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Cantata BWV 119
Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

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Peter Bloemendaal wrote (May 16, 2003):
BWV 119, an appreciation

When listening to this cantata, I wonder how impressed these high-ranked persons in Saint Nicholas Church must have been. The sound of four brass instruments and percussion along with the organ and usual instruments showering down on them! Wow! Goose bumps! Wish I had been there. What a difference compared to the way we sang it in church in my childhood. The organ, being the only instrument, just had an accompanying role. The organist did not even have the licence to play a full-register festive introduction or play some improvisations as a conclusion. And then, it wasn’t a favourite psalm with the ministers, who had and in most churches still have the privilege to select the psalms and hymns to be sung by the congregation in the Sunday services. And then the singing, no choir, only the congregation.

In Cantata BWV 119, I cannot imagine an OVPP choir in this setting. Such instruments, such an occasion and such praise call for many voices to glorify the Lord. I have no proof against Rifkin, just circumstantial evidence.

I am sorry I only have the Leusink recording [10], but it pleases me a lot. The French overture sets the tone for the ceremony with its stately opening, then with the trombas comes the jubilant entry of the choir with the lovely recorders in the middle section, finally returning to a dignified triumphant conclusion. I love the way Marcel Beekman brings the recitative, in which that city is called lucky and blessed where God has his dwelling and fireplace. The Lord never tires of kissing, incredible words today, God being almost human, whereas in other cantatas He is called almighty and omnipresent, being exalted in Heaven, yet living among mortals in order to bless them. Bach lived with these seeming contradictions in a world where God was an intricate part of everyday life, making it possible for the composer to choose the secular French overture and to use material from earlier secular works to interweave it in a spiritual cantata for a secular occasion. The beautifully scored aria “Wohl dir, du Volk der Linden” reminds me of elegant, idyllic dances. The caccias make you feel warm inside like on a peaceful evening in the countryside. When you let go, you can’t but move your body to the music. I find it very well-played and also Beekman’s delivery convinces and pleases me entirely. Then the kettle-drums announce the bass recitative, telling all these notable persons in the church that, where God is blessing them all the time, they must give praise to the Lord or else the city walls will do it for them. In what way? By collapsing, a hidden warning referring to Jericho? Who knows? But the concluding trombas and drums, standing out from the accompanying sweet recorders, do make this recitative a strong statement. Ramselaar’s voice may not be a black bass, but his presentation is very musical and convincing. The alto aria, introduced and accompanied by the recorders, is a poorly written poem with a clear message to both the people and the city council, saying that the government is a gift from God, yes even his image, so everybody should acknowledge its authority. Yet, these words imply that the government itself must never forget who gave them their power and therefore rule the city accordingly. Yet, Bach would not be Johann Sebastian, if he did not turn a bad poem into a fine aria, well-sung by Sytse Buwalda. The soprano recitative by Ruth Holton is a little-gratifying piece of poetry, praising God but especially written to coax and flatter the old and new members of the council, whom God had given to their loyal people and therefore they “sigh” (what a word to use in this context! – is this irony or what?!) “The Lord has been good to us”. Ruth Holton nevertheless makes the best of it, as did Bach himself, leading us to the joyous chorus, richly scored again, expressing the people’s happiness on account of God’s goodness and the wish that the new council may govern the city well for many years to come under God’s blessing. It is a feast being able to sing and play it. The following prayer for alto is a plea to God that He might hear his people begging in the final choral. A solemn entreaty to help and bless them for ever and ever. Amen!

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (May 16, 2003):
English translation

[To Francis Browne] I liked your translation of Cantata BWV 119.

Thanks,

Christian Panse wrote (May 16, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal wrote:
< The alto aria, introduced and accompanied by the recorders, is a poorly written poem [...] saying that the government is a gift from yes even his image [...] Yet, Bach would not be Johann Sebastian, if he did not turn a bad poem into a fine aria, [...] >
I recall having read speculations about whether in this aria the flutes' repeated staccato notes may have been intended as Bach's ironic commentary to the text, since they sound very much like "hee-hee-hee" - a sarcastic laugh...

