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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 25
Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe
Discussions - Part 1

BWV 25 - “Es ist nicht gesündes

Marita Giampiero wrote (June 10, 2001):
Just a question: why this wonderful cantata with a masterpiece (the opening choir-movement) and his deep symbolism is so poorly known?

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 11, 2001):
[To Marita Giampiero] Scholars and those who have heard this cantata over the centuries since Bach set these anonymous words to music have puzzled about this too, mainly attributing it to Bach's bad choice of bombastic-drastic Baroque poetry. (Alfred Dürr, 1971) Others might have wanted to attribute the 'schock-value' in the choice of this text to Bach's "Sturm und Drang," ("Storm and Stress")period, but he was a bit too old for that. If you ask any religious, or even non-religious persons today, what they think of the text, their reaction will invariably be a negative facial expression and their next thought will be, as it has always been in the past, "Let's see if we can help Bach here by choosing different words that are less drastic and cause less distress among the listeners." Although the text is an elaboration of the Gospel text for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, based on the story about the healing of the 10 lepers (Luke 17: 11-19), it has such marvelous phrases as "There is absolutely nothing healthy in my physical body and there is no peace in my bones." and better yet the recitative that follows: "The whole world is nothing but a hospital." (I admire the straightforwardness of this expression because it conjures up a real image in my mind, as opposed to the humor that pastors are apt to include in their sermons to make everyone feel at ease. Even the 'hell and brimstone' sermons that I have read lack the sense of personal reality that I feel when pictures of illness and death come to mind.) In the cantata there are also references to lust, pride, and greed as possible weaknesses that are caused by original sin, which would mean that these too would result in physical illness. IMHO Bach did not choose this text because nothing better was available, as many would have it, otherwise these individuals would not continue in attempting to improve the text (which usually means making it less 'offensive' or 'troublesome'), as PC ('politically correct') individuals likewise wish to avoid seeing reality when it is before them. Our culture also dictates an emphasis on the positive, and yet reality is there for anyone to see, anyone who can open his/her eyes. IMO Bach had a much greater insight into these matters, a fact that really should not surprise anyone who recognizes Bach's genius. Contrary to common notions that exist about Bach hurrying to complete the cantatas according to a rigorous schedule for almost two years, he took great care with the text and music as evident from the numerous corrections he made in the scores and parts. These corrections frequently took place over many years with repeated performances of the same cantatas. If in those years he had seen a need to retract a text, modify, or find a new one, he could have done so, as he did with all those transformations of secular cantatas into sacred ones.

I admire not the "deep symbolism" as much as the description of a reality which Bach wished to awaken in his listeners. A medical reality, which is not unduly emphasized nowadays, is that the physical body has what is called, for a lack of a better term, 'homeostasis,' a wondrous equilibrium that maintains the necessary balance between many forces at work in the human body. At any given moment in the life of a body, many cells, for instance, are dying and need to be replaced by new ones. What governs this mysterious 'homeostasis?' One factor that might influence this was posted as a news item on my MSN Homepage today: "Do you live longer if you go to church?" The catchy title leads into an article that proves that those involved in spiritual endeavors live longer than those who don't.

Another factor which can be illustrated by going back to the text of the entire cantata is derived from the 3rd mvt. where the bass sings in an aria: "O, from whom can I, as a human being lacking in the knowledge of keeping my body healthy, get advice on these matters?" The answer, given at the end of the same aria, is from Christ Jesus: "You are my doctor, and only you know how best to cure what is ailing my soul." (The thought here is that all the herbs and bandages will not help unless you have asked Christ to aid you. Somehow cultural differences separate the German and English ways of understanding the main quality of Christ Jesus: In the English language, even in the Lutheran tradition (I may have missed something here along the way) the emphasis is on "Christ, the Savior," which I perceive as being rather vague, as wondrous as this idea is nevertheless. This goes back to a general problem that occurred early in the history of the English language. The idea which was always strongly adhered to in German is "Christ Jesus, the Healer," = "Der Heiland." As proof that this meaing was beginning to die out early in the English language, I submit a quote from the OED (Oxford English Dictionary): "c 1440 Hylton Scala Perf. (W. de W. 1494) i. xliv, This name Jhesu is nou_t elles for to saye upon englisshe but heler."

By removing the conceits that prevail throughout the cantata, the "Besserwisser" ("the ones who think they know better") usually present a replacement that is more abstract, and, as a result, less likely to have full meaning in the hearts of the listeners. I find it much easier to picture a doctor treating my physical ailments not only with physical means, but also spiritually by getting to know me very personally, than trying to imagine someone who has saved me by some deed performed in antiquity to which it is much more difficult to relate. (No, I have not forgotten Luther's solifidianism, but in this instance, in this cantata, Bach's way works better for me than abstract theological thought.)

Who knows? Perhaps Bach will be the one to turn the attention of Christians outside of German speaking countries back to the basics of Christian theology, notwithstanding the efforts on the part of German musical scholars, conductors, singers, etc. to undermine the meaning of the Bach cantata texts by adulterating them with bland substitutions that are deemed to be more acceptable.

My thoughts here might also relate to a question asked some weeks ago: Why is the topic of Death so prevalent in the Bach cantatas? If you were to consider the texts of the cantatas from this standpoint and also the chorales that are included in them, you would discover, likewise, very realistic physical descriptions of what happens to a dying person. This also is subject matter that many wish to avoid hearing about. Bach had a profound experience of death, when his father died, while Bach was still a boy. Read more about this and you will begin to understand better this aspect of Bach.

 

Discussions in the Week of September 1, 2002

Aryeh Oron wrote (September 4, 2002):
BWV 25 - Introduction

The subject of this week’s discussion (September 1, 2002), according to Klaus Langrock’s suggested list, is the Cantata BWV 25 ‘Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe’ (There is nothing healthy in my body). The librettist who composed the text for this 14th Sunday after Trinity Cantata is unknown; yet, Young suggest Picander. Only indirect reference is made to the Gospel, Luke 17: 11-19 - the healing of the ten lepers – although the first three movements vividly portray the affliction of the body. Musically, the cantata contains at least two movements, which will not fail to attract even at first hearing. I shall let you find out which these movements are.

