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Cantata BWV 77
Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, Lieben
Discussions - Part 1

BACH the Atheist?

Johan van Veen wrote (February 25, 2000):
Francis wrote:
<< Malcolm Boyd, in his biography of Bach, argues that Spitta and subsequent writers misunderstood Bach's theological disposition. Boyd notes that research by Dürr and von Dadelsen places the cantatas in the early years of Bach's tenure in Leipzig. Bach is seen to be driven by musical considerations and not theological ones. Employment at Leipzig offers him access to a choir, organ and orchestral resources, while new musical fashions prevent him from seeking a secular appointment. After completing the cantata cycles in his first years at Leipzig, Bach creates space for secular musical activities by recycling the existing cantatas. Bach is no longer seen as the stereotypical devout Lutheran, but rather speaks the language of his employers and those around him. Music is dedicated to God as a political expedient in a religious context perhaps similar to modern day Afghanistan or Iran.
I would welcome your comments on these points. >>
David Hurwitz wrote:
< I find this perspective to be grotesque. It's very difficult, of course, to extrapolate anyone's personal religious feelings, particularly when they did not discuss this issue directly. But everything that we know about Bach's work later in life (his assemblage of the B-minor Mass, the composition of the Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel Hoch" for organ, his last completed chorale preludes) seems to point to a religious devotion that is both unquestionable and fervent. Furthermore, after his death his personal library consisted almost entirely of either sheet music, or religious literature. This would have been his "leisure" reading, and it was almost wholly of an inspirational nature.
Germany in the 18th century was a patchwork of kingdoms and principalities, and also a patchwork of Christian worship, some areas being Catholic, other Protestant. Bach spent his entire life in the large Protestant north, notwithstanding which he frequently came into contact with his Catholic colleagues (Zelenka, for example, in Dresden), and sought favour with Catholic courts. As a professional composer, he would necessarily have been prepared to adapt himself to local circumstances, as did everyone else at the period. This does not make him an atheist, obviously, nor does it offer any proof of any deviation from his devout Lutheran heritage.
I think perspectives such as Boyd's are based on 20th century cynicism as to the possibility of there being true religious belief without it being "worn on one's sleeve." I also believe that Bach, ever the pragmatist, was certainly able to make a clear separation between his work for the
Leipzig town council (even where of a religious nature) and his personal professions of faith, just as anyone else in his position would have. This is the essence of professionalism. >
I completely agree. I wonder if "Francis" has misunderstood what Malcolm Boyd has written. I can hardly believe they he would hold this view, since there is such a strong evidence of the opposite. I just have read a chapter devoted to Bach and theology in a German book on Bach, and it was convincingly stated that Bach very carefully chose the texts for his cantatas. Unlike other composers he never used a complete cycle by one poet, probably because he didn't like some of the texts. In this chapter, Martin Petzoldt, a well-known German expert on these things, writes that Bach also changes parts of a cantata text, in such a way that they are closer to the bible. He gives a striking example from cantata BWV 77, where in the soprano aria 'Mein Gott, ich liebe dich von Herzen' the third line - in the words of the poet Oswald Knauer - says: 'Laß mich doch dieses Glück erkennen' (Let me realize this happiness [=the fact that my life depends on God]). But 'happiness' was considered to be 'modern' and rather 'unbiblical'. Bach changed it to: 'Laß mich doch dein Gebot erkennen' (let me accept Thy law), which gives it a completely new orientation, much closer to classical Lutheran doctrines. Another point is the way Bach treated the Credo from his b-minor Mass (BWV 232). The structure is such that the Crucifixus is in the centre: the death of Jesus at the cross is the very core of Lutheran theology.


Discussions in the Week of September 17, 2000 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (September 17, 2000):

This is the week of cantata BWV 77 according to Ryan Michero's suggestion. After last week frustration with BWV 35, which IMHO is not a real cantata, we are now back to the main field and to a new discovery. BWV 77 is indeed one of the most obscured cantatas, but as we have already learnt to know, there is not real reason to deny it. On the contrary, we can be sure that a gem is lying there waiting for us to be discovered. Let us investigate and find out.

