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Cantata BWV 91
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of April 20, 2003 (1st round)

Francis Browne wrote (April 20, 2003):
BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ: Luther's Christmas hymn

The text of this week's cantata is based on Luther's hymn of the same name. As usual in chorale cantatas the opening and closing strophes of the hymn are taken over unaltered for the first and last movements .In the second movement the second strophe of the hymn is expanded with a commentary. In movements three to five the anonymous author of the cantata text paraphrases the remaining strophes of Luther's hymn. To enable those interested to follow this process I have added the text of Luther's hymn (with a literal translation) to my translation of the cantata.

(From past experience the formatting will probably disappear in cyberspace, but I hope Aryeh will be able to include it on his website)

Hymn Strophe 1 = Cantata Mvt. 1: Chorus
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ,
Daß du Mensch geboren bist
Von einer Jungfrau, das ist wahr;
Des freuet sich der Engel Schar.
(Praised be you, Jesus Christ
that you have been born as a man
from a virgin - this is true-
at which the host of angels rejoices)

Hymn Strophe 2 : expanded with commentary as Mvt. 2
2. Des ew'gen Vaters einzig Kind
Jetzt man in der Krippen findt,
In unser armes Fleisch und Blut
Verkleidet sich das ewig Gut.
(The only child of the eternal father
is now found in the manger,
in our poor flesh and blood
eternal goodness has clothed itself)

2. Chorale and Recitative [Soprano]
Der Glanz der höchsten Herrlichkeit,
The splendour of the highest glory,
Das Ebenbild von Gottes Wesen,
the exact likeness of God's being,
Hat in bestimmter Zeit
has at the appointed time
Sich einen Wohnplatz auserlesen.
chosen a place to dwell.
Des ewgen Vaters einigs Kind,
The only child of the eternal father,
Das ewge Licht von Licht geboren,
the eternal light born from light,
Itzt man in der Krippe findt.
is now found in the manger.
O Menschen, schauet an,
O humanity, behold
Was hier der Liebe Kraft getan!
what here the power of love has done!
In unser armes Fleisch und Blut,
In our poor flesh and blood,
(Und war denn dieses nicht verflucht, verdammt, verloren?)
and was this then not cursed,doomed, lost?)
Verkleidet sich das ewge Gut.
eternal goodeness has clothed itself.
So wird es ja zum Segen auserkoren.
Thus it is chosen for blessedness.

Hymn Strophes 3 and 4 : paraphrased as movement 3
3. Den aller Welt Kreis nie beschloß,
Der liegt in Marien Schoß;
Er ist ein Kindlein worden klein,
Der alle Ding' erhält allein.
(He whom the whole globe of the earth could not enclose
now lies in Mary's bosom;
he has become a little baby
who alone maintains everything)

4. Das ew'ge Licht geht da herein,
Gibt der Welt ein'n neuen Schein;
Es leucht't wohl mitten in der Nacht
Und uns des Lichtes Kinder macht.
(The eternal light enters here,
it gives the world a new splendour;
it shines in the midst of the night
and makes us children of the light)

3. Aria [Tenor]
Oboe I-III, Continuo
Gott, dem der Erden Kreis zu klein,
God, for whom the orbit of the earth is too small,
Den weder Welt nocht Himmel fassen,
whom neither the world nor heaven can contain,
Will in der engen Krippe sein.
is willing to be in the narrow manger.
Erscheinet uns dies ewge Licht,
There appears for us this eternal light,
So wird hinfüro Gott uns nicht
Als dieses Lichtes Kinder hassen.
therefore henceforth God will not hate us
since we are children of this light.

Hymn Strophe 5 :paraphrased in Movement 4
5. Der Sohn des Vaters, Gott von Art,
Ein Gast in der Welt hier ward
Und führt uns aus dem Jammertal,
Er macht uns Erben in sein'm Saal.
(The Father's son, God by nature,
became a guest here in the world,
and leads us from the vale of sorrow
he makes us heirs in his hall)

4. Recitative [Bass]
Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
O Christenheit! Wohlan, so mache dich bereit,
O Christendom! Come now, prepare yourself
Bei dir den Schöpfer zu empfangen.
to welcome the creator amongst you.
Der grosse Gottessohn
The mighty Son of God
Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen.
has descended and comes to you as a guest.
Ach, laß dein Herz durch diese Liebe rühren;
Ah, let your heart be moved by this love;
Er kömmt zu dir, um dich for seinen Thron
Durch dieses Jammertal zu führen.
He comes to you, in order to lead you
through this vale of sorrow to his throne

Hymn Strophe 6 : paraphrased in Movement 5
6. Er ist auf Erden kommen arm,
Daß er unser sich erbarm',
Und in dem Himmel machet reich
Und seinen lieben Engeln gleich.
(He has come on the earth in poverty
to have compassion on us,
and in heaven he makes us rich
and like his dear angels)

5. Aria (Duetto) [Soprano Alto]
Violino I/II all' unisono, Continuo
Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt,
The poverty that God takes upon himself
Hat uns ein ewig Heil bestimmt,
has appointed for us an everlasting salvation,
Den Überfluß an Himmelsschätzen.
the abundance of the treasures of heaven.
Sein menschlich Wesen machet euch
His human existence makes you
Den Engelsherrlichkeiten gleich,
like the glory of the angels,
Euch zu der Engel Chor zu setzen.
and places you among the choir of angels.

