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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 201
Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde
Discussions - Part 1

BWV 201 OVPP (can of worms?)

Steven Guy wrote (December 5, 2000):
Matthew Westphal wrote, about performance of BWV 201 in Leipzig by Suzuki:
< Sounds interesting, Marten. Was a chorus used? (OVPP is generally more common today in secular cantatas.) >
I think that it would be fair to say that in the case of Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan "Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde" BWV 201 the first and final choruses should not be presented with single voices on each line - even though some may be tempted to do so.

The score for each chorus lists the following:

Tromba I.
Tromba II.
Tromba III.
Timpani.
Flauto traverso I.
Flauto traverso II.
Oboe I.
Oboe II.
Violino I.
Violino II.
Viola.
Momus e Soprano. (in soprano C clef)
Mercurius ed Alto. (in alto C clef)
Tmolus e Tenore I. (in tenor C clef)
Mydas e Tenore II. (in tenor C clef)
Phoebus e Basso I. (in F bass clef)
Pan e Basso II. (in F bass clef)
Continuo.

It is fairly clear that in addition to the six soloists that Johann Sebastian Bach expected (at least) 6 corresponding ripieno singers to double each vocal line.

OVPP is fine for probably a large number of Bach's vocal works - but not all! There is a great danger in this practice becoming an unchallenged orthodoxy. OVPP seems to function well enough for some works but it does seem a little illogical for others.

Here's a question....
Should a fagotto (a baroque bassoon) play on the continuo line? Indeed, what should instruments should play on the continuo line? Some (but not all!) of the OVPP advocates would suggest that there should be no more instruments or voices than are actual musical lines! For instance - only a single violin on each line - 2 in all! (pitted against three clarino trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 flutes, 12 singers and the organ/harpsichord!) One needs to make realistic judgements about the balance of an ensemble. (three or four violins - 2 on each line or only at least 2 on the first line - in such a work would not be extravagant)

Getting back to my "fagotto" question, although Bach does not mention the names of any specific instruments on the continuo lines in this work (he does include a few dynamic marks), I feel that it would be fair to include a bassoon on this line - at least in the opening and closing choruses. We would also want a violoncello and a violone too?

Matthew Westphal wrote (December 5, 2000):
Steven Guy wrote:
< I think that it would be fair to say that in the case of Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan "Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde" BWV 201 the first and final choruses should not be presented with single voices on each line - even though some may be tempted to do so.
[snip list of instruments]
It is fairly clear that in addition to the six soloists that Johann Sebastian Bach expected (at least) 6 corresponding ripieno singers to double each vocal line. >
Are there surviving ripieno parts? (I know that Steven has access to a music library that often has such information.) As far as I know, it was not usual practice outside of England to use a choir (in addition to the soloists) in secular works.

Steven Guy wrote (December 5, 2000):
[To Matthew Westphal] Yes. And the full score clearly includes the use of ripienists and I would suggest that it was not so unusual to include ripienists in secular works! BWV 201 simply includes the soloists in the choruses. Many secular vocal works in Bach's time include ensemble pieces ('choruses', if you like) which are simply intended to be sung by the soloists as a team (BWV 201 is not such a work, nor, possibly, are several others) But not always by any means! - particularly when a work was intended for out-door performance.

Various secular vocal works in France and some in Italy also betray the use of larger forces! See some works of Giovanni Paolo Colonna performed in Bologna in 1681 which feature double choirs SATB/SATB - 4/4/5/6-4/4/6/6 voices on each line!

I maintain, as I have always done, that to apply the OVPP orthodoxy to works outside of the realm of Bach's cantatas is hazardous and frequently unjustified. Other churches in Germany had larger and smaller ensembles. Works in Leipzig by Bach's predecessors frequently feature very large forces indeed!

I have read that Bach once expressed the view that a choir should ideally have four voices per part?

I am happy to hear most of the church cantatas in a minimalist mode - I'm distinctly dubious about OVPP in the Passions (it certainly is wrong in the St. John) and I think that OVPP doesn't make for a logical modern performance of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232).

My two cents' worth! I'll shut up again now!