BWV 77 has an affinity with the much more popular cantata BWV 105, which was discussed in this group not a long while ago. The libretti of both cantatas were written probably by the same writer. Both are models of connected and well-reasoned matter. The general scheme and development are similar, the orchestration of the opening choruses shows a like measure of independence, support of voices, and freedom from high elaboration. No doubt that BWV 77 should be better known.

Among all the books about Bach cantatas and the linear notes to the recordings, I found out that the most illuminating writing about BWV 77 is included in the booklet attached to the Teldec recording. It was written by Ludwig Finscher.

"Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, Lieben (BWV 77), was written for the 13th Sunday after Trinity (August 22) 1723, and thus is also from Bach's first annual cantata cycle in Leipzig. Diametrically opposed to cantata BWV 76 (which has already been discussed in this group, A.O.), it is one of the shortest and most modest of Bach's cantatas. At the same time, however, because of its opening chorus it is one of the extreme examples of the profound, theologically symbolic compositional manner, which so thoroughly sets Bach apart from all his composing contemporaries. The quotation from the Gospel according to St. Luke, which forms the text of the choir, is compositionally set in accordance with a parallel passage found in Matthew 22: 34-40, where the love of God and of one's neighbours is described as the foundation 'of all the law.' For this reason the motet-like imitative chorale movement is encompassed by a cannon (being the law) of the outer voices, trumpet and bass (being the all-encompassing law) above the chorale 'Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot' (all the Ten Commandments are included in the command to love). In this connection, the bass performs the melody in enlarged note values (the fundamental law) and the trumpet has ten entries (the Ten Commandments) and at the end once more renders the entire chorale, so that it appears to be omnipresent. Finally the motif of the singing voices hints at the chorale, clearly at least in the first motif (retrograde inversion of the first chorale line). Perhaps the most wonderful feature of the movement, however, is that the construction and the symbolism have superimposed upon them a powerful solemn repetitive figure, which culminates in subsequent rendering of the entire chorale melody in the trumpet above the tonic pedal point, while the singing parts intone the second half of the text - 'und deinen Nächsten als dich selbst' (and love by thy neighbour as thyself).

Inevitably, compared with this mighty piece of music-theological text exegesis, the other movements of the cantata fade somewhat in comparison; the unusual simplicity of the two arias and their individual tone - as it were the answer of the individual Cto the choir's promulgation of the law - show that this contrast was fully intended. The soprano aria announces the proximity of the loving Christian to God, emotionally in the gentle melody characterized by suspensions, symbolically in the parallel voice-leading of the oboes. The alto aria is, despite its da capo form, less an aria than an intimate sacred song with simultaneously emotion-laden and almost gallant-measure in the line-by-line melody. In marked contrast to this, as well as to the muted tenor of the text, is the use of the trumpet as the solo instrument. The concluding chorus, a relatively simple cantata movement, has come down to us without text. Judging from the contents of the cantata and the line and verse scheme given for the chorale melody ('Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein' - O God look down from Heaven above), it most likely relates to 'Herr, durch den Glauben wohn in mir' (Lord, through faith, abide in me) from David Denicke's hymn 'O Gottes Sohn, Herr Jesu Christ' (O Son of God, Lord Jesus Christ)."

Before getting into the review of the recordings of this cantata, I have to say that I have strong reservation against the above statement, "the other movements of the cantata fade somewhat in comparison". On the contrary, I believe that Bach found the libretto inspiring, because all the numbers in this cantata are beautiful, even the recitatives, and not only the opening Chorus.

