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Cantata BWV 34
O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe [I]
Practical Permformance Considerations
By Bruce Simonson (Spring 2008)

Basic Background

According to Wolff's “Bach, the Learned Musician”, BWV 34 was performed Pentecost, 1746 or 1747. This places it among the last sacred cantatas Bach had performed.

Inexplicably, the Oxford Composer Campanion on J. S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd, does not include BWV 34 in its Appendix 3 of Chronologies, (nor does the chronology mention BWV 34a, although both are discussed and dated in the main text entries). According to the Oxford Companion, coupled with “Bach, the Learned Musician”, one can conclude the last four cantatas to be performed during Bach’s lifetime were BWV 34 (1746/47), BWV 96?, BWV 16, and BWV 29 (Aug 25, 1749). Interestingly, BWV 34 and BWV 29 have similar orchestration, with multiple trumpets.

The cantata from which BWV 34 is parodied, BWV 34a, was composed for a wedding ceremony (probably in 1726, according to Wolff in “Bach, the Learned Musician”), for which some evidence indicates Bach may have received 50 to 62 thaler, a very significant stipend. (But what cool music for a wedding, worth every pfennig!).

Parody

Bach composed BWV 34 (Pentecost version) 20 years after BWV 34a (wedding version). The Pentecost version is a parody of the wedding version, borrowing 3 movements, and adding two short recits. The text is almost entirely unaltered from BWV 34a to BWV 34, but there are differences, especially in Mvt. 3. For an excellent introduction on parody, see the Melamud article in Oxford Composer Companion on J.S. Bach (edited Malcom Boyd), and also, look up “parody” on the Bach cantata website. For me, Mvt. 3 is the most problematic movement as a parody with its new text (but by no means insurmountable), and Mvt. 1 and Mvt. 5 have a few minor problems and possibilities.

Performance approach

The beginning and ending movements, composed for SATB chorus and orchestra, can easily be performed with an approach ranging from quasi-romantic (read: “lush”, or “lugibrious”) to “historical instrument practice” (read: “clean / crisp / clear”, or “dry / devastatingly academic").

(NB: These particular adjectives were chosen to simply encourage performers and interpreters to understand their options, and perhaps to get our collective goats and danders up. Ultimately, performances will depend on resources, abilities of the performers, acoustics of the hall, and the inclination of the conductor (de gustibus non est disputandum)).

Tempo / Dynamics / Articulation

Tempos, dynamics, and articulation are all dependent on performer abilities and characteristics of the performance space, and ultimately, on the interpretation that is agreed upon. For general information purposes, I culled the following approximate tempi from recordings I have, and snippets available on the internet:

34/1 (Mvt. 1)

34/3 (Mvt. 3)

34/5 (Mvt. 5)



quarter eq

eighth eq

half eq

year

(performer) / dirigent

86

88

90

1950

Jonathan Sternberg

x

x

x

1960's

Diethard Hellmann

x

x

x

1961

Fritz Werner

94

90

82

1972

Helmuth Rilling

100

90

94

1974

Nikolaus Harnoncourt

x

x

x

1975

Karl Richter

x

72

x

1975

Janet Baker / Neville Mariner

x

x

x

1980's

Philip Ledger

110

96

104

1990

Harry Christophers

90

82

96

1995

Gustav Leonhardt

x

102

x

1996

Magdalena Kozena / Marek Stryncl

110

88

104

1999

John Eliot Gardiner

108

90

110

2000

John Eliot Gardiner

x

x

x

2000

Pieter Jan Leusink

112

x

x

2000

Karl-Friedrich Beringer

x

x

x

2001

Greg Funfgeld

108

x

x

2001

Ton Koopman

Regarding dynamics, terracing is an obvious choice. Movements 1 and 5 certainly ask for forte; Mvt. 3 is clearly more subdued. Orchestral and choral textures also provide clues to appropriate dynamic levels in Mvt. 1 and Mvt. 5.

There are subtle differences in articulation markings in various editions in common use for BWV 34. Articulation practice is discussed in many worthwhile contemporaneous documents, as well as in detail on the Bach cantata website. I appreciate especially Brad Lehman’s observation on the staccato; who knew the dot commands so many intepretations? For me, the articulation markings (dots and slurs) in BWV 34 are a clue to the musical motifs and how these motifs amplify the text, especially in Mvt. 1. In any case, a decision should be made as the intent and execution of staccatos, especially in the figures introduced at the beginning of Mvt. 1 in the violin 2 and viola parts.

In Mvt. 3, according to preface by Paul Horn in the Hännsler 1960 edition of BWV 34, the score has mute specified in the violin 1 part; mutes can be assumed for all strings in this movement.

Figures and Continuo performance practice

BWV 34’s recits are short, and relatively straightforward. They provide an excellent opportunity to try different approaches to secco recit (in rehearsal), ranging from sustained to shortened notes in the continuo, and various degrees of elaboration in the realization of the harmony. Mvt. 2 has three bars of figures, but there are no other figures anywhere else in the scores. In my opinion, the fact that Mvt. 2 has some figures (and lacks them in most measures) is an open invitation for the performer to invent more for the rest of the movement, as well as for the bass recit in mvmt 4.

