Cantata BWV 200
Bekennen will ich seinen Namen
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of August 31, 2003
Aryeh Oron wrote (August 31, 2003):
BWV 200 - Introduction
The chosen work for this week’s discussion (August 31, 2003) is the fragment ‘Bekennen will ich seinen Namen’ (I shall acknowledge His name) for the Sunday of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This work seems to be the surviving part from a cantata, as BWV 50 and BWV 118 are.
The text of this aria for alto, written by an unknown librettist, reflects the Gospel Luke 2: 22-32, in verses 19-32. It must have been a part of a complete cantata because the score pages do not have the usual Bach’s inscriptions J.J. and S.D.G. before and after the work. Furthermore, the light instrumental accompaniment - 2 violins, a cello and a bass continuo - could indicate an aria within a cantata where the alto voice would not be obscured by heavy instrumentation.
The details of the recordings of this aria can be found at the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 200 - Recordings
This aria has at least 10 recordings, only 6 of them have appeared in CD form. I do not know why this peaceful and calm work have not been recorded more. After all, the solo cantatas for alto - BWV 35, BWV 54, BWV 169, BWV 170, even BWV 53 (Non-Bach) - are among the most recorded in the oeuvre of Bach Cantatas.
Through the page of the Music Examples from this work: Cantata BWV 200 - Music Examples you can listen to 7 recordings of the aria.
In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to useful complementary information:
a. The original German text, and translation into English (Z. Philip Ambrose) and Hebrew (Aryeh Oron).
b. Since this work was firstly published as late as 1935, it was not included in the BGA, and no score is available at the BCW.
c. Links to commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide), and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).
I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion. Only 15 cantatas (4 of which are sacred), including this one, remained to be discussed in the BCML!
John Pike wrote (September 1, 2003):
Although it is only a fragment, I think this is an absolute gem. I have only one recording, John Eliot Gardiner's . I think it is very good. The first time I heard the cantata, I kept playing it over and over again, something I tend to do for only a very few works.
Neil Halliday wrote (September 3, 2003):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks for supplying these examples of BWV 200.
Conrad/Hellman  (5:19) This modern string orchestra version (on LP) is tender, peaceful, and reverential. Conrad's voice complements the lush strings, and despite the movement's slow tempo, my attention is held throughout its duration.
Scherler/Werner . (3:53) Another modern string orchestra, this time with a faster, brighter approach. This powerful female voice is well balanced with the orchestra.
Mechtild/Rilling . (3:04). Here Rilling adopts an OPPP method, in contrast to his earlier practice, for example in BWV 20, where the lush strings accompaying the beautiful alto aria in #6 are similar to Hellman's above. (Rilling's BWV 20 was recorded in 1970; his BWV 200 in 1984).
The present example displays clear and well-shaped violin and continuo lines, with a relatively well-recorded continuo harpsichord. Despite being the fastest of all, this version does not sound rushed; rather a bright, happy mood prevails. Mechtild verges on using too much vibrato at times , but remains listenable and enjoyable.
Jard van Nes/Doeselaar  (3:49). This period instrument performance suffers from distortion of the instrumental lines, caused by the characteristic change of volume on each note common with many HIP ensembles. Some of the unaccented notes become inaudble. The continuo is indistinct, with the continuo organ audible only some of the time. The vocalist also employs these changes in volume, sometimes to excess; she almost shouts:, "er ist der Christ". This is, nevertheless, a strong, attractive voice.
Kowalski/Sillito  (3:14). Another modern instrument version, smaller than Hellmen and Werner, but more than OPPP. Similar to Rilling ie, bright and cheerful, yet serious. This counter-tenor sounds like a powerful female alto , and is in good balance with the orchestra.
Tyson/Gardiner  (4:10). At this slower tempo (hooray, Gardiner is capable of it), we have a mellower, more reveverent sound, similar to that heard in the Hellmann example. The changes of volume on individual notes are not as distracting as in the Doeselaar example; this is a stylish performance from Gardiner. Counter-tenor Dyson has an appealing voice, even if a slightly nasal quality is evident.