Leusink's recording [10] fully satisfies me too. Remarkable good trumpet playing, nice overall drive. But of course, the work itself is so strong, it won my heart when I heard it for the very first time in Ramins's interpretation [1].

Neil Halliday wrote (May 16, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaal] Herreweghe's recording of the 1st movement of this cantata [8]; it, along with Harnoncourt's recording of the entire cantata [6], can be heard at the Bach-Cantatas website, under 'music'(left hand column).

Johan van Veen wrote (May 16, 2003):
P. Bloemendaal wrote:
>>>>The alto aria, introduced and accompanied by the recorders, is a poorly written poem [...] saying that the government is a gift from God, yes even his image [...] Yet, Bach would not be Johann Sebastian, if he did not turn a bad poem into a fine aria, [...]<<<<
Christian Panse wrote:
< I recall having read speculations about whether in this aria the flutes' repeated staccato notes may have been intended as Bach's ironic commentary to the text, since they sound very much like "hee-hee-hee" - a sarcastic laugh... >
This seems to me a very anachronistic interpretation. "Die Obrigkeit ist Gottes Gabe" is completely in line with Romans 13, 1: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." (King James version). It is simply inconceivable that Bach would have been opposed to this article of faith.

Johan van Veen wrote (May 16, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal wrote:
>>>BWV 119, an appreciation
The alto aria, introduced and accompanied by the recorders, is a poorly written poem with a clear message to both the people and the city council, saying that the government is a gift from God, yes even his image, so everybody should acknowledge its authority. Yet, these words imply that the government itself must never forget who gave them their power and therefore rule the city accordingly. Yet, Bach would not be Johann Sebastian, if he did not turn a bad poem into a fine aria, well-sung by Sytse Buwalda. <<<<
What is so bad about the poetry?

Christian Panse wrote (May 16, 2003):
< Johan van Veen wrote: "Die Obrigkeit ist Gottes Gabe" is completely in line with Romans 13, 1: [...] It is simply inconceivable that Bach would have been opposed to this article of faith. >
You will have noticed that I didn't comment on what I called a speculation myself others than with three dots behind the mention. In addition, BWV 119 dates from the very starting period of Bach's Thomaskantorship - all quarrels with the town authorities were still to happen.

PS. Johan, it would be helpful if you configure your e-mail client in a way that all quoting happens according to accepted standards. It's hard to read the way it currently is. But then, this call of mine should be addressed to many more writers here...

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 16, 2003):
< (...) [8] (...) uses timpani instead sackbuts (...) >
That would be quite a trick, like using a tromba marina to play tromba parts.

I like the harmonica recitatives in PDQ Bach's "Bluegrass Cantata".

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (May 16, 2003):
What annoyed me was the fact that the librettist wanted to rub it in that the common people should be grateful for their godgiven government. Not very imaginative or original writing, but pleasing for those in power in the church at the time. You are right, that was the purpose of this aria. And yes, it is in line with Romans 13:1. How convenient.

Johan van Veen wrote (May 16, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaal] So the problem is the content itself, not the form of it. Well, that is really your problem. There are lots of people in our time - you guessed it, I'm one of them - who still believe the message of that aria is spot on.

BTW: you are annoyed by the attempt of the composer to "rub it in". But isn't this a common feature of all cantatas of the time? Messages were delivered quite emphatically. Luther set an example with some very drastic language and graphic metaphors. As the Germans say: "Er war nicht gerade zimperlich".

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (May 16, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] I'm a Christian myself but I find it hard to believe that God gave - or worse - is still giving us dictators to govern the world. I agree with you that in a lot of the poetry in Bach cantatas drastic language is used, often dogmatic ideas, lacking in emotion, creativity and imagination. I know these are present day ideas on poetry, and people in Bach's day may have admired those poets that most of us today would call poetasters. Their poetry can not stand the test of time, whereas Bach's music still moves us to the bone. Where would this poetry be without Bach's inspired music?

