeral or very modest funeral, including perhaps burial in a mass grave, became something of a minor cause among the Enlightenment types, particularly in Masonic circles. Gay argues that this, rather than poverty, is why Mozart received a very modest ceremony. (Bet the city fathers of Vienna have cursed that decision down the years. Pilgrims come to pay their respects to Jim Morison in Paris: bet Mozart would hold his own.) Do I recall correctly from Wolf that we're not really sure where Bach is buried?

Peter Bright wrote (January 18, 2005):
BWV 106 - Funeral of J.S. Bach

[To Eric Bergerud] As far as I recall, the exact location of Bach's grave was unknown for a long time, but a skull thought to be Bach's was exhumed in 1895. My question is how likely is this to actually be Bach's? Is it now generally accepted? Anyway, from my own perspective I would have rather they left his body alone...

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 18, 2005):
[To Peter Bright] If you are interested to know more about this topic, please take a look at Teri Noel Towe's page:

Peter Bright wrote (January 18, 2005):
[To Aryeh Oron] Many thanks for pointing me to this valuable page...

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 18, 2005):
[To Peter Bright] There's an interesting chapter about Bach's remains in David Yearsley's book Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint.

Neil Halliday wrote (January 18, 2005):
BWV 106: Werner [9]

This is a suitably 'chamber-like' performance from Werner, with the opening and closing sections for full choir having an appealing, transparent, gentle aspect. (The contrast with Richter's [11] vigorous 'Amen' section at the end is considerable; I like both approaches).

But there is an engineering problem with the "Es ist der alte Bund" section; the continuo emits a continuous 'drone' of low/indeterminate pitch - fortunately this problem only occurs on this track.

Nor does this section present the instrumental chorale that is quoted on the recorders, with the clarity of Richter [11]; it's ironic that of the recordings I have heard - Werner [9], Richter [11], Rilling [16], Leonhardt [18], Leusink (OVPP) [31] - only Richter presents this detail with clarity, despite the fact that he has has the largest forces, with choir sopranos, compared with solo soprano (plus choir ATB or soloists in Leusink) for the others.

Johan van Veen wrote (January 19, 2005):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< I have four OVPP versions of this cantata: Rifkin [20], Consort Ricercar [22], Jeffrey Thomas [23], and Konrad Junghänel [37] (I know that more exist). >
Leusink's recording [31] is OVPP as well.

John Pike wrote (January 19, 2005):
This is another of my favourites, as I am sure it is of many of you. It is another very early masterpiece (Mühlhausen, 1707).

I have listened to Rifkin [20], Gardiner [21], Leonhardt [18] (includes Herreweghe as Chorus Master of Collegium Vocale Ghent) and Rilling [16] in that order and that is probably my rank order as well.

Although I remain unconvinced that OVPP was "Bach's choral ideal" (as opposed to one forced on him by circumstance), I nevertheless greatly enjoy all the OVPP recordings of Bach's music that I have and I thinkl it is ideally suited to this particular cantata.

Of the 4 recordings above, Rifkin is my favourite sine it is the only OVPP recording I have and everything about the recording is very intimate, entirely suited to the piece (the so-called Actus Tragicus) as mourning music. I also love Gardiner for the very high standard of singing we can expect from the Monteverdi Choir. It was recorded in a church (St Johns, Smith Square, London in 1989) and the acoustics of a church are apparent in the recording. I prefer the acoustic of Rifkin. The technical aspects, the instrumental playing, phrasing, dynamics and general musicianship are very high in the Gardiner, as one would expect.

Leonhardt is also very enjoyable with some very nice phrasing and dynamics and I like the way that all the lines are brought out in the Sonatina at the beginning.
Rilling is technically good and there is some nice singing and music making but parts of it are just too heavy and slow for my liking.

Neil Halliday wrote (January 20, 2005):
John Pike wrote:
"Rilling [16] is technically good and there is some nice singing and music making but parts of it are just too heavy and slow for my liking."
I agree with this comment; Rilling's normally strong, clear presentation of the instrumental and vocal lines seems to be heavy-handed, in this cantata.