Recordings

The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 25 - Recordings

As an early cantata - it was composed in 1723 - this cantata is already included in all five cantata cycles: the complete ones (Harnoncourt [3], Rilling [4], Leusink [8]), and the two which aim at that goal (Koopman [6], Suzuki [7]). On top of it we can find an early recording from the 1960’s, conducted by Günter Graulich [1]. Like last week cantata, BWV 33, this one was also recorded by the German Cantate label. But this time it is available in CD form, since it was reissued last year by Baroque Music Club, with good transfer.

Additional Information

In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to:
The original German text (at Walter F. Bischof Website); English translations by Francis Browne and Z. Philip Ambrose; French translation. Hebrew translation will come later;
Score (Vocal & Piano version);
Commentary: in English by Simon Crouch and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes:

I believe that most of the BCML members have at least one recording of this magnificent cantata. So, please start listening, if you have not already done so. Enjoy, and if you wish to contribute, you are most welcome.

I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion.

Thomas Shepherd wrote (September 4, 2002):
As a result of Francis Browne's message of July 30, 2002 I took the plunge and ordered several cut price BIS CDs from the Susuki cycle from MDT (www.mdt.co.uk) which have arrived. Unfortunately there must have been a bit of a run on those CDs with Cantatas that are to be discussed in the next few weeks, hence, with interest and anticipation, I await vol. 13 and BWV 25.

All is not lost though, as I have a scratched vinyl of Günter Graulich [1] from the 1960’s and the discussions this week has been the opportunity to play it a number of times his week. Its good to come back to this recording of BWV 25 after nearly 30 years. And what a satisfying performance it is. From the first monumental movement until the last chorale (Mvt. 6), Graulich maintains a deep and gentle pathos throughout. The dark depths of the opening words give way to the lighter later movements. In a 15 min. span, Bach tells the story of the effects of the fall, grace and salvation: an effective soteriology. Nowhere does Graulich trivialize this pilgrimage of salvation. The pace is unhurried, measured and serious throughout.

Thomas Braatz on June 11, 2001 ( http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV25-D.htm ) has already written to warn us not to over sanitize the text by fitting it to the ethos of this age and making of it but a metaphor. As it stands, it pulls no punches and is a catalogue of the various disasters, physical as well as spiritual that 'flesh is heir to'. Graulich, I believe, never makes light of the text.

Apart from the delightful penultimate soprano aria (Mvt. 5), the high point surely has to be the first movement. It is one of those monuments to the sheer inventiveness of the composer. I never even noticed the trombones etc. playing the choral melody the first time I heard it, then it became apparent hearing it subsequently as well as the other snatches of counterpoint, inversions, double canons etc. derived from the chorale. For those who are comparing many versions of this work or who know the work, this will seem trite in the extreme, yet it was a moment of pure delight for me when I 'discovered' the well known melody of the "Passion Chorale" for the first time in this movement. How did Bach imagine this movement? At its church performance, would he have buried the chorale within the general orchestral texture or given it an emphasis? So many performances with an obvious cantus firmus are so much in your face nowadays and it is really good to hear Graulich’s performance where the central theme of the chorale is so well hidden. Its like a Piero della Francesca painting ­ you can make a fuss of the perspective and geometry of his compositional techniques if you are so minded, yet that is but the language of the painter. Likewise Bach invites one to marvel at his cleverness, but this is only his language that points to the greater reality of his achievement. It never has to be highlighted.

It is a wonderful movement within a deeply poignant cantata, full of the hope of heaven, yet realistic about the human lot and its need for the grace of God to save.

Thomas Braatz wrote (September 5, 2002):
Thomas Shepherd asks:
< For those who are comparing many versions of this work or who know the work, this will seem trite in the extreme, yet it was a moment of pure delight for me when I 'discovered' the well known melody of the "Passion Chorale" for the first time in this movement. How did Bach imagine this movement? At its church performance, would he have buried the chorale within the general orchestral texture or given it an emphasis? >
My guess would be that it would have to be sufficiently balanced so that the chorale in Mvt. 1 is neither overheard nor does it dominate in any way. The chorale melody need only be clear enough to be heard and Bach took care of that by scoring it for cornetto, trombones and recorders. With the cornetto and 3 recorders playing the melody of the chorale in unison (the 3 trombones fill in the remaining harmony for the chorale), it would seem that no further emphasis would be necessary in a HIP presentation. With the larger forces that Graulich [1] had at his disposal (larger choir, modern instruments in greater numbers), there well could be problems in assuring that the balance is preserved.

By setting the mood with marvelous contrapuntal writing, Bach creates a composition that could stand on its own. In the opening bars of Mvt. 1, Bach ominously and prefiguratively has the bc play the chorale melody in augmentation (whole notes and half notes) as support for the polyphony in the voice parts, but the listeners in Bach's congregation, although perhaps recognizing this allusion to a famous "passion" chorale, may not have been entirely prepared for the full-fledged, 4-pt. version in the brass and recorders. While concentrating on everything else that is going on contrapuntally in the choir and the orchestra (oboes and strings,) the listener is moved to call upon the commonly existing idea and emotional associations that all members of the congregation have with the playing of this chorale melody. Remember that the texts associated with this chorale melody are never, even once, stated (in the printed text of the cantata that some listeners would have,) nor is this chorale sung anywhere else in this cantata. This is somewhat analogous to having a number of people listen to a poem (in Mvt. 1 the listeners have to remember or feel the words) that the poet hopes will conjure up certain thoughts and feelings. The latter will not always be exactly the same with each listener, but the symbolic language is clear enough to cause some common reactions among all the listeners. For the listener in Bach's day, the chorale overlay takes on the effect of an additional insight, a special cluster of meanings associated with the chorale melody. Although it may be stretching the point to call this an epiphany on the part of the listener, there is the element of a surprising insight caused by the connection with the new music that they are hearing. In the midst of all the new polyphony, there is this sense of a 'home base,' of something familiar that helps to ground the individual.

