30 Days with Bach

On September 28, I embarked on a somewhat odd task: to listen to a single classical piece every day for 30 days. Why you ask? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps it was out of a desire to really, intimately get to know a piece of music. Perhaps it was to spice up the doldrums of daily life as we pass the six-month mark of the pandemic. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the idea was there and I was eager to try it out.

Me listening to Bach each day

Once the task was set, I selected Bach’s Cantata BWV 150 (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich or, “Lord, I long for you”) to be the “guinea pig” piece and settled on a good recording of it—specifically, the 2017 recording with the choir Vox Luminis and conductor Lionel Meunier. (However, I decided early on that it would be OK if I wanted to venture to other recordings on occasion.) I also decided early on to pair this 30-day challenge with a series of blog posts. After each day’s listen, I would write a short entry that provided a tidbit, historical factoid, thought, reaction, or musing about the piece. Ultimately, each entry would build into a chronicle of my month-long listening journey.

Since I was writing on the blog every day, I decided to keep the entries short—just a few sentences to a short paragraph or two (although there are a few quite a bit longer than that!) It’s also worth pointing out that I was pretty well acquainted with this Cantata before starting the challenge, so a few of the entries contain thoughts that had already come to mind well before this. Nevertheless, it’s the first time these thoughts have been put to paper (or screen, in this case). Additionally, three brief notes:

  1. When referring to English translations of the German text, I alternated between using Pamela Diehl‘s translation on Emmanuel Music and the translation on All of Bach.
  2. Throughout the daily blogs, I often reference specific musical moments in Bach’s Cantata. In most cases, the blog text is accompanied by a hyperlink, cued up to a YouTube recording that begins at the corresponding moment. If you would like to listen to these, click the bolded text throughout. (There are some other hyperlinks throughout as well that link to other things.)
  3. At the bottom of this post, I included a Spotify playlist containing six full recordings of the Cantata, each of which I listened to at some point during the month.

Without further ado, here are my 30 days with Bach…

Day 1 (9/28/20)

Instead of jumping right in with a factoid or thought, probably the best place to start would be with the following question: why this particular Bach cantata? What makes it worthy of a month-long listening challenge? Well, to be honest, I don’t really have a great answer for that. I first became hooked on this Cantata back in April, when the British a cappella ensemble Voces8 released a stunning new recording of it. Since then, I’ve listened to the piece many times, and just when I seem ready to move on, there’s something about it that keeps drawing me back. What exactly? I have some ideas that I’ll save for the coming days, but for now, I guess the short answer to the “why this Cantata” question is three simple words: I love it.

Day 2 (9/29/20)

This morning I realized that one particular thing that strikes me about this piece is its economy. Bach really works wonders with so few performers at his disposal—just two violins, a bassoon, basso continuo (cello and organ in the Vox Luminis recording), and choir. This gives both the music and the sung text an incredible sense of intimacy, as if Bach wanted to communicate the message to listeners as simply and directly as possible.

Day 3 (9/30/20)
Anyone else ready for election season to be over?

Not gonna lie: I really needed today’s listen. After spending the morning reading recaps of the hot mess that was the first presidential debate, my blood was boiling. (It probably didn’t help much that I decided to make Shostakovich’s intense opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, part of my morning listening…) At one point, I decided to shut everything off, pull up the recording of the work, and tune everything else out. There’s not much else to say today other than, “Thank you, Bach.”

Day 4 (10/1/20)

There are many standout moments in this Cantata, but one of my absolute favorites is the opening of the fourth movement. Here, the words Leite mich (“Lead me”) are set to soft, luminous blocks of chords from the ensemble. But, Bach takes things a step further with a subtle, yet effective dash of “word painting.” Moving through this solid texture is an unbroken ascending line that starts deep in the basses, rises heavenward through the tenors, altos, and sopranos, and reaches its stratospheric destination in the first violin before being subsumed into the chordal blocks once again. It’s a stunning moment that seems to stop time whenever I hear it.

Day 5 (10/2/20)

I decided to mix things up and revisit the Voces8 recording that sparked my interest in this work back in April. The tone quality, blend, and musicianship of the group (and each individual singer) is phenomenal, and the ensemble as a whole really makes this intimate work burst with life. But don’t take my word for it; go ahead and hear for yourself…

Day 6 (10/3/20)
MIND. BLOWN.