Eric Bergerud wrote (January 20, 2005):
As a non-musician I was a little reluctant to throw in my nickle concerning Gottes Zeit. But because it appears on so many recordings, I seem to have accumulated a fair collection: Leonhardt [18], Leusnik [31], Suzuki [26], Gardiner [21], Rifkin [20], Koopman [25] and Rotzsch [17] with the Gewandhaus & Thomanerchor. The work is widely considered a masterpiece, a sentiment I would strongly support. So I listened to each of my versions twice over the past days and I've got the piece swimming in my head. So here goes.

It strikes me that 106 is the quintessential "bitter-sweet" Bach. The lovely libretto strikes to the heart of Luther's Christianity. The work, as I understand it, was designed for very small forces. It isn't particularly complex. Yet I can't think of another cantata that can be altered in spirit so dramatically through the style of the presentation and forces employed. The major issue I think is where the performers wish to put the emphasis - the bitter or the sweet. Or, perhaps, the problem might be better understood of deciding whether to lead the listener from the bitter to the sweet or to give a uniform affirmative message throughout. (The message could hardly be uniformly negative if the Lord assures the believer toward the end that "Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein.")

It would seem that the idea of interpreting the work of moving from a type of dirge to contemplative bliss has occurred to many performers. The work, after all, is still often called Actus Tragicus - a term I rather doubt Bach would have liked at all. The liner notes echo this sentiment. (We should, of course, not forget that conductors do not necessarily write the liner notes.) The notes that accompany Gardiner's performance mention that the "almost frantic" plea of "Ja komm, Herr Jesu!" appears fifteen times in the second chorus. The notes with Rotzsch refer to BWV 106 as a "tragic work" that view death in two ways: "In the first part of the cantata death is depicted in the Old Testament sense of horror and unavoidable necessity. The second part addresses the central notion of the New Testament of death as an access to an eternal life with God." Leusnik's notes, usually brief but to the point, refer to the "sorrow" of some passages and the "subdued mood" of the piece as a whole. Hopefully the idea is clear.

However, I'm not so sure that all of the performances take an approach that matches the approach described above. To my ears it strikes me that Suzuki and Koopman take exactly this approach. A pivotal moment in the cantata lies in the transition between the beautifully delicate sinfonia and the initial chorus. Both conductors allow a long pause between the parts and proceed with a very slow and elegant rendition of the chorus. Both work toward the ascending line followed by the descending line as the believer commends his soul to Christ and Christ reaches down offering redemption. Gardiner is quite the contrast. He moves from the a subtle sinfonia to the first chorus quickly and in almost dance-like tempo. The remainder of the work has a very light hand indeed. I like it. (As one might imagine Gardiner gets through 106 pretty quickly. But not the quickest. Gottes Zeit is a relatively short work, but the recording times differ radically. I know that such things are normal, but I'm not sure to what degree. In any case, Rifkin completes the cantata in 17:33 - Rotzsch weighs in at 23:02. Gardiner is 18:43.)

To my ears, although no doubt others will disagree, a sprightly performance like Gardiner's is not tragic anywhere. For what it's worth a simple Old/New Testament model doesn't really function well. The major New Testament text is the first chorus (from Acts), followed by two lines from Revelation and Luke that are interspersed with Old Testament citations. The final two choruses are hymns from Luther and Adam Reusner. I would be reluctant to ascribe Luther's music to the New Testament "good news" (Luther's debt to the Old Testament was enormous, as the lyrics to the chorale show nicely I think) although Reusner's certainly is.