As is frequently the case, this chorale melody, "Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem selgen End" ["I have a strong desire to die easily, to have a death that could be called 'blessed'"] by Hans Leo Hassler (a contrafact of a secular song, first used with a religious texin 1613) is associated with a few other chorale texts such as "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" ["O Sacred Head now wounded"] and "Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder" ["O Lord, have mercy upon me a poor sinner"] where the beginning of verse 2 (as Alfred Dürr pointed out) has a direct connection with the text of Mvt. 1 in BWV 25: "Heil du mich, lieber Herre, denn ich bin krank und schwach" ["Heal me, O Lord, for I am ill and weak."]

A wonderful complication that used to mystify me occurs when the very 1st and last chorales that you hear in the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, use the same melody that we are discussing here. Certainly, the most significant associations of this chorale melody are with Christ's death and the mortality that each individual feels, so why include it in BWV 248 as the very first and last chorale melody that will be heard? For me it seems that Bach is striving to make connections between birth and death on a much higher level. I have heard conductors, who had conducted quite a number of Bach's sacred works, complain or wonder about the reason that Bach had for doing this, for certainly there are other Christmas chorales and melodies that were available for Bach to use. For German (Lutheran) singers who have grown up with these associations that the Hassler melody has, it is rather difficult to think and sing 'Christmas' when the melody is crying out: "Christ's suffering on the cross as well as my suffering, after a life of illness and weakness, at the time of my death." I have come to appreciate Bach's decision to have the listener think and feel the complete experience of life, not simply a strong emphasis on birth without at the same time providing for the balance with death. Asking us, through musical associations, to consider the complete cycle, not just the current emphasis required by the liturgical year, Bach allows the listener to achieve an overview, a higher understanding of life and death. As Dürr pointed out: while focusing upon illness and weakness caused by sins, Bach, in an act of synchronicity and what might be consider the 'kernel' idea or concept, does not wait until the soprano aria (Mvt. 5) to hold out hope to the listener, but rather immediately includes the answer, the remedy for this illness and weakness by discreetly (again, let me emphasize, without actually having the words sung or stated for the listener to read) referring to the melody that will carry the message to the listener who will think or feel the words in the heart rather than actually read or intellectualize them.

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (September 5, 2002):
If one knows the Theology and Christology, it is easy to explain why Bach would use the melody most associated with Christ's death in a celebration of his birth.

The simple explanation is this: Christ came to Earth not to do miracles or just be a good man. He came most of all to die as the sacrifice that raised the ethical condition of humanity. In other words, He came to die.

When I first heard that this chorale was in the Christmas oratorio, I was pleasantly affected, but not surprised.

Its not Bach's language, its one of God's.

Dick Wursten wrote (September 5, 2002):
MELODY 'O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden' - Afterthought / Question:

We, after having heard xxx St. Matthew Passion, immediately associate this choralmelody wiht 'O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden' and 'Good Friday', but in Bach’s days this was perhaps merely an easy to use melody for texts... and not necessarily gloomy ones; (the phrygian character can be 'masked'): f.i. Weihnachts-Oratorium (BWV 248). and I remember it is also being used for: 'Befiehl du deine Wege'.

As already pointed out by Thomas/Dürr: Could not it be the case that in BWV 25 the contemporain audience migth have associated this melodyquote with the text of 'Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder'... and that 'O Haupt.' was not so prominent in their minds yet as it is in ours nowadays?

By the way: This does not mean that I disagree with the theological observations about the 'preaching' at Christmas time as pointed out by Matthew Neugebauer. That is correct in se.

Just thinking.

Rev. Robert A. Lawson wrote (September 5, 2002):
[To Matthew Neugebauer] Yes! And for just that reason the historic Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Advent is the Palm Sunday account of the "Triumphal Entry" (St. Matthew 21:1-9). On the Sunday when the church begins to contemplate the birth of Christ, she is directed to consider the reason for His coming, namely to fulfill the promise made to Adam & Eve by shedding His blood on Calvary's Cross, not merely to raise the ethical condition of humanity, but to take away the sin of the world. One of the most frustrating things I have experienced in my ministry is attempting to get people (I'm talking about members of the congregation, not the general public) to turn away from Santa Claus and jingle bells long enough to look at Christ. For Bach, the "fifth evangelist", Christmas & Good Friday seems to have been a natural association. If it is true, as the story goes, that Constintine took the celebration of the winter solstice away from the heathens and make a Christian festival out of it, it is certainly equally true that modern Christians are content to give it back.

Philippe Bareille wrote (September 6, 2002):
Another masterpiece! This cantata is imbued with gloom and dejection but ends up on a hopeful note (final choral). The more I listened to it the more I liked it. I just have the Harnoncourt version [3] where N. Harnoncourt is not always at his best. In the impressive (so richly instrumented) and solemn opening chorus (Mvt. 1) Harnoncourt natural sense of drama - and this chorus is very dramatic indeed - comes through very effectively but I find the Vienna choir a bit pedestrian and the instrumental playing messy. This part would have certainly benefited from more rehearsals. In the following recitative (the world is filled with sickness of the soul) Equiluz conveys the pain and sorrow with his unique sense of drama and urgency. Even if you don't speak
German you have no problem to follow the narrative.

The bass aria (Mvt. 3) is filled with despair (Grievous illness may assail me) but there is also some light at the end of the tunnel (Jesus, Thou, my Healer sure, Knowest best the soul cure). I would like [once more] to praise Max van Egmond. I don't give a monkeys if he has a small voice. The disparaging comments I have read in previous reviews about him are undeserved.You don't necessary need an Emanuel List or a a Josef Greindl (2 great Wagnerian singers of the past) to sing Bach. This is supposed to be church (a small congregation) not opera. In this aria as almost always Egmond displays his inner sense of melodic shaping in a very affecting way. His characterisation -to the beautiful accompaniment of Harnoncourt' s cello - brings out the tone of the text very convincingly. He doesn't need tricks or frills to move the listener. I have always regretted that he and Harnoncourt parted after cantata BWV 30 (in which Egmond turned in probably one of his best performances in two very endearing bass arias).

The boy soprano (who is disrespectfully not named) is out of his depth in the less downhearted second aria. He is obviously well trained and talented but he can't realise the expressive potential of this demanding aria. His voice is stretched to its limits especially in the higher range. Fortunately much better sopranos appeared later in this complete recording of Bach cantatas by H & L.