Hymn Strophe 7 = Movement 6
7. Das hat er alles uns getan,
Sein' groß' Lieb' zu zeigen an.
Des freu' sich alle Christenheit
Und dank' ihm des in Ewigkeit.
(He has done all this for us
to show his great love,
at this all Christendom rejoices
and thanks him for this in eternity)

Christian Panse wrote (April 20, 2003):
[To Francis Browne] Very good translation! Some points for discussion:


Hymn Strophe 2 : expanded with commentary as Movement 2
Verkleidet sich das ewig Gut.
eternal goodness has clothed itself)
I'd read "Gut" rather as "property/possession" in the sense of "the highest good".

2. Chorale and Recitative [Soprano]
Das Ebenbild von Gottes Wesen,
the exact likeness of God's being,
I'd understand "Wesen" here rather as "essence" or "substance" than the not-so-definite "being".

Verkleidet sich das ewge Gut.
eternal goodeness has clothed itself.
For "Gut" see above.

3. Aria [Tenor]
Erscheinet uns dies ewge Licht,
There appears for us this eternal light,
If/since (or: now that) this eternal light appears for us,

(The condition is contained in nothing but the grammatical structure.)

4. Recitative [Bass]
Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen.
has descended and comes to you as a guest.
comes to you as a guest.

("Gegangen" is quite redundant to "kömmt", and I don't see how to translate it better than by just leaving it out; at least, to my ears it doesn't add the dimension of "descended".)

5. Aria (Duetto) [Soprano Alto]
Den Engelsherrlichkeiten gleich,
like the glory of the angels,
... glories ...

Hymn Strophe 7 = Movement 6
Des freu' sich alle Christenheit
Und dank' ihm des in Ewigkeit.
at this all Christendom rejoices
and thanks him for this in eternity)
At this all Christendom shall rejoice
and [shall] thank him for this in eternity.


Quite esoteric remarks perhaps, but your translation is so fine that I was itching to have my say ;-)

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 21, 2003):
Christian Panse commented on Francis Browne's translation as follows:

>>> Hymn Strophe 2 : expanded with commentary as Movement 2
> [...]
> Verkleidet sich das ewig Gut.
> eternal goodness has clothed itself)
I'd read "Gut" rather as "property/possession" in the sense of "the highest good".<<
Check the following statement by Luther:

Und das ist das wahre Gut: denn es ist geistig und ewig.
[Martin Luther: Erste Vorlesungen über die Psalmen (1513/1515), p. 127

I see no sense of „property/possession“ as described by Luther above.

The DWB gi‘aeternum bonum’ as the meaning of ‘ewiges Gut.’

Referring only to a spiritual quality, it is in direct contrast to ‘property/possession’ in a physical sense.

Francis Browne had:
>>4. Recitative [Bass]
> [...]
> Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen.
> has descended and comes to you as a guest.<<
And Christian Panse suggested:
>>comes to you as a guest.
("Gegangen" is quite redundant to "kömmt", and I don't see how to translate it better than by just leaving it out; at least, to my ears it doesn't add the dimension of "descended".)<<
DWB: “Die Art des Kommens wird oft durch ein zweites Verbum bestimmt, das eigner Weise gewöhnlich im Partizip Praeteritums auftritt.“ [“The manner of coming is frequently determined by a second verb which usually appears independently as a past participle.”]

Die Katze kam geschlichen. [„The cat came (a-) crawling.“] Er kommt gefahren. [“He’s coming by vehicle.”] Jeder Freund kam angerannt. [“Every friend came (a) running {to this person}”]…je näher sie herangeschritten kam. [“…the closer she came walking up to {the person(s) involved}”] Sie kommt dann ans Ufer geschwommen. [“She then comes swimming {up} to the shore.”]

OED: to go a begging; to go a fishing

‘come’ is also used merely of the accomplishment of the movement, involved in ‘reaching’ or ‘becoming present’ at any place or point; and sometimes the entrance upon motion, involved in ‘issuing’ from a source, is alone, or at least chiefly, thought of.

Also without the ‘a’ prefix:

An action accompanying the hitherward motion (and often constituting the principal notion) was originally expressed by a following infinitive; but now by a following participle in ‘-ing.’ Ex: The fog came pouring in; the knights come riding two and two; the nag came galloping towards me; he saw Richard come riding his horse, etc.

Once again Francis Browne’s translation:
>>Der grosse Gottessohn
The mighty Son of God
Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen.
has descended and comes to you as a guest.<<
Literally “Der große Gottessohn | Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen“ should be translated: „The great Son of God comes (is coming, will come) to you as a guest as a human being walking on two legs.” or “He comes a walking to you as (your/a) guest.”