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 18, 2003):
BWV 119 and 121

Bart O’Brien wrote:
< Look Bradley, I didn't join the Bach Cantatas group to read this kind of stuff. (...) Try and exercise a bit of self-discipline before you send us all your messages. >
Fine. This will save us all a lot of time. If nobody cares about the reasons behind opinions, about discernment, about wrestling with the musical issues in the compositions, let's just have blunt statements about the recordings.

In last week's cantata BWV 119 I listened to Herreweghe [8], Leusink [10], and Harnoncourt [6]. I liked them all, in different ways. I still thought all the opening movements were too slow.

Then in this week's BWV 121 I studied the music and listened to a recording. This is a boring generic cantata not worth wasting more time on.

There, that's my review of both of these.

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (May 18, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] You disappoint me here and Ithink you are being unfair, both to the performers of the recordings and the members of this list. in the first place nobody said that he or she didnot care about the reasons behind opinions. You can not expect everyone to review a cantata the same way or according to the same criteria as yourself. You are showing contempt here, having listened to only one recording and then dumping the cantata as generic, not worth spending any more words to it. And then, when some members of the BCML ventilate some sarcasm towards you, you of all people get pissed off. Come on. Show us some positive spirit. Or is this a pretence to leave the list as a wronged genius. You can not be serious!

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 19, 2003):
Nobody here has any OBLIGATION to present an analysis of the work or the recordings, in any given week, or any obligation to do anything.

As I said, I went through BWV 121 (playing and reading it) and listened to it, and decided not to waste any more time on it this week; I didn't fancy the piece, didn't find much of interest in it.

It is much more important to me these days to put my work into BWV 894 which I'll be performing on several occasions next month, for money. I have to give that priority over the volunteer time here on this list. 894, now there's a masterpiece!

Peter Bleoemendaal wrote (May 20, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I am happy you are still with us, alive and kicking as usual. I am not familiar with Bach's keyboard works. I listen a lot to Glenn Gould's rendering of the Goldberg variations, both on CD and DVD. I love it and that extraordinary person behind the piano. I agree with you that probably he would make a lousy harpsichord player, but who cares? I would love to be at your concert where you will be playing the Prelude and Fugue in A minor and thus meet the man who is so articulately present on both Bach lists. Unfortunately, it is a bit too far away from where I live. You did not mention where and when it will be? Maybe it is a good idea that all performing artists on this site inform us about their concerts. I would also like everyone to hand down your profile with photo so that the person behind the message is getting a face.

 

Cantata 119, 79, dotted rhythm, and French ouverture tempo

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 19, 2003):
Going through some unmarked files this weekend I found an unexpected gift to myself from the past: a photocopy of William Malloch's article "Bach and the French Ouverture" (Musical Quarterly #75, Summer 1991). And it refers back to John O'Donnell's article "The French style and the overtures of Bach" (Early Music, April 1979).

In this 1991 article Malloch wrote about tempo relationships in Bach, Handel, Telemann, Mozart, Bruckner, French operas, and more. He also backed up his research and writing with his own recording of Bach's four suites 1066-69, and it is a useful package for studying this issue. [Earlier than this he also prepared his own orchestration of the Art of Fugue, and had a recording of this made by Lukas Foss and some Los Angeles players.]

The results sound surprising at first, but they can really grow on someone who takes this seriously. As Malloch pointed out in this article, "If this introduction [to suite #2], stormily dramatic at this pace, seems no longer sufficiently slow or even familiar, this, to paraphrase O'Donnell, is our problem, not Bach's."

These issues are apropos of last week's discussion of BWV 119 (in which I said all of Leusink [10], Harnoncourt [6], and Herreweghe [8] seem "too slow" to me), and the April discussion of BWV 79 (where my remarks are summed up at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/4610 ). Both of those cantatas have opening movements in this "French ouverture" style.

