Saturday, 19 January 2013

Cantata for the First Sunday After Epiphany- Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen

Monty Python's Life of Brian was part right. Jesus was the Messiah, and he was also a very naughty boy. But what can you expect from a child of dubious paternity, born to a teenage mother in occupied Palestine? It's not exactly domestic bliss. True, the immediate danger of the last instalment of the Christmas Oratorio has passed; Herod the raging dictator is dead, the wise men have long fled and there's nothing to be seen of the gold. Quite possibly it was in the Nazareth branch of Cash Converters. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are getting on with ordinary Jewish life. It's a pain, and so is He.

At least, that's the context for this week's cantata- Mary and Joseph searching desperately for the twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, and Jesus's irritating smugness and apparent indifference to their distress when he's found showing off to all the crusty old rabbis in the Temple. Bach wrote three cantatas for this week, one each year from 1724 to 1726. This one is arguably the most intriguing. It's almost entirely dialogue between two solo voices, soprano and bass. Now Bach had a fairly steady supply of experienced older boy soloists in Leipzig at this time. They all could have excelled in the part of the truculent, brilliant teenage Jesus. And if literalism was the name of the game, then Bach could well have given lines to a bass soloist to be Joseph, and even given Mary's lines to an alto. (Bach certainly was willing to indulge in a little gender-bending irony in the St Matthew Passion when the alto soloist, assuredly sung by a male in Bach's time, is addressed by the chorus as “O du Schönste unter den Weibern”- “O you, fairest of women”. ) It could have been a jewel of an operatic scena, a gift to future generations of performers to show the terror and relief of the Virgin Mary. As an example of how a composer a generation before Bach did precisely this, have a listen to Henry Purcell's Blessed Virgin's Expostulation- .

But clearly Bach didn't want that. Just like in the Christmas Oratorio nine years later, Bach doesn't simply want to dramatise actual events. This is not wannabe mini opera, hobbled by lack of scenery and finger-wagging church authorities. Instead, we step outside the particulars of the story and go to the universal. In the dialogue, the bass takes the role of a timeless saving Christ, not a twelve-year-old Jesus with his voice on the edge of breaking. The soprano sings for every searching soul in history, not just one particular distraught Jewish mother in Jerusalem circa 12 A.D.: “Ach! mein Hort, erfreue mich, Laß dich höchst vergnügt umfangen”- “Ah, my desire, make me joyful, let me embrace you with the greatest delight.”

It would be unfair to describe the first movement as a soprano solo; in fact, the oboe is as much in the limelight as the singer. It often rises above the voice's own melody and lingers on after the text has finished, as if the heights of emotion push beyond the limits of language. And even with tiny forces, there's still a remarkable feeling of grandeur it. The recording by the intriguingly named Les Folies Françoises is real chamber music, one-to-a-part in an intimate acoustic, and all the more intense for that.

The response from the bass soloist is concise to the point of brusqueness, and at first sight exactly as unfeeling as the teenage Jesus must have seemed: “What's this, that you were looking for me? Don't you know I must be on my Father's business?”. But this isn't a reproach- it's a signpost. “Hier, in meines Vaters Stätte, Findt mich ein betrübter Geist.”- here in my Father's house the troubled spirit finds Me. The aria that follows is one of those glorious Bach moments for the bass- warm and deeply paternal. It almost seems insolent to point out little technical details like the false relation on betrübter:

(Bars 47-49, bass part)
Here, Bach adds an unexpected flat to the B natural that came a fraction of a second earlier, plunging us unprepared into a minor tonality and making us feel quite how troubled the soul is. But analysis has to stop at some point, and when it comes to music like this, the earlier the better for my limited powers. In fact, when I was making notes while listening to this movement, I just ran out of words- rather like the soprano soloist in the first movement. I lacked a sublime oboe obbligato, so I just put a row of stars: it really is so beautiful, but never over-blown, especially when sung at that serene mezzo-piano that is at the heart of the greatest Bach arias for bass.

And after that moment of sublime self-declaration, soul and Saviour, soprano and bass, wind themselves ever closer together. The cantata started with separate movements given to each voice; the next movement gives them genuine dialogue, interleaved and responsive. The soul rejoices that dieses Wort, das itzo schon Mein Herz aus Babels Grenzen reißt – “this Word wrenches my soul from out of the borders of Babylon”. Grenze was also the word used in East Germany for the Berlin Wall- and the musical destruction of the Grenze between Christ and the soul is a moment of genuine unification too for the soul and the saviour, as joyful as any December night in 1989. Finally, both voices are united in a duet where they share the same words. This is so much more than just singing from the same hymn-sheet. It means that at last, their desires and wills are one- in the same way as true lovers, or the persons of the Trinity (which amounts to much the same thing). Heaven and Earth have come together- “Nun verschwinden alle Plagen, Nun verschwindet Ach und Schmerz!”- now all troubles, all pain and sorrow blow away in the wind! We're a world away from the initial themes- fear and separation are long forgotten.  

And finally two more singers, alto and tenor join our soloists for the closing chorale. We rejoice that heaven and earth have met- not as individuals, but singing all together with the best four-part Lutheran joy. 


  1. Sang it in the Ashmolean last Wednesday (paired with Apollo and Daphne) and was blown away by the oboe - both the writing, and the playing (Chris O'Neal).

  2. Hi Martyn! I saw the review at - an interesting concert! I'm glad to see they chose exactly the right cantata for this week. I don't know Apollo e Dafne- I think I will have to go to Spotify and find out all about it...