Leusink/Buwalda . (3:38) The period strings sound somewhat 'scratchy', and the continuo indistinct and 'thick' - is that a double bass an octave below the cello? Otherwise, lovingly performed, to be appreciated by those who like the string sound.
Bradley Lehman wrote (September 3, 2003):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< Jard van Nes/Doeselaar  (3:49). This period instrument performance suffers from distortion of the instrumental lines, caused by the characteristic change of volume on each note common with many HIP ensembles. Some of the unaccented notes become inaudble. The continuo is indistinct, with the continuo organ audible only some of the time. The vocalist also employs these changes in volume, sometimes to excess; she almost shouts:, "er ist der Christ". This is, nevertheless, a strong, attractive voice. >
A change of volume during a line "distorts" the line? That's a value judgment, asserting that an equipollent performance is more accurate than a gestural one.
One could argue the opposite value judgment: that an artificial sameness of all the notes in a phrase is a distortion. "Performances in the R______ style suffer from distortion of the instrumental lines, caused by the artificial and annoying sameness of the notes. The supposedly 'unaccented' notes are too prominent. This feature causes the performance to be both ungrammatical and boring. It gives the impression the performers don't understand or care about the phrasing; they just bash out an equal and meaningless group of notes." See? There's the opposite value judgment.
Here we go again, back to the old argument about music being speech-like or not. A spoken sentence sounds ridiculous and affected if all the words have the same amount of emphasis. To some of us, music sounds equally ludicrous if delivered in that manner, because (in this view) music is a language.
If you look across the top of a cornfield, wouldn't you be astounded (and suspicious) if all the stalks were exactly the same height? Nature favors irregularity. The irregularity makes something seem real, organic, natural. So it is in music....
Pablo Casals said it well, and directly: "Something must move down or up. Always. ALWAYS!" I'd say this willingness to let a line take a naturally irregular shape is a basic feature of musical communication: musicianship, not "HIP."
Bradley Lehman wrote (September 3, 2003):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< Mechtild/Rilling . (3:04). (...)
The present example displays clear and well-shaped violin and continuo lines, with a relatively well-recorded continuo harpsichord. >
Neil, I'm cuwhat you hear as "well-shaped" lines here in Rilling's performance . The violin parts sound to me as if the players are sawing away, down-up-down-up-down-up..., oblivious to phrasing or harmonic function or the text or anything else. Ditto for the way the cellist and harpsichord are just plowing along, the phrases going nowhere. Listening to it here, I can barely get through it. All the notes are strong, and loud, and brisk, like an army marching along RIGHT! LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT!, and I get the impression they're pushing the singer faster than she wants to go: she fits her notes stiffly into the meter, having no leeway to phrase her line gracefully. Ugh.
All of the other recorded examples here have better shaping of those instrumental lines, IMO.
Of these seven recordings Aryeh has provided, Rilling's is the deadliest.
My wife has a better and simpler way of describing this type of string playing, with onomatopoeia: "Eee-err, eee-err, eee-err, eee-err, eee-err, eee-err"!
Compare it especially with the example that is closest to it in tempo: Sillito's . In Sillito's the phrases all have a healthy variety to them, and it's easy to pick out the phrases as different from one another (in function and context) as the piece goes along. There's also a clearer sense of the big beat: the small metric groups are bound together into something longer, a broader structure. In Rilling's it's just a heartless march of tiny quick steps, and a page of notes to be dispatched as efficiently as possible. They all look the same, so they all sound the same. Ugh.
And, among these examples, IMO the second worst one (in the violin parts) is Leusink's . So, no (in case you've ever got the wrong impression): I don't automatically like "period instruments" better than "modern instruments". Alert phrasing wins me over much more than hardware does. Leusink's violinists here saw along almost as badly and shapelessly as Rilling's, and they don't blend. It just sounds as if they should have taken more time to get to know the piece better, beyond playing all the notes. (Leusink's string players do much better elsewhere: for example, in cantata BWV 54 where the first movement is beautifully shaped, ebbing and flowing.)