Although I knew a handful of things about the Cantata going into this listening challenge—like how Brahms used the final chorus’s bass line in the last movement of his Fourth Symphony—I decided to delve into some more background. (Gotta get that sweet, sweet historical context!) There were some cool things to learn, but one of the biggest revelations is as follows. It’s generally agreed that this is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, but no one really knows for sure when or where it was composed. However, in 2010, the scholar Hans-Joachim Schulze discovered a clue that may provide a clearer answer. In movements three, five, and seven of the Cantata, which sets poetry by an anonymous author (the rest are based on Psalm 25), the first letter of each line of text spells out an acrostic, specifically the name DOKTOR CONRAD MECKBACH. Wait, who’s that? Meckbach was the mayor of Mühlhausen, where Bach served as the city’s organist from 1707-08. So, it’s highly probable that Bach composed the Cantata for the mayor around that time, either as part of his job application or—more likely—as a birthday present for Meckbach’s 70th birthday in 1707. Whatever the case, it’s a pretty darn cool find.

Day 7 (10/4/20)
Same, Jocelyn. Same…

Like many people, I haven’t been sleeping super well during the pandemic. After today’s early awakening and fruitless attempts to go back to sleep, I finally got up and decided to add the Cantata to my morning walk playlist. Bookending it were two other pandemic discoveries—Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s luminous setting of the Icelandic psalm Þann heilaga kross and David Lang’s sleeper’s prayer. This created a wonderful, meditative listening journey as I walked and jogged around my neighborhood, enjoying the cool morning air and the chirping of the birds. The opening lines of the Cantata’s final movement spoke to me in particular today: Meine Tage in den Leiden endet Gott dennoch zur Freuden (“My days in suffering God will nevertheless end in joy”). Here’s hoping the same may be said of my sleep!

Day 8 (10/5/20)

Speaking of the final movement (which is a chaconne), the ground bass line repeats exactly 22 times throughout. It’s true, I counted. 😉

Day 9 (10/6/20)

Time to mix things up again! For today and tomorrow, I decided to check out John Eliot Gardiner’s two recordings of the Cantata with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Gardiner is one of my all-time favorite interpreters of Beethoven’s symphonies, so I was eager to hear his take on this particular work. Both of these recordings were captured live during the group’s “Bach Pilgrimage” of 2000, a year-long tour through Europe with the intent to perform and record all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas. (Spoiler alert: they succeeded!) Their first recording of BWV 150—captured in April 2000—occupies a whole different world from the recordings of Vox Luminis and Voces8. I can’t say that I liked all of Gardiner’s interpretive choices (the fifth movement is too slow and mellow IMHO), but I’ll give him this: Gardiner always knows how to make one approach familiar works with a fresh, discerning ear. We’ll see tomorrow what he does with the second recording…

Day 10 (10/7/20)
$180 for a boxed set of Bach’s cantatas? Maybe someday…

Alright, now for Gardiner’s second recording. This one was also captured during the Bach Pilgrimage, albeit a few months later (specifically June 2000). Compared to the previous recording, I preferred this one much more. It might be a little rough around the edges in a few places (it was a live performance after all—things happen!), but Gardiner’s artistic choices in this version seemed to align more closely with my preferences. In any case, I’d love to check out more of Gardiner’s Bach in the future. (Turns out, there’s a complete boxed set of the Bach Pilgrimage recordings, containing 56 CDs for about $180 in American dollars! I think I’ll stick with Spotify… for now, at least.)

Day 11 (10/8/20)

I returned to the Vox Luminis recording today but before we leave Gardiner, there’s an amusing anecdote about this Cantata that’s too good not to share. In his 2015 book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner writes of an incident between the composer and a hot-tempered bassoonist. While serving as the city organist in Arnstadt, Bach had written “what may have been a first draft of a cantata (BWV 150), or, if not, then something very similar to it, involving a very difficult bassoon solo.” (This timeline complicates the matter of when and where this Cantata was actually written, but again, no one’s really sure!) Gardiner goes on:

Setting the music in front of his raw student ensemble, the twenty-year-old Bach had either seriously miscalculated or was being deliberately provocative. His novice bassoonist, three years his senior, was Johann Heinrich Geyersbach. In rehearsal he evidently made a hash of it, and Bach showed his annoyance…. The word Stümpler [‘botchers’] may have crossed Bach’s mind; instead, he called him a Zippel Fagottist…. a literal translation suggests… Bach had called Geyersbach ‘a prick of a bassoonist.’