In any case, I agree with Gardiner that the work is actually affirmative from the start. Death came quickly in Bach's time, but the initial message to the aggrieved is "Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit", about the best message one could relay at the moment of death. I am struck by how gentle and rare are the admonitions: you may die at any time, keep your house in order because God may call you at any time - "die allerbeste Zeit." What strikes me also is what is not there. Except for a quick nod to "sieghaft" from Reusner's hymn at the end of the cantata, there is nothing about the struggle between good and evil; no mention of "our ancient foe"; no hint of damnation. Instead one is presented initially with a picture that in Bach's time would have been self-evident: human beings die and it is up to God to determine time and place. The remainder of the piece is a reassurthat to the believer paradise awaits beyond the gates of death. As Mr. Cowling pointed out in a very nicely worded recent post, a Lutheran funeral was for the living, not the dead. In Bach's era the message presented to the mourners would have been affirmative indeed. The message includes not only the promise of life everlasting but the hope of reunion between the dead and those, for the moment, living.

If Koopman, Suzuki and Gardiner mould their interpretation through tempo, I think Leusink, Rotszch and Leonhardt create theirs by using boys. As I understand it Bach once talked about a "choir of angels." The association between the voices of boys and heaven is, a very long one and contributed to the very existence of boys choirs. Obviously one cannot connect boys in a Bach cantata to a precise theological message because originally they were central to all of Bach's sacred works. (One does wonder, however, if music was ever the proper medium for "hell-fire." Bach's sacred music certainly emphasizes the promise of a stern faith far more than it reminds listeners to the horrid alternative.) If one looks at modern renditions of 106, however, I think the issue is quite real. Let's look at Rotszch for a second. This is old style Bach: large forces and rather ponderous to my ears. But the Thomanchor is there. When the sinfonia is done, it is answered by a lovely chorus of boys singing "Gottes Zeit." When it is time for the believer to summon Christ a pair of boys plead for "Herr Jesu!" and you know all is well. Leusink's boys do what he asks from them, although he gives all of the solo work to adult soloists.

Leonhardt's work I find splendid. In this work the boys carry most of the load, both in chorus and solo. I'll be the first to grant that a good adult soprano can sing rings around a boy, but the sounds are dramatically different and so is the impact. (As I recall from the list archives someone compared boys/women sopranos as harpsichords with pianos. I find the difference much more dramatic - maybe a better analogy would be accordions and tubas. Make up your own.) The impact with Gottes Zeit is the "choir of angels." (If nothing else, I would demand a refund for a CD that has the "Amen" concluding the work sung by adults.) Leonhardt employs his young gents both in chorus and solo. It's their work, and they do a splendid job. It is a great work.

And Rifkin. I like OVPP normally. As I understand it, even OVPP doubters believe that forces were very small for 106 when first performed. The musical, as opposed to historical, trade-off between OVPP and traditional HIP cantatas is clarity versus texture. The issue of clarity becomes lesser when forces are small under any circumstances. (The liner notes don't make it clear, but I'm sure that Rotszch was accompanied only by a few members of the Gewandhaus.) When I first heard Rifkin's version a few years back I liked it a lot. Now I'm not so sure. Nimble and clear the performance is, but I find it more than a bit thin. For once I don't hear the artistic superiority Uri finds obvious: it is exactly the opposite for me. (I don't own Junghangle, but I borrowed what I could from Tower online and had the same impression.)

My objections to Rifkin consitute a larger challenge from my point of view for the growing ranks of OVPP groups. As all on the list know there is much we don't understand about Bach's performances. One thing we do know is that boy singers were central to his sacred music. I realize some have argued that boys are an anachronism in Kantawelt. A knowledgeable Amazon review claimed that Herreweghe, who was once a choir leader in the original Harnoncourt set, argued that boys have physically changed since the 18th Century thus making the employment of boys pointless. If anyone on the list has any knowledge supporting this proposition I would very much like to read it. I did work on the physical changes between late 18th Century and mid-20th Century soldiers. The findings were simple: when children received more protein and benefited from higher levels of general health - in particular fewer parasites, their physical growth increased in speed between 1800 - 1860 (very slowly); 1860-1920 (a little quicker); (1920-1960) like a rocket. (Nothing since 1960 in the Atlantic World: still going on in some parts of the earth.) This has NOTHING to do with evolution. Unless medical types can identify some difference between general growth and the voice, one must conclude that boys reach adolescence sooner now because they are bigger and healthier. A 15 year old in Bach's time might have still had his voice, but I doubt he was any bigger, stronger or more powerful of voice than his 13 year old equivalent today. I will stand correction of course.

