The Magic of the Bach Cantata Arias

By Koji Otsuki on November 18, 2013

The last time PCMS presented a concert dedicated to Bach’s vocal works was in 2005. I am excited that, after a long hiatus, PCMS presents a program of Bach cantata arias this Tuesday, November 19th at the American Philosophical Society. In the past, PCMS has brought you programs that included complete cantatas by J.S. Bach, but this particular program is unique, with 14 movements from 11 different church cantatas–each of them representing distinct affect, style and character. Unlike some of Bach’s works that are performed fairly regularly in Philadelphia, such as the Brandenburg Concertos, cantatas are still largely unknown. But what they contain is absolute gems of vocal chamber music that, in many ways, define what makes Bach so special. In our Tuesday concert, the musicians bring you the gems, all polished and sparkling, for you to savor. They are enjoying the rehearsal process tremendously and, because of their love for Bach, they don't want to stop rehearsing…even during the breaks! If you are a lucky ticket holder (the concert is sold out), I am pretty sure that you will see and hear their love and respect for Bach throughout the program.

There are so many different styles, characters and instrumentations involved in Bach cantatas arias, and this program with 14 cantata movements is indeed a very small sample. However, some of them are quite unique.  Let me briefly introduce one of them. The duet Händen, die sich nicht verschlieíŸen from BWV 164 Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet calls for all treble instruments in the ensemble, namely two flutes, two oboes and all violins, to play the same line in unison (in our