Getting to know Bach’s Cantatas

-Posted on 01.03.2017

Iain Ledingham, director of the Bach Cantata Series and winner of the 2017 Bach Prize, tells Timothy Jones about the joys and challenges of working through Bach’s epic masterpieces

Timothy Jones: Iain, as we head into the ninth Jahrgang of our cantata cycle, what has the experience of preparing and performing over 150 cantatas (and counting) been like for you

Iain Ledingham: It’s been the most marvellous voyage of discovery. As an Organ Scholar in Cambridge I got to perform a handful of cantatas, but I was immersed far more deeply in Bach’s organ music than his vocal music during those years. And my career has been focused on opera, oratorio and song ever since, so the cantatas, as a complete body of work, were unknown territory. The immense privilege of being able to explore the repertoire systematically over the last eight years has been a real education: simply getting to know the music, learning how to work with the extreme demands Bach makes of his performers (my respect for Bach’s Weimar and Leipzig colleagues is fairly boundless by now!), and engaging with Bach’s imaginative response to the poetic and spiritual aspects of the texts.

TJ: All your experience in the organ loft and in the theatre must have been good preparation for taking on the cantatas.

‘When Bach was fairly new in post in Leipzig, an old lady complained loudly that going to a church was like attending a comic opera’

IL: Well of course they are very dramatic pieces. They have such clear narratives, even if the ‘story’ can be a bit abstract at times with all the contemplation of moral (and immoral) qualities; but there is compelling dramatic potential in the archetypal sequence of sin, repentance and redemption. And Bach has such an amazing sense of how to dramatise, often in an overtly theatrical way, the conflicts, tensions and resolutions in the librettos. When Bach was fairly new in post in Leipzig, an old lady complained loudly that going to a church was like attending a comic opera. The conservative element in the congregation must surely have shared her qualms, if not her outrage.

TJ: Comparing the cantatas to contemporaneous operas, it’s like the dictum that the pictures are always better on the radio than on the television.

IL: I suppose it’s true that without costumes and scenery all the drama has to be ‘hard-wired’ into the music. Operatic influences on the cantatas are certainly unmistakeable. Not just the general questions of aria forms and recitative, but also particular operatic styles and types of writing. Take the wonderful sleep aria ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ in Cantata no.82 [Ich habe genug] or the extended dramatic scena that is Cantata no.81 [Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?].

TJ: Bach’s very good at depicting less obvious emotional states and abstract concepts, such as righteous anger and evil, as well, isn’t he?

IL: Yes, you’re absolutely right. He doesn’t give the Devil all the best tunes, but there is some vivid ‘devilish’ music in the Michaelmas cantatas. And all that wonderful chromaticism with which Bach portrays moral and ethical perversion is great for musicians to get their teeth into. But these things are never simple or cartoonish: his control over his material means that he can nuance the expressive qualities of the texts in ways that were beyond the technique of most of his contemporaries.

TJ: And what about the organ music?

IL: The biggest overlap is in the great chorale preludes that are a staple of any organist’s repertoire. They are a terrific training ground for performing the cantatas from Bach’s second Jahrgang which are largely based on the same formal and poetic principles of taking a chorale melody and musically meditating on it. But more generally, the experience of playing the great preludes and fugues gives you a good introduction to the epic qualities of Bach’s formal thinking which really helps pace not just the large opening choruses but also the entire span of each cantata.

‘We don’t normally think of Bach as a child prodigy, but even the very earliest cantatas from his teens and early twenties are absolutely masterly’

TJ: And what sort of picture have you formed of the repertoire as a whole? How do you see Bach changing as a composer of cantatas as he gets older?

IL: The biggest revelation for me has been the sheer quality of the Weimar cantatas. Of course Bach only had to produce one of these a month, rather than his weekly duties in Leipzig, but the quality of their craftsmanship and expressive density are remarkable even by his standards. We don’t normally think of Bach as a child prodigy, but even the very earliest cantatas from his teens and early twenties are absolutely masterly — artistically he must have grown up very quickly.

TJ: Are you thinking of Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit?

IL: Oh yes, they don’t come better than the actus tragicus [Cantata no.106], but all of those early cantatas set a very high standard and are so complex in their attitude towards seventeenth-century traditions. The fully formed personality of Christ lag in Todesbanden [Cantata no.4] is a case in point, and of course Bach reused the opening chorus of Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen [Cantata no.12] for the ‘Crucifixus’ of the Mass in B minor at the end of his life — about as tough a quality control as one can imagine! What changed later on, of course, was his discovery of Italian formal principles, especially after his employer at Weimar introduced him to Vivaldi’s latest concertos around 1714. When it comes to the Leipzig cantatas the stylistic and poetic range is absolutely remarkable, and it is unfathomable that he wrote these masterpieces on a weekly basis in the early years of his tenure at St Thomas’s. But somehow the idea of the mature Bach at the top of his game is not quite so revelatory as encountering afresh or for the first time that initial flush of his genius in the very earliest works.