A listener in Bach’s time would have had this picture in mind, but Bach musically adds the direction of 'downwards' or 'descending' by having the bass sing a ‘drooping’ or ‘descending’ line, particularly after the key word “Gast” [“guest.”] The question before the translator is whether to include Bach’s implied musical interpretation in the translation or not. Considering the “gegangen” as redundant does not do justice to the meaning of this line which clarifies the distinction between God the Father and the Son who actually walked upon the face of the earth as a human being on two legs, but adding the downwards direction is perhaps adding more information than the line states on the surface. Should we leave it to reader of the English translation to make the connection with this ‘downward’ direction by listening to the music, or should the reader be forearmed with this information and thus lose the surprise that comes from making this discovery through Bach’s music?

I hope this type of commentary will make clear the momentous task that falls upon Francis Browne and all the other contributors who have provided (and are still providing in various languages) translations for the Bach cantatas.

Francis Browne wrote (April 21, 2003):
Thanks to Christian and Tom for their helpful comments. To avoid clogging the list with translation questions I have replied offlist. But all corrections and improvements for any of my translations are very welcome.

I have become increasingly interested in the way in which the text of many of Bach cantatas has been adapted from German hymns which would have been very familiar to Bach's original congregations. This hymns in turn are sometimes based on Latin originals.

Where possible I intend to provide texts and translations of these hymns as a further resource for the cantatas on Aryeh's ever more wonderful site.

Aryeh Oron wrote (April 21, 2003):
BWV 91 - Introduction

The subject of this week’s discussion (April 20, 2003) is the Chorale Cantata BWV 91 ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’ (Praised be you, Jesus Christ) for Christmas Day.

This cantata could well have been the first of a series for Christmas week, all dating about this time (1724-1725). These are BWV 91 (Christmas Day), BWV 57 (Christmas Monday), BWV 121 (2nd Day of Christmas), BWV 151 (3rd Day of Christmas) and BWV 122 (1st Sunday after Christmas Day). If they are all in the same year, we would be reminded of the six cantatas that compose the Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 of the year 1734. Luther hymn of the same title was used by the unknown librettist (Picander?). In his poem he quotes the 1st, 2nd and 7th stanzas for the 1st, 2nd and 6th movements, and paraphrases the intervening ones. Bach’s setting for each movement brings out all the joy of Christmas Day implied in Luther’s hymn. The music is exceptionally beautiful.


The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found at the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 91 - Recordings

Two weeks ago Brad complained about the low number (6) of recordings of Cantata BWV 72. What shall we say of a cantata that has only four, all of which come from recorded cantata cycles: Rilling (1972+1984!) [1], Leonhardt (1979) [2], Leusink (2000) [4] and Koopman (2000) [5]. Does this cantata justify its relative neglect? Judging by the music the answer is definitely NOT!

Additional Information

In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to the original German text and various translations, five (!) of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne), French (Jean-Pierre Grivois), Hebrew (Aryeh Oron), Portuguese (Rodrigo Maffei Libonati) and Spanish (Francisco López Hernández). The Web offers for the English readers two more options (Z. Philip Ambrose and Pamela Dellal), and even a Japanese translation (Hideo Kobayashi).
There are also links to the Score (Vocal & Piano version, located at the BCW) and to few commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide) and Craig Smith (Emmanuel Music); in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).

Mvt. 3 Aria for Tenor - Background and Music Examples
Gott, dem der Erden Kreis zu klein’
(God, for whom the orbit of the earth is too small,)
Oboe I-III, Continuo

Some commentaries for background

Alec Robertson (1972):
The aria, a paraphrase of verses 3-4, has the dotted rhythm Bach frequently uses to depict royal state. ‘Heaven and earth’, the text declares, ‘cannot encompass God and yet he is born in a humble manger’.

W. Murray Young (1982):
The three oboes accompany him with a rhythm of quiet solemnity, that gives his voice the tone of a soothing lullaby in the first half of his aria. The second part, however, has a touch of the didactic about it, before the cradle-song imagery return in the da capo.

David Humphreys (1999):
The aria in A minor, set to the accompaniment of the woodwind (three oboes and bassoon doubling continuo). The ritornello material is based on sprightly figure in dotted rhythms which gives the music a galant air, the regal French ‘dotted style’ being the normal symbolic representation of kingly majesty in Baroque music from Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) onwards. The movement is in an unusually clear-cut ritornello form, with medial entries in E minor, G , D minor, and E minor punctuating the main periods in the development of the music. An abundance of dynamic and articulation marks further emphasizes the expressive character of the music.

Music Examples
You can listen to Music Examples of this aria from all four recordings of the cantata: through the following page: Cantata BWV 91 – Music Examples
Leonhardt recording [2] is located at David Zale’s Website; the other three in the BCW.