 

Discussions in the Week of September 7, 2003 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (September 7, 2003):
BWV 201 - Introduction

The chosen work for this week’s discussion (September 7, 2003) is the Drama per Musica ‘Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde’ (Hurry, you whirling winds - The Contest between Phoebus and Pan). With this work we are entering the last phase of the weekly cantata discussions, the secular cantatas. Nevertheless, we still have a few sacred cantatas to discuss in the remaining 14 weeks.

Background

The extensive commentary below was written by Alfred Dürr for the original issue of Rilling’s 1st recording of the cantata on the German Cantate label (1966) [5]. It appeared again on the CD reissue of this recording by Musicaphon (1996). The English translation is by Howard Weiner.

With this cantata, Bach speaks out "on his own behalf", as it were: He strikes a blow for the high standards demanded by any true art form, and thus by his own music. He takes the field against the ignorance that is satisfied with light fare, and he chooses as his weapon in this encounter, which he takes deadly serious, a humorous "Dramma per Musica", as may have been performed by his student Collegium Musicum in Zimmermann's Coffee Garden.

We would, of course, very much like to bring the creation of this cantata into connection with specific incidents. Indeed, attacks of the type scoffed at here had been actually made against Bach. We can read, for example, in an issue of the Critischer Musicus from the year 1737, the following about Bach from the pen of Johann Adolph Scheibe:

"This great man would be the object of admiration for entire nations if only he had more charm, and if he did not deprive his compositions of naturalness through bombastic and confusing character, and obscure their beauty through an excess of art."

A still more massive attack against music and musicians provoked tempers in 1749: The Freiberg headmaster Biedermann attempted to prove in a school program that the intensive cultivation of music was detrimental to young people. This aroused wide-spread indignation among the musicians, and Bach too joined into the controversy.

Be that as it may, both incidents occurred quite a bit after the beginnings, around 1729, of the cantata, and can, at the very most, be brought into connection with later performances - one in 1749 (with allusions to Biedermann) is documented. But yet, the aspiration towards the straightforward naturalness inherent in the progressive aesthetic of that time was so characteristic that there was no need for a special occasion. From this point of view, Bach's art could only appear to be artificial, his strict counterpoint intricate, and his ornamented melody bombastic - a prejudice that was finally done away with during the Romantic era!

The text was supplied by the versatile author Picander. He chose for it the ancient Greek legend of Apollo being challenged to a musical competition, and, as the victor, severely punishing the losers. In a later and somewhat different version, Ovid recounted it in the 11th book of his Metamorphoses. Since this was Picander's source, a synopsis of Ovid's narrative is givehere:

On the mountain Tmolus (Timolus) in Lydia, Pan boasts of the reed-pipe that is named after him, and challenges the inventor of the kithara, Phoebus Apollo to a competition. The god of the mountain (Tmolus) is appointed to be the judge. First, Pan plays on the reed-pipe, then Apollo on the kithara. Everybody agrees with Tmolus, who awarded the victory to Apollo - except Midas, the king of Lydia, who is also present. (This is the same Midas whose foolish wish, that everything he touches turn to gold, almost caused him to starve to death.) He alone prefers Pan's uncouth song, and, as punishment, is given the ears of a donkey.

(Ovid goes on to relate that Midas attempts to hide his ears under a Phrygian cap -the fool's cap in our cantata. His servant, however, betrays him in that, unable to keep a secret, he entrusts his discovery to a hole in the earth. The reeds that later grow over the hole announce the secret in a whisper to the world: "Midas has donkey's ears.")

Picander and Bach did not follow Ovid's version of the story all too closely. Thus, Tmolus and Midas have become the seconds to the two disputants, and while Phoebus sings to strings, flute and oboe, Pan is not accompanied not by the flute, but rather by the violins. Moreover, two additional figures are introduced, namely Momus, the god of mockery, and Mercury - the latter certainly not without intention: As the god of merchants, he represents the citizens of Leipzig (he had the same function also in Bach's cantata ‘Erwählte Pleißenstadt’ BWV 216a), and through his mouth they too take the side of Phoebus -at least that is how the cantata tells it.