And in this article Malloch said some of the same things about meter (C, cut-C, 2, cut-2, etc.) and emphasis that I have been using to determine basic tempos. And his remarks about tempo words such as "vite", "lento", "lentement", etc seem right on (to me), although they're shocking and alien if one comes to this with more typical expectations about tempo. (Yes, he shocked me too when I first read another article of his in Opus magazine, and listened to his recordings.) I believe his ideas about determining basic tempo have plenty of merit, although most of the classical-music community have ignored them.

These are serious musicological questions in performance practice, not an arbitrary preference for hearing things played fast (which, I must emphasize here, I don't generally enjoy). I believe it is crucial for performers to find and project the correct metric level that is the beat, according to the music, even if we more often hear pieces performed vastly differently from that (usually, much more slowly). When the music is felt and projected at a level we're not accustomed to, it can still seem slow or fast (or whatever) at that level of note values, retain that expressive character, while internal "problems" (such as the question of double-dotting, and issues of articulation) become non-problems.

Personally, listening to Malloch's recordings, I wish he'd been less rigid once he's found those lucid tempos; the music could breathe more naturally with more flexibility, and come across with even stronger projection of gesture. But the basic tempos themselves, and their relationships, are fine. And the recordings are polemic, to wake people up from their complacency; polemic things have to be extreme and somewhat rigid to get the points across. (And then Andrew Parrott recorded the suites a few years later with most of the same players, and used similar tempos to good effect.)

I'd recommend this article, and Malloch's recordings, to anyone who is serious about the determination of tempo. And, since that affects ALL music...folks, run to look up and read this article!.....

Neil Halliday wrote (May 19, 2003):
Brad writes:
"These issues are apropos of last week's discussion of BWV 119 (in which I said all of Leusink [10], Harnoncourt [6], and Herreweghe [8] seem "too slow" to me), and the April discussion of BWV 79 (where my remarks are summed up at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/4610 ). Both of those cantatas have opening movements in this "French ouverture" style".
BWV 79's opening movement is not of the French overture style, though the discussion there was about tempo and the number of beats in the bar, and cut C versus 4/4 metre.

Re the French overtures of the Suites, Malloch's reading of these works would seem to take no notice of the 4/4 metre, in light of what Brad said about the significance of cut C metre in determining speed (in the BWV 79 discussion), or is there in fact no relationship betwwen tempo and metre (eg, cut C versus 4/4) - the argument seems to be for fast speeds no matter what the time signature of the music happens to be.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 19, 2003):
I wrote:
<< the April discussion of BWV 79 (where my remarks are summed up at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/4610 ). Both of those cantatas have opening movements in this "French ouverture" style". >>
And Neil corrected me:
< BWV 79's opening movement is not of the French overture style, though the discussion there was about tempo and the number of beats in the bar, and cut C versus 4/4 metre. >
Right you are, Neil. Sorry, everybody.

But the broader point I was trying to make was about the difference of emphasis (i.e. which note gets the primary beat) when the meter is C vs cut-C. That's where Malloch's article is relevant.

Neil continued:
< Re the French overtures of the Suites, Malloch's reading of these works would seem to take no notice of the 4/4 metre, in light of what Brad said about the significance of cut C metre in determining speed (in the BWV 79 discussion), or is there in fact no relationship betwwen tempo and metre (eg, cut C versus 4/4) - the argument seems to be for fast speeds no matter what the time signature of the music happens to be. >
Neil, is your comment here a reaction to Malloch's article, or to his recording, or to hearsay (from me) about them? That is, what exactly is this argument that you're trying to rebut? (I'm interested in discussing that article itself, if you are....)

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (May 20, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< But the broader point I was trying to make was about the difference of emphasis (i.e. which note gets the primary beat) when the meter is C vs cut-C. That's where Malloch's article is relevant. >
You won't make your point about the metrical difference by exclaiming about the obvious evidence; you should describe how accents and other phrasing could be applied to create the feeling that you claim to have but others have not comprehended.