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

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 22, 2003):
BWV 91 - Provenance:

See: Cantata BWV 91 - Provenance

Dürr’s Commentary:

See: Cantata BWV 91 - Commentary

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 23, 2003):
BWV 91 - Commentaries: [Schweitzer, Ludwig Finscher, Eric Chafe, Little & Jenne {Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach}, Daniel R. Melamed, The Csibas, David Humphreys]

See: Cantata BWV 91 - Commentary

Neil Halliday wrote (April 23, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] This would be the Prelude of BWV 552 for organ, known as the 'St. Anne'.

From the score I have: "...As Bach published the Prelude and Fugue in the Clavierubung, Part III, they were separated by 21 chorale-preludes for organ."

Sir David Willcox played it at the funeral service of the Queen Mother (in Westminster Abbey) to great effect. It is indeed one of the most majestic organ pieces.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 23, 2003):
Neil stated: >>This would be the Prelude of BWV 552 for organ, known as the 'St. Anne'.<<
That's it. Thanks, Neil.

Christian Panse werote (April 23, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz]
< Check the following statement by Luther:

Und das ist das wahre Gut: denn es ist geistig und ewig.
Martin Luther: Erste Vorlesungen über die Psalmen (1513/1515),
p. 127

I see no sense of „property/possession“ as described by
Luther above.

The DWB gives ‘aeternum bonum’ as the meaning of ‘ewiges Gut.’

Referring only to a spiritual quality, it is in direct contrast to ‘property/possession’ in a physical sense. >
But look for example at this passage from Luther's "Deudsch Catechismus" (1529) dealing with the First Commandment:

# Denn Gott zu haben, kannst du wohl abnehmen, daß man ihn nicht
# mit Fingern ergreifen und fassen, noch in Beutel stecken oder
# in Kasten schließen kann. Das heißt ihn aber gefaßt, wenn ihn
# das Herz ergreift und an ihm hängt. [...]
# Darum will er uns von allem andern abwenden, das außer ihm ist,
# und zu sich ziehen, weil er das einzige, ewige Gut [*1] ist. Als
# sollte er sagen: was du zuvor bei den Heiligen gesucht oder auf
# den Mammon und sonst vertraut hast, des versiehe dich alles zu
# mir und halte mich für den, der dir helfen und mit allem Guten
# [*2] reichlich überschütten will.

Due to lack of time no really exact translation:

"To have God, you will agree that one can't catch him with fingers, or lock him into pouches or chests. Having him is when the heart grasps him and is attached to him. [...]
Therefore he wants to turn us away from everything apart from him and pull us to him, because he is the only, eternal good [*1]. As if he said: Everything you wanted to have from the Saints or what you trusted in Mammon etc., that expect from me and regard me as the one who wants
to help you and overwhelm you with everything good [*2]."

[*1] I see a very clear meaning of "Gut" = "possession/property" here, as opposed to money and aother things one locks in.
[*2] Here, "Gutes" means "what is/does good".

As a German native speaker, I feel that the use of adjectives as subjects and objects of a sentence on an equal footing with normal nouns came up much later, at the end of the 18th Century or so - perhaps with Goethe? In every case it sounds rather "romantic".

Besides, it's remarkable that Luther today is more comprehensible than some average baroque lyrics...

Neil Halliday wrote (April 23, 2003):
Comparison of Tenor aria from BWV 91

Rilling (modern instruments) [1] and Leonhardt (period instruments) [2] have the most substantial orchestral accompaniments; Leusink [4] and Koopman [5] present the lighter approach ( with the dot above the note instead of after it, in the dotted accompaniment - as we have discussed before).

Both Kraus (with Rilling), and Equiluz (with Leonhardt) are pleasing, with their 'classic' tenor voices; Kraus reminds me of Ian Bostridge on the Biondi/Europa Galante Bach arias CD, of which several people have spoken highly.

Leonhardt has the better tempo (the slowest), but the dotted rhythm is too pointed for my taste, and since I prefer the timbres of modern instruments, I would choose the Rilling (despite having the fastest tempo) from these examples.

Rilling has a good balance between the three main 'groups' ie tenor, three oboes, and continuo. No organ sound is evident in the continuo -but the bassoon is clearly heard, with a harpsichord faintly evident.

By contrast, Leonhardt has a chamber organ playing a conspicuous role, along with a cello, in the continuo.

Philippe Bareille wrote (April 24, 2003):
This Christmas cantata richly scored epitomises Bach genius and it is difficult to believe that only four recordings are available.

I have just Leonhardt [2] who conveys a sense of radiance and occasion that befits the elation of Christmas. The Hannover boys used to be the purveyor of remarkable boy sopranos such as the seraphic Detlef Bratschke who sings remarkably in this cantata. However, as a choir they sound incredibly lacklustre especially compared with their counterpart from Tölz. Fortunately, the instrumental playing lives up to the stature of the music (the horns!). Leonhardt bass continuo is as always lively. The tenor Equiluz gives an outstanding performance with his unique sense of urgency. Gustav Leonhardt emphasis on the dotted rhythm is just right. He is endowed with a natural sense of this music he has been playing for more than 50 years now. He is less extrovert than his colleague Harnoncourt perhaps more protestant and less Catholic in his often stern but spiritual approach. Max van Egmond one of the strengths of the entire series is admirable in the recitative, betraying his awareness of the text: his declamation is unmatched in my opinion. A great cantata served by an excellent rendition.

