Choosing the "best" of Johann Sebastian Bach's nearly 200 sacred cantatas is a daunting task, as each one seems perfect. But three leading Bach experts took up the challenge.
Peter Wollny, director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig, Michael Maul, the Bachfest's new director, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the British conductor, president of the Bach Archive and the source of the idea: these three experts chose what they consider the all-time "greatest" Bach cantatas. Maul identified 33, Gardiner had a total of 38 and Wollny 52.
Fifteen cantatas turn up in the "best of" lists of all three Bach scholars, which is astonishing as they hadn't compared notes beforehand. Wollny, Maul and Gardiner then whittled the list down to 33.
All of the works on the list have now been performed within the first 48 hours of this year's Bachfest in Leipzig, which began on Friday (08.06.2018): 18 hours of music in ten concerts taken in by hardcore Bach aficionados sitting on solid wooden pews of the St. Thomas and St. Nikolaus churches where the composer himself once worked. Who would subject themselves to such an endurance test?
One need look no further than to major rock festivals like "Rock am Ring," or to the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, to find similar examples of binge live music consumption. The pass to the complete "Cantata Ring" in Leipzig was in fact sold out six months in advance. Visitors made the trip from places as far-off as New Zealand.
The Cantata 101
So just what is a cantata? The term comes from the Italian "cantare" and has to do with singing. A cantata is a vocal work lasting about 20 minutes that comprises several smaller pieces with solo voice, chorus and instrumental accompaniment — or sometimes all of these at once.
A cantata usually bears the same name as a church hymn, and the melodies and musical motifs of the hymn — and often the hymn itself — sound out over the course of the piece. In Bach's time, sacred cantatas were performed during church services, and the texts that were sung had to do with the theme of that Sunday's gospel reading. That's why there are cantatas for the specific Sundays and holidays of the liturgical year.
Bach composed cantatas week after week and had them performed by the boys of his St. Thomas Choir and whatever instrumentalists he could drum up. That explains his rationale for taking on the otherwise unattractive position of Cantor of St Thomas Church, expressing the wish to leave behind a "well-ordered compilation of sacred music." For posterity? Could the composer have dreamed that 333 years after his birth, the performance of 33 of his cantatas at his last place of work would be noted worldwide? One can only speculate.
Not a brook, an ocean!
"He shouldn't be named Brook but rather, Ocean!" is a bon mot attributed to Ludwig van Beethoven. It's a play on words: "Bach," in German, means "brook." Beethoven was referring to the universal quality of Bach's oeuvre. In that ocean, the cantatas are lesser known islands than many of his other works but are definitely worth a visit — or a revisit. While the music is appealing on first listening, it becomes more interesting with greater familiarity.
From the 33 "best" sacred cantatas, we've assembled a gallery of a few of our own favorites. Click through it and let us know if you've discovered something valuable there — or if your own favorite Bach cantata is missing.
And here are the 33 "best" as selected by Peter Wollny, Michael Maul and Sir John Eliot Gardiner:
· Nun komm der heiden Heiland, BWV 61
· Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
· Ich habe genug, BWV 82
· Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1
· Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12
· O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20
· Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21
· Es erhub sich ein Streit, BWV 19
· Schwingt freudig euch empor, BWV 36
· Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!, BWV 70
· Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110
· Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65
· Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen, BWV 81
· Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen, BWV 123
· Sehet, wir gehen hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159
· Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott, BWV 127
· Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182
· Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, BWV 31
· Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, BWV 6
· Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, BWV 103
· ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe ,BWV 34
· Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76
· Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75
· Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39
· Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, BWV 2
· Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht, BWV 105
· Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56
· Komm, du süße Todesstunde, BWV 161
· Liebster Gott, wann wird ich sterben, BWV 8
· Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende, BWV 27
· Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95
· Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, BWV 101
· Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78