In the final choral the choir is too earthbound when we expect more angelic, ethereal voices (despite the fact that there are children!).

To sum up a wonderful cantata but I found Harnoncourt's rendition uneven and slightly disappointing at times.

Marie Jensen wrote (September 7, 2002):
A short note on the first half of cantata 25:

During thopening everything gets worse and worse for the poor soul. The passion chorale blends with the misery (no wonder Koopman [6] could use this movement as the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) in his Markus Passion reconstruction (BWV 247)).The low strings lie like black lines of sorrow beneath a terrible wailing, but when the burden of sins also begins to torment the mind, no peace is left either; the low strings rise restless, and in the last part of the opening the miseries of the first and second part are there at the same time in an awful awakening.

Then the "hospital recitativo" comes and in the bass aria (Mvt. 3) - the doctor! Now the cello plays a theme sounding very constructive and careful, like a cure. Life is getting repaired by Jesus - the Physician.

So in my imagination the basso continuo tells a story of misery and of salvation.

And the review: Koopman’s version [6] is better than Leusink’s [8].

Du, mein Arzt, Herr Jesu, nur
Weißt die beste Seelenkur. (BWV 25)

Dick Wursten wrote (September 7, 2002):
Almost every week I am suprised by Bach’s inventiveness. The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is as intricate as can be expected of this master of polyphony, but this time I was esp. charmed by the soprano aria (Mvt. 5). It took me by surprise and enlightened my day. The voice of Marjon Strijk is good to hear as a change, by the way.

The full richness of the orchestra playing together, accompaning the soul in a heavenly menuett. There's a dance in heaven (title of a famous book by G. van der Leeuw about the religious meaning of music), because God’s ears are 'open' to our lamentations. He sees our suffering and hears our crying. Central theme both of the First as the Second Testament.

I also was struck again by the extreme spiritualisation of the illness. IMHO: when you read the text of the first recitativo carefully you can not but conclude that the poet doesnot refer to real illnesses. All body-language is meant spiritual. Even the children in their cradles are suffering from that one illness (caused by 'sin', the last word of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1)!)

You would think (esp. in view of the massive child-loss of Bachs days), that the reference is to illnesses of the flesh, but I am convinced by the examples he gives when he continues, that he means the 'one grand illness' of mankind, root and cause of all suffering (incl. sickness) : the FALL, original sin.

The three examples of the illnesses which are present in the World’s Hospital are all three classics: concupiscentia, superbia, cupiditas. (= root of all evil: 1 Timothy 6,10). They are symptomatical effects of the Fall: 'Sündenaussatz'.

Leprosy, already in the First Testament, but certainly in the preaching of the church was the favorite illness to portray the destructive power of sin... I once heard some hebraist say that the hebrew word for it could also be translated by 'the egyptian disease', since the root of both words in Hebrew is the same.

In one line: (with Lazarus/Kierkegaard): This cantata is about 'die Krankheit zum Tode', 'The sickness that leads to Death' against which there is only one medicine, the one that Jesus provides, or to be more precize: the one that Jesus is.

EXTRA: the 'balm of Gilead' (Jeremiah 8:22 and 46:11) is used allegorically by Jeremiah and was one of the traditional rhetorical trics of christian preacher through the centuries.. To call out for the 'balm of Gilead' to heal our 'wounds'...the balm of course can only be brought by one person..

Tom Barson wrote (September 7, 2002):
I have follwed these discussions for some time, but am joining for the first time because I have a questions? This wonderful and subtle opening chorus (Mvt. 1)--but what is its key? The signature is without accidentals, suggesting we start in a minor and end, in the final chorale (Mvt. 6), in C. But as I scan the chords of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1)--not so easy by the way!--it seems that e is closer to the center. But this is nowhere near e minor! And the first of the quaver figures in each of the first two measures begin with that Phrygian-like minor second lift.

Harmonic analysis is not my strong point, but this seems unusual to me.

Aryeh Oron wrote (September 7, 2002):
BWV 25 - The Recordings

Last week I have been listening to 6 complete recordings of the Cantata:

[1] Günter Graulich (Mid 1960’s)
[3] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1973)
[4] Helmuth Rilling (1977-1978)
[6] Ton Koopman (1997)
[7] Masaaki Suzuki (1999)
[8] Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)

Pre-Review

I made the Hebrew translation of this cantata only today, after at least 3-4 rounds of listening to the complete 6 recordings above. I have tried this time to avoid reading the text, the commentary and all the messages that have already been written by the members of the BCML regarding this cantata. I am glad to see that the list is live and kicking after almost three years of existence. I tried to imagine based on the music alone what is the cantata about. In the first movement (chorus) (Mvt. 1) I heard heavy breaths or sighs; in the second (recitative for tenor) - agony and pain of a tortured soul, preceding the ensuing aria (for bass), which continues in the same gloomy mood. The second part opens with a prayer (recitative for soprano), after which I heard the singing of praise in Mvt. 5 (aria for soprano); everything is concluded in the final thankful chorale (Mvt. 6). My first impression was that this cantata includes only two attractive movements: the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) and the aria for soprano (Mvt. 5). With every repeated hearing my impression has been gradually changed. At last I came to conclusion that this cantata have to be heard as a unity in one sitting. It should not be broken into individual movements. There is a sense of continuity in the way Bach set the music, which makes this conclusion for me unavoidable.

When I read the text the impression has only been strengthen. The continuity, which I found in the music, exists also in the text.

Then I started to read commentary by Schweitzer, Robertson and Young, only to find out that these respectful authorities do not share my enthusiastic view of the cantata as a whole. Schweitzer even recommends discarding the first recitative (Mvt. 2), due to the tasteless text of Picander. Sorry, but I do not agree. For me this recitative is almost the centrepiece of the cantata, a key to understand its meaning. A good tenor singer has the opportunity here of showing the listeners how important this recitative is.

Background & Review

Due to limitations of time and space, and based on my conclusion above, I shall give you this time only one commentary, which can be used as an example to a point of view different from mine. Nevertheless, Robertson has always something interesting to say.