Alex Riedlmayer wrote (September 3, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Here we go again, back to the old argument about music being speech-like or not. A spoken sentence sounds ridiculous and affected if all the words have the same amount of emphasis. To some of us, music sounds equally ludicrous if delivered in that manner, because (in this view) music is a language. >
For a moment, I considered: "Recitatives may be sung to a book text, but can they be bowed on a cello?" Then I recalled Beethoven's 9th, which would make a good example.
Another passage to consider is in the Missa in A (Bach's), where "Christe eleison" starts like a bass recitative but develops as a five-part fugue.
< If you look across the top of a cornfield, wouldn't you be astounded (and suspicious) if all the stalks were exactly the same height? Nature favors irregularity. The irregularity makes something seem real, organic, natural. So it is in music.... >
You don't mention symmetry. Also, "uneven" is generally not a positive qualitative assessment.
Bradley Lehman wrote (September 3, 2003):
Alex Riedlmayer wrote:
< You don't mention symmetry. Also, "uneven" is generally not a positive qualitative assessment. >
The word "uneven" wasn't in my postings about BWV 200.
I haven't used it since I responded to one of Bob Sherman's postings, on August 8th: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/5920
What's the problem?
And what's your objection that I didn't mention symmetry? Would you care to list some naturally formed objects that have perfect symmetry? The closest thing I can think of at the moment is snowflakes, but they are not absolutely symmetrical or regular. Here are some beautiful photos of some: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/photos/photos.htm
Do you think they'd be somehow more beautiful if their "unevenness" were corrected?
Alex Riedlmayer wrote (September 4, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< The word "uneven" wasn't in my postings about BWV 200.
I haven't used it since I responded to one of Bob Sherman's postings, on August 8th.
What's the problem? >
< And what's your objection that I didn't mention symmetry? Would you care to list some naturally formed objects that have perfect symmetry? >
I take it back - your cornfield example did involve symmetry.
Bradley Lehman wrote (September 4, 2003):
<< And what's your objection that I didn't mention symmetry? Would you care to list some naturally formed objects that have perfect symmetry? >>
< I take it back - your cornfield example did involve symmetry. >
I still don't understand your point about symmetrical cornfields, but perhaps that's for the best. I'm not a specialist in corn, or a connoisseur of shrubbery; I just go by what I see in the fields on three sides of my house, and it looks spectacularly asymmetric to me from here. The more closely I look at it, the more bumpy it is from one stalk to the next, and within each stalk. I think that's nifty, the increased irregularity at closer and closer views: it reminds me of Bach's music. The whole field has a decent order and structure, and the planting was (pretty much) in straight rows, but it's increasingly chaotic all the way down from there. When one is actually inside the field, walking among the stalks, there seems to be no order to it whatsoever, not even a way to know which direction is which.
I do wonder, though: why do corn ears always have an even number of rows of kernels? Usually 12 or 14, occasionally 16, but never 13 or 15 all the way across. It's a mystery.
Neil Halliday wrote (September 4, 2003):
Bradley Lehman asked:
"I'm curious what you hear as "well-shaped" lines here in Rilling's performance ".
In general, by well-shaped I mean I can hear all the notes in a phrase in a line, as well as all the lines, at the same time, without the distraction of exaggerted micro-management of certain notes in a particular line.
In the Rilling example , we have adequate phrasing of the violin lines, admittedly largely resulting from the score itself - for example, with the occurence of rests in a line, etc.; in any case, one can hear a sensible degree of variation in tone production from these capable musicians.
On listening to all the examples again, I notice I was tricked into thinking that Doeselaar  is using period instruments, because of the highly gestural nature of his performance - but the violins sound modern; certainly, they are playing at the modern, higher pitch. (Leusink's  strings are definely period!)
The difference between the 'equipollent' performances - Hellmann , Werner , Rilling , and Sillito , and the 'gestural' performances - Doeselaar , Gardiner  and Leusink , is quite marked, in my view.
(On rehearing the Gardiner, the best part of it seems to be the relatively equipollent performance from the vocalist; the pleasant, mellow mood caught my attention, but I do not like the wide variation in tone production heard from the strings.)
More on this later, in the discussion on BWV 193.