Personal Viewpoint - Helen Donath

Rilling's cantatas project is blessed with soprano singers of the highest order. My appreciation for Arleen Augér has been expressed many times in the weekly cantata reviews. I have now the first opportunity to review a cantata, in which I can be delighted from hearing the voice and singing of Helen Donath. The best way to describe the timbre of her melting voice is like a blend of milk and honey. Her expression is combination of innocence and maturity. She is basically lyric, but can supply also drama; she has bright, but also warmth. I do not know much about her personal biography (I could not find any substantial material about her on the Web), but I believe that she is American born, married to the German conductor Klaus Donath, and has international career in the Opera field. I do not speak German, but as far as I can judge by my ears, her diction is immaculate, her articulation is impeccable, and she is very much aware of the textual context of what she is singing. If I am not mistaken, Donath was the prime soprano singer in Rilling's cycle in the recordings that were done during the first half of the 1970's. At mid 1970's Augér took the torch from the place it was left by Donath and continued to carry it to the end of the project. Donath is still active, where Augér passed away in the beginning of the 1990's. Can anybody supply us with more information about Helen Donath?

The Recordings

I have only 3 recordings of this cantata. See: BWV 77 – Recordings (1) to (3).
(1) Helmuth Rilling (1972 + 1983)
(2) Gustav Leonhardt (1978)
(3) Ton Koopman (1998)
I am not aware of any other recordings of this cantata at the moment, neither in complete form, nor of any individual movement from it. BWV 77 is also rather short cantata, but despite its shortness, every vocal soloist has an aria or a recitative for himself (or herself). All these facts supply us the opportunity to go deeper into each individual recording, and get into the heart of the cantata


Last week I have been listening to this small-scale cantata almost every morning. Every time I listened to all the 3 recordings consecutively, but each time with different order. The conclusion was loud and clear from the first hearing and it has become clearer and clearer with each additional round. Hearing Leonhardt (2) and Koopman (3) immediately back to back with Rilling's recording (1) of this cantata may cause a big problem, which prevents us from full enjoyment from them. Rilling's rendering of this cantata is head and shoulders above its competition, in almost every parameter I can think of. Hereinafter are some examples.

a. Time
It is amazing to look at the TT (Total playing Time), from the 17:15 of Rilling (1), through the 15:49 of Leonhardt (2), up to the 13:34 of Koopman (3). Thinking about the Olympic Games, I wonder if someone is trying to break any World Record regarding the playing time of this cantata. AFAIK, Suzuki and Leusink have not recorded yet this cantata. I wonder if they see themselves also participating in the race. If that is the case, I am afraid to think what the next record might be. Anyway, IMHO in this cantata slower is better. The subject of this cantata is LOVE - to your God, to your neighbour and to yourself. LOVE is the connecting thread of the whole cantata. And such strong feeling, with all its variants and richness, should be expressed convincingly and with dignity, not as if it is something you want to get rid of as faster as you can and move on to other activities.

b. Soprano singer
I expressed above what I do think about the singing of Helen Donath (1). In comparison to her, Dorothea Röschmann (with Koopman) (3) simply pales. Although her voice is pleasant, her expression is vague. The boy who sings with Leonhardt (2) is a nice surprise, but of course he is not equipped with the emotional resources, which comes with maturity, to convey the emotional content of the aria for Soprano (No.2) - the heartfelt love, the yearning, the longing, and the grace. These qualities may come out only through a singer with life experience, that is able to express openly her (or his) feelings with great conviction, that reflects also tender innocence - a singer like Helen Donath.

c. Opening Chorus
The detailed description of the opening Chorus by Ludwig Finscher above clarifies the complexity of this movement. All the components come to forth in Rilling's recording. Every component can be clearly heard, the cannon and the chorale, the voices and the instruments, the basic melody and the continuo, etc. And above all, there is sincerity and freshness in this rendering, and everything is bubbling with love and joy. In comparison to Rilling (1), Leonhardt's recording of this movement (2) sounds one dimensional, dry and dogmatic, where Koopman's (3) sounds superficial, lightweight and lacking volume.

d. Other factors
I could go on with the comparison and illuminate other factors of difference, but I believe that my main point is clear, and all I can do is recommending to you listening to this cantata, especially in Rilling's recording (1) and exploring it for yourself. There are two points regarding Rilling's recording, to which I would like you to take notice. Firstly, it was recorded in two dates - 11 years separating them. However, this fact does not spoil the homogeneity of the whole recording. Secondly, it is of course non-HIP. However, for me it has never been a problem.