‘It’s fascinating to see Bach bringing the latest musical fashions into some of his later pieces, especially when he brings in the elegance of the style galant’

TJ: And what about the later cantatas?

IL: It’s fascinating to see Bach bringing the latest musical fashions into some of his later pieces, especially when he brings in the elegance of the style galant. In the opening and closing choruses of Freue dich, erlöste Schar [Cantata no.30], for example, you can imagine the tunes being sung by a crowd at the Café Zimmermann. And perhaps more generally there is a sense in the cantatas that have survived from the later 1720s onwards that Bach is able to achieve more with less: think of the wonderful solo cantatas — Ich habe genug [Cantata no.82], Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen [Cantata no.56], Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust [Cantata no.170] and Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! [Cantata no.51].    

TJ: I am sure that those of us who sit in the audience on Sundays are aware that an enormous care and preparation has gone into the performances, so it would be interesting to know how you rehearse them.

IL: We always start off from the texts, just like Bach did. It’s essential not only that the choir and soloists are clear about good pronunciation and understand the syntax and rhetoric of the text, but also that they have a good understanding of the poetics and even the theology that informs them so that they are in a good position to be reliable advocates for the message that Bach wants to get across with his music. We start off with individual coaching sessions for the soloists and then some choral rehearsals in the week before each concert. In the choral rehearsals I tend to spend a lot of time on the chorales, which — on the face of it — are sight-readable. Our splendid chorus is usually assured in the complex opening movements, but it can be extraordinarily difficult, having sat down for 10–15 minutes of solo music, to perform the final chorale in a way that summarises the message of the entire cantata. Our singers make a beautiful sound and have good pronunciation, but that isn’t always enough when it comes to expressing the meaning of the text. So I spend a lot of time explaining the poetry of the chorales, treating them with the same attention to detail as I would when coaching a Schubert Lied. I don’t think we always succeed in this respect, but I would like to think that, at our best, we do manage to bring the works to a meaningful conclusion.

TJ: And what about the instrumentalists?

IL: I am immensely lucky to work with leaders of the calibre of Maggie Faultless, Rachel Podger and Madeleine Easton, who do such a wonderful job of coaching the instrumental ensemble. And we can draw on very experienced colleagues in the Historical Performance, Woodwind and Brass departments to coach the enormously taxing solo instrumental parts too. Continuo rehearsals (with harpsichord, organ, cello, bass and bassoon) are also a vital component in getting the flow of the music to work. Then we start pulling it all together in the last couple of days before the concert with general rehearsals on Saturday and then a run-through on Sunday morning to warm us up before the performance.

TJ: I suppose this routine is especially necessary given that the personnel changes every year. Does the regular change in cohorts pose a challenge to the stylistic consistency of the series?

IL: The annual cycle of students graduating and matriculating is always potentially a challenge, but with the strength in depth of the student body at the Academy I have never had any worries about being able to replace the most experienced singers and instrumentalists with anything less than superb up-and-coming artists. The style question is an interesting one. In the early days colleagues could with some justification have accused me of being a bit of a control freak in that I used to very heavily mark up all the parts to indicate articulation, expressive nuance and phrasing. This was probably necessary because I had to establish a coherent stylistic approach very quickly from scratch. But as the series has progressed, I have become more relaxed about this and let colleagues bring to bear their own experience of the music in phrasing and articulation. And because there is a lot of continuity from year to year, that core sense of style persists quite strongly, I’d like to think. It’s particularly gratifying to see young colleagues who have done an ‘apprenticeship’ in the choir then moving on very successfully to solos: Jenny France, Stuart Jackson, Rupert Charlesworth and Anna Harvey spring to mind, and — more recently — Nick Mogg, Milly Forrest and Aaron Godfrey-Mayes. 

‘I think integrity is more important than authenticity, and the integrity of what we do here stems from the fact that it’s an honest response to the text’

TJ: Where do you see the ‘house style’ of our series in relation to performance trends in the wider world?