John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (172-73)
Bach fighting with Geyersbach (colorized, c. 1705)

Ouch. The story doesn’t end there, though! Gardiner writes that a few weeks later, Geyersbach and a couple of his buddies confronted Bach in the town square, demanding an apology for the insult. This soon crescendoed into an all-out brawl, with Bach getting punched in the face and drawing his rapier in self-defense. (As I’ve said many times: who says classical music is boring?!?) In the end, Bach was scolded by the Arnstadt town council and Geyersbach was let off the hook with a mild warning, much to Bach’s chagrin.

Gardiner also recalled this dramatic event in the 2013 BBC documentary Bach: A Passionate Life, which provides some helpful musical and visual accompaniment. Take a look; it’s super entertaining. (The video below is cued up to begin at this moment.)

Day 12 (10/9/20)

A few days ago, I mentioned the unbroken ascending line on the words Leite mich (“Lead me”) in the fourth movement. Well, I didn’t realize until today that the fourth movement is actually full of stacked/overlapping entrances between the different voice parts. Towards the end, these staggered entrances stay confined to a single, held note, cementing the meaning of the words täglich harre (“[on Thee I] wait daily”). The more you know.

Day 13 (10/10/20)
“Cedars must before the tempest often suffer much torment…”

The fifth movement is one of my absolute favorites (Zedern müssen von den Winden or, “Cedars must before the tempest”). After four movements set mostly in minor keys, we suddenly burst into a sun-drenched world in D major. The musical texture also pairs down dramatically. Like the soprano aria two movements prior, this one features only a trio of voices (alto, tenor, and bass) standing firm against a frenzied accompaniment in the bassoon and basso continuo. This paints an aural image of tall, strong-rooted trees being battered by howling winds, a metaphor for Christians standing firm amidst the trials and tribulations of the world. The movement is only a little over a minute long—depending on the tempo—but part of me wishes it was so much longer.

Day 14 (10/11/20)

While we’re on the subject, a particularly stunning moment in the fifth movement comes on the word widerbellet (“howls”). Here, Bach passes a virtuosic, running sixteenth-note line across the three solo voices, creating an ear-catching bit of word painting. It’s fun to hear how different groups handle this moment—the Vox Luminis singers are fantastically intense, but I also appreciate the cleanliness and purity of Voces8’s interpretation.

Day 15 (10/12/20)

Today’s listen was preceded by a rather odd choice—Hindemith’s Nobilissima Visione, a 1938 ballet based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. (Specifically, Herbert Blomstedt’s marvelous 1993 recording with the San Francisco Symphony.) Turns out, this pairing actually worked surprisingly well. Who’d’ve thunk?

Day 16 (10/13/20)
Ohhh, neat! (Also, claps for two Schitt’s Creek GIFs in one post!)

Something that’s super obvious on the surface, but didn’t strike me until today, is that there is no chorale movement in this Cantata. While I adore Bach’s use of chorales and hymn tunes throughout his sacred works (including two other favorites cantatas, BWV 4 and BWV 106), there’s something a bit freeing about the lack of one in this work. Perhaps because it opens the door for that heavenly chaconne in the final movement…

Day 17 (10/14/20)

In my honest opinion, All of Bach is one of the best classical music websites out there. Period. Created by the Netherlands Bach Society, this is a veritable treasure trove of free (!), high-quality video performances of Bach’s works. (The group’s ultimate goal is to record the composer’s entire output, hence the name “All of Bach.”)

Today’s listen came courtesy of this resource. Captured during a live concert in 2019, this stunning performance strips down the vocal parts to the barest of essentials—just four solo voices—giving the Cantata an even greater sense of intimacy and potency. This recording in particular also makes me miss live music even more. *Sigh…*

Day 18 (10/15/20)

The twisting vocal line on the word Netze (“net”) near the end of the sixth movement is SO satisfying. ‘Nuff said.

Day 19 (10/16/20)
Bach + Starbucks = the perfect companions

I didn’t think this Cantata could get much better, but listening to it this morning while sipping a café mocha from Starbucks confirmed that yes, yes it can. (I also decided to pair it with, appropriately, Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” a charming little work that I have written about previously on this blog.)

Day 20 (10/17/20)

Hard to believe that there are only 10 days left to this listening challenge! (Time has no meaning right now during the pandemic, but somehow it still manages to fly…) Anyway, I decided to mix it up again today and check out a 1995 recording by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan. To my ears, this performance sounds like it makes use of a slightly larger choir compared to the other recordings I’ve listened to. Although I adore the chamber-like quality of the Vox Luminis and Voces 8 recordings, Suzuki’s version imbues the Cantata with a definite warmth and full-bodied sound that is most welcome, especially during this impersonal and lonely time.

