As 2007 is the sesquicentenary anniversary of the arrival of boys at Sydney Grammar School, our 2007 cantata series focuses on Bach's celebratory concerts. We start with a perfect Valentine's Day concert on 18 February-- Bach's wedding cantatas! Other cantatas throughout the year were composed by Bach for special occasions, including Reformation, St John's Day, St Michael's Day and Town Council inaugurations. Come join us for celebrations!
Like Shakespeare’s historical plays, Bruckner’s symphonies or Proust’s novels, Bach’s cantatas have long been more respected than beloved. Musicians and musicologists have long known of their importance, but more as artifacts; artistically significant but not artistically relevant. Many of the same music-lovers who insist that one doesn’t truly know Beethoven until one has heard an entire piano sonata cycle, or really understand Bártòk until hearing all of the string quartets, don’t apply the same standard to the Bach cantatas. Many musicians think that is enough to know the major choral works well: the Magnificat, B Minor Mass, St John and St Matthew Passions and Christmas Oratorio. But this ignores the universe of musical expression that is found in Bach’s cantatas, that repertoire which was the foundry in which Bach forged his sacred musical language.
Perhaps it is the sheer size of the oeuvre that is so off-putting: of the 300 cantatas that Bach purportedly wrote, 200 of them are extant. With the exception of a handful, such as Sleepers Wake, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and the cantata from which we have Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, very few have entered the standard concert repertoire of the English speaking world, and very few churches use Bach’s cantatas in their originally intended liturgical context.
Bach was thirty-eight years old when he accepted the job he would hold for the rest of his life, essentially serving as the town Music Director in Leipzig. Among other things, he oversaw the music programmes at the city’s major churches, in particular Thomaskirche and Nicolaikirche. He was also one of the highest-ranking members of the teaching staff at Thomasschule, where he trained the boys to sing in the Sunday services, spreading their services across the city’s four main churches. But the single largest part of his job for the final twenty-seven years of his life—and the monumental task for which his work in Leipzig is best remembered—was the composition of the cantatas.
Most of the cantatas are about twenty minutes long. In the Lutheran church service, they served to reflect on the bible readings of the day, and many cantatas are based on a relevant chorale whose significance would have been instantly meaningful to the Leipzig parishioners. Although there was not a set form, most cantatas begin with a choral movement, followed by two or three solo arias, often linked to recitatives. Most cantatas finish with a hymn or chorale.
To be fair to the history of Bach performance, the cantatas do pose some performance problems. In the concert hall, the relatively short length of each cantata seemed paltry fare in the oratorio-driven concert environment of the 19th and 20th centuries, where Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Orff’s Carmina Burana reigned supreme. Compared to the major Bach choral masterworks, the cantatas are weighted heavily in favour of the solo movements; in the B Minor Mass, the choir sings at least half of the movements, but in an equivalent two hours’ worth of cantatas, the choir might only have six choral movements and six chorales, limiting their usefulness for a choral society that only presented a few concerts annually.
Liturgically and theologically, the cantatas have had trouble finding a home in the church service as well. Bach worked amidst a raging debate in the Lutheran church between orthodoxy and the more sentimental, personal Pietist movement. He used libretti that came from both camps, and both have their problems. The more orthodox texts can be a bit distant and austere for modern worshippers, and the maudlin sentimentality of the Pietist texts can seem overwrought.
It is likely that we are living in the golden age of the Bach cantata. Since the advent of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, the updated complete edition of Bach’s music begun in 1950, the cantatas have had a long, steady renaissance in the concert hall, church service, and perhaps most important, the recording studio.
Helmuth Rilling, conductor of the Bach Collegium Stuttgart, recorded the complete cycle of the Bach cantatas in the 1970’s and 80’s with modern instruments. At the same time, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt recorded the complete cantatas with early instruments and choir, using boy trebles as Bach would have done. No fewer than three conductors are in the midst of releasing complete cantata cycles, all with period instruments: John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir, who performed all of the cantatas throughout 2000, in an extensive Bach pilgrimage; Maasaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan; and Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Bach Orchestra
and Choir. The availability of such a wide range of outstanding recordings has made this repertoire accessible to lovers of Bach’s music in an unprecedented way.
In many ways, Australia is emblematic of the resurgence of interest in this unique repertoire. A few years ago, the Melbourne Festival featured several cantatas in their programme. For many years, St Johns Church Southgate in Melbourne has featured several Bach cantatas annually as part of their Sunday services. In 2005, the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir, in conjunction with ABC Classic-FM, presented an outstanding series of ten concerts of cantatas with some of Australia’s top soloists and period instrumentalists. The Sydneian Bach Choir has added its voice to that chorus as well, with BACH 2010.
But why perform all of the cantatas? Surely there is a group of cantatas that could be performed, representing the best of the lot? It seems that with Bach, there is no shortcut, something about which some of the world’s most eminent Bach proponents agree. Albert Schweitzer, the great humanist and Bach scholar, wrote that in order to know enough about Bach’s music to perform one cantata, you need to perform all of them. Helmuth Rilling has said that “only if you know Bach’s cantatas can you say that you really know Bach.” During his Bach pilgrimage in 2000, John Eliot Gardiner wrote, “One source of constant amazement during this tour is the sheer variety and beauty of the music: week after week Bach surprises us with one masterpiece after another, and at the end of each week's concerts—though one is sad to have to say goodbye to the outgoing cantatas, one can hardly wait to begin rehearsals for the next programme.”
It is an honour for the Sydneian Bach Choir to be part of such a rich new Bach tradition. We salute our Bach colleagues in Australia and overseas, and invite you to become part of our small Bach community. Please join us for eight Sunday afternoons in 2006 in the beautiful, historic Big Schoolroom at Sydney Grammar School and acquaint yourself with the best-kept secrets in the western musical canon.