IL: The most important thing for me is not to be doctrinaire. I’m interested in the debates about one-to-a-part versus choral forces, the number of string players per part, and changing tastes in tempos, articulation, tuning systems, and so on. But I’m wary of the label ‘authenticity’. I think integrity is more important than authenticity, and the integrity of what we do here stems from the fact that it’s an honest response to the text.

TJ: What do you mean by honest?

IL: We take the text seriously, and think carefully about what it means to us and how we can best serve it through the music. We don’t have preconceived ideas about the interpretation of details. I think it’s dangerous (and limiting) to say that a particular turn of phrase must go in such-and-such a way, whether that’s based on historical research or because ‘we’ve always done it like that’. To make the music as eloquent as we can, we have to be alive to all its stylistic and expressive possibilities.

‘The transparency of period instruments, and the subtlety of articulation using Baroque bows for instance, is a wonderful medium with which to work’

TJ: What about the question of period and modern instruments?

IL: Period instruments bring one set of possibilities to the performance and interpretation of the scores and modern instruments a whole different set of possibilities. The transparency of period instruments, and the subtlety of articulation using Baroque bows for instance, is a wonderful medium with which to work and it has obvious beneficial effects on the colour and character of the singing too. The extra power in the sound that comes from modern instruments can in itself be thrilling and with careful balance and articulation, I think that we can make a good fist of capturing on their modern counterparts the more subtle nuances in articulation natural to period instruments.

TJ: It’s always a bit of an aural shock to me at the start of the modern instrument concerts when the pitch is higher. Does the higher pitch make life much harder for the sopranos and tenors?

IL: Sometimes! There’s more tension at a higher pitch and sometimes that is something that we can use to underpin certain expressive qualities like brilliance in the choruses and heightened operatic-type drama in the solo numbers. But we also have to be careful to play down the increased tension of a higher pitch in the musical numbers which should express calmness, consolation, forgiveness and other expressive traits of that sort.

TJ: Our colleague Mark Seow has written an essay called Bach’s Bodies: The Spiritual and Physical in the Cantatas for this booklet. What sort of strains does Bach put on his performers’ bodies in his cantatas?

‘At a basic technical level, this is immensely taxing music to perform. It needs mental toughness, because even the briefest lapse in concentration is punished by the music’

IL: At a basic technical level, this is immensely taxing music to perform. It needs mental toughness, because even the briefest lapse in concentration is punished by the music; and that level of alertness needs to go hand-in-hand with physical fitness too. Performing three cantatas back-to-back in an hour-long concert is a real test of physical stamina. We’re setting the bar higher for ourselves than Bach did for the Thomanerchor in this respect, of course; but, on the other hand, we don’t kick off at seven in the morning!

TJ: Looking ahead to the 2017 season, are there any works that you are particularly looking forward to doing?

IL: Every programme brings its own rewards. Even those cantatas that are not obvious peaks in the repertoire have their hidden gems, and there is something so rewarding in teasing out the beauty and finesse in the pieces that are not ‘crowd-pleasers’. Bach never lowers his standards and is never routine.

TJ: That’s a diplomatic answer, but you must have some personal favourites.

IL: If you’re really going to press me! The pairing of the ‘Peasant’ Cantata [Cantata no.212] with Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes [Cantata no.40] on 5th February will be great fun. I’m looking forward to Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen [Cantata no.215] on 5th March because of the unique circumstances surrounding its first performance [out of doors in the main square in Leipzig] and because it contains an early version of the ‘Osanna’ from the Mass in B minor. And looking further ahead to the end of the year, there’s a cracking programme on 3rd December, with no fewer than four trumpets in Christen, ätzet diesen Tag [Cantata no.63].

TJ: And in conclusion, is there one thing you have particularly valued in Bach’s cantatas, having devoted so much time to them in recent years?

IL: What I’ve come to admire and love most of all is Bach’s extraordinary ability to transport us from moods of doubt, gloom and guilt-racked despair to hope, comfort and joy — sometimes in the space of a few bars. The great Passion settings, of course, juxtapose the brutality and cruelty of the narrative with the possibility of redemption and divine grace. The cantatas also embody this profound paradox, hinting (in Bach’s rich harmonic language) at the possibility of light at the end of the tunnel. Our project will end in December 2018 with the sixth part of the Christmas Oratorio. The final chorale, with its glorious trumpet solo, will be a particularly fitting conclusion. At the end of his joyful oratorio Bach takes the ‘Passion Chorale’ which pervades the St Matthew Passion, most poignantly at the moment of Christ’s death, and turns it into a song of triumph in which goodness and love are victorious.

TJ: Iain, thank you.

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