Filling in the Gaps: Bach’s Cantatas in Context by Derek Chester
Picture yourself as a 20-year-old boy, waking up in your communal dormitory room in the Thomasschule at 5:30 on Sunday morning, August 11, 1726. Your voice just changed a few months ago because no one put hormones in your milk all of your life and because your diet is comprised mainly of pork and cabbage. You eat a quick breakfast and run to the Thomaskirche to rehearse your cantata aria with the orchestra and prepare for the morning service (there is also a new motet this week). You just got a clean and updated copy of the part-book yesterday, and are quickly running through the new additions in your head. The aria that Herr Kantor Bach has written for you this week is terribly difficult and quite high, but you have been singing difficult repertoire every day and taking voice lessons since you were 10, so you can depend on your technique and sight reading skills to get through it.
You robe up, line up, and the head boy says a prayer over the choir. During the opening prelude and hymn, you process into the chancel area where the choir offers the Kyrie and the Gloria (a Praetorius setting in Latin this week) and another congregational hymn. You recess during the last verse of the hymn and situate yourself in the choir loft to get ready for the cantata. During the gospel reading you nervously look over your aria one last time. The cantata begins. Herr Kantor Bach is a tenor short this morning since one of the boys who sings at the Nikolaikirche threw up all over the organ console during rehearsal and Herr Kantor sent a Thomaskirche ripienist over to fill in for him. The flustered Herr Kantor asks you to sing more lustily than usual in the opening choruses to make up for it. Things go pretty well for you in the following recitative and aria, even though you kind of botch one of the high A’s because you over-sang in the opening chorus. After your aria comes the sermon and it is pretty long this week—about an hour. After the sermon, you listen to your colleagues sing a few arias and join in for the final chorale. Now all you have to sing is that new motet for communion and then you have an entire four hours off to rest and finish homework before the vespers service.
Now lets move ahead in time 288 years to August 10, 2014. The same cantata is being performed and much of the service is exactly the same. But this time, the students are on summer vacation, and a guest choir from Chicago is responsible for the music. The Thomaskirche staff gave our tour group three Bach cantata options written for the 8th Sunday after Trinity Sunday. Michael chose Cantata 45, Est is dir gesagt mensch was gut ist a cantata in two parts, half before the sermon, and half afterward. (HERE is a recording so you can listen as you read!). The cantata has a wonderful opening fugue for chorus followed by a collection of recitatives and arias and a closing choral. Through a wonderfully successful Kickstarter campaign, Grace Lutheran was able to hire the Sächsisches Barockorchester to play the cantata. We only had one quick rehearsal with the orchestra right before the service. I arrived at the church around 8:00 a.m. (after waking nice and early to warm up!). At 8:30 a.m., the doors opened and we made our way to the choir loft to run through recitatives and arias with the orchestra.
Even after singing just the first phrase of the recitative before my aria (“Weiss ich Gottes rechte,” scored for tenor, strings and continuo), I knew that this was a fantastic acoustic for this music. After all, the music was created with this space in mind. The continuo organ, which was built for the big Bach celebration and renovation in 2000, had a beautiful, beefy sound that was quite a bit louder than your typical portative. The rehearsal for the aria followed, and due to the competency of the orchestra only required minimal rehearsal. The balance was ideal, even with the larger than expected orchestra. Now, I’ve got to say, Bach’s music is high for the tenor, even at baroque pitch, and especially at 8:30 a.m. Those boys, with newly changed voices had to be up-and-at-em extremely early to be ready to belt Bach’s high and demanding tessitura. It is a task I definitely now appreciate more than ever.
After the rehearsal, we had some down time before we had to robe-up and get prepared for the service. For the first part of the service, we were in what they call the “Altarraum” or chancel. We sang a Praetorius Kyrie and Gloria from there, as well as a newly harmonized stanza of the congregational hymn by our director Michael Costello. After the hymn, we recessed to the back to get ready for the cantata. The epistle was read, another hymn, and then the gospel. The readings influence the texts from the cantatas, which are then reinforced a third time by the sermon, every aspect of the service working in harmony to really drive home the point to the congregation. The first 3 movements of the cantata, including my recitative and aria went swimmingly. After all these years of specializing in Bach’s works, I was actually singing in his church, a piece that he wrote for this same Sunday. I was like a pig in slop—nothing could have removed the joy in my heart or the grin on of my face.
The sermon followed my aria. It was not terribly long as it would have been in Bach’s day, but it definitely tied in the scripture readings and libretto of Bach’s cantata. The second part of the cantata consisted of a bass aria sung by the director, Michael Costello, an alto aria and recit for flute and continuo, sung by wonderful Chicago area pedagogue and mezzo-soprano, Karen Brunssen, and a closing chorale. As we started to sing the closing chorale, it dawned on me how incredibly special this moment was and how tremendously fortunate I was to experience this music, in this place, in this setting. I wish every Bach lover could experience that feeling. I’ve always been a fairly spiritual person and performing this music in the context of a service reminded me of how Bach composed this music “soli deo Gloria”—only to the glory of God.
After this experience in Leipzig, it will be hard for me to ignore the functional aspect of Bach’s music, which had so long been pushed to the back burner of my mind in order to concentrate on the technique, the style, the language, and the music itself. It is, after all, the layers of genius and humanity that make us love Bach. Do I think it is possible to remove the religious aspect of the music and still enjoy it? Of course—the music is nearly perfect. But the core of Bach’s original intent is something that I never want to forget as an interpreter of Bach.
Derek Chester, tenor
P.S. If you ever get the chance to visit the church, be sure to stop for a beer or a Bach-torte at the Bachstüb’l across the courtyard. It is wonderful!