Bradley Lehman wrote (September 4, 2003):
Neil Halliday wrote: (about BWV 200):
< The difference between the 'equipollent' performances - Hellmann , Werner , Rilling , and Sillito , and the 'gestural' performances - Doeselaar , Gardiner  and Leusink , is quite marked, in my view. >
The musical examples: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV200-Mus.htm
Hmm. I'd say that Sillito's  is one of the strongest and clearest gestural performances there (along with Doeselaar's ). Here's what I mean by that. When each phrase starts in the violins, one can sense from the first few notes the trajectory that the whole phrase is going to take, with a natural rise and fall plus some interesting details along the way. And, even more importantly, the phrases are easily distinguishable from one another (in character) as the piece goes along, bringing out the different musical motives, showing the great variety of ideas in Bach's writing. It's constantly engaging, a delightful adventure to hear what Bach thought of next, and next, and next.
And by the same token, Leusink's performance  here is mostly equipollent. The articulation has very little variety, and the phrases sound pretty much the same as one another, as the piece goes along. There are a few dynamic nuances, with the weak notes a bit quieter than the strong notes around them, yes, but they're contradicted by the articulation, and I don't hear much sense of thought as longer phrases. Overall it merely seems generic, like (perhaps) a competent bit of sight-reading with conventional "rules" for that local dynamic shaping.
A gestural performance brings out musical contrasts vividly. It shows awareness of purpose. It brings out the composition's uniqueness. It shows that the performers have thought about the function of every note, every phrase, and want the listeners to comprehend it immediately also as the music goes along (not only in retrospect). It is an art of differentiation, and of specificity. It is not arbitrary! The decisions arise from close study of the composition and any related materials that are available. Why did the composer choose this note or this shape, exactly at this spot, as opposed to something else?
One assumes the composer wanted the listeners to understand what is going on, as clearly as possible: pure and direct expression of the musical thoughts, and any extra-musical meaning that might also be present. The performer's job is therefore to help the listener immediately grasp shapes and colors and meanings, by presenting the materials in an objectively determined hierarchy. This is done in thoughtful analysis, by parsing the composition's grammar and meaning (that is, by figuring out why every note is there). Some notes and groups of notes are more important than others; that's a basic feature of any language. Syllables and words and phrases all have context that determines how strongly they should be emphasized, for the best clarity of expression; it's the same with notes. The performer makes these most obvious and natural decisions in preparation, so this contextual parsing is not left to the listener's own enterprise (where it might not get done at all).
Then a performance is worked out to make this hierarchy clear in the delivery. Every note is audible, if the listener chooses to pay attention to its line, but not all notes are of equal value; language doesn't work that way. Neither does drama. The music is a lively mix of foreground and background, and all levels in between; and the focus might shift from moment to moment. There are many layers worthy of attention, and it's possible for a listener to notice more than one at a time if the performance is clear enough. Many different events can happen simultaneously, or in sequence, and if they are sufficiently distinguishable from one another, the listener can follow any or all of them, appreciating the parts and the whole. It's the performer's job to distinguish all those parts as vividly as possible, while also keeping a long line that unifies everything. Diversity and consistency, in cooperation: it takes a lot of hard work.
Indecision is death to the music. If some part of the performance is ambiguous, it says that the performer didn't take the time, or didn't care, or doesn't have the skills, or doesn't have the nerve, to have made the important decisions about the music's hierarchy. How is the listener supposed to "get" the piece through the performance, if the performer didn't "get" it first through careful reflection and analysis? The performer is the music's strongest advocate, making the music's case to help the listener's immediate understanding and enjoyment. Composition and performance and listening are all the same job: recognizing ideas and communicating them, and knowing when they've arrived. It's musical understanding, and fluency with the musical language.
An equipollent performance lays out the composition's features with equal value among them, blending everything into a steady, consistent, monolithic presentation. The performers do not take responsibility to look for meaning, or to interpret any findings, or to clarify any features that seem interesting, or even to parse the grammar: performance is merely a mechanical task, converting written symbols into sounds, and making as many notes audible as possible.