Temperament

BWV 34 is in the keys of D, f# (b), A, f#, and D. These fit squarely in the “sweet” 1/6 comma spot of the Bach 1722 (“rosetta”) temperament recently discovered and described by Dr Brad Lehman. For us in our Juneau performance, coupling this cantata with Brandenburg 1 (largely in F and d) provides an opportunity to try out this 1722 temperament, without pushing instrumentalists too hard on temperament-geekiness. For me, the fact remains that exploring and paying attention to temperament options can only enrich the possibilities with this music. A particular problem I’ll have, though, is tuning an organ in Bach 1722 – the harpsichord will be easier.

Text and translations

Big topic here; arguments persist on who in particular wrote Bach’s particular libretti, and this is no different with BWV 34 and BWV 34a. English translations are difficult, especially those intended to be sung. In my opinion, it is best to solve the translation problem with parallel German/English versions of the text in the program, additional program notes and perhaps pre-concert lectures. It’s worth knowing that Bach published and sold libretti booklets (containing the texts of up to six cantatas at a time) in advance of their performance. However, no libretti booklet for BWV 34 or BWV 34a is available or known to have existed.

Orchestration / Registration

Quite a full ensemble: 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, bassoon, strings, continuo. Mvt. 3 of BWV 34 (and BWV 34a) has a remarkable orchestration, very similar to what could be easily emulated with organ stops. Put another way, is the orchestration in mvmt 3 intended to emulate an organ? In any case, strings with mutes, doubled by “modern” flutes, offer an opportunity to challenge musicians on questions of balance and an ensemble approach to baroque chamber orchestral sound. In Mvt. 3, it is would be an option to use an organ for continuo, and not harpsichord.

Performance forces - soloists

Certainly three soloists are necessary; the tenor recit is a bit of a problem, namely finding a tenor could who can delicately sing a high b (takes talent and training!),and then limit this person’s role to 7 measures of recit (something like calling in a big gun just to say “howdy”, to mix metaphors badly). On the other hand, the bass recit is fairly standard, and could be handled by a competent chorister (baritone), and might also provide an opportunity to develop talent in the soloist pool. The alto aria is lovely, one of the best of the genre, so soloists will probably line up to give it a try. There are some phrasing demands however, so lung capacity should be considered before assigning this aria to an amateur (both for the music’s sake, as well as being sensitive to the performer’s confidence).

Performance forces – chorus

The chorus numbers (Mvt. 1 and Mvt. 5) are universally acknowledged to be ebulliant, and would not necessarily suffer from throwing a largish chorus at them. (For me, that’s part of why I perform these cantatas – to provide opportunities for larger groups to perform and get to know this music). Mvt. 1 also offers an interesting opportunity in the B section, where the choral parts thin to soprano and bass, with minimal orchestral support. Given the associated text from BWV 34a, these parts could be interpretted to represent voice proxies for the bride and groom, and could easily be delegated to a solo soprano and solo bass, with the full chorus re-entering with the development of the ensuing fugue. This might be an opportunity to try out OVPP.

The melismatic figures in the chorus in movement are likely to be problematic; they do not “sing themselves”, as they overlay some interesting chord changes in the orchestra. I haven’t rehearsed these yet with the chorus, but I anticipate some difficulties.

Performance forces – orchestra

There is challenge and snap in the violin 1 part, with some string crossings; violin 2 and viola are much less demanding. Three trumpets (at least two of which should understand piccolo trumpet technique) are perhaps the most difficult thing to cover in amateur productions. The two oboe and bassoon part aren’t difficult, and are varied and should hold performers’ interest (both staccato and legato sections). With two flutes, appearing in only one movement, it may be a bit of a challenge to schedule rehearsals without annoying players who are tacet in certain movements. The continuo part (harpsichord and organ, probably) is not too difficult, and also offers an opportunity for novices to improve their improvisational technique in accompanying secco recits.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

BWV 34 does not conclude with a chorale setting, suitable for audience participation. An option, due to Voigt, from Thomas Braatz’s summary of commentaries on the Bach Cantatas website, is to conclude with BWV 29/8, a chorale setting of “Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren”. The instrumentation is identical to BWV 34/1 (Mvt. 1) and BWV 34/5 (Mvt. 5); flutes could be added, doubling the violin 1 line.

A high point in BWV 34 and BWV 34a is the full chorus declamation of “Friede über Israel”, from Psalm 128 (and 128:6 in particular). This Psalm asks for God’s blessing on spouses and their children, and their children’s children, and is fitting for either a wedding cantata, or for a Pentecost cantata. However, given the day-to-day trials and tribulations in the Middle East, this phrase might be touchy for any given audience; certainly, however, a prayer for peace is always appropriate, regardless of situation.

 

Contributed by Bruce Simonson (March 4, 2008)

Cantatas BWV 34 & BWV 34a: Details & Complete Recordings of BWV 34 | Recordings of Individual Movements from BWV 34 | Details & Recordings of BWV 34a | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources

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Last update: ýOctober 2, 2011 ý01:26:34