Thus, Bach was plainly not interested in offering an obvious and dramatic representation of the ancient myth, but rather a characterization of the existing conflict between the "elaborate, controlled and serious, and the light and merely pleasing styles" {Spitta). When Midas admits that

Your song sounded so fine to me
that I remember it just from the one hearing,

one is automatically reminded of the demand for the "appearance of familiarity" put forth by the Berlin Lied School. That it had to do with problems of topical interest is shown also in Momus' final recitative:
Good Midas, go on your way,
lie down in your forest,
and console yourself in your preference,
you have yet many like-minded brothers.
Lack of understanding and lack of common sense
desire to be wisdom's neighbours today,
one judges without thought,
and those who do it
all belong in your band.

Bach's setting is unusually extravagant: The six voice parts are joined by three trumpets, timpani, two flutes, two oboes, strings, and continuo. Perhaps this work was one with which Bach intended to present himself as director of the student Collegium Musicum.

Whereas the plot strides ahead in the straightforward secco recitatives, the interspersed arias resound in carefully co-ordinated contrasts: Pieces of bucolic and lyrical character alternate with one another. The changing instrumentation also strengthens the effect of the arias, for example, when Momus' sarcastic aria "Patron, das macht der Wind" (Master, that's just the wind), accompanied only by continuo, is followed by Phoebus' richly orchestrated aria "Mit Verlangen" (With longing), in which Bach pulled out all the stops of his art, without however letting it become "academic”, for all that. Its clearly structured periods allow the dance origins to be discerned in spite of the expressly demanded calm tempo ("Largo"). On the other hand, Pan's aria "Zu Tanze, zu Sprunge, so wackelt das Herz" (For dancing, for leaping, so shakes the heart) is more than just a musical joke. It is full of musical refinements (notice, for example, the imitation at the continuo entrance at the beginning) and was therefore also suitable to be employed thirteen years later in the Peasant Cantata (BWV 212), with the text "Dein Wachstum sei feste und lache vor Lust" (Your growth is robust and laughs for joy). To be sure, it was written with much more thought concerning its direct impact than was Phoebus' aria, not only in terms of its popular melody, but also in its drastic portrayal of the "shaking" heart.

Tmolus' aria "Phoebus, deine Melodei" (Phoebus, your melody), with obbligato oboe d' amore, corresponds in its demeanour to that of Phoebus. The careful notation of performance markings in the parts shows the extent to which Bach was concerned about the power of the melodic expression. An exceptional instance of a crescendo expressly demanded by Bach is to be found here; for this is the only possible explanation of the marking:

MUSICAL EXAMPLE 1 page 15

As in Pan's song, the violins also play the obbligato part all' unisono in Midas' aria "Pan ist Meister" (Pan is master). Their musical commentary to the text "Denn nach meinen beiden Ohren singt er unvergleichlich schön" (For my two ears, he sang beautifully beyond compare) is revealing:

MUSICAL EXAMPLE 2 page 15

Obviously, the cry of the donkey is being imitated here to show what sort of ears these are - this passage is thus an early precursor of Mendelssohn's "i-a" from the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the dance-like aria "Aufgeblasene Hitze" (Inflated heat), with two obbligato flutes, Mercury proclaims the moral of the drama. The last recitative, Momus' warning against the ever spreading ignorance, is lent special weight by the string accompaniment.

The final chorus is a hymn to music, and of is thrilling beauty.

Recordings

The details of the recordings of the cantata can be found at the following pages of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 201 - Recordings

8 of the 10 recordings of this long (almost 50 minutes) Drama per Musica were issued in CD form. 30 years separate the two recordings by Helmuth Rilling (1966 [5], 1996 [12]). Other available recordings come from various schools, allowing us to hear the work from different points of view: Peter Schreier (1979-1981) [6], Hans Martin Linde (1984) [7], René Jacobs (1995) [9], Gustav Leonhardt (1995) [10], Ton Koopman (1996) [11], and Reinhard Goebel (1996) [13].

Due to continuous technical difficulties, there are not Music Examples at Zale’s site at the moment.

Additional Information

In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to useful complementary information:
a. The original German text and various translations, three of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne), French (Jean-Pierre Grivois), and Hebrew (Aryeh Oron).
B. Link Score from BGA Edition.
c. Links to commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide) and Brian Robins (AMG), and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).

I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion. Only 14 cantatas (3 sacred, 11 secular), including this one, remained to be discussed in the BCML!

