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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - B
C is for Cantatas

This is an extract from an interview with Alan de Botton, which will be broadcast on Radio 3 during 'A Bach Christmas'.

"One almost can't believe that so many of the cantatas are so great.  With most composers one is lucky to get a few pieces of music that one really loves, with Bach there's just so much.

Of all Bach's music, the cantatas are particularly rich in tunes and repeated motifs. When I was growing up, I associated religious music with school hymns, the most untuneful, dreary things, but many Bach cantatas are incredibly jolly and full of playful flourishes. They can be Vivaldi-esque in their lightness, but also incredibly sad. If you're feeling sad there's nothing better than listening to some sad music and Bach's music is about the most touching, melancholic and poignant that I've ever heard - he's absolutely perfect.  It's through Bach's cantatas that, even though I don't believe in Christianity, Christian ideas come to seem most plausible. It's always striking to realise that there was a deeply religious message to them and that one is supposed to listen to a piece of music and feel closer to God. When I listen, I feel closer to the emotional range which God inhabits even for secular people - feelings of wonderment, feelings of humility, feelings of one's own fragility, death - all of these things come to mind.

Bach is often described as mathematical and people feel the rigour of the construction of the piece of music but there's also always a lot of emotion in it. I love that combination of having something that's cerebral and rational and at the same time very emotional, not just in music but in life in general. I would like to be a person that's a bit like a Bach cantata."
Alan de Botton

    Read what others have said..

    Julian Wimpenny, Trellech, Monmouthshire
    I'm a real amateur, though I do have a small but decent collection of cds including Bach. I have not (of course) been able to listen to a huge amount of the magnificent BBC3 Bach experience. I really liked many of the cantatas and these have been the main novelty for me. I need help! I loved the pieces particularly rich in solo oboe (including oboe d'amore) or viola as well as the viola de Gamba and other fretted string instruments) accompanying alto/soprano voices. Any experts out there point me to the cantatas that best fit this ambition??? Thanks! Julian

    Stephen Bennett, London
    I was looking for the cantata, "Ich Habe Genug" ("It is Enough") but couldn't find it in your list. Perhaps you didn't broadcast it? In searching the web for a bit, I couldn't find what I have discovered to be the most profound performance of this work. The recording of May 5-7 1958 by the baritone, Mack Harrell with Robert Shaw conducting, has the most wonderful, beautiful playing of the obbligato oboe part by Marc Lifschey. This musician was Principal Oboe of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under Georg Szell when that orchestra was the world's best. The interpretation and profound expression and phrasing of this performance was due to the greatness of this wonderful and extremely humble human being who was amazingly modest and generous of spirit. You would do well to educate yourselves to his work as well as this truly unique and profoundly great performance. Yours faithfully, Stephen Bennett

    Keith in Northamptonshire
    The most revelatory aspect of your programmes this week has been the cantatas. I have loved Bach's music for years, but had probably heard no more than twenty or so of the cantatas, and can still claim familiarity with no more than about ten of them. This week has seen a succession of masterpieces of amazing diversity. John Eliot Gardiner's observations have made fascinating listening. I think it was he that adverted at one point to the variety of Bach's orchestration in the cantatas, and this prompted me to wonder whether the great orchestrator Berlioz, whose writings contain a number of archly disparaging references to Bach, would have held him in higher regard had he had the benefit of knowing the cantatas. In the sixties and / or seventies, Radio Three began Sunday mornings with a cantata, presumably liturgically appropriate, and this could perhaps be repeated, giving people an opportunity to get to know these marvellous works at a more manageable pace than that afforded by this week's broadcasts. Anyway, this has been an extraordinary experience and a delightful exploration of a man that could claim to be among the most important to have walked the planet.

    Chris Whiley Chelmsford Essex
    Even though I, like Alan de Botton, am not religious it has been my habit for several years now to listen to an appropriate Bach cantata every Sunday. Their beauty and variety is astonishing and I never tire of them. I like Alan's description - they are uplifting and fulfilling in the way that many great religious paintings are. The deep religious feelings of such artists clearly can, through their genius, generate equivalent emotions in the non-religious.

    Gwynfor Rees, Newport, S. Wales
    Bach Cantata 54 with Helen Watts - magnificent! What a pity it has not been put on CD

    richardt, yorkshire
    I often wonder what reason bach had for inluding Rosenmuller's Choral at the end of BWV 27. As Sir John Elliott Gardiner suggested at the end of today's performance, Bach must have had the highest regard for this setting. Rosenmuller seems to have been associated with St Thomas's and St Nicholas's in Leipzig in the 16th century and perhaps the work was still in use at the time of Bach's arrival. The notes from both my Harnoncout and Jurgens recordings of this work shed no light on this question but do point out that Bach introduced a novel feature into the opening movement. This chorus incorporates a recitative in 3/4 time - apparently unique in all Bach. Perhaps the busy Bach was preoccupied with the chorus and left himself with too little time for completion of a choral setting that would do the work jutice. Are there any other choral arrangements in the cantatas which are not by Bach? If the Rosenmuller setting is part of a larger work then it would be interesting to hear it

    Sylvia M Samuel
    I have been listening to Bach for atleast 43 years as my husband was an addict. I have at least 80 or more cantatas plus masses etc.and will go on collecting but I am still not sure how many cantatas Bach actually wrote, please would you let me know? A friend heard one recently and was sure the announcer said cantat 207 but I must say I have not heard it and didn't think he had written quite as many as that. I have consulted books but still don't know.

    Richard, Fall River, USA
    When I moved to the USA, from England, for a job I had to ship all my belongings and take just two suitcases myself. The only CD's I took, to listen to were the full Cantata set from Harnoncourt and Leonhardt. Even though I am not Christian and do not understand German I bought a car with a six-CD changer so I could listen to this wonderful music every day commuting to and from work. I listened to these Cantatas in BWV numerical order so I had no context to the Christian significance but let the chorales, the arias, the recitatives and the sinfonias wash over me. The US is a very fast paced society and Bach calmed my soul.

    David Melville, Guildford
    Nothing gives me such joy and peace as listening to Bach's music and in particular his cantatas. There is so much to learn and love; how could a man with 20 children have found time to write such sublime music? Thank you for this wonderful early Christmas present.

    Andrew, Ipswich
    I have recently discovered the Cantatas, through Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan, and latterly Rilling, Gardiner and the Cantata Pilgrimage. What interests me is why there seems to be such intense focus on them just now - with three recorded cycles in progress and not a few part-cycles. I love the way words and music work so completely together. For me the strong affirmation of Christian Faith, coupled with a warmth of emotion and depth of human experience only equalled by the book of Psalms, speaks strongly to me as a Christian. Perhaps it speaks to others too looking for reality in a world where today everything is true and therefore nothing is certain.

    Richard F. Sheil Fredonia, Ne
    Of the several Cantatas I performed with the Fredonia College Choir, none affected me more than Aus der Tiefe, No. 131, and the funeral cantata, O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, No. 118. Both are considered to be of minor merit, but I love them both. Hope I get to hear them on the December Bach Marathon.

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