Cantata BWV 19Es erhub sich ein Streit


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German TextEnglish Text


I have a soft spot for anything to do with angels: believe in them or not, the stories of their intervention in the lives of people are touching -perhaps just a little naiive, but also quite inspirational. Accordingly, I have an equally soft spot for anything musical to do with the feast of St. Michael and all angels, be that a Bach cantata (of which more than one exist for this feast day, and all of which are above average in quality, as this one is) or by any other composer come to that: here is Benjamin Britten’s take on the dramatic story of the war in heaven and the casting out of Lucifer into Hell by St. Michael:

So you get the idea from that, I hope, that the story is incredibly dramatic and full of devils, dragons, heroic deeds and bloody battles! Peter Jackson would make a meal of it (or three!), for sure.

Bach, of course, is not quite in the late twentieth century idiom, nor accords the subject the Lord of the Rings treatment to which it could be prone. Nevertheless, the opening chorus is highly dramatic and satisfying with kettle drums providing a suitably martial accompaniment. And there are trumpets! (Guaranteed to find a soft spot in my already-softened heart, I fear).

And just as Britten, in his Company of Heaven, goes on after that battle scene to consider other aspects of angels interactions with people, so does Bach: after the great war of the opening movement, the other movements become a little more reflective and introspective, as he considers their role as guardians, guides and comforters.

A particular highlight in this regard is the fifth movement: the tenor aria glides across a dotted-rhythm accompaniment as a trumpet intones the melody of a chorale, Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr (I love you warmly, Lord). It’s a striking piece, but utterly calm and charming.

The reference to Manahaim in the soprano aria may need a little elaboration: it’s a place near the Jordan river and is mentioned in the Old Testament as the place where Jacob had a vision of angels -so the relevance to a festival of all angels is hopefully now clearer! Similarly, Elijah gets a mention in the final chorale because he met his end by being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, complete with a chariot of fire and horses of fire to match. (The ‘rot’ in the German at this point is thus a reference to the red flames involved, not that Elijah’s vehicle happened to be painted a nice shade of pillar-box red!) Whilst no angels are specifically mentioned in the account of Elijah’s final parting, the general sense of gravity-defying, atmospheric-borne spirits fits the occasion.

Bach Translations and Notes are copyright © Howard Rogers 2020, All Rights Reserved