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (September 8, 2003):
Music examples BWV 201

I have the performance conducted by Peter Schreier [6]. I would love to hear the Pan aria (Mvt. 7) in different recordings. Could anyone provide music examples? Aryeh, or ...? I hardly dare ask after all you've already done.

Arjen van Gijssel wrote (September 8, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaal] I have performed it a couple of years ago with ensemble-BWV, Enschede, Holland (conductor: Kees van Stolwijk). An ensemble that sadly enough did not survive mismanagement at the Muziekcentrum in that town. I would have loved to contribute a music example, but to my knowledge no recording was made at that occasion. I'm sorry.

What I remember of it is that the opening choir was a wonderpiece of music to perform. The challenge was rightly pronouncing the text, but keeping it light and with clarity in the notes. That was quite a thing to do, especially with the acoustics in that Music hall.

Later, I read in the book by Koopman/Wolff on the secular cantatas that the choir pieces should be sung by the soloists, because the score notes the individual characters above the lines. Does anybody know more about this?
<snip>

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (September 8, 2003):
Arjen van Gijssel] wrote:
< Later, I read in the book by Koopman/Wolff on the secular cantatas that the choir pieces should be sung by the soloists, because the score notes the individual characters above the lines. Does anybody know more about this? >
There are eight preserved vocal parts, including duplicates of the soprano and alto parts for the choruses. The notion that the resulting SATTBB/SA vocal setup constitutes a 'full' double chorus is unacceptable to me.

To Aryeh: the vocal scoring in the outer movements of BWV 201 has six voices; "4-part Chorus" is erroneous.

Anthony J. Olszowy wrote (September 8, 2003):
[To Arjen van Gijssel] A quick question to Arjen: when you say you read the book by Koopman/Wolff on the secular cantatas, I assume you read the German or Dutch versions? Norton, the (North American) publisher, seems to have pulled the plug on providing more than the first volume of the series in English, and that did not include the secular cantatas.

Arjen van Gijssel wrote (September 8, 2003):
[To Anthony J. Olszowy] The Dutch version indeed. Did you read volume I? Did it please you? Of the books on Bach in my posession, I find it the most dry and uninteresting. Read the other reviews on Areyh's site.

Aryeh Oron wrote (September 8, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaal] I uploaded into the Bach Cantatas Website Music Examples of the Pan Aria (Mvt. 7) from 8 recordings of Cantata BWV 201: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV201-Mus.htm

Anthony J. Olszowy wrote (September 9, 2003):
[To Arjen van Gijssel] Agreed whole heartedly. But, given the high regard I have for both editors, I was hoping the further volumes would be better!

Neil Halliday wrote (September 10, 2003):
BWV 201: bass aria Mvt. 7 examples

We are certainly moving away from the serious message of the church cantatas in this bass aria (Mvt. 7), which is part of a 'music contest' between Phoebus and Pan.

PAN: "With dancing and leaping, my heart shakes. Music that is laborious, and singing which is too controlled, is no fun!".

1. Rilling/Stämpfli (6.59) [5] (Rilling's 1st recording): while the singing and playing are enthusiastic, it becomes evident that the tempo is somewhat laboured, after listening to the other examples. The deliberate awkwardness of the middle section, expressed by some of the other recordings, is lost in this too grand performance.

2. Schreier/Adam (5:42) [6]: This is a lively and pleasing performance, with excellent contributions from both singer and instruments. Bach's deliberate awkwardness in the middle section (noted above) is expressed here.

3. Linde/Thomas (6:04) [7]: An elegant performance, perhaps too much so - the middle section is insufficiently contrasted with the naturally more tuneful design of the outer sections.

4. Jacobs/Lika (5:49) [9]. This version has fast outer sections; contrast with the middle section is achieved by a marked decrease in tempo for the cut C middle section. Consequently, this section is too elegant and loses the intended effect. A generally quieter overall performance is evident here.

5. Leonhardt/van Egmond (5:28) [10]. Despite the timings shown, Leonhardt begins with a slower, perhaps more appropriate tempo than Jacobs, and maintains this in the middle section; however, Leonhardt also sounds too tuneful to capture the "labour" and "control" expressed in the text. Nevertheless this is the most vivid of the period instrument recordings, and Egmond’s voice is very pleasing in this aria.

