Cantata BWV 8Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?


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There are two versions of this cantata extant: an E major one (which was first performed in September 1724) and a D major one (first performed around 1746/7). The NBA therefore publishes two versions as well, and I’ve referenced both in the ‘NBA’ heading for this cantata as a result. The librettist is anonymous, but has taken the words of a hymn by Caspar Neumann verbatim in the outer movements and by paraphrase in the inner movements. It is an anxious questioning about death: when it will happen, what will come after. Very human questions, of course; and naturally Bach has the answer in the form of Jesus, who will take all matters associated with death and make them of no account.

The opening chorus is lovely. You can hear the birds tweeting, the dust particles weaving about in a sunny afternoon’s gentle breeze… and the strings and continuo ominously mimic the tolling of a bell above which all this dreamy loveliness wafts. I can’t help but think of the Sunday Morning scene in Act 2 of Peter Grimes, where Peter and Ellen discuss their future in a churchyard whilst the service can be heard off-stage.

Devotee of Suzuki’s cantatas though I am, this cantata to my mind provides a rare instance of Pieter Leusink’s version being rather better for getting the sense of a tolling bell than Suzuki’s. Leusink is slower and heavier and allows the ‘bell tolling’ effect to be sustained. Suzuki’s orchestra is merely allowed to touch the ‘tolling chords’, but they don’t sustain them and the speed used means the effect is more like a village brass band oompah than of a bell tolling! (By way of contrast, Gardiner barely lets his strings be heard above the oboes, so that there’s not much sense of anything happening beyond two oboists having a great time). Harnoncourt also gives a lot more ‘oomph’ to the orchestral bell-peals, so that version is good too.

That said, the complete set of audio samples provided here are from Suzuki’s version, simply to be consistent -and because Leusink’s chorus is its usual pretty awful self, complete with a weird ‘hooting’ effect from the (boy) sopranos, making his recordings difficult to recommend at the best of times.

The chorale melody is given to the sopranos. Unusually, it was a fairly ‘modern’ tune in its day, coming from a hymn by Daniel Vetter written around 1713 (making it almost ‘current affairs’ for Bach in 1724!) Unlike in many of his opening chorales, Bach here doesn’t let the non-soprano parts weave and wave around the melody, but are used to support the melody in careful, chordal interjections, making the overall effect of great clarity and simplicity, entirely befitting the dark questions the singers are asking.

The tenor aria (movement 2) is in a minor key, which suits the questioning, anxious sense of the words. In the upper orchestral register we have an oboe d’amore weaving flights of semi-quavers; below, we have a pizzicato continuo that constantly bangs out the same tick-tock rhythm of time passing (and thus something of a death-knell, in similar vein to the openign tolling-bell effect of the previous movement):

The alto recitative is similarly questioning and anxious: musically, you can hear this in the number of imperfect cadences that are scattered throughout. As imperfect cadences, they ask open questions, never resolving to a final answer.

The bass aria that answers the alto’s questions is immediately discernible to be in an entirely new mood: bright, major-mode, with perky instrumentation (especially the flute part, which indicates the chirruping birds are back!) The note-runs the bass is asked to sing makes it sound, indeed, as if he’s laughing with joy. There aren’t too many passages of Bach that sound quite so utterly happy, to be honest 🙂

The concluding chorale is back in the major mode (after the soprano aria’s brief return to the minor). Unusually, Bach mostly just re-used Daniel Vetter’s original harmonisation.

Characterising the mood of this cantata is a bit tricky, since there are clearly two of them to deal with: the anxiety about death, and the joy about the assurances of eternal life that faith in Jesus brings. On the whole, however, whatever doubts you may feel at the start of the cantata are resolved by the end of it, so I’ve decided the overall mood is one of upbeat joy. As such, it’s a lovely cantata to listen to. It’s careful symmetry (chorus – movements for all four voices – closing chorale) ‘feels’ right. Arias don’t repeat da capo, interminably. The proportions thus seem good. Overall, it’s a rather nice cantata that leaves one feeling good about the world and one’s place in it: it gets an A rating from me as a result.

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