Which brings us back to OVPP. As I noted in a previous post, I know of no Bach cantata that employed both OVPP and boys in any way. (The exclusion of boys is the rule now: Harnoncourt no longer uses them: not a single youth sings with Gardiner, Suzuki, Koopman or anyone else I know of.) As I noted in the same post, the aspect that drew me to OVPP was the old aviation design adage that "if it looks good, it flies good." Musically, this would be "if it sounds good, it works." But if Leonhardt and Harnoncourt were able to get some very wonderful moments from their boys (McCreesh and Cleobury seem to still find them) even if they were not the physical and intellectual equals of Bach's Wunderkind, shouldn't it be possible for ONE OVPP group to do ONE cantata using ONE boy? Arguably the most important musical instrument is the human voice. If so, today's HIP doesn't have anything to do with "historically informed performances." Instead, by junking boys from Bach cantatas completely (I emphasize "completely": I have no objection to a diversity of approach) I'm afraid that HIP really means "historically improved performance." Was that the original idea?

Do hope that I didn't rant. Gottes Zeit is lovely music and I have enjoyed greatly listening and thinking about it intensely for the past few days. I envy greatly those that can actually perform such a marvelous work.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 20, 2005):
BWV 106, and 178/179, and 58

< It strikes me that 106 is the quintessential "bitter-sweet" Bach. (...) >
I very much enjoyed reading this review, as a whole! Bravo.

One idea to draw out here:
< Obviously one cannot connect boys in a Bach cantata to a precise theological message because originally they were central to all of Bach's sacred works. (One does wonder, however, if music was ever the proper medium for "hell-fire." Bach's sacred music certainly emphasizes the promise of a stern faith far more than it reminds listeners to the horrid alternative.) >
One possible exception to that: cantata BWV 178. In Richard Taruskin's memorable words in his review "Facing Up, Finally, to Bach's Dark Vision": cantatas BWV 178 "begins with a French overture straight from hell, a portrait of a world without God in which (as Dostoyevsky later noted) all things are possible and there is no hope. (...) The 'chorale-recitative' that follows illustrates the futility of human effort with a bass that is continually and arbitrarily disrupted. (...) After an aria depicting a Satan-engineered shipwreck with nauseous melismas and a chorale verse evoking persecuting with a crowd of claustrophobically close and syncopaed imitations, we reach the heart of the cantata. (...) [More about the next movements] (...) There is no way this music can ever be fun. In fact, it is terrifying--perhaps more now than in Bach's own time, since we have greater reason than Bach's contemporaries ever had to wince at the sound of a high-pitched German voice stridently shouting reason down." Taruskin continues into a similar discussion of the violence in the music of BWV 179. Both of these are in his discussion where he is praising Nikolaus Harnoncourt's work for not shying away from deliberate ugliness and intensity, bringing out Bach's setting of some pretty nasty texts.

That's in Taruskin's book Text and Act, p 3ff.


See also my remarks about the recitative 2nd movement of cantata BWV 58, from the discussion in 2003: The awful text illustrated by Bach's music is that wicked evildoers are going to come try to kill Joseph's child, and he'd better haul the family over to Egypt immediately to escape this. Texts are available from: As I noted there, it's the performer's job to figure out what spots in the text/music are especially surprising or forceful, and then bring that out with clarity of purpose. I offered there some specific techniques as to the way I'd play this recitative accompaniment on either organ or harpsichord, to bring out that strength that's in the composition, not shying away from shaking up the listeners.

Taking another look now at the score, helpfully provided at: : I have a couple of additional things to point out today. This illustrates (in part) how brilliant Bach was with text-setting and Affekt, and the types of things performers should notice and then bring out as to the dramatic delivery of the piece.