6. Koopman/Bentvelsen (5:03) [11]. Here we are in 'fast and lite' Bach territory. The music begins to lose some of its potential impact, at this tempo.

7. Rilling 2/Henschel (5:56) [12]. Here we have the most powerful and vivid sound painting of all the recordings. There is excellent balance between the upper strings and continuo, and Henschel very expressively employs his powerful voice. Listen to the expression he brings to the word "wackelt" (shakes). Rilling cleverly manipulates
Bach's deliberate chromaticism and syncopation in the middle section, to give a musical picture of 'laboured' expression, and 'controlled ' singing.

8. Goebel/Gayer (4:41) [13]. At this fast tempo, Gayer is struggling to bring any expression to the music.

General comment on speed: while my preferences among the BWV 200 alto recordings are the slowest (Hellmann) and fastest (Rilling), the same does not apply for this aria - another of the enigmas surrounding the matter of tempo (speed).

Aryeh Oron wrote (September 20, 2003):
BWV 201 - Recordings

Last week I have been listening to 8 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 201:

[5] Helmuth Rilling 1 (1966)
[6] Peter Schreier (1979-1981)
[7] Hand Martin Linde (1984)
[9] René Jacobs (1995)
[10] Gustav Leonhardt (1995)
[11] Ton Koopman (1996)
[12] Helmuth Rilling 2 (1996)
[13] Reinhard Goebel (1996)

Short background & Review of Phoebus vs. Pan

I shall not quote any commentary this time. Good commentaries on this cantata can be found in most liner notes to the recordings as well as elsewhere. But after reading many of them, it seems to me that Alfred Dürr has said almost every important thing that should be said about this work. His lengthy commentary was quoted in the introductory message sent to the BCML early last week.

Almost immediately after I had started listening to the cantata, I was captured by its magic. It includes so many gems, not only the arias, but also in the group singing (the opening and the concluding movements could hardly be considered as choruses, because they should be sung by the six vocal soloists), and even the recitatives. I decided not to write anything until I finish at least two complete rounds of listening to the 8 recordings in their completeness. This is a long cantata (about 50 minutes), which means that each round took about 6 hours and a half. No much time was left for detailed comparative listening and writing. What could I do?

The subject of this cantata calls for a simple solution. It is all about a musical contest: who is the better singer Phoebus or Pan? We can leave the decision to Tmolus and Midas, but we can also appoint ourselves to the judges. I decided that the third and last round would be dedicated to closer listening to the arias of Phoebus (Mvt. 5) and Pan (Mvt. 7).

I am aware that the competition between the two bass singers is not exactly on equal terms, simply because they do not sing the same piece of music. In the aria of Phoebus he expresses his languishing yearning for the youth Hyciantus as the subject of his beautiful song. Bach’s own artistic view on singing is expressed in this moving declamation, aided by a transverse flute, an oboe d’amore and strings which play a bewitching and gentle melody. This is Bach’s art at its best. Pan’s aria is accompanied by violins, which play a joyful tune. This lampoons Sch’ ‘natural’ style by its comical broken runs on ‘wackelt’ (trembles) in the first line. In the remainder, Bach is either contrasting this plain manner with his own learned style or with the over-affected singing of some operatic soloists. Such an opera buffa movement must have given his student-audience much amusement. It is also probable that the conductors chose the soloists for each role according to their natural abilities and their fitness to the job.

Let us forget all about the initial conditions and get to the comparison of the bass singers in each rendition. Definitions such as old-fashioned, intricate, uncouth, etc. seem to be irrelevant nowadays. Also, we are not in a danger of getting donkey-ears if we take an erroneous decision. So, the parameters according to which the choice might be taken are relatively simple: whose singing is more captivating, charming, and attractive and whose voice is more delicious and pleasant?

Here are my personal choices - the first singer is more to my liking.

