Lent has ended; but there's a double puzzle, a magic door to escape the wilderness. This week's cantata for Palm Sunday (March 24, this year) is also a cantata for the Annunciation. At the very moment we're anticipating Easter and expecting to hear about triumphal entries into Jerusalem, we're thrown back beyond Christmas, to the very beginning of the story and Christ's conception. It's a sort of liturgical equivalent of getting the “Go back to Old Kent Road” card when your Monopoly dog is padding up to Park Lane.
The tail-in-mouth quality of this cantata extends to the catalogue number. Last week, we were listening to one of the very last latecomers, the Passions-Pasticcio down at the bottom of the catalogue at BWV1088; but now we're twanged back to the very beginning. This is BWV1, unexpectedly leading the procession of Bach's works like a choirboy who's taken the wrong turning at the installation of a bishop. Why was this piece- not the St Matthew Passion, not the Art of Fugue, not even one of the earliest cantatas- chosen to be first of all by the nineteenth-century scholars who put together the first complete Bach edition? It's not immediately obvious.
The opening chorus combines richness from the horns with a lovely twinkling shimmer from the violins above. “How beautifully the morning star shines!” It's real morning music- enlivening, dancing, light. All that is quite appropriate given that the main Sunday service at St Thomas' started at 7 in the morning, and the early March light would have filtering through the windows. (Admittedly, it's a slightly scratchy shimmer on Nicolaus Harnoncourt's recording, made in 1970-1, still the early days of the period instrument movement).
Traditionally, the Annunciation was (and is) considered to be a feast of Mary. Her consent to the angel Gabriel's crashing into her life can be presented as as a glorious prefiguring of an enthronement in heaven (as in Simone Martini's Annunciation with Two Saints here:)
Or it can be something more disturbing, as Dante Gabriel Rosetti's pallid girl hunches up on her bed away from the strange unfocussed presence in her room, contemplating her new condition with a terrifying intensity:
But here, Bach and his librettist are focussed not on Mary but Jesus- appropriately Lutheran. The second movement deals with Mary's role in a few brief lines of recitative delivered by the tenor. Even then, the musical climax is given to the words “O Süßigkeit, o Himmelsbrot, das weder Grab, Gefahr, noch Tod aus unsern Herzen reißen”- O sweetness, O bread of Heaven, that neither grave, danger nor death can tear from our hearts”.This is an ex-Marian festival, a hangover from pre-Reformation times. For Bach's congregation in Leipzig, the real business is adoring the King who is simultaneously entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and a whole new world at the Annunciation.
The festive, courtly feel continues with the next aria for soprano and oboe da caccia- literally a hunting oboe, with a darker tone one step closer to a horn than a conventional oboe (or even the lovely oboe d'amore Bach sometimes uses in his more tender moments). The soloist calls on the himmlische göttlichen Flammen, “heavenly divine flames” to fill the hearts of the believers with brünstigsten Liebe – “burning love”: and the oboe gently chuckles away like a flame starting to kindle in a bundle of twigs.
Intriguingly, the bass recitative that follows almost seems to be shying away from directly engaging with the concepts of the Annunciation. It talks about “Ein Freudenschein ist mir von Gott entstanden,”- “a beam of joy comes to me from God”, with a joyful little decoration on the word Freudenschein; but it's talking more generally about the experience of holy communion available to all of Bach's congregation, not Mary's very specific experience of bodily union. Is it just Lutheran anti-Marianism? Possibly Or is it actually that Bach and his librettist wanted to express how that feeling of bodily union experienced by Mary at the beginning of the story is available to the whole congregation in Easter week? Either way, the libretto is expressed in ardent, yet relatively theologically unchallenging terms- at least compared to the blackness and calls to repentance we've heard earlier in Lent.
This theme of uncomplicated devotion continues in the next aria. The words are a simple statement of what's going on: “Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten sollen dir, für und für, Dank und Opfer zubereiten” - “Our voices and the sound of strings shall forever prepare thanks and offerings”. Well, yes- and naturally the upper strings play their part in this lightly scored, easy-to-listen-to aria. It does exactly what it says on the tin (or the libretto)- strings, voice, thanks, praise. And we end with joy again as the whole band unites in a straightforward setting of the chorale. It's like a little Christmas, made all the more festive by putting the horns on the top two parts, in unison with the sopranos and altos.
You might get the impression that I'm a little underwhelmed by this cantata. It certainly doesn't go into the full rich implications of Palm Sunday and the Annunciation combined. The libretto doesn't bring out the bittersweetness of Palm Sunday, where a triumphal entry is hung about with shadows of Christ's impending death; and the music is in a mode of almost unalloyed celebration. Similarly, it seems strangely reticent to dramatise the Annunciation in personal terms- could there not have been a dialogue between the Angel Gabriel and Mary here, to match the drama of the Christmas Oratorio? But we are so spoilt. It's still one of the most straightforwardly beautiful cantatas in itself and on its own terms.
That's perhaps the true significance of the cantata and why it justifies its place as BWV 1. Apparently, back in the 1850s the compilers of the catalogue wanted something that would grab people, excite them and purchase subscriptions to the rest of the great sequence. And to hear it more through their ears, we can put aside the historically informed recording by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and go to an earlier, more nineteenth-century-style Romantic reading. In fact, Karl Richter's recording only dates from 1968, two years beforehand. But it comes as the summation of a great tradition of Bach cantatas, just as Harnoncourt represents a new way of looking at things. Once again, an ending and a beginning are entwined; a triumphant conclusion and a new birth are formed into one..
I was electrified by Richter's opening chorus. It works perfectly with a large Romantic orchestra. The larger body of string sound shimmers delicately, and the simpler melodic lines are suited to the massive chorus. And this is the sort of chorus that might have sung Bach cantatas in the 1850s. It shows that in fact, whatever gems came later in the catalogue, Wie schön leuchtet den Morgenstern was a perfect lure. The punters who had never heard a live Bach cantata were expecting contrapuntal complexity and scary Baroque obscurity. Instead, they got a shining morning star, a herald of even greater things.