Bart Stolzel wrote (April 25, 2003):
I only have the Rilling record [1]. I've played it about ten times since acquiring it a couple of weeks ago. The notes I took for this exercise were:

1 I love the whole work
2 Rilling's opening chorus is fine, but I'd like to hear a grander approach from someone like Gönnenwein, or more radical from eg Leonhardt [2]
3 Rilling's movements 2/3/4/6 are fine
4 For me, the highlight of the work is the duet (movement 5). I find the Rilling performance sublime.

Then I looked at people's contributions in this group, listened to some of the extracts and came up with these notes:

1 Opening chorus: Yes, I did prefer the Leonhardt approach. Pity there's no Gönnenwein or Richter recording.
2 Duet (movement 5). Leonhardt's interpretation [2] is much more dance-like than Rilling's [1]. The incisive tone of his male soloists fits the music excellently (IMO). It's not exactly sublime, but I'd want to have both performances.
3 Some may feel that Leonhardt's interpretation [2] of the duet fits the words less well than Rilling's [1] or other performances. Perhaps, even, that it contradicts the symbolism. I couldn't care less about this issue. I'm just attracted to the music. I find that, in general, explanations of how particular words or themes are illustrated and reinforced by Bach's music doesn't increase my enjoyment. Sorry, but that's how I am.

BTW, two queries:
How do I get the Koopman [5] excerpts to play?
Does anyone have any data on Rilling's choir, Gächinger Kantorei? Is it 10, 20, 30 voices?

Jane Newble wrote (April 26, 2003):
This is a delightful cantata. I have only listened to Leusink [4], so I am not comparing, just noting a few things that struck me.

Sometimes I wonder about music in heaven. My college tutor used to say: "When God wants to listen to music, he listens to Bach." A wonderful prospect!

This sort of opening chorale reveals the joy of angels, with all the voices and instruments in festive mood, especially the banging of the timpani, as if to emphasise the jubilation.

The soprano recitative I find very interesting, in the way it expresses amazement at the difference between the glory of heaven and the poverty of human experience and that someone should want to leave the one for the other.

The tenor aria and bass recitative repeat this in various ways, culminating in the 'Jammertal' at the end of the bass, showing that there is good reason for rejoicing.

In the duet I love the contrast between the instruments, happily skipping through the notes like carefree little girls, and the contemplative mood of the voices.

The closing chorale confirms all the joy and wonder at the great love of God.

Bart Stolzel wrote (April 26, 2003):
Jane Newble wrote:
< In the duet I love the contrast between the instruments, happily skipping through the notes like carefree little girls, and the contemplative mood of the voices. >
In message 4668 Thomas Braatz cites a number of commentaries on BWV 91, and they mostly agree that the instrumental music of the duet is about the solemnity and majesty of God - not skipping little girls.

Please don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying anybody is right or wrong. The Leonhardt performance [2] sounds dance-like, and so I can well believe that the Leusink [4] sounds exactly as you say. The Rilling [1], which I have, is much closer to solemnity than skipping - and, no doubt, more traditional performances heard by the commentators who write a while back that trait was even more marked.

The reason I write is to pose the question: Does this matter?

You might believe that one way of playing the piece - either skipping or majesty - is right because it fits the words best - and thus that the other way is wrong.

Or you might believe that whichever of the two sounds best is best, irrespective of the meaning of the words.

As I said in my own message on BWV 91, I go for the second of these positions. It's a fundamental issue of course, because it applies to pretty well all the cantatas.

Jane Newble wrote (April 27, 2003):
[To Bart Stolzel] You raise a question that has occupied me quite often, too, and as you say, it really is a fundamental issue and very interesting, I think. On purpose I did not read the commentaries until I had listened to the cantata. I don't always have the courage to do that.

My 'interpretation' of what I heard was different from the commentators, although I did not mean anything frivolous with my comment. I wonder what they would have said if they had only heard Leusink [4]? Did they comment on the written music only? I suppose even then a lot depends on how they felt about Bach, the subject, what their theological background was, etc.

I am not a musical scholar, so the way I hear it would therefore be different, too. And I am sure my faith makes me listen in a different way from someone who is an atheist.

If I had listened to different performances, I might have come away with a different idea. But the way Leusink [4] does this, really made me think of when I was young, and there were days when I skipped/danced all the way to school because I felt so happy. The music in the duet reminded me of that happiness.

Now whether Bach had that in mind, I don't know. But does anyone else know? Does one have to be a scholar to 'know' Bach's mind? Thank you for raising this question. I would be very interested to hear other ideas on this.

I suppose this is one of the reasons why it is so good to hear how different people experience Bach's cantatas.

