Bach’s Legacy Series: An Early Bach Cantata

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

The surviving 200 plus cantatas composed by J.S. Bach constitute one of the richest legacies of any composer in music history. Often written for specific liturgical purposes and times of year, we can be relatively confident that the provenance of these masterpieces is accurate, yet some of them remain a bit mysterious. Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (“From the depths I call to you, Lord”), BWV 131, which will be featured in “Bach’s Legacy,” April 25-28, is a thrilling cantata, but one with its share of mysteries.

St. Mary's Church, Mühlhausen

St. Mary’s Church, Mühlhausen

Probably first performed in 1707 while Bach was the organist at St. Blasius’s in Mühlhausen, Cantata 131 is one of his earliest surviving works. It is unlikely, however, that he composed it for performance at St. Blasius, but rather for another church in town, St. Mary’s. From an inscription in the autograph score, we know that the work was composed at the request of the minister at St. Mary’s, Georg Christian Eilmar. Some have speculated that Eilmar also fashioned the text of the cantata and recruited Bach to write music to commemorate the anniversary of a devastating fire that had struck the community. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the date and occasion for its creation, the cantata is a stirring work of profound impact utilizing oboe, bassoon, strings, and basso continuo along with chorus and soloists.

The text of Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir is based largely on Psalm 130 (also known by its Latin title, De Profundis), yet also includes elements of the chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” to underscore the message of supplication. (The full text of Cantata 131 is available here). Bach’s treatment of the text does not follow the operatic conventions evident in his later cantatas, avoiding recitatives or da capo repeats in its arias. Instead he favors an expressive presentation that appeals directly to the hearer without musical rhetorical devices. After the opening chorale comes an arioso for bass, “So du wilt, Herr, Sünde zurechnen” (“If you will, Lord, mark all our sins”). Another brief chorus precedes the work’s central aria for tenor soloist, “Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn von einer Morgen wache bis zu der andern” (“My soul waits for the Lord from one morning watch to the next”). Continuo accompaniment and the pitches of the cantus firmus (the chorale sung in long tones) provide a supportive fabric for each soloist in these inner parts of the work. In the aria, the chorale supplies harmonic guideposts “from above” for the tenor soloist, as it occurs in a higher register.

“This superb cantata comes from the early period in Bach’s career when he was experimenting with various musical forms and rhetorical devices. Like the other early cantatas which are all quite dramatically different from each other, the immediacy of Bach’s intentions — how he wanted the listener to react to the music — is undeniable. The musical portrayal or rendering of the text couldn’t be more direct, and so much of the music is utterly hypnotic. It is a long-time favorite of all ABS musicians who have performed this cantata in the past, both in concerts and on recording.”

– Jeffrey Thomas


ABS Cantatas Vol. IV

ABS recorded Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir in 1994 and that performance is available on Bach Cantata Series: Vol. IV – Early Cantatas for Holy Week. From April 25-28, audiences in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis will have the opportunity to hear this moving work from Bach’s earliest period performed by the expert forces of ABS under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas at “Bach’s Legacy.” We hope to see you there! For tickets and more information, please visit our website.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014