The plight of Haiti’s earthquake survivors cannot fail to resonate both with today’s cantata text and the Gospel from Luke heard earlier which quotes Jesus’ good news to the poor and disenfranchised. BWV 75 (like BWV 39 Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, heard in November) is concerned with the need to take care of the poor, engaging the Lutheran reading of the day (Lazarus and the rich man) only peripherally.
BWV 75, Die Elenden sollen Essen the first cantata of Bach’s Leipzig tenure, overflows with invention. Critics and musicians have noted its somewhat unruly proportions, citing the truncated opening chorus and sprawling tenor aria, but it is filled with superb arias, engaged recitatives and very colorful orchestra writing; the cumulative dramatic effect of the piece is thrilling.
The opening chorus begins like an accompanied recitative, the solo oboe’s lonely figuration accompanied by imposing string interjections. The chorus enters one voice at a time in wailing chromaticism on the word ‘wretched’. The choral fugue that follows ends earlier than expected, plunging us almost without break into the bass recitative. The gracious tenor aria suggests that the riches so disparaged in the recitative are best replaced by commitment to Christ. The soprano aria achieves a kind of exquisite melancholy: the harmonic language, seemingly at odds with the dance rhythms, becomes a perfect expression of ‘taking on pain with joy’. The first part of the cantata ends with a chorale fantasy, with wonderful asymmetric entrances of both chorale tune and orchestra ritornelli.
Part two (in Bach’s time, after the sermon) begins with a brilliant chorale fantasy. The inner voices take on an unusually vital role. Here the chorale tune is solidly rendered by a horn. The extraordinary alto recitative and aria that follow, again show Bach’s unfailing gift for showing duality in human expression: the acceptance of Jesus’ spiritual riches in the face of worldly poverty. The cantata then takes on a more extroverted character: a bass aria with trumpet and strings - the triplets in the instruments describing the healing, sweet flames of Jesus. An affirmative tenor recitative leads us into a repetition of the chorale fantasy that closed part one.
BWV 75 is one of the longest and grandest of all of the cantatas. It and its companion piece BWV 76 (performed next week) were the first two pieces written after Bach appointment to be Cantor at Leipzig. The opening chorus is in two parts: a slow, halting section illustrating the plight of the hungry and a quicker, but still expressive fugue begun by four soloists and then taken up by the chorus. The themes of helping the poor and the evil of pride and selfishness are taken up in the bass recitative and further elaborated upon in the lovely lyrical tenor aria with oboe and strings. The other theme, the Bible reading that we must suffer for an eternity for our sins, is proclaimed by the tenor in the following recitative. The soprano takes a lovely, childlike point of view in the aria with oboe d'amore solo. After a recitative the chorus sings a beautiful, elaborated version of the chorale "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan." That chorale then appears played by a high trumpet in the sinfonia that starts the second part of our cantata. The alto aria is melancholy and insistent, a new mood in this cantata. The bass brings back a positive note with both the recitative and the bravura aria with trumpet and strings. Another tenor recitative ushers in the second performance of the elaborated chorale "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan."