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Cantata BWV 204
Ich bin in mir vergnügt
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of October 12, 2003

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 13, 2003):
BWV 204 - Introduction

The chosen work for this week’s discussion (October 12, 2003) is the solo cantata for soprano ‘Ich bin in mir vergnügt’ (I am content in myself). It was probably first sung by Anna Magdalena in Bach’s family circle during the mourning interval for Queen Christiane Eberhardine (for whose funeral Bach composed the Trauer Ode BWV 198), when Bach could not compose church cantatas. The reason for its performance on any other occasion is not known. The recitatives are all very long and complex, which would make one wonder about its suitability for domestic use. On the other hand, the arias are short and tuneful. The final aria is the gem of the whole work, another of Bach’s outstanding soprano arias with intense emotional beauty.

Recordings

I am aware of 5 complete recordings of this cantata and 3 of individual movements from it, all of which are listed at the following pages of the Bach Cantatas Website (BCW):
Complete recordings: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV204.htm
Recordings of individual movements: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV204-2.htm

Additional Information

In the page of complete recordings mentioned above you can also find links to useful complementary information:
a. Original German text and various translations, two of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne) and French (Jean-Pierre Grivois).
b. Score from BGA Edition.
c. Commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide) and Joseph Stevenson (AMG), and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).

Last week I was the sole contributor to the discussion of Cantata BWV 203. I hope that this strange experience would not be repeated and that many of you would take part in the discussion of BWV 204. We are approaching the end of the first cycle of cantata discussions in the BCML, since only 9 cantatas (1 sacred, 8 secular), including this one, remained to be discussed!

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 18, 2003):
BWV 204 - Background

The comprehensive and illuminating commentary below, quoted from the liner notes to Röschmann/Labadie’s recording on Dorian Recordings, was written by Kevin Bazzana.

The subject of the solo soprano cantata Ich bin in mir vergnügt, BWV 204, is announced in the very first line of text: it is a cantata on the subject of contentment. (It has also been known by the titles Van der Vergnügsamkeit and Der vergnügte Mensch.) The work comes down to us through an autograph score, the first page of which bears the title J. J. Cantata. van der Vergnügsamkeit. (Relatively few of what we call "cantatas" today were so named by Bach; it is by chance that two of them appear in this recording [the other is BWV 210, AO].) With BWV 204, the source of the libretto - at least, most of the libretto - is known: it was adapted from a collection of poems by Christian Friedrich Hunold, first published at Halle and Leipzig in 1713 (second edition, 1726). The poem "Der vergnügte Mensch" provided the text for the opening recitative; a cantata libretto titled Van der Zufrledenheit (which also means "on contentment") provided the text for Mvts. 2-6 and the beginning of Mvt. 7; the author of the remainder of Mvt. 7 and of Mvt. 8 is not known. (Hunold died in 1721.)

The occasion for which this cantata was written is a mystery. The most recent source studies suggest a date between the summer of 1726 and early 1727 - that is, during Bach's first few, very busy years in Leipzig. Later parodies once again allow us to limit the dates. The closing aria was reused twice, in the wedding cantata Vergnügte Pleißen-Stadt (or Die Pleiße und Neiße), BWV 216, and in the homage cantata Erwäblte Pleißen-Stadt (or Apollo et Mercurius), BWV 216a, a parody of BWV 216, the score for which does not survive. BWV 216 can be definitely dated to 5 February 1728, and BWV 216a probably dates from c. 1728-1731; BWV 204 must, then, have been written before 1728. One speculation is that it was composed during a brief break - perhaps a time of official mourning - In Bach's output of sacred cantatas, his primary occupation at this time. Dürr, following Spitta, speculates that it was written for private, domestic performance only, among family and friends. Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena, would likely have been the soprano in this case. (She has also been proposed as the intended singer for BWV 202.)