Bart Stolzel wrote (April 27, 2003):
Jane Newble wrote:
< You raise a question that has occupied me quite often, too, and as you say, it really is a fundamental issue and very interesting, I think. >
I'm planning to burden you guys with some more thoughts on this issue in about a week or two.

Meanwhile, if you possiby can, listen to the Rilling interpretation [1] of that duet movement.

It's on the page Aryeh has set up (referenced in 4639) - except I couldn't get it or the Koopman [5] to work. But when I went to Tower that worked.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 27, 2003):
BWV 91 - The Recordings:

This week I listened to the following recordings:

Rilling (1972 {non-choral}; 1984 {choral}) [1]; Leonhardt (1979) [2]; Leusink (2000) [4]; Koopman (2000) [5]

Timings from slowest to fastest:

TT: Rilling (18:50); Leonhardt (18:02); Leusink (17:12); Koopman (16:20)

Mvt. 1 (Choral): Rilling (3:21); Leonhardt (3:01); Leusink (2:55); Koopman (2:51)
Mvt. 2 (Recit): Rilling (2:12); Leusink (1:43); Leonhardt (1:39); Koopman (1:38)
Mvt. 3 (Aria): Leonhardt (3:16); Leusink (2:54); Koopman (2:45); Rilling (2:36)
Mvt. 4 (Recit): Leusink (1:18); Rilling (1:17); Koopman (1:17); Leonhardt (1:15)
Mvt. 5 (Duet): Rilling (8:31); Leonhardt (8:13); Leusink (7:35); Koopman (7:00)
Mvt. 6 (Chorale): Rilling (0:53); Leusink (0:47); Koopman (0:46); Leonhardt (0:38)

With Rilling as non-HIP and the others in the HIP category, there are hardly any surprises here when Rilling is slower than any of the HIP recordings. The only real surprise in Mvt. 3 (tenor aria) where Rilling has the fastest tempo. These tempi simply confirm my speculative theories that I have previously discussed. A number of different factors generally converge to bring about this increase in tempi and the results are quite apparent and do affect the type of impression upon the listener that these faster tempi create.

Mvt. 1:

Leusink’s version [4] is very busy, but lacks depth and substance. Striking the timpani hard with the horns being heard above the fray is simply insufficient to make up for the lack of strength in all other areas: the occasionally ‘peeping’ sound of a chest organ with 4’ and 2’ stops drawn, a lumbering double bass and the thin-sounding, raspy choir all work together to create the impression of tentativeness and incompleteness not inherent in this great introductory, concertante chorale fantasia. Koopman [5] adds, and this is quite laudable and a great improvement over Leusink, a more balanced lightness to his reading of this composition. Generally all the parts are clearly perceptible. Now it seems that all that is missing is true substance with a sense of real engagement. Leonhardt [2] increases greatly the excitement that a listener can feel from this music: the instrumental choirs are much more distinguishable here – the horns clearly heard above everything, the unusually thin-sounding, rather penetrating oboes which never get completely overwhelmed by the rest of the full orchestra and choir. The sound of the choir is admirable as well as it helps to have boys singinthe cantus firmus. I do believe, however, that with the Vienna Choir Boys singing the soprano and alto parts, these vocal lines would be even stronger and would be an improvement over the Hannover Boys’ Choir. With Rilling [1] at the slowest tempo in this group, this mvt. truly ‘sings’ much more than in any of the HIP versions. This is due to the greater use of legato and the avoidance of the sharp, accented staccato encountered in some of the HIP recordings. The overall effect here is one of great grandeur and joy to bring about a truly uplifting musical experience despite the lack of a truly ideal boys’ and young men’s choir sound which would make it nearly perfect.

Mvt. 2:

There is an implied contrast between the recitative and the chorale portions of this mvt. Koopman [5] and Rilling [1] both use female voices from the choir for the chorale sections. In both cases there is a striking contrast between the extremely operatic singing of the recitative by the female soloists and the rather languid, disinterested singing of the female choir members. I do not think that this would be so if a small group of boy sopranos had been used instead. Both soprano soloists (Larsson [Koopman] and Donath [Rilling]) [1] overdo the operatic treatment/interpretation of the recitative text with Donath being the worst offender in this regard. Between the 2 remaining recordings (Holton [Leusink] [4] and Bratschke [Leonhardt] [2], the distinction is quite clear. [Both also sing the chorale melody.] While attempting to sing like a boy soprano, Holton, although delivering the right notes at the right time at the right pitch, sounds quite uninteresting because she lacks inflection and the ability to endow this music with true meaningful substance that can only come from a soulful interpretation of the text. Bratschke, on the other hand, as a boy soprano succeeds much better at this and achieves remarkably more intensity in his delivery than Holton does. Only the chorale line suffers slightly when Leonhardt causes Bratschke to ‘pick at’ the chorale melody (sing in non-legato style), thus depriving it of the true substance that it must have.