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

Marie Jensen wrote (September 17, 2000):
I know cantata BWV 77 in two versions, my Koopman CD (3) and Leonhardt's (taped from the radio) (2).

The opening chorus fugue quotes Luke 10: 27: Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben von ganzem Herzen, von ganzer Seele, von allen Kräften und von ganzem Gemüte und deinen Nächsten als dich selbst. Again Bach manages to compose a wonderful pieof music to a law text with absolutely no musicality in it.

The first aria for soprano: "Mein Gott, ich liebe dich von Herzen"... is very emotional and captivating and for me it first was the hit of the cantata.

But during the week I couldn't get the next aria for alto out of my mind: "Ach, es bleibt in meiner Liebe Lauter Unvollkommenheit". It is a very simple song with a slight touch of resignation and sadness. Over it floats a very beautiful trumpet obbligato. Perhaps the trumpet is Gods perfection (Vollkommenheit) and the simple alto voice the human imperfection (Unvollkommenheit). The trumpet part must be very difficult to play, so in the two versions I know, the trumpet play is not "vollkommen". In Leonhardt's case it seems like the trumpeter is in big troubles. The tempo is rather slow and the solo doesn't flow. Koopman's version is much better, but not perfect. I like it anyway. Elisabeth von Magnus sings greatly.

The opening chorus Koopman takes too fast. On the contrary Dorothea Röschmann sings the love aria beautiful, where Leonhardt's boy soprano is not good enough.

Though none of my versions are perfect this time, I prefer Koopman, and I still have this little alto trio on my mind.

Andrew Oliver wrote (September 20, 2000):
(2) This is a little cantata with a lot in it - truly 'multum in parvo'. I have only the CD issued by Teldec, which was recorded by Leonhardt, in 1978. It is interesting that the main choir, which Leonhardt uses, is Herreweghe's Collegium Vocale.

I do not have much to add to what Aryeh and Marie have already said, except to say that, like Marie, I particularly like the alto aria, even in the Teldec version of it. It seems full of regret for our human failings and our innate inability to live our lives anywhere near faultlessly. Which of us always obeys that verse in Matthew (5:42) which says 'Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away'? I can't help wondering if Bach used this aria, first performed in 1723, as a sort of prototype for the alto aria 'Von den Stricken meiner Sünden' from the Johannes Passion (BWV 245), first performed the following year. There are strong similarities.

This is not the easiest of cantatas to listen to, but it does repay study.

Roy Reed wrote (September 25, 2000):
Hello out there... Sorry to be tagging along late. BWV 77 is an amazing piece. The first movement is anyway. The rest is sort of "Kapelmeistermusik" which I would accept as written by one of Bach's contemporaries. Sorry about that, fans, but that is the way it strikes me. The soprano aria, with those oboes honking along in thirds...mercy! They are really an annoyance in the Rilling version (1)...being full voice modern instruments. Koopman (3) does the wise thing. He gives the second line to a violin. Really improves the piece. It may be that there are extant parts that indicate this instrumentation at some point. I am ignorant about this. I heard the Leonhardt reading (2) as well. Of these three I very much prefer Koopman. Lovely sound and appropriate tempos. There is a lot to say about the opening chorus, which Aryeh outlines well. It is a mind-bending theological-musical statement. Such an agile and brilliant mind. In "Analyzing Bach Cantatas," Eric Chafe devotes 2 chapters (pp. 161-219) to this cantata. No kidding! There is a lot more here than many will want to know about. He does a thorough theological construct and takes the music apart more or less note by note. He makes a great deal about tonal relationships and modal scale intervals and their supposed meanings. His ideas are based on 17th and 18th centuries' aesthetics. It gets pretty esoteric. He may be correct about all of this. I will have to get much deeper into it to really understand it. No doubt he gives one plenty to think about. I just don't have time to go down that road very far now.