[5] Helmuth Rilling 1: Jakob Stämpfli (Pan), Erich Wenk (Phoebus)
[6] Peter Schreier: Theo Adam (Pan), Siegfried Lorenz (Phoebus)
[7] Hans Martin Linde: Michael Schopper (Phoebus), Davis Thomas (Pan)
[9] René Jacobs: Roman Trekel (Phoebus), Peter Lika (Pan)
[10] Gustav Leonhardt: Max van Egmond (Phoebus), David Wilson-Johnson (Pan)
[11] Ton Koopman: Klaus Mertens (Phoebus), Donald Bentvelsen (Pan)
[12] Helmuth Rilling 2: Dietrich Henschel (Pan), Matthias Goerne (Phoebus)
[13] Reinhard Goebel (1996): Hans-Georg Wimmer (Phoebus), Stefan Geyer (Pan)

You can see that in my small comparison the Phoebuses won, as in the original contest. Giving it a second thought, I believe that it has more to do with the choice of the conductors, who gave the nicer role to the singer they favour. Who would like to be considered as a loser? Few singers, as Stämpfli for example, see such a role (Pan) as a challenge rather than an obstacle.

Conclusion

Forget all your prejudice regarding Bach’s secular cantatas and their inferiority to the sacred ones. BWV 201 is a first-rate cantata, masterpiece from beginning to end. Do not dare skipping this work. If I was allowed to take only one complete recording of this cantata with me, it would probably be Rilling 2 [12], although this work is not short of good renditions. But Rilling 2 has excellent singers in every role, tasteful approach by the conductor and juicy playing of the orchestra. The combination of all these components gives this rendition an extra edge.

Was I complaining about the length of Cantata BWV 201? Not really, because this work does have any dull moment. But listening to them all takes a lot of time, and Bach’s music, important as it is for me (and I assume that also for most members of the BCML), is not the only thing in life. How should I handle the next work to be discussed, Cantata BWV 202, with its more than 30 complete recordings, each one of them lasts about 20 minutes?

Neil Halliday wrote (September 21, 2003):
Aryeh Oron wrote:
"(BWV 201) includes so many gems, not only the arias, but also in the group singing (the opening and the concluding movements could hardly be considered as choruses, because they should be sung by the six vocal soloists), and even the recitatives..."
Rilling [12] obviously uses full choir for the opening and closing choruses; nevertheless these choruses are bubbling with joy and lightness.

The musical contest is indeed what we would call a set-up; Phoebus (in Mvt. 5) gets the longest, most intricate (with flute, oboe, strings), and most beautiful aria (many listeners will be swooning on the phrase at "Verlangen"), whereas in Pan's aria (Mvt. 7, with strings), we have an exaggerated cheerfulness contrasted with (in the middle section) Pan's own (and Bach's) caricature of seriousness in music.

I find myself rapidly becoming bored in most of the recitatives, which are performed without the (to me, interesting) 'pedal point' of a long-held note on a cello along with decorative material on the harpsichord; Brad (and Aryeh?) do not appear to miss this element in performance. Ofcourse, this does not apply to the engaging 'accompanied' recitative (Mvt. 14); and the secco recitative Mvt. 12 is interesting for the (brief) appearance of all the protagonists (six of them) in various different positions in the stereo 'sound stage'.

The Hänssler 1996 release of this work, with Rilling and company [12], can confidently be placed in the highest-quality CD recording category.

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (September 22, 2003):
“The Contest between Phoebus and Pan”, as cantata 201 is generally known, is one of Bach’s most interesting vocal compositions. With its duration of some 50 minutes and its resemblance to the then popular early Italian opera, this “dramma per musica” shows that Bach was perfectly able to compose a fulltime opera, had he wished to. Although he must have liked the opera, since he frequently went to see one, Bach and his favourite librettist Picander never applied themselves to the genre proper. Yet, in this extended cantata they used the drama technique effectively, not to produce the operatic stage performance of the ancient Greek myth as handed down to us by Ovid, but rather as a public statement with the aim to eliminate the critics of Bach’s intricate polyphonic music and to silence those who favoured the simpler, aesthetic, style galante, which had become fashionable in recent years. Therefore they did not emphasize the action, but concentrated on the music. Nor did they adhere to the original tale. They adapted it to fit their means.

The audience at the 1729 autumnal St. Michael’s fair could easily associate the mythical characters with certain actual persons in Leipzig at the time. Phoebus, of course, is Bach himself. Pan is the arrogant university music director Johann Gottlieb Görner. Midas is Johann Adolph Scheibe, one of Bach’s fiercest lifetime critics (explanatory notes to the Schreier performance [6]). In unambiguous words Picander reveals the foolishness of Bach’s opponents. Bach, however, never lowers himself to their level. He even treats his competitors with respect. He proceeds in a subtle musical way, never straying from his own musical style, not stooping to satire. Not bluntly ridiculing the style of his opponents but conquering them by a demonstration of his own superior, glorious music. Thus the arias of his adversaries in the contest, Pan and Midas, though only accompanied by the first and second violins playing unisono, are not detrimental to Bach’s reputation as a serious and profound composer. Especially the Pan aria (Mvt. 7) is so cleverly and effectively composed that its musical message reduces the text to verbal nonsense, so in fact it proves the opposite of what Pan is contending. It is a da capo aria, featuring imitations of the orchestra in the BC, elaborate word painting on “wackelt”, and highly expressive accompaniment of the orchestra and the BC. Bach was so pleased with it himself that he used it thirteen years later in his Peasant Cantata, BWV 212. The Midas aria also shows Bach’s superiority as a composer. When Midas as Pan’s witness claims that Phoebus is the loser and Pan the master, whose singing is fair beyond compare, Bach underlines these words with a donkey’s braying theme in the strings. No base ass kickingto reveal who is the ass here, but a subtle referring to the ancient myth. The effect is that any observant listener will actually hear: “Bach ist Meister”. The master also gives his opponents a fair accompaniment. No out of tune reed flutes but full obbligato strings. It is true their music seems simple at first sight, since Bach uses them unisono, but they give full credit to the arias and the composer’s qualities.

The other four arias are all scored with different instruments. The soprano aria “Patron, das macht der Wind” by Momus, the god of mockery, also symbolizing sound judgment, is supported by an expressive BC. Phoebus’s aria for bass, the slow dancing love song “Mit Verlangen”, features a flauto traverso, an oboe d’amore, first and second violins and a muted viola besides the BC. In the tenor aria “Phoebus, deine Melodei” in praise of Bach’s charming melodies and compelling compositional art, the oboe d’amore is the duet partner of the god of Mount Tmolus where the contest is being held, and one could not wish for a better testimony of Bach’s sublime artistry. Mercury, the goddess of the merchants, has the last judgement and decides Midas’s fate. The pretty violent alto aria “Aufgeblasne Hitze” with its is elegantly accompanied by two flauto traversos.

The choruses at the beginning and the end are richly orchestrated with trumpets, timpani, flutes, oboes, strings and BC. In their vocal strength they reflect the six solo singers: soprano, alto, tenor I, tenor II, bass I and bass II. In the opening movement the winds are summoned to make place for Phoebus’s delightful music making. In the final movement, once the contest has been decided upon in favour of Phoebus, he is requested to satisfy our hearts with his charming music is, in spite of unfair criticism. For his sweet music even pleases the gods.

The dramma per musica was not an opera. The singers were not actors. They most likely wore neither costumes nor make up. They were pretty static on stage. Had the singers been transformed into the characters they represented, Pan would have lost the contest on the ground of outer appearance before having sung a single note. For the Greeks portrayed him with goat’s feet, a hirsute body, a dense mass of hair, a pointed beard and pointed ears, a cunning smile and the horns of an animal. Yet, he was the pastoral god, the vigorous demon of the forests and mountains, whose life was devoted to hunting, singing, dancing and amorous adventures withthe nymphs, not to mention members of the animal world. He was regarded the inventor of the Pan-pipe or Syrinx, named after the nymph with that name who transformed herself into a reed plant in order to escape the unwanted amorous intimidations of Pan. He then cut the reed and turned it into a flute. He also tried to seduce the nymph Echo. She, however, fell in love with the beautiful Narcissus who discarded her love. This unrequited love made Echo wither for grief. Her body pined away until only her voice remained. In the first movement Picander refers to this tragic event. Narcissus got punished by Aphrodite by making him fall in love with his reflection. In his turn Narcissus languished from a love that could never be satisfied. He killed himself and from his blood grew the flower that bears his name.