The notes have "equal opportunity" to be noticed. All notes are deemed equally important unless the composer explicitly marked them less so. The attentive listeners (if any) will magically pick up any larger features that are worth paying attention to, among the forest of undifferentiated notes. It was the composer's job to make things clear enough and to provide enough of interest, holding the listener's attention. If the listeners don't get it, it's not the performer's fault; the performer is merely the messenger with no responsibility beyond playing "accurately." Execute, don't interpret. (Thank you very much, Igor Stravinsky.) Overall, the performance might be rich in detail, or devoid of detail, but the crucial thing is: all details have the same importance relative to one another. Let the listener figure it out, if he cares to. Some listeners prefer to have it all just wash over them, anyway; their attentiveness is their own business.
Indecision is seen as a virtue, because it's not the performer's job to make decisions: merely to follow instructions accurately and "let the music speak for itself" even if it's ambiguous. The performers can deliver an adequate performance without necessarily understanding what they're doing. No interpretive risks are taken; just follow instructions and don't worry about it. A couple of accurate run-throughs are taken as sufficient rehearsal. Don't think beyond the information in front of you. Close analysis and reflection aren't in the performer's job description; it's assumed that the composer and listener will take care of those (if they're done at all).
GESTURAL PERFORMANCE, THE DOWNSIDE:
It can sound overdone. It can sound insulting toa listener who would rather parse things himself, or parse them differently. Some people don't like to hear risks being taken. It gets in the way of the listener's "pure" enjoyment of the music, hearing the performer's opinion as intermediary. The inconsistencies are sometimes maddening, and seem arbitrary (even if they aren't). Who does the performer think he is, telling us which parts are most interesting and hiding the parts we'd rather hear more prominently? "Interpretation" is a performer's exaggeration of self-importance. If the textures are shifting all the time, yanking the listener's attention from one place to another, it's unsettling. It's exaggerated nonsense. How dare the performers do that to the music? Couldn't they follow simple instructions? It disrespects both the listener and the composer to assume that the music needs "help." Just give us something consistent and safe!
EQUIPOLLENT PERFORMANCE, THE DOWNSIDE:
It's boring. It's ambiguous. It's incomprehensible. It's purposeless. If the performers didn't care enough to get into it, really, why should the listeners care either? The performers aren't taking enough personal responsibility for the music's life. They're just making a series of sounds without enough clear direction to it. It's generic technique with no meaning. Any charlatans who can sight-read can play in this way; it doesn't take any real talent or understanding, or any hard work. All music sounds pretty much the same. The performance doesn't show us why we should care about this piece or this moment in our lives. It's safe, uneventful, meaningless entertainment. Nothing matters. We might as well build a machine to play the notes accurately, or just go stare at the score and imagine the whole thing, if the performer isn't going to be an advocate for the music. Notes alone are not good enough; that's merely the beginning of the story. If everything is equally important, then nothing is important. There can't be high points without low points, and vice versa. The music here, played this way, is just a batch of information without knowledge and understanding.
As I've said before, the distinction here is not the hardware. It's attitude and goals and technique and commitment.
And a single performance will be rarely all one way or the other. There's a continuum here. But these are radically opposite goals.
Neil Halliday wrote (September 5, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thanks for this detailed analysis of the issues, through which your musicianship is quite evident.
It is now evident to me that I have been applying a much more restricted usage to the term 'gestural', namely, to that troubling "glowing embers" effect that I referred to in relation to Koopman's soprano aria BWV 193, and which Rilling  in his article referred to as bell-shaped tone production, on individual (long) notes in a score, a matter that only entered into my consciousness during the advent of so-called HIP recordings on the music scene.
From this narrower (admittedly unsatisfactory definition of 'gestural' in the light of your analysis) viewpoint, can we agree that the three 'gestural' peformances of the BWV 200 alto aria are the Doesselaar , Gardiner  and Leusink ? I certainly have no problems enjoying all of the other versions (which I labelled 'equipollent'), from the Stokowski-like Hellmann , through your evidently gestural Sillito , to the most (uncharacteristically) chamber-like version of them all, the Rilling .