The background below is taken completely from Alec Robertson’ book: ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’ (1972). The English translation is by Francis Browne (at the head of each movement) and Robertson (in the body of the commentary).

Mvt. 1 Chorus
Flauto I-III all' unisono, Cornetto, Trombone I-III, Oboe I e Violino I all' unisono, Oboe II e Violino II all' unisono, Continuo
Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe
(There is nothing healthy in my body)
The text is taken from Psalm 38: 3. The despairing groups of three quavers, off the beat, are maintained by thorchestra with Hassler’s melody used for the penitential hymn ‘Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder’ (Ah Lord, me poor sinner), best known to us as the ‘Passion’ chorale. The first phrases are reflected in the chorus parts in which ‘threatening’ (‘through Thy anger’), is the extended over four bars, first by the soprano and alto, then by the tenors and basses. At ‘there is no peace for my sins’ the orchestra is silent until the next entry of the chorale melody and again before the closing bars. This is one of the three instances known, in the cantatas, in which the trombones are used other than with the voices.

All the sorrow and agony in the world can be heard through Graulich’s rendition of the opening chorus [1]. No optimism can be found here. It is also amazing how all the voices can be so clearly heard in this relatively old recording. This is the darkest rendition of all, and, to my taste, the most convincing. Harnoncourt [3] fragmented approach goes well with the demands of the opening chorus. It is lighter than Graulich, but still has its dramatic side. I find that conductors who followed him in similar approach (Koopman & Suzuki) have done better in this chorus, making it more interesting and varied. Rilling’s opening chorus [4] has a lot of expression and strong feelings. It is ‘larger than life’ performance. With a little bit more intimacy it could have been even better. Koopman [6] is captivating with the tenderness of his approach. It is not as dark and gloomy as Graulich is and has less gravity, but I still find it very enjoyable. Suzuki [7] has all of Koopman’s merits and more. It is more dramatic, more tense, and has more depth and inner clarity. This is, by and far, the best of the modern versions of this cantata. Drama and darkness can hardly be found in the rendition of Leusink [8], who prefers to focus on the lighted side of life with the lightest approach among all the recordings of this cantata. After Koopman and Suzuki, the singing sounds somewhat muddy and unbalanced, as if the conductor does not really control them.

Mvt. 2 Recitative for Tenor
Continuo
Die ganze Welt ist nur ein Hospital
(The whole world is nothing but a hospital)
A catalogue of all the evils and troubles that result from Adam’s fall.

On the one end we have a tenor of the Evangelist type like Raimund Gilvan (with Graulich) [1], who sings with taste, giving true meaning to the message behind the text, and add something of his own. He tears your heart apart with his agony and pain. On the other end we have a tasteless singing from Knut Schoch [8], who lives empty phrases in the air, giving the impression that he does not really know what to do with the text. Between these two extremes we have some first-rate singers as Equiluz (with Harnoncourt) [3], Kraus (with Rilling) [4], and Türk (both Koopman [6] & Suzuki [7]), who are closer to Gilvan in their approach. All of them prove the point. Should this recitative been discard? I say, never!

Mvt. 3 Aria for Bass
Continuo
Ach, wo hol ich Armer Rat?
(Ah, where in my wretchedness may I find counsel?)
This clinical text, set to fragmented phrases, did not inspire Bach. The last line offers some comfort, ‘Only thou, my physician, Lord Jesus, knowest the soul’s best cure’.

August Messthaler (with Graulich) [1] has a marvellous voice, with richness and depth. He makes the outmost of this aria. Egmond (with Harnoncourt) [3] combines the natural beauty of his voice and his good taste to a very convincing rendition of the aria. I also like the warm and clean playing of the cello (Harnoncourt himself?). Huttenlocher (with Rilling) [4] has the authority and the understanding to make his rendition of the aria for bass second only to his predecessor’s. Mertens’ (with Koopman) [6] singing of the aria is satisfactory, but not much more. I found his singing here somewhat monotonous. Maybe he also has not found the text very inspiring. Kooy (with Suzuki) [7] makes the aria more interesting that it sounds with Mertens. Ramselaar (with Leusink) [8] is less dramatic than Kooy is, but with the extra softness of his singing here, he adds something of his own. The dialogue between him and the cello in the continue is charming.

Mvt. 4 Recitative for Soprano
Continuo
O Jesu, lieber Meister
(O Jesus, beloved master)
A prayer to be made clean from the leprosy of sin.

Well, no one is perfect, and Herrard Wehrung seems to be the weak link in Graulich’s otherwise first-rate recording [1]. I mean only regarding her voice, with what seems to be uncontrolled vibrato. On the other hand, she finds in the recitative drama, where most of the others do not do much. The anonymous boy soprano who sings with Harnoncourt [3] is not one of the best in the series, to say the least. Arleen Augér (with Rilling) [4] shows all the other sopranos how much meaning can an intelligent singer put into an unpromising recitative. And her voice is a marvel to itself. Lisa Larsson (with Koopman) [6] has a charming voice, but she does not do much in the recitative. Nonoshita (with Suzuki) [7] shows in the recitative that she has sense for drama. She indeed makes it meaningful. I do not find Strijk’s voice as beautiful as the voices of her two predecessors, but it is more boyish, and she certainly uses it competently.

Mvt. 5 Aria for Soprano
Flauto I-III, Oboe I e Violino I all' unisono, Oboe II e Violino II all' unisono, Viola, Continuo
Öffne meinen schlechten Liedern
(Open to my simple songs)
At last a beautiful aria, preceded by a long ritornello, in the confident key of C major. The three flutes, echoed by the other instruments, underline ‘when I in the higher choir shall with the angels sing, my thanksgiving will better ring’. The leper is at last healed and, like the Samaritan in the Gospel, returns to give thanks.

Graulich [1] takes his time with aria for soprano, and reveals through this more depth than the following conductors do. Wehrung interpretation is interesting if not always pleasant to hear. Augér (with Rilling) [4] is in a class of her own. Her voice is not so ‘angelic’ as some of the others are, but she compensates with level of expression and beauty of voice production, which make you desiring hearing her again and again. One can feel the joy in Larsson’s singing [6], but I find that her timbre of voice does not have the need ‘angelic’ quality. Suzuki [7] conveys exuberant and bubbling joy in the opening ritornello of this aria, and Nonoshita with impressive technique does not stay behind. I find her voice more suitable to the demands of the aria than Larsson’s is. How disappointing it is to hear Leusink’s opening ritornello [8], back to back with Suzuki. Indeed, Strijk has that ‘angelic’ voice, but I find her singing unpleasant in the upper register. She sounds too strained and not very convincing.