Mvt. 3:

Van der Meel’s (Leusink) [4] presentation, which involves jumping lightly from note to note while being accompanied by an instrumental ensemble that ‘pokes’ at many of the notes, gives the impression of a leprechaun jumping about and having a jolly good time. This is a very one-dimensional interpretation, an interpretation that has gone off in the wrong direction emphasizing instead of God’s majesty, the “narrowness of the crib” and the “children” of the Light. Prégardien (Koopman) [5] manages to put more expression into his singing of the text, but Koopman, at nearly the same tempo as Leusink, succeeds in removing even more majesty from this piece by transforming this into a light, hopping dance suitable for shepherds who feel joy but are afraid to wake up the sleeping child in the manger. Kraus (Rilling) [1] sings forth with great stamina, deliberation and insistence. There is no way that this reed choir is going to drown out or overwhelm this voice! Despite the fact that Rilling has chosen the fastest tempo in this group of recordings, he nevertheless manages not to allow this mvt. to revert to a silly ‘prancing about’ like a dance. Kraus begins very seriously (trying to be majestic at this fast tempo is not an easy thing to carry off!), but he changes his expression very effectively at the words “Erscheint uns dies ewge Licht….” Rilling, by maintaining a strong legato line, rather than the light, unaccented staccato as in the above versions, supports the dignity that this mvt. requires, but much more effective would the expression of this dignity and majesty have been if he had chosen a slower tempo. Equiluz (Leonhardt) [2] is able to provide even more the dignity and majesty missing in most of the other recordings. Now the feeling that Equiluz is genuinely expressing, a feeling which the text requires, creates the proper mood for this mvt. Unfortunately, Leonhardt, although having provided Equiluz with a suitably slow tempo, has decided that this is still a shepherd’s dance of a bucolic nature and hence strongly punctuates the accents in the dotted rhythms. This is not the way a sarabande should sound! Add to this the strange manner in which the oboes are being played. They sound very much like 3 harmonicas playing, even to the point of matching the slowly wavering sound created by the cupped hands (used by harmonica players) opening and closing off the sound on the long, held notes.

Mvt. 4:

Among the 3 demi-voix basses performing this recitative in the HIP versions, I prefer Mertens (Koopman) [5] over van Egmond (Leonhardt) [2] and van Egmond over Ramselaar (Leusink [4].) Both Mertens and van Egmond have better expressive powers than Ramselaar has. Van Egmond, however, tends to have a ‘fuzzy’, muffled quality in his voice that is distracting despite his ability to bring more expression into the interpretation of the text. Schöne’s (Rilling) [1] full-voice capabilities allow him to provide a greater expressive range than that available in the HIP recordings.

Mvt. 5:

The choice of tempo here is quite critical in this duet. The faster tempi hurry the listener through this wonderful duet thereby missing many possibilities for variations in dynamics, phrasing and expression. Donath & Watts (Rilling) [1] with Rilling’s slowest tempo (1 ½ minutes slower than the fastest taken by Koopman (Larsson & Markert,) [5] uncovers many of the hidden beauties and facets that go by unnoticed in the HIP versions which are more interested in presenting ‘just another of Bach’s many dance mvts. in his sacred music.’ To be sure, the operatic voices of Donath & Watts may take a little getting used to for those who are sustained primarily by a steady diet of HIP recordings (I do not really care too much for Donath’s voice.) Such listeners will also listen in vain for the ‘jagged-edged’ violini unisoni rhythm to which Rilling gives a more legato treatment, but it is wonderful to hear this in contrast the other, very uniformly presented HIP versions (both voices as well and instruments with little variation.) Impressive is Rilling’s masterful inclusion of echo-effect dynamics, slight ritardandi, crescendi/diminuendi, careful observance of Bach’s own dynamic markings, along with the opportunities afforded by the slow tempo. Very noticeable here, but not so much in the other versions, is the rendering of the words “sein menschlich Wesen machet euch” where one voice is lifted slowly upwards chromatically while the other ‘nudges’ it along with a syncopated motif. We are being lifted up slowly through trials and tribulations (chromatic motif) to the choir of angels. Koopman has short-circuited this entire process of getting there because he sustains from the beginning to the end the fast dancing motion of the angels. Leusink (Holton & Buwalda) [4] has combined a cumbersome and much too loud double bass that is unable to recognize Bach’s indication of ‘piano’ (11 times!) and the fragile demi-voix that are always in danger of disappearing among the angel choirs. Bratschke & Esswood (Leonhardt) [2] still have too many intonation problems to keep them from joining directly the perfect harmony of the angel choirs.