Bradley Lehman wrote (September 6, 2003):
Neil Halliday wrote: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/6194
Those "glowing embers" or "bell-shaped tone production" or "notes that swell" or whatever we want to call it: yes, it's clear that Gardiner  and Doeselaar  and Leusink  use them, and Sillito  and Werner  and Rilling  and Hellmann  don't. That's in reference to the seven samples at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV200-Mus.htm
It's also clear that you dislike that effect, that it disturbs your personal enjoyment of the music. Fine, and I respect that opinion. I'd have a similar complaint about some different elements of musical interpretation. There are several dozen techniques musicians can use to emphasize individual notes in a phrase, but some musicians evidently have only one or two such techniques at their command, so they overuse those few techniques that they know. That's just inferior or indifferent musicianship, inflexibility, a lack of range, or a lack of imagination, or a lack of nerve. (There's the old saying: "To a person with only a hammer, every problem is a nail.")
As you put it: this "glowing ember" sound you dislike is "a matter that only entered into my consciousness during the advent of so-called HIP recordings on the music scene," and elsewhere you said that "the excessive variation of tone production on individual notes (...) is far more lethal for musical expression, IMO." (More "lethal" than an approach that is more consistent.)
About that degree of lethalness, I disagree. I think the music falls dead, and lies there stiff, when there is too little variety. That approach might be playing it safe, trying not to offend any listeners, but that lack of character is itself offensive and deadly. (If we want to get biblical about it, there's that bit in Revelation 3 about being lukewarm.) I'd rather hear performers overdo the variety, even if I disagree with their choices; at least it shows that they've worked on the music, understand it as a language, and are taking the job seriously enough to take some chances.
Aryeh Oron wrote (September 7, 2003):
BWV 200 - Bekennen will ich seinen Namen
Recordings & Timings
Last week I have been listening to 7 recordings of the Aria for Alto BWV 200:
 Diethard Hellmann w/ Margit Conrad (Contralto) (1966) [5:08]
 Fritz Werner w/ Barbara Scherler (Contralto) (1966) [3:50]
 Helmuth Rilling w/ Mechthild Georg (Contralto) (1984) [3:05]
 Leo van Doeselaar w/ Jard van Nes (Mezzo-soprano) (1988) [3:43]
 Kenneth Sillito w/ Jochen Kowalski (Counter-tenor) (1993) [3:14]
 John Eliot Gardiner w/ Robin Tyson (Counter-tenor) (2000) [4:14]
 Pieter Jan Leusink w/ Sytse Buwalda (Counter-tenor) (2000?) [3:39]
In the continuous absence of the knowledgeable Thomas Braatz from the discussions, I have compiled for you some of the commentaries on this cantata.
Murray W. Young (1989)
A short instrumental introduction gives the melody for her song, repeated at the end as a post prelude. Her text is a confession of faith in Jesus. The result is an exceptionally beautiful hymn, expressing her personal conviction in the power of the Lord to redeem and bless all nations including herself. The listener can well imagine that he is sitting in the peaceful serenity of a church, as he hears the alto’s awe-inspiring song, full of Bach’s own mysticism.
Ruth Tarlow (2000, Liner notes to Gardiner’s recording , 2000):
Years later Bach returned once more to Luke 2: 29 in the only surviving movement of BWV 200, ‘Bekennen will ich seinen Namen’ (c. 1742), personalising the message in his final years: “The Lord is the light of my life.”
Thecity gates are closed, only muffled footsteps and church bells can be heard. By 7 a.m. the inhospitable winter darkness is left behind. Inside the candles are lit and liturgy begins: the light increases, the temperature rises. As the cantor’s music begins, the assurance of Simeon’s message warms and illuminates souls: Jesus, the Light of life and Light of death.
Most of the other commentaries, found in liner notes or elsewhere, do not draw much light on the aria from which the listener may draw some guidelines for listening. They give only the factual data. The most detailed of them is:
Wolfgang Max (2000, liner notes to the re-issue Werner’s recording by Teldec , English translation by Stewart Spencer)
The fragmentary cantata BWV 200, Bekennen will ich seinen Namen, which was discovered in private ownership as recently as 1924, consists of a single aria for alto voice with two obbligato instruments, the figural writing for which suggests violins. The words are a paraphrase of the Canticum Simeonis from Luke 2: 29-32. Simeon has been told by the Holy Ghost that he will not die until he has seen the Messiah. He now recognises the Messiah in the young Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem and praises him in a canticle, elements of which are found in the cantata’s anonymous text. Simeon professes his faith in Christ, whom he describes as the light of his life, and now calmly prepares for death with all feelings of fear overcome.