Day 21 (10/18/20)
Nosferatu…

It’s spooky season, so my dad and I decided to watch the classic 1922 silent film Nosferatu last night (in a version accompanied by Hans Erdmann‘s original score). At the beginning of Act IV, I noticed that the falling, canonic string lines in the film’s score bear a similar resemblance to the first vocal movement of the Cantata, specifically the choir’s opening lines—Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (“Lord I long for you”). Was this intentional on Erdmann’s part, or just a side effect of my ears being inundated with so much of Bach as of late? More than likely, it’s the latter, but even if it is coincidental, it’s an interesting aural connection nonetheless. In any case, you can hear for yourself below… if you dare! 😉

Day 22 (10/19/20)

Here are two random things I noticed during previous listens, but haven’t mentioned yet:

1. Interestingly, there’s only one aria in this Cantata (the third movement’s soprano solo). A good number of Bach’s later cantatas contain at least a couple of arias, so this is a bit unusual. (On the flip side, there are also some cantatas he scored for ONLY one singer and instrumental accompaniment, so there’s that…)

2. Bach is often considered a master of fugal writing and in this Cantata, we get not one, but TWO vocal fugues (in the second and sixth movements). Both are relatively short compared to some of Bach’s other outings in the form, but are no less delightful to the ears.

Day 23 (10/20/20)
When the Picardy third hits

I love Picardy thirds, especially in Bach’s music. (A Picardy third is when a major chord appears at the end of a piece in a minor key, creating a greater sense of finality.) This technique can be heard a few times throughout this Cantata, but one instance is particularly interesting. At the end of the second movement, which is set largely in B minor, the music comes to rest on a final, B major chord. However, the note that causes this shift (D#) only appears in a single instrument—the second violin—making it barely audible within the other parts. It’s almost as if a confident, resolute conclusion in a major key hasn’t been earned yet. We need to trek through the weeds of this spiritual journey before the “battle” is fully won.

Day 24 (10/21/20)

Another nice thing about this Cantata is that it’s only about 14 minutes long. Short, sweet, and to the point (like today’s entry!)

Day 25 (10/22/20)
How I envision this moment

On Day 14, I highlighted some aural trickery that occurs near the end of the fifth movement. A similar moment can be heard towards the beginning of the sixth movement. After the choir sings the words stets zu dem Herrn (“ever toward the Lord”), there’s a very brief interlude from the two violins and bassoon, who play in three entirely different rhythms from one another. This may not sound impressive on paper, but the parts are written in such a way that it causes an unusual, “ricocheting” effect between the instruments. Is there a significance to this based on the words that had just been sung? Possibly, but it’s an intriguing moment nonetheless.

Day 26 (10/23/20)

Today’s listen came courtesy of an incredible group I stumbled upon a few weeks ago—the Germany-based choir Sing and Sign. This organization brings together professional musicians and hearing-impaired actors who sign along with the German texts, allowing the deaf community to visually experience Bach’s music.

Back in July, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sing and Sign recorded a concert of Bach cantatas and chorales at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach was music director for the final 27 years of his life. (In fact, the group performed in the sanctuary where Bach is buried. You can see his gravestone right behind the violinists in the video below.) Part of Sing and Sign’s program included Bach’s Cantata BWV 150, complete with signed accompaniment. The musical caliber of the performance is quite excellent by itself, but the signing turns it into something truly beautiful. (Seriously, take 14 minutes out of your day, sit down, and watch this. It is 100% worth the time.)

Day 27 (10/24/20)
Alban Berg being a rule-follower, but also breaking all of the rules

I decided to listen to the Bach during my long, Saturday morning walk. But since the Cantata is only 14 minutes long, and my Saturday walks tend to be 45 minutes or longer, the big question was: what else to add to the playlist? I ultimately decided to pair the Cantata with the music of another “B”—Alban Berg. To some, this may seem like an odd coupling on the surface, but it actually works remarkably well. Berg’s early-twentieth-century musical language is largely atonal but still firmly rooted in tradition, making frequent callbacks to classical forms and tonal music. For our purposes, though, there is an explicit Bach-Berg connection in one of the latter’s most famous works. In the second movement of Berg’s Violin Concerto, he directly quotes the Lutheran chorale Es ist genug (“It is enough”), which Bach set in his Cantata BWV 60 in 1723. So, the two composers are actually quite complementary to each other—one representing staunch tradition, the other breaking with that tradition while also maintaining clear ties to it.