- The cadence into the word "Feinde" in bar 4 is seriously unexpected. The "#4 2" harmony preceding it leads the listener to expect a completely different bass note, i.e. moving down by step instead of a leap of a fifth...and into a diminished 7th chord! (A "4 2" chord in thoroughbass leads some 95% of the time to some manner of a "6" chord next, with the bass moving down by step. Anything else is a surprise, especially a leap in the bass.)

- Under "wütende Herodes" in bar 6 the harmonic progression is again surprising. The bass drops by a chromatic (not a diatonic) half step, landing in a souped-up inversion of the expected harmony. The inversion makes this a restless effect.

- In bar 7-8 under "Todes gleich ueber unsern Heiland" the harmony is yet again unexpected. The tones are common to those two successive chords, except that the bass drops out under them, totally changing the effect and pushing us forward into the notated C minor.

- That's B-flat minor in the way the organ was pitched differently from the rest of the orchestra, at Leipzig. That is, from the organ's perspective, this next batch of bars from here until the part about fleeing to Egypt are all in B-flat minor and then F minor. The way Bach's organ was tuned (which I have right here on my harpsichord) these are some of the darkest-sounding keys available. And sure enough, the text is about getting out under cover of darkness while the getting is still good.

- Bars 17-19 (end) again explore the especially dark sounds of the flat keys, going from (in the keyboard perspective) F minor around to E-flat minor at the final cadence. And the singer has to leap upward that minor ninth on "doch nicht"!

This drama in expressionistic text-setting, with particularly harrowing texts, doesn't come out as clearly if (1) the organ isn't tuned correctly as Bach specified, and (2) the keyboardist and other continuo players aren't reacting to the surprising and intense characters that come up in the progress of the music, giving each accompanying stroke some appropriately different amount of emphasis. It's all a package here, in the sound, where Bach has deployed harmonies of vastly different characters and weights to help illustrate the text that is being sung. Even so in a page of music that looks fairly simple as it's just one sung line plus basso continuo.

No, I don't have a recording to recommend on this recitative, to illustrate the above points. There haven't been any yet, anywhere, using that tuning. That tuning itself lends additional drama to passages such as this recitative, and in the SMP (BWV 244) and BMM (BWV 232) and XmasO (BWV 248) that I've looked at so far. I suspect that there are hundreds of other spots, throughout Bach's vocal music, where there's such connection between the sound (i.e. based on the organ's temperament and treatment of various keys/chords) and the sung text, and the way the phrasing itself is composed. The analytical work is only beginning in this area.

I got word last night that the first whole pipe organ to be tuned this way is within about three weeks of completion. (I've played it twice already during its construction progress and it sounds wonderful.) But even then, that organ doesn't bring all the transposing situations into account as to having the organ at different pitch from the orchestra. To do that, it will be necessary to work with continuo organs where we transpose the temperament instead of the pitch, to read from these modern Urtext scores and parts that have been transposed into the wrong keys. That transposition on the page has profoundly changed the character of the music. (In this same recitative, for example, at: it can be seen that the Neue Bach-Ausgabe has printed this piece a whole step higher than the organ part originally was notated. That's crucial.) The good news is, with the proper tuning, all of these vocal pieces will be easier to perform well. The harmonies and the vocal leaps make simple logical sense, within that overall sound where the whole ensemble's tuning is based on the specific intonation from the organ. The players and singers need only listen closely to it, and react instinctively to the moods and pitch-matching that emerge from it: it's remarkably easy, as I and colleagues have found playing and singing with it. A large portion of the interpretive decisions can come directly out of that sound that the organ is making, as to the various keys and simpler/complex harmonies. The musical effects sound natural and logical, and the surprising bits sound appropriately surprising.

All this is to say, Bach when he was composing this music knew VERY WELL what he was doing, and he used the actual sound of his keyboards to profound advantage, letting it influence the dramatic/theological ideas he used in those compositions.


Continue on Part 5

Cantata BWV 106: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

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