The text of BWV 204 has received its share of criticism. Spitta thought it of "commonplace garrulity," and Schweitzer was amazed that Bach "should have been attracted by such a text." But Schweitzer also noted one aspect of the libretto that may have appealed to the great Lutheran composer: "At first sight, it merely seems to be concerned with the praise of a certain homely contentment and the art of putting away from us unnecessary cares and desires. But the religious note imperceptibly creeps in; the true contentment is peace and quietness in God." Indeed, there is something almost Biblical about the libretto - about the theme (it is better to be contented than rich), the sermon-like quality of the recitatives, the structure and rhythm of the poetry, even (to be frank) the redundancy with which the central point is driven home.

As in a true Italianate cantata, BWV 204 consists of a sequence of recitative-aria pairs. The recitatives are unusually long, and sometimes complicated: Mvt. 3 is accompanied, and has several shifts of tempo; Mvt. 7 begins secco but concludes as an arioso. The arias, on the other hand, are rather simple and tuneful, with little contrapuntal elaboration; all are relatively short, and only the first is a da capo aria. The instrumentation is slightly larger than in the other two cantatas: this time three woodwinds (flauto traverso and two oboes) join soprano, strings, and continuo, though only in the closing aria do all the instruments play together. Bach's music offers considerably more variety than does the text. The variation among recitatives has just been noted; and the four arias are almost self-consciously diverse: the first, in G Minor, is a gentle, rocking siciliano; the second, in the jolly key of F Major, is characterized by lively broken figuration in the violin; the third, in D Minor, features richly embroidered melodic figuration for both soprano and flute; and the fourth, in B-flat Major, is a simple, upright, homophonic dance. The music is occasionally descriptive. In the first aria, the descending two-note motives, Often associated with weeping, may reflect the "Poor heart", referred to in the text. The glittering violin figuration in the second aria may well depict the "worldly treasures" discussed in the text, just as the vocal and instrumental fioratura in the third aria may refer to the "pearls of contentment" mentioned in the last line.

Spitta's praise for the music of BWV 204 was faint indeed: "pleasing and suitable to the words, and that is all.” But then, everything about this cantata is modest: the subject matter, the text, and no doubt the circumstances 6f performance. If the musical setting too is modest, it is justly so - and, moreover, is only so by Bach's standards. We should all write such modest music.

Recordings & Timings

No

Singer/Conductor

Year

M 1

M 2

M 3

M 4

M 5

M 6

M 7

M 8

TT

[1]

Speiser/Ewerhart

1966

1:58

6:48

2:14

5:14

2:04

7:50

2:22

6:05

35:17

[2]

Mathis/Schreier

1976

2:06

6:52

2:04

5:16

2:10

7:28

2:14

5:57

34:00

[4]

Röschmann/Labadie

1994

1:47

7:14

2:03

4:16

2:23

6:26

2:34

4:15

30:53

[5]

Larsson/Koopman

1996

1:43

6:46

1:58

4:07

1:56

5:51

2:33

4:00

29:05

[6]

Rubens/Rilling

1998

1:45

6:41

2:05

4:08

1:57

5:32

1:55

4:41

28:44

Really Short Review of the Recordings

After several rounds of listening to the five recordings in a raw, I still wonder why this cantata has not been recorded more often. Listening to the four excellent arias, each one of them with a different character, but each one also reveals Bach’s artistry at its best. The technical common denominator of the four arias are the high challenge they put on the soprano singer with virtuosic coloraturas, but they also have that unique mysterious Bach’s phenomenon, which engrave them in the memory of the listener for many days to come. So the singer should be both technically well equipped and, with good and strong voice and expressive abilities. The singing should be float like oil, without the listener paying attention to the technical obstacles. I do not believe that Bach has not intended this cantata to be sung by a mature female soprano.

Five modern soprano singers acceded to the challenge. IMO, only two of them have achieved indisputable results. These two are Speiser [1] and Rubens [6]. Two others are almost there, with impeccable voice production and smooth singing, but their expression leaves something to be desired. These two are Röschmann [4] and Larsson [5]. That leaves us with the last one, who really disappoints, Mathis [2]. Her rendition also suffers from the heavy-handed accompaniment conducted by Schreier.