Phoebus Apollo, on the other hand, was one of the twelve gods of Olympus. More than any other god, this handsome immortal represented the values of Greek civilisation. Born of Zeus and Leto, he was above all the god of music. The sound of his lyre could bring peace to gods and mortals alike. Its magical sounds accompanied the dancing of the Graces, the Hours, Harmony, Hebe, Aphrodite and the Muses. After having defeated Pan and the Silenus Marsyas in a contest of music, Apollo gave his first lyre to his son Orpheus whom he had fathered with the Muse Calliope. Apollo’s sanctuary was the Oracle at Delphi, which according to one tradition had been passed on to him by the goddess Phoebe, hence the name Phoebus Apollo. Like all the Greek gods, Apollo had many loves and love affairs. Hyacinth, who is the subject of the magnificent “Mit Verlangen” aria, was one of them. He was a youth of great beauty. They often played at archery, but unfortunately, one day Apollo’s arrow missed the target and killed his beloved friend. At the spot a hyacinth sprang from the ground and ever since the hyacinth was Apollo’s favourite plant.

The position of all the contestants in this dramma per musica is pretty obvious. Pan and Midas versus Phoebus and Tmolus with Momus as an “independent” observer, whose sound judgment makes him taking sides with Phoebus from the beginning. Interesting is the position of Mercury, the god of merchants, also representing the citizens of Leipzig. She is the pragmatic factor, empty-headed (“nach meinen wenigen Gedanken”), playing it safely, not choosing sides until the outcome of the contest. Yet, in the end it is Mercury who condemns most severely the self-opinionated critics of true art, whose lack of sense and reason leads to misunderstanding and wrong judgements. It shows Bach knew his fellow-citizens.

I listened to the performance by the Kammerorchester Berlin and the Berliner Solisten, conducted by Peter Schreier, recorded in 1983, in the Christuskirche Berlin [6]. That venue would have been out of the question in Bach’s day. Without going into details I think the choir outstanding and their marcato approach of the first chorus quite effective. The orchestra plays very well throughout the cantata, a solid strings section, an expressive BC and excellent soloists wherever needed. The soloists are all big names, great voices, befitting the parts they play. Edith Mathis as mocking Momus, ironical and critical towards foolishness; Carolyn Watkinson as a rather loud-mouthed Mercurius, Peter Schreier himself (past his prime but still…) as Tmolus, Eberhard Büchner as a sympathetic but foolish Midas, Siegfried Lorenz as the poetical protagonist Phoebus and the strong, authoritative bass voice of Theo Adam as a convincing Pan, who is yet to be the loser. All in all, a very pleasing, artful performance, that administers justice to the operatic character of this extraordinary Bach cantata.

Listening to the musical examples, provided by Aryeh Oron, I found Ton Koopman’s tempo [11] too breathtaking for Donald Bentvelsen. I‘ve always liked Max van Egmond [10]. The ones I like best, however, are Theo Adam [6] and the powerful basso buffo Dietrich Hensel in the second Rilling recording [12], in which the orchestra plays outstanding as well.

 

Impromptus: Bach’s Thems

Henri N. Levinspuhl wrote (January 6, 2004):
BWV 201, MUSIC (The Contest)

When artlessness is universalized, culture is destroyed, being no more (as after the steps of Giambattista Vico) born in wilderness’ refinement — far from it, the seeds of jungle without law are sown in the concept of culture, the right of the strongest one being a physiologic search for "evolution", the mass-media prompting an improper pride at the grassroots level of aesthetics, and disdain (formerly but a temptation of refinement) branded in the multitude’s indifference, a new culture claiming to have the number at its side - and the number, as soon as its noise fills the air, convinces foolishness to boast about the decline of art’s influence, the winds of confusion indeed laughing at the unashamed rendezvous between time and mediocrity... when a billow of meanness devastates the earth, when the low impulses of blood are exalted, politeness crushed under the crudeness of injury, an insurrection putting aside worthiness with a stratagem of inventing psychologically evils to calumniate it; for foolishness regarded as keenness of mind increases generation after generation, and what departs as boasting disdaining wisdom multiplies easily, and desires to develop itself till the earth celebrates its hatred, and men rejoice, and make merry, and send gifts one to another on the dead bodies of the detested people.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 201: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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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Last update: ýNovember 4, 2014 ý07:33:55