Suzuki's Bach Cantata Series, Volume 13

Donald Satz wrote (December 4, 2000):
(4) For me, the best reason for a complete Bach Cantata cycle is the opportunity to own and enjoy Bach's rarely performed and recorded sacred choral works. With Volume 13, Suzuki gives us an entire disc of the infrequently recorded cantatas. The contents are BWV 64, BWV 25, BWV 69a, BWV 77, and BWV 50 which is a fragment. I am using Koopman's series on Erato (3) for each comparison, with Andrew Parrott on EMI added for the BWV 50 fragment. The catalog number of Suzuki's new disc is 1041.

BWV 64, BWV 25, BWV 69a, and 77 were written in 1723 during Bach's first year in Leipzig as Cantor of St. Thomas. Starting with BWV 64, this cantata was composed for the 3rd day of Christmas, and the first two movements correspond in text to the Christmas season. Matters change greatly thereafter as the text concerns giving up the fleeting rewards of the world for God and heaven. The vocal soloists in BWV 64 are soprano Yukari Nonoshita, alto Robin Blaze, and bass Peter Kooy. <snip>

BWV 77

BWV 77 is another August 1723 cantata. It deals with the difficulties and rewards of completely giving oneself to God. The opening chorus is joyous and robust music of intensity. As usual with the choruses, Suzuki is slower than Koopman to good advantage. Koopman sounds rushed in comparison to Suzuki's noble reading.

Koopman's Klaus Mertens is excellent in the bass aria, and Koopman and Dorothea Röschmann are very poignant and lovely in the soprano aria. Suzuki and Yoshie Hida provide those same qualities and add an uplifting and outgoing element, which is largely absent from Koopman's interpretation.

Next are a tenor recitative and an aria for alto. I can't muster up much enthusiasm for Suzuki's tenor Makoto Sakurada, but Suzuki himself provides a rich and beautiful ending to the recitative. The aria is lovely and sad because the Alto knows she has "imperfections" and inabilities, which may make her unworthy of God's love. Suzuki's Kirsten Sollek-Avella displays great tenderness and an envious degree of sadness; Suzuki interprets wonderfully. Koopman's recitative has the advantage of Jürg Dürmüller who is in much better voice than Sakurada. In the aria, Koopman is much quicker than Suzuki, and that's not good. There's little sadness in the interpretation, and I don't think it gets to the heart of the Alto's feelings. Elisabeth von Magnus sings very well, but it's an uphill struggle with Koopman's interpretation.

The concluding Chorale is masterful music which flows richly. I prefer the greater weight Koopman applies, but Suzuki's version isn't far behind. Overall, I prefer Suzuki in BWV 77, and it's largely due to his much better performances of the two arias. (Snip)


Suzuki's Volume 13 is one of his best to date. His chorus is excellent, orchestral support is very enjoyable, and the solo vocal work is better than in any previous issue in the cycle. Most important, Suzuki has a great grasp of Bach's music, and he excels in the arias. I do want to emphasize that my rather consistent preference for Suzuki over Koopman just applies to the recordings reviewed in this posting.

Don's Conclusion: Collectors of the Suzuki series should be very pleased with Volume 13 and consider it an essential acquisition. For others, the disc represents a great way to become familiar with outstanding music which is infrequently recorded.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 77: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Main Page | 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
Discussions of General Topics: Cantatas & Other Vocal Works | Performance Practice | Radio, Concerts, Festivals, Recordings


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