Mvt. 6 Chorale
Flauto I-III e Cornetto e Oboe I e Violino I col Soprano, Trombone I e Oboe II e Violino II coll'Alto, Trombone II e Viola col Tenore, Trombone III col Basso, Continuo
Ich will alle meine Tage
(All my days I shall)
The last verse of Johann Heermann’s Treuer Gott, ich muß dir klagen (1630) set to its associated melody, Louis Bourgeois‘Ainsi qu’on oit le cerf’ (1542).

Conclusion

Personal preferences of the cantata as a whole:
Graulich [1], Suzuki [7], Rilling [4], Koopman [6], Leusink. [8]

A recording to take away: Graulich [1]!

As always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.

Thomas Braatz wrote (September 8, 2002):
BWV 25 - Provenance:

See: Cantata BWV 25 - Provenance

Commentaries: [Spitta, Voigt, Schweitzer, Dürr, Eric Chafe]

See: Cantata BWV 25 - Commentary
:
The Recordings:

This week I listened to Graulich (mid 60’s?) [1]; Harnoncourt (1973) [3]; Rilling (1977-78) [4]; Koopman (1997) [6]; Suzuki (1999) [7]; and Leusink (2000) [8]

Of these recordings, only Graulich and Rilling (slightly less so) can be considered non-HIP, while all the others belong squarely in the HIP category.

Here are timings of the key mvts. (skipping the recitatives) from fast to slow:
The asterisks point to renditions which are extreme. It is interesting to see Suzuki fall into this category 3 times and Leusink twice. Personally I think that the slower tempi are less apt to be suspect of doing injustice to the music, although being boring and slow can become unpalatable at times. The extremely fast tempi are almost always musically irrational. While it is possible for the listener to hear more details at a slower tempo, the limitations imposed upon a very fast tempo are almost impossible to overcome without losing considerable substance that the music should have. Too frequently it becomes obvious that the extremely fast tempo is ridiculous. Instead of conveying joy, the effect is more one of silliness as the singers gasp and garble the words and the conductor seeks only to perform a dazzling tour de force whereby much of the significance contained in the musical notes is deemphasized in favor of a very ‘lite,’ almost meaningless attempt at expressing the text. By using very fast tempi, the singer is more apt to touch the notes very lightly (sotto voce.) In this way the HIP conductor can accommodate the small, half-voices that are ubiquitous in a majority of HIP performances (there are, of course, exceptions to this rule such as Thomas Quastoff, Kozena, etc.)

It is interesting that, in one instance, Suzuki’s performance [7] finds itself in the slowest category (Mvt. 1.) It is not surprising to find Graulich tending toward the slowest tempi, as this is a typical characteristic of many non-HIP recordings. Of interest to me is Leusink’s fastest tempo of Mvt. 1. Is this due to the effect produced by dropping the trombone parts altogether? The brass of this type add dignity to the playing of the chorale and perhaps for that reason the tempo becomes slower. For Leusink the casual treatment of the chorale may have removed the need to provide a complete balance between the choral fugues and the significant chorale inclusion that Bach provided for a very special reason.

Mvt. 1:
[8] *Leusink 4:27
[3] Harnoncourt 4:44
[6] Koopman 5:07
[4] Rilling 5:16
[1] Graulich 5:20
[7] *Suzuki 5:36

Mvt. 3:
[7] *Suzuki 2:51
[4] Rilling 3:04
[3] Harnoncourt 3:06
[1] Graulich 3:10
[6] Koopman 3:13
[8] *Leusink 3:39

Mvt. 5:
[7] *Suzuki 2:50
[8] Leusink 3:15
[6] Koopman 3:16
[4] Rilling 3:18
[1] Graulich 3:33
[3] *Harnoncourt 3:39

Mvt. 6:
[7] Suzuki 1:06
[6] Koopman 1:07
[3] Harnoncourt 1:11
[8] Leusink 1:12
[4] Rilling 1:14
[1] *Graulich 1:28

[1] Graulich:
Despite being an older recording, the voices are clear and balanced. The slow tempo and legato treatment enhances the solemn, troubled feeling that the text expresses. Gilvan, the tenor, has a very clear and moving delivery. The bass, Messthaler, is also a full voice that provides expressive capabilities that can touch an audience in a larger setting. The bc is typically very heavy and legato as would be expected from an early recording of this type. Wehrung, the soprano, sometimes slips into operatic technique (just a little bit too much vibrato – slow and wide), but her full voice is quite impressive, if not as expressive as it should be. The slow tempo for her aria is nevertheless quite expressive of joy. The recorders give the necessary extra touch needed to bring about the needed feeling. Even at this slow tempo, this chorale rendition is many times better than the Harnoncourt treatment of the same chorale.

[3] Harnoncourt:
This is a very sloppy choral performance with all the special accents that Harnoncourt feels are necessary. When the chorale enters, each quarter note is accented and terminated prematurely. Such a punctuated style of playing destroys the sense that this chorale melody is suspended over the choral fugues. It becomes more a matter of hitting the listener on the head with a hammer and disturbing whatever meditative thoughts he may have been entertaining. It is not Harnoncourt serving the cause of this music, but rather Harnoncourt putting himself before his audience and saying, “Here I am. This unusual way of performing is what I want to be remembered for.” The treatment of the bc is quite clumsy at times. The running 16th notes in the bass are muffled. In the opening 4 measures of Equiluz’ recitative, the 1st note in the bc is written out as sounding for 16 beats, but you will only get to hear about one beat (the so-called short accompaniment for secco recitatives). Of course, Equiluz has some very wonderful expressive moments here. Egmond’s aria has an excellent accompaniment (most likely Harnoncourt himself), but nothing much really happens with Egmond’s treatment of the text. Whatever expression there is, is within a very limited range. It is simply not very convincing. The unnamed soprano tries his best (I have heard much worse in this series.) At least he is not unbearable, but quite listenable. Heavy accents abound in the soprano aria (Mvt. 5) along with romantic crescendo. The extremely slow tempo really does not seem to be too slow. Harnoncourt probably used this tempo in order to give the boy soprano a chance to get all the fast notes in. The chorale version is quite ridiculous. For Harnoncourt even to consider performing a chorale in this manner without considering the vocal aspects and the tradition of choral singing gives evidence of musical theory having gone awry.

