John Harbison

The text of BWV 101, Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, has its origins in a song from the plague years of 1580 (a hymn by Martin Moller, 1584). The cantata is haunted by threats from all sides, partially subsiding in the final duet.

The agitated continuity of BWV 101 suggested looking for an analogous poetic source for a brief Prelude to precede that cantata.  In 1961 I was studying in Berlin.  This was the year the German government released full details of its post-WWII history.  These revelations were especially distressing to my student colleagues.  During that time, I first encountered the poetry of Paul Celan, which—then and now—captures the tensions and ambiguities of those times.  

“Fadensonnen,” from 1962, suggests, in moving from “grauschwarzen Ödnis” to “Lieder jenseits der Menschen,” some of the issues in the cantata. It deliberately does not lead “directly there,” there is a purposeful step missing. The fact that it becomes a sort of abruption is appropriate to what ensues: the opening chorus of BWV 101 is inhabited by a relentless rhythmic fragment, which may be a representation of the burden which the choir begs to be taken away.  

First performance: October 1, 2023.  Emmanuel Music Chorus, Ryan Turner, conductor.  Emmanuel Church, Boston MA.

©John Harbison

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