Festival Repertoire: Cantata 78, Jesu, Thou Who My Soul

mendelssohn

Cantata 78 was composed for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, and first performed on September 10, 1724.   The text of this cantata is somewhat dark, charting the depth of sin and shame, wrapping it in the sacrifice of Christ, and finding redemption an peace in “sweet eternity.”  If the text, written in the theological lingua franca of its time, seems severe, Bach balances that severity with sublime music of a stunning variety of textures and moods. Indeed, perhaps the greatest contrast is between the first and second movements:  the first being a massive sarabande, composed over a ground bass, and the second, a fleet-footed delight of extraordinary whimsy and wit.

A ground bass, or repeated bass pattern was utilized many times in Bach’s compositions, from one of his earliest cantatas, No. 150 (whose last movement, a spirited chaconne was an earlier signifier of the genius of Bach’s cantatas), to the twin movements: the opening chorus of Cantata 12, which was later refashioned into the Crucifixus of the Mass in B-Minor.  Over this repeated bass line in Cantata 78, we hear contrapuntal work from the lower three voices, followed by the work’s main chorale melody, declaimed by the sopranos of the choir. Bach creates a stunning variety in the repeated patterns, sometimes maintaining the harmony over a pedal point (a single note held by the basso continuo instruments for a long time), sometimes with very dance-inflected inner voices.  The text references the devil’s pit, Christ’s bitter death, and ends on a hopeful note (thankfully – it’s all very dark).  The voice in the libretto of this cantata, mostly by an anonymous author, with some verses of the chorale upon which it’s based, is somewhat self-flagellating.

The text of the second movement speaks of our haste with “weak yet eager footsteps,” to our savior, and Bach, perhaps weary of the darkness and lament can’t help but respond with a duet almost unparalleled in its whimsy.  To my ears, there’s nothing weak about it, and I can more easily imagine the rhythmic raising of beer steins than a devout offering in the middle of a Sunday morning service.  In the record of Bach’s papers, we do have invoices for brandy and wine.  I’m tempted to surmise that old JS might have nipped into some of that for the writing of this movement.  It’s irresistibly joyful.  I’m especially excited to hear this sung at Festival this year:  my reference recordings of it both include this year’s alto soloist, the exceptional countertenor, Daniel Taylor.  I love his recording with our friend Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan, and I adore his recording with this year’s soprano soloist, Agnes Zsigovics, from his album, “The Voice of Bach.”  You will tap your toe to this number!

After an extended tenor recitative, there is some more musical sunshine with a lovely aria that includes an instrumentalization similar to to the Benedictus from the B-Minor: flute and basso continuo.  Though, in this setting, the low strings play pizzicato, or plucked.  With the atoning blood of Christ, the singer’s heart is made light and is encouraged and triumphant.

Next, a long bass recitative, reflecting on Christ’s wounds as atoning sacrifice that lighten the heart of the singer.  The recit is accompanied by strings and is quite dramatic.  It is then followed by vigorous bass aria, with an oboe obbligato.  Bach paints a sound picture of a clamoring conscience, brought still by the love of Christ.  The cantata then concludes with a lovely harmonization of the chorale.

This cantata creates a wonderful contrast with the vigor and frenzy of the St. Michael’s battle with the forces of evil that begins the program, and builds a bridge to the eternal fire and love of Cantata 34.

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