[4] Rilling:
Despite the trained voices with vibratos (and the sopranos that I have cto detest), Rilling is able to shape the musical phrases very meaningfully. The entrance of the chorale is very moving indeed. Everything is quite clear and in balance with everything else (the voices of the choir with each other, the instrumental groups with their differing objectives), even the ‘rumbling’ bc in the middle section comes through cleanly defined. Kraus, the tenor, is expressive, but I have difficulty listening to his recitatives, particularly disturbing is his high range and frequently wide vibrato. Huttenlocher’s presentation is overdone. He tries so hard that he fails to hit the mark. I always have the impression that he is ‘hamming it up,’ and ‘putting on an act.’ Augér’s recitative and aria are a joy to listen to. Here is a full voice used to its best advantage in bringing out the expressive qualities of the text (which is often very difficult for sopranos to do.) The tempo of the aria is exemplary. Sometimes she sounds as if she is forcing the voice on certain high notes. I do not know why this has to be so, but she makes up for this in every other way. A powerful version of the chorale (Mvt. 6) ends this version successfully.

[6] Koopman:
This is a rather impressionistic performance with the voices, mainly sotto voce, being held back except when special notes are strongly emphasized. This is not like Harnoncourt’s style, but rather more like Herreweghe’s with certain phrases in individual vocal parts reaching a high point and thus receiving special emphasis and thereby drawing attention away from all the other parts. In the process the fugal structure becomes less clear as the balance between voices is sacrificed in order to bring out a feature, a certain turn of a musical phrase. After this the voice recedes and becomes much less important. Koopman copies Harnoncourt’s shortened accompaniment in the secco recitative exactly: very abrupt termination of notes. Türk, the tenor, lapses into moments of sotto voce in an almost spoken style; but otherwise his expressive style brings meaning to the words being sung. Mertens, the bass, begins to sound more like Egmond here in that both are really half voices relying quite a bit on sotto voce singing in presenting the words of the text. Larsson, the soprano, has a rather shaky vibrato that interferes with her intonation and some sloppy pronunciation of German which makes it difficult to understand what she is singing. She has trouble enunciating German consonants. This version of the soprano aria (Mvt. 5) is rather bland and uninteresting. The final chorale (Mvt. 6) exhibits some of the Harnoncourt characteristics without going entirely overboard with them.

[7] Suzuki:
This version has the ethereal quality of a Herreweghe recording without the impressionistic effect that Koopman tries to create. At this very slow tempo, everything can be shaped deliberately while maintaining utmost clarity in all the parts, vocal and instrumental. Sometimes, however, the tenors are weak and can barely be heard. The chorale portion is so loud that it drowns out the voices that seem almost not to be singing at all. Türk appears here again (he was in the Koopman recording) and attempts to become even more dramatic. I would prefer to hear more of the actual notes that Bach wrote and less of the dramatics that Türk seems to enjoy using. Kooy, the bass, very similar to Mertens and Egmond, seems to get more inflection into this bass aria (Mvt. 3). There is a greater range of expression. The soprano, Nonoshita, has to contend with Suzuki’s wild tempo in the aria, and, as a result, some of the low notes that she is supposed to sing are almost nonexistent. This is anything but a leisurely minuet. What’s the rush here, Suzuki? In the final chorale (Mvt. 6) Suzuki adopts the Harnoncourt style with an extra push on each quarter note. This destroys the cantilene singing style that would sound more appropriate here.

[8] Leusink:
The poor quality of singing makes this begin to sound too much like a caricature of a serious opening mvt. of a Bach cantata. As if to add insult to injury caused by the amateurish type of singing heard here, Leusink leaves out the trombones! This causes the chorale to become lost within the morass of this uninspiring presentation. The mvt. even ends on a chord that is out of tune. In the 1st recitative, Leusink has the bc hold out the 1st note for all 16 beats! Hurray! But then shortens other notes in the same mvt. Schoch strains to reach the high notes and has very little volume in the low range. The expression is limited. Ramselaar sings very reticently sotto voce and believes his message will come across in this manner. Not much effort needs to be expended here vocally, when singing this way. Strijk sings her aria without emotion hitting all the notes properly in the high range but barely being able to get much volume out of the low notes. She sounds very much like a child who does not really understand the words. What edition is Leusink using here? The recorders come in a measure late in ms. 33 rather than ms. 32. Did they simply miss their entrance by one measure? Well, no matter. The recorders do not always follow the phrasing as marked by Bach, but rather tend to play everything legato. Leusink’s final chorale (Mvt. 6) is fraught with the usual problems: some overly abrupt endings, sopranos straining on the high notes, individual singers easily recognizable.

Preferences:

Non-HIP:

Both versions (Graulich [1], Rilling [4]) are equally recommendable with particularly outstanding vocal performances by Augér and Messthaler.

HIP:

In descending order: Suzuki [7], Koopman [6], Harnoncourt [3], Leusink [8] with special recommendations for Equiluz and Kooy.

If I were to select a complete cantata from available recordings, it might be as follows:

Mvt. 1: Rilling [4] or Suzuki [7], or Graulich [1]
Mvt. 2: Gilvan [1], Equiluz [3]
Mvt. 3: Messthaler [1]
Mvt. 4: Augér [4]
Mvt. 5: Augér [4]
Mvt. 6: Rilling [4]

Tom Barson wrote (September 8, 2002):
[To Dick Wursten] The issue I have with this interpretation is that it that the "spiritual meanings" to be drawn from the cantata are more like those to be drawn by the preacher than the composer. Dick's "explication du texte" would have made a fine sermon on the Sunday of this Cantata, but Bach's music both allows this interpretration of the libretto--and goes beyond it. There is no duality here between spiritual and physical sickness, or between the Christian's suffering and Christ's. The choir's very vivid physical complaints limp on over the cantus firmus of what will someday be the "passion" chorale.