Neil Halliday wrote (May 20, 2003):
Bradley Lehman asks:
"Neil, is your comment here a reaction to Malloch's article, or to his recording, or to hearsay (from me) about them? That is, what exactly is this argument that you're trying to rebut?"
It's a reaction to the 1st point ie, why is Malloch referring to cut C metres, when the time signatures of the dotted rhythm sections of the Orchestral Suites are common time, not cut C; and the 3rd point ie, your comments on how the speed of BWV 79 relates to its cut C metre.

Re the Suites, I have Scherchen with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra performing the B minor Suite. The (French) overture section sounds utterly 'authentic', in the sense of that word which you recently defined for us (and I applaud you for this definition) ie, it's a living, breathing, engaging performance for present day listeners, not 18th century listeners. Tempo (speed)? About crotchet = 50. The middle section is about double that speed.

The return of the 'slow' section (btw, why do we refer to 'slow-fast-slow') is, unusually, in 3/4 time and marked 'lentement'; the manner in which Scherchen unfolds the same thematic material in bars 1, 3, 5, and 7 on the 1st violins, continuo , 2nd violins, and violas, respectively, with the flute fluttering over all this, is one of the most beautiful moments in music that I know of.

Conclusion? The Suites cerainly must present different scenarios to different people, judging by the different tempo recommendations!

Re BWV 79, we both agreed that Ramin best captured the spirit of the piece, ie, best portrayed Bach's confidence in the eventual triumph of God over Satan, in the battle for control of human destiny. We are not talking about genteel matters here; if Rilling had employed Ramin's resonating, booming - yet balanced- timpani, instead of the discreet thudding sound we heard with Rilling, I would have rated Rilling's recording almost as highly. The difference in tempo appears to be a secondary factor, as far as the success or otherwise of the performance is concerned, given the range of tempi employed.

You had reservations about Ramin's speed, and went on to say that even the fastest example (Rotzsch [4], I think) sounded too slow, and you drew some conclusions about the cut C metre. While I agree the Ramin may be a little slow, your desire for a speed which is even faster than the fastest recording (Rotzsch [4], I think), based on notions of literally pacing to the minims at a certain speed, appears to be misguided, if for no other reason than the empirical evidence of the suitability, more or less, of the tempos chosen by all the conductors. While Ramin may be at the lower limit, Rotzsch is certainly at the upper limit.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 21, 2003):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< Re the Suites, I have Scherchen with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra performing the B minor Suite. The (French) overture section sounds utterly 'authentic', in the sense of that word which you recently defined for us (and I applaud you for this definition) ie, it's a living, breathing, engaging performance for present day listeners, not 18th century listeners. Tempo (speed)? About crotchet = 50. The middle section is about double that speed. >
I dug out the LP this evening and listened to it. Yes, "authentic"...authentically reverential, and authentically sentimental. (If this suite had been attributed to, say, Graupner or Fasch, would Scherchen have stretched it out to its 27+ minutes without one of the first movement's repeats? Extraordinary!)

I rather like it for that bold approach, and they were clearly committed to the task; but several things really bothered me:

- The flautist spends that whole middle section of the first movement playing all the notes uniformly short; it sounds .

- Throughout the suite everybody in the orchestra plays all the trills as fast as possible, regardless of the Affekt of the passage they're playing them in...it really breaks the mood.

- The Menuett is sooooooooooooo sloooooooooooooooooooooooooooow.........

- Nothing in the suite seemed to have anything to do with dancing. I feel that something is lost.

< The return of the 'slow' section (BTW, why do we refer to 'slow-fast-slow') is, unusually, in 3/4 time and marked 'lentement'; the manner in which Scherchen unfolds the same thematic material in bars 1, 3, 5, and 7 on the 1st violins, continuo , 2nd violins, and violas, respectively, with the flute fluttering over all this, is one of the most beautiful moments in music that I know of. >
And I've never heard it played more slowly by anybody; have you?

< Conclusion? The Suites cerainly must present different scenarios to different people, judging by the different tempo recommendations! >
"Love it to death" is one possible scenario, yes. :)

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 119: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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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