The story of St. Michael’s struggle with Satan, as related in Revelation, has always been associated with the plague and the battles of mankind against disease. As early as the fourth century Michael had been called upon to save Roman citizens from the plague. Particularly in plague-ridden Italy this story and the birthday of St Michael (Sept 29) have been prominently celebrated. In Leipzig Michaelmass was always celebrated by Bach with the largest available orchestra and great grandeur. All of the complete Michaelmass cantatas call for trumpets and drums in addition to the usual winds and strings. Our cantata today is from the third Leipzig cycle. The telling of the battle in heaven begins immediately with no orchestral introduction. The vaulting high-energy fugue theme is the perfect illustration of the heroic struggle. In the B section the trumpets continue to thunder but the chorus assumes a shouting homophonic texture.The militaristic reading from Revelation has for some reason always been paired with the gentle Gospel reading from Matthew about valuing the lives of children. Certainly there is something childlike about the story of Michael, but also it teaches us to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

After a bass recitative that describes Michael’s victory, the gentle soprano aria with two oboes d’amore refers to Mahanaim, the place where Jacob first met the angels and from then on associated as the place where angels gather on earth.As great as the music in this cantata is up to this point, and it is one of the best in the whole canon, nothing prepares us for the breathtaking beauty and sadness of the heartbreaking tenor aria. Here the tenor begs the angels to stay. The form is the baroque dance, the siciliano. Bach, and particularly Handel, wrote many great siciliani but this is the mightiest and most personal of all. Over the gentle haunting melody, the trumpet intones one of the greatest chorales, “Herzlich lieb.” Careful reading of the implied text of the third verse, which is the one that Bach obviously wants his congregation to hear in their heads, shows how precisely the character and emotional weight of the aria is determined by this unsung text. Bach wrote many works about angels, but never before or since did he achieve this level of profundity. After a soprano recitative Bach closes with a grand setting of “Freu dich sehr” using again the trumpets from the first movement.

©Craig Smith

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