Speaking of the Hassler chorale, it is also used in this way in theopening aria of BWV 161, "Komm, du susse Todesstunde." This suggests that the complaint-of-sickness theme is not so far removed from the even more common longing-for-death theme (over many librettists) of the cantatas. death, too, is spiritualized ("to die is gain") but it is also an end to the very real suffering dipicted in BWV 25.

To this day, Methodist Annual Conferences begin with some setting or another of Charles Wesley's "And are we yet alive?" Wesley a late contemporary of Bach, and this thanks-for-delivering-us-alive-theme (also in the Cantatas) underscores for me that these folks were not just speaking symbolically about sickness and death.

Dick Wursten wrote (September 9, 2002):
Tom Barson wrote:
< about my spiritual interpretation of BWV 25 that my "explication du texte" would have made a fine sermon on the Sunday of this Cantata, but Bach's music both allows this interpretration of the libretto--and goes beyond it. >
MY REPLY:
1. first of all I am deeply honoured that my humble notes about BWV25 were considered appropriate to be the sermon, following Bachs music.. wish it
were true..

2. I don't want to open a debate on Bach religious - nonreligious, only I want to share some information on this point, which have some relevance for the cantatalisteners too.

2.a. The assessment of Bach’s library shows that he had a collection theology and spirituality of which many vicars surely would have been jealous, among which 2 series of the complete works of Luther and many books with sermons (f.i. H. Müller, a somewhat pietistical preacher, style early-pietism: Johann Arndt). Elke Axmacher - German Bach scholar - I just read, I did not verify her theory - has written a study in which she tries to make probable that the libretto of St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) can be considered as extracts from passion-sermons of Muller, published in a book which was in bach’s possession. Perhaps Bach instructed Picander....

2. b. Erdmann Neumeister, eloquent preacher in Hamburg, 'fan' of Bach during his sollicitation in 1720, can be considered as one of the inventors of the 'modern' church cantata: free recitativ, da capo-arias. In the preface of his first book with texts for a complete cantata-year-cycle (Geistliche Cantaten statt einer Kirchen-Musik (early 18th c) he formulated his purpose, his goal, by informing the reader of 'why' he created this new type of liturgical texts.

"das vornehmste dessen, was in der Predigt abgehandelt worden, zu meiner Privat-Andacht in eine gebundene Rede zu setzen" (the principal point being this: to put in 'metrum and rhyme' that what is treated in the Sermon ). The Bach scholar, A. Clement, with whom I found this quote, writes : Thus the church cantata acquired its status of second sermon in the Lutheran liturgy, in which the text is explained in a musical way (per via musica).

Marita wrote (September 9, 2002):
I remember an old LP that that a pharmaceutical factory sited in basel gave as a gift to my father (MD as me) in the late 1960’s publicizing a new drug .It contained this wonderful cantata. It would very curious to have all data about but it will not be possible for me to get it before the end of September. If anybody has interest in it, I'll go ahead!

Robert Sherman wrote (September 9, 2002):
[To Marita] Was the drug company offering it as a therapeutic tool? Fascinating if so.

Marita wrote (September 9, 2002):
[To Robert Sherman] Well it was for doctors not for patients! Just a gadget to publicize a new drug for headache or so, surely bach is good enough to relief pain (unless german patients who understand the words...)

Dick Wursten wrote (September 11, 2002):
[To Marita]
'Retina Galaad'
new wonderful balm
heals all diseases
body and mind.

reg.code: bwv25mvt3line4

 

Dartington International Summer School

Tom Dent wrote (August 7, 2005):
May be known to some people as the place where Imogen Holst put together a famous mixed amateur-professional performance of the BMM (BWV 232) about a half-century ago (with Peter Pears among the soloists and clarinets on the clarino lines...)

Well it's still going strong as a summer school and last week I attended some of their courses. The Chamber Choir of which I was a member did two cantatas, numbers BWV 25 and BWV 118, with the accompaniment of the Baroque Orchestra and Early Brass groups. It cannot be claimed that we had authentic 'litui', but cornetts and Baroque trombones were much in evidence. The choir was directed by John Hancorn, and also performed 'A Canticle of Man' by centenary-man Rawsthorne on a text based on the book of Job. This was an interesting piece (flute, string ensemble and baritone solo along with the chorus) which one might claim to be about the closest 20th century analogue to a Bach cantata... see for example: MusicWeb .

Back to Bach, the tuning data for those who care were as follows: BWV 25 was at 'Cammerton' with chamber organ and harpsichord, probably in Vallotti / Young - which is what Colin Booth puts on all the instruments he loans to the summer school. BWV 118 was at modern pitch and, being unencumbered by string or keyboard instruments, was entirely free-tuning.

The first chorus of BWV 25 is notably difficult to sing (in terms of both its melodic intervals and breath control), which may be correlated in some way with its subject matter. In principle, with good enough singers and quiet enough brass, there is no reason why BWV 25 should not be done with one to a part up until the closing chorale (Mvt. 6). However, the mass of sound of brass instruments of BWV 118 would probably overwhelm solo singers. It should be remembered that in the version with full brass the piece was probably a funeral motet meant for open-air performance, a quite different setting from most cantatas.

BWV 25 presents many unusual features, such as the use of three recorders in unison to project the Passion chorale melody along with the cornett and trombones. I cannot offhand remember many instances of Bach explicitly asking for several players on a part. Of course the chorale itself is so simple that any three of his children could have
done it...

As remarked in a previous (2002) discussion, the first chorus starts and ends on a chord of E major but has no key signature, thus being nearly in the Phrygian mode - although it sounds like a somewhat off-centre A minor.

Next year Dartington are due to do the BMM (BWV 232) again, this time with 'period instruments' for the first time. With Imogen Holst the rehearsals took several weeks; this time it is supposed to be prepared within a single week. The conductor (Skidmore?) will have his work cut out.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 25: Details & Complete Recordings | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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