Conclusion

See above. If I had to take only one aria with me, it would be the first (Mvt. 2) with Rubens/Rilling [6]. I would like to hear other opinions, both regarding your favourite aria from this cantata and the recordings.

Neil Halliday wrote (October 19, 2003):
Aryeh Oron wrote:
"If I had to take only one aria with me, it would be the first (Mvt. 2) with Rubens/Rilling [6]."
Yes, this is the most appealing aria of BWV 204. It is the longest aria on the Rilling recording [6], and also features a noteworthy part for the bassoon.

The next most attractive movement, for me, is the following 2 minute long accompanied recitative; the writing for the five-part string orchestra sounds wonderfully rich on Rilling's recording [6].

I'm wondering about the effect of tempo on the other arias, especially the last one, of which I have the impression could be quite a substantial piece of music, if taken at a slower tempo than the Rilling. (Compare Rilling's 4:41 [6] with Ewerhart's 6:05. [1]) The difference in tempo for the 3rd aria, with flute, is even greater - 7:50 for Ewerhart, c.f. 5:32 for Rilling [6].

Francis Browne wrote (October 19, 2003):
This cantata is a curious production. There seems to be no certainty about the occasion for which it was written. Dürr, presumably following earlier commentators, suggests it may have been produced by Bach for performance at home or among a circle of friends. Whittaker assumes the demanding part for soprano was written for Anna Magdalena and talks about 'a delightful peep into music-makings in [Bach's] happy domestic circle' and sees an allusion to the coming birth of a child in the words of the first recitative. This is all very touching but seems mere conjecture

(.Not for the first time I miss Tom Braatz's generous and valuable service in providing the views of earlier commentators on the cantatas. I t would be interesting to know exactly what the evidence is and how this conjecture began.)

David Schulenberg argues equally plausibly in the Oxford Composer Companion that 'the markedly virtuosic vocal part , which reaches high B flat climaxes in all four arias, points to an intended performance by an accomplished singer (presumably female) in a public setting.' In the AMG commentary Joseph Stevenson asserts 'this work was evidently written in 1726 or 1727 for the regular concerts of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig.'.

It would also be interesting to know what led Bach to set this text on contentment by C.F. Hunold. Was it because of an external commission or was it Bach's own choice ? In some ways I find myself wishing it was commissioned, for in translating the rather convoluted German I found the text verbose and platitudinous. The theme is not unsympathetic - it is of course a commonplace of much ancient philosophy , devotional writing and poetry - but the librettist makes heavy weather of it. Bach strives in my view with various success to inject some musical interest into the long recitatives and I have the distinct impression that towards the end of the last recitative even Bach gave up the struggle, for he breaks into a jolly little tune that does not seem particularly appropriate in order to dispatch the last three verses as quickly as possible.

But the four arias for soprano are a different matter. They form a marvellous varied series - oboes, solo violin, flute, full ensemble - culminating in a glorious closing aria that it would be a great pity for anyone who cares for the cantatas to miss.

As with other secular cantatas recently I have listened with great enjoyment to the performance on Brilliant Classics by Peter Schreier with the Kammerorchester Berlin [2]. From the decrease in contributions to the discussions and Aryeh's solitude last week I have the impression that fewer people have recordings of the secular cantatas. I would strongly recommend the Brilliant set as a cheap way to get to know another facet of Bach's genius. Even where the libretto seems unpromising I have found that each secular cantata contains some incomparable music. Schreier's performances are well judged, with some excellent singers.

[2] I have some dissatisfaction with Edith Mathis. She has a beautiful voice and can sing superbly, but there is an unevenness in her performance and a distracting habit of suddenly injecting emotion into particular words and phrases that seems arbitrary and does not illuminate the music. The contrast between her contribution and that of Arleen Auger in BWV 208 on the same cd as this week's cantata makes the point clearly. Nevertheless even in such a cantata as BWv 204 which makes heavy demands on any soprano there is much to enjoy and I feel the performance by Schreier and Mathis gives a good account of a cantata it is very worthwhile getting to know.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 204: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2

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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