We know nothing about the cantata from which the aria comes, and it is impossible even to speculate on the number of missing movements or the forces for which they were scored. There are, however, grounds for believing that it may have been written in 1742 or 1743 and that it may have been intended for the Feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary on February 2, as the Canticum Simeonis was part of the Gospel reading for that day. Among Bach’s other cantatas for the Feast of Purification are cantata BWV 125, Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, a setting of Luther’s German translation of the Canticum Simeonis.
Short Review of the Recordings
Firstly, I have to say that this peaceful aria has the Bach’s mystical added value: it grows on you with every listening; than it stuck in your mind for a long time, finding a place there together with many other movements from Bach Cantatas which have crawled in along the last four years. Secondly, I found that none of the 7 renditions to which I listened has failed to satisfy. Some are closer to my heart than others, but I believe that it has to do more with personal taste at a given time than to everlasting merits.
Take, for example, the tempo. Tempo is rather superficial factor to judge a rendition according to it. It is, of course, the most obvious and the easiest to measure, but after all, only one factor that is very fragile and might even be misleading. Nevertheless, after listening couple of times to 7 different renditions of this aria in a raw, I feel that in this aria, the slower, the better.
Another factor is the feelings the singer and the accompaniment have to express. After reading carefully the words and the commentaries, I believe that the right feelings to be conveyed here are calmness and peace together with confidence and hope. On the other hand, exaggeration is also risky, and if the singer is too expressive, his/her singing might become more and more annoying with every repeated listening. The accompaniment should be light and optimistic, and also dynamic and varied.
Based on the above factors and some others, my personal favourites are Barbara Scherler/Werner  among the female singers and Robin Tyson/Gardiner  among the counter-tenors. Rilling’s opening ritornello  is the most exciting of them all, compelling you to anticipate with fascination to the entry of the singer.
See above. You owe yourself at least one recording of this aria.
And now, to next week’s BWV 201, a secular cantata, which opens the last phase of the weekly cantata discussions. After the short affair of BWV 200, we have a rather heavy-weight cantata: about 50 minutes multiply by 8 (out of at least 10) available recordings!
Alex Riedlmayer wrote (September 8, 2003):
Aryeh Oron wrote: < Conclusion >
Find no light in the commentaries, nor such "serenity" or warmth in churches. Dislike voices of Scherler and Tyson. Am frustrated by slow tempo of Hellmann  and fast tempo of Rilling . Would prefer sound of bulbs to bows.
Peter Bloemendaal wrote (September 8, 2003):
Should ever any lost movements of this very incomplete cantata be discovered, it would not be improbable that both the title and the occasion had to be changed. For neither the dates of composition and first performance nor the occasion or the place of the only surviving aria are known with certainty. The biblical theme of the aria could be used for many other occasions. Yet, most experts assume that it pertains to the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was first performed on 2 February 1742 in Leipzig.
The book of Leviticus informs us about these purification rites, that a woman was “unclean” for forty days after the birth of a boy child and for eighty days after giving birth to a girl. In case of a boy, circumcision was to take place after the first seven days of her “impure” period. And when the days of her purifying were fulfilled, both for a son or a daughter, she had to bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtle dove, for a sin offering unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation unto the priest. And if she could not afford to bring a lamb, she should bring two turtles, or two pigeons. Mary and Joseph went to the Holy Temple, and being not well-to-do, they sacrificed a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. At that time, there was a just and devout man in Jerusalem, named Simeon, waiting for the consolation of Israel. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple and took the boy up in his arms, and blessed God and said the words that became known as “Simeon’s Song”, in the liturgy through the ages “Nunc Dimittis”, and called “Canticum Simeonis” by Martin Luther . These poetic words read, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
Now, for this feast day, popularly known as Candlemass because of the blessing of candles, Bach composed at least three more cantatas. They are BWV 83 “Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde” (1724), BWV 125 “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin” (1725) and BWV 82 “Ich habe genung” (1727). All of them deal with the first line of the song, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, implying that death is no longer a threat but the start of a new and peaceful life. They almost express the desire to leave this earthly existence behind and the longing for death as the beginning of a better life. This aria, however, emphasizes the second part of Simeon’s song: Jesus is the Saviour, the Glory of Israel and the Light of all people. There is a different angle here. Not: because Jesus is the Redeemer I can die in peace, but: since He saved me I can live in peace, for He is the light of my life! Therefore it is small wonder that Drr calls the aria a swinging hymn, reminiscent of Handel. The instrumentation is very limited, only two violins Bc. They play partly homophonic, partly imitative.
