So many ways to listen to cantatas…

As Emmanuel Music’s Orchestra Personnel Manager, attending rehearsals when I’m not playing, Ryan often asks me “What are you hearing?”  What a question!  There’s so much to hear - balance, articulation, rhythm, phrase shaping.  Should the soloist stand in a different place? Should the bassoon play all of the time, part of the time or sit out this movement? (Is there enough viola?)

As a viola player, my ears are always pulled first to the instrumental writing, fascinated by the choices Bach makes to augment the text. In the final aria of BWV 36, he calls for a very unusual tone color, asking the solo violin to play with mute, literally bringing the words to life: “Also with muted, weak voices is God's majesty honored.” The enchanting sound wraps us in a rocking, almost lullaby, rhythm as it supports the ethereal soprano line. This movement is also the longest of the cantata, about 1/4 the length of the entire piece, but I wish it would never end!

As a literal-minded person, I was astonished to learn that in BWV 36, the music predates the words; this text is the 3rd (or maybe 4th) version of the piece.  Bach originally wrote the arias for festive occasions honoring a statesman and, later, a teacher, several years before using them as the heart of an Advent cantata.  Bach kept the exact music, amending the text to honor God, instead of the secular notables, yet somehow it sounds as if it could be no other way.

And on Sunday mornings, I love simply listening, immersed in Bach’s world, whether on the chancel or in the pews.

Joan Ellersick
Orchestra Personnel Manager, violist