Mvt. 6:

With the Rilling recording [1], subtrthe slightly unsteady, soloistically trained voices in his choir and the result will be the best chorale rendition in this group of recordings. Very evident is the strong confirmation of faith in the chorale text. Also evident are the power and dignity of the Bach’s harmonization which ends with a jubilant conclusion leading heavenwards at the end. There is a persistent intensity underscored by legato singing and playing as well as a true sense of finality with which this cantata should conclude. The next best version is that by Koopman [5] which exhibits clarity in all of its parts as well as a clean/clear choral sound devoid of obnoxious vibratos. There is, however, less intensity overall, notwithstanding the overly loud percussive effect created by the timpani. The fermati over the quarter notes have the effect of shortening the stated note values and allowing the final words to drop away as if unimportant for the singing or understanding of the text. An even worse offender in this regard is Leusink [4] where the ‘gobbling up’ of the text in these situations reaches an extreme. Leonhardt’s rendition [2] of the chorale suffers from the detached manner of singing characteristic of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cantata series. . If there ever was a stultifying method for singing chorales, it would have to be this one. All the misguided effort expended in trying to make the human voice sing in such an unnatural way leads to these disastrous results.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 28, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] A Scholastic question at this point would be:
Aquinas, how many angels and demi-leprechauns could dance a proper Sarabande on the head of a demi-pin, with at least demi-dignity?

Aryeh Oron wrote (April 28, 2003):
BWV 91 - The Recordings – Very Short review of 3 movements

Last week I have been listening to 4 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 91.

[1] Helmuth Rilling (1972+1984)
[2] Gustav Leonhardt (1979)
[4] Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)
[5] Ton Koopman (2000)

Mvt. 1 Chorus

The rousing exchange between the oboes and the horns in the opening ritornello, the angelic melody sung by the choir, the joining of the other voices in rejoicing Christ’s birth – all these factors call for a simple non-nonsense interpretation. But, quite unexpectedly, only one conductor seems to have the right approach to this opening chorus. Rilling [1] makes everything sound too loud and vulgar, Leonhardt too dry and mechanical [2] and Leusink [4] too light and scattered. Koopman [5] seems to get it right with tenderness and transparency. Furthermore, his choir, although a mixed one, is the only one where the sopranos sing like angels with purity of tone. Had Koopman done it slower, it would have been be perfect.

Mvt. 3 Aria for Tenor

I have already quoted some commentaries in the Introduction message sent to the BCML last week. Adalbert Kraus (with Rilling) [1], whom I usually like, almost shouts out his declaration. Maybe this is his way to express how he is thrilled by ‘God, for whom the orbit of the earth is too small’. Equiluz’ (with Leonhardt) [2] seems to get it right, with more introvert approach. He conveys the message of the first part with serenity and the light of the second part with slight, almost unperceived joy. Nico van der Meel (with Leusink) [4], whom I have found in previous reviews somewhat lacking in expression, follows Equiluz footsteps, and he is doing it with convincing simplicity. Prégardien (with Koopman) [5] belongs to the same camp of Equiluz and Meel. His interpretation is somewhat more varied than Meel’s and therefore more interesting to listen to.

Mvt. 5 Duet for Soprano & Alto

The soprano Helen Donath brings to the duet (with Rilling) [1] freshness and vivacity, while the contralto Helen Watts brings restraint and seriousness. Together these contradictory approaches create a fascinating rendition of the duet, where our soul is moving like pendulum between the gravity of the earthy poverty and the heavenly glory of angels. The team of the boy soprano Bratschke and the counter-tenor Esswood (with Leonhardt) [2] does not create wonders. The boy seems to straggling with his part along the duet and the match between the two voices is not good. Neither chemistry between the singers nor mutual listening can be found here. I found myself getting tired along the duet, which seems to be too long in this rendition. Ruth Holton (with Leusink) [4] has the right timbre of voice for the soprano part, while Buwalda… Furthermore, this rendition is too jumpy to reflect the complicated emotions hidden in this duet. Koopman [5], as Rilling, has two fine female singers with different although complementary voices. Lisa Larsson’s voice is light and ringing and her joyful singing uplifts the spirit, while Markert’s voice is dark and warm and her singing more sombre and closer to the ground. One can clearly hear that the two listen to each other and enjoy singing together this duet. Their enjoyment captivates the heart of the listener.


Preferred recordings of individual movements:
The Opening Chorus with Koopman [5]
The Aria for Tenor with Equiluz (Leonhardt) [2]
The Duet for Soprano & Alto with Donath & Watts (Rilling) [1] and Larsson & Markert (Koopman) [5].

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 29, 2003):
I decided not to waste much time with the cantata this week. Some of the cantatas have to be below average (by the definition of "average") in quality, and I think this is one of them. The opening movement is formulaic. The two recitatives are sort of interesting. In the ariosos of the first one, it's clever how Bach uses the first phrase of the chorale repeatedly as the continuo line, moving twice as fast as the singer. In the second one, he has that funky chromatic business at the end. The tenor aria is OK but didn't strike me as anything special; any competent composer of the period could have delivered this. The soprano/alto duet is way too long: during the da capo I went to get a piece of chocolate cake, ate it, and when I came back they were still going. Then the final chorale is formulaic again. Oh well. The cantatas can't all be gems; in the Christmas rush he apparently just wrapped up a handful of painted rocks for this one. Bah, humbug.

(Apologies to anyone who especially likes this cantata.)

Brad "Scrooge" Lehman


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 91: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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
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