Also, the two Berg pieces that I chose to accompany the Bach Cantata ended up forming an interesting little narrative. Here’s how I saw it…

  1. Berg’s Seven Early Songs – one of Berg’s earliest compositions (some free explorations of key, but still largely rooted in a late-romantic musical language); represents youth/wistfulness
  2. Berg’s Violin Concerto – composed near the end of Berg’s life; represents a loss of youth (specifically the death of Manon Gropius); cycles through various stages of grief (denial, anger, etc.), ultimately ending with acceptance; mixes atonality with tonality (i.e., direct quote of Bach chorale near the end)
  3. Bach’s BWV 150 – one of Bach’s earliest cantatas (1707?); restoration of youth/hope; moves from longing to fulfillment (promise of a joyful end to life’s trials and suffering)
Day 28 (10/25/20)
Hard to believe that there are only two more days left of this challenge!

Mixing things up for the last time (*sniffle*), I decided to check out Ton Koopman’s 1994 recording with the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra. Koopman recorded one of my favorite versions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, so I was eager to hear what he does with this Cantata. Like the All of Bach recording (from Day 17), Koopman utilizes only one singer per part, creating an intimate listening experience. The performance itself is remarkably clean and precise, although, like Gardiner’s first recording (from Day 9), the fifth movement is again too easygoing for my taste. All in all, though, an excellent way to begin this Sunday morning!

Day 29 (10/26/20)
Me frantically trying to sight-read the fugue in the second movement

On this, the second-to-last day of the challenge, I decided to do something completely different. Instead of just listening to the Cantata, I decided to sing along with it. Not like “sing-in-the-car” sing, but “sing-with-sheet-music-in-front-of-you” sing. It’s been a hot second since I’ve sung in a choir, so I thought it would be fun to dust off the vocal chops and try my hand at sight-reading through this Cantata. After finding a score online (which wasn’t difficult), I went out into my dad’s little composing cottage in the backyard (so as not to disturb my family), put in my headphones, cued up the Vox Luminis recording, and just went for it. I’ve sung tenor in the past, decided to follow along with the bass part, as Bach tenor parts can get pretty gnarly. (High notes + fast notes = death. It’s a similar story with Handel.)

Overall, it went fairly well! Even though I was sight-reading, it’s amazing how after listening to this piece every day for 30 days (plus many times prior), the music has basically been subsumed into my subconscious. Some parts just flowed along naturally and were almost second nature to sing. Two moments did trip me up a bit—the fugue in the second movement (lots of fast, running sixteenth notes) and the little vocal flourish on the word widerbellet in the fifth movement (which I pointed out on Day 14)—but most of it was successful otherwise. It was especially gratifying to sing that incredible vocal line on the word Netze (sixth movement; mentioned on Day 18) and the final movement (in which the chaconne melody is given to the bass at a few points). I’m a bit bummed that I didn’t think of doing this earlier, but I’d definitely like to try it again for fun at some point.

(Also, on a side note, the blustery, fire-starting Santa Ana winds were blowing through Orange County today, which gave a particular poignancy to the text of the fifth movement—”Cedars must before the tempest often suffer much torment, and are often uprooted. Entrust to God both thought and deed, do not heed what howls against you, for His word teaches us quite otherwise.”)

Day 30 (10/27/20)

Well, this is it. With that final B major chord (gotta love those Picardy thirds!), this month-long listening challenge has officially come to an end. How do I feel? “Bittersweet” would probably describe it—part of me is glad to be moving my attention to other things, but the other part is a bit sad. This work has been like a companion of sorts these past 30 days. Each listen was a welcome little “ritual” each day, a bastion of pleasantness, reliability, and comfort amidst the “sucky” and ever-changing state of our world right now. Of course, I realize that nothing is keeping me from coming back to the Cantata again in the coming weeks and months. Now, though, it’ll be more like revisiting an old friend.

So, at this point, how do I feel about the music? Were there any major revelations this past month that reveal why I love this piece so much? To be perfectly honest, not really. All of the things I loved about it before I still love now. And I’m definitely not sick of the piece after listening to it for 30 days in a row. (By the way, that’s about 420 minutes, or 7 hours total!) If anything, my love for it has only grown in this time. That being said, my initial assessment from Day 1 still holds true: I just love this piece. There’s not much else to say.

But maybe that’s OK. Maybe we don’t need big, fancy explanations about why we love a piece of music. Maybe it’ll take some time. Maybe we are still finding the right words. Maybe the reasons go beyond words and just speak through the music itself. As a musicologist, my job hinges on explaining things, making connections, teasing out details. I could explain things and provide historical context “until the cows come home,” but some things, like love, are just basic and personal and innately human. And that, right there, is a beautiful thing.

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