In fact, a simple aria, but when Bach is at work, even the simplest of music shows his genius and inspiration.
The Recordings in order of my preference:
1. Robin Tyson with John Eliot Gardiner ; 2000; duration 4:10; HIP; the perfect pace:
Singer: good countertenor: fine singing, stylish and affectionate; orchestra and soloist are absolutely on equal footing: great blending.
2. Margrit Conrad with Diethard Hellman : 1966; duration 5:19; non-HIP; by far the slowest tempo:
Singer: female contralto with a warm and beautiful voice and subtle expression; plus nice legato singing, reminding me of Kathleen Ferrier and Aafje Heynis: nostalgia and childhood memories. Orchestra sounds woolly esp. Bc (old recording), more than two violins?, yet well-played.
3. Sytse Buwalda with Pieter Jan Leusink ; 2000; duration 3:39; HIP; nice pace:
Singer: countertenor; fine, warm voice; sometimes too much projection on the high notes; excellent, expressive orchestra.
4. Jard van Nes with Leo van Doeselaar ; 1988; duration 3:49; period instruments; tempo almost the same as Barbara Scherler’s, relaxed:
Singer: female contralto, warm and powerful voice, sometimes a bit too strong, yet, the second-best among the females; Orchestra sometimes overdoing the bell-tone articulation, but grosso modo well-played.
5. Barbara Scherler with Fritz Werner : 1966; duration 3:53; non-HIP; nice tempo:
Singer: female contralto, powerful voice, too much projection at times; good diction; Orchestra not bad either.
6. Jochen Kowalski with Kenneth Sillito ; 1993; duration 3:14; HIP; tempo a bit too fast though not rushed:
Singer: countertenor: not bad, but I prefer a warmer, more modest voice instead of continual ff; Orchestra plays very well.
7. Mechtild Georg and Helmuth Rilling ; 1984; duration 3:04; non-HIP; tempo too fast, rushed:
Singer: too loud, female contralto, almost screams esp. at the high notes; far too marcato; volume not in balance with the orchestra, which plays well in the opening ritornello; at times the soloist and the orchestra seem to have trouble to keep up with each other.
BWV 200 Question
Carlitos Q. wrote (August 6, 2006):
One of my wishes this Xmas is to performe the BWV 200 as a beautiful aria as it is. I downloaded a free score and noticed that has a non figured bass (don't know if it's my score or the original is not figured too) so I'm in the middle of a situation here. I've done some reconstruction with littles arias with no figured bass (as a keyboard player myself) but that ones were "easier" than this aria. so, any guidelines in figuring the unfigured? how do you solve issues like that? How do you handle harmony changes? (treat a note as a passing tone or not) well I hope I don't disturb anyone. thanks in advance to all of you!
Ps: I own 2 recording of this canata: Gardiner's  and Kozena's Lamento .
Thomas Braatz. wrote (August 6, 2006):
Carliros Q. wrote:
>> One of my wishes this Xmas is to performe the BWV 200 as a beautiful aria as it is. I downloaded a free score and noticed that has a non figured bass (don't know if it's my score or the original is not figured too)<<
The NBA KB I/28.1 indicates that there is an existing edition of this Aria prepared by Ludwig Landshoff who added the figured bass. This is Edition Peters (Nr. 4209) and is dated "Berlin, im März 1935".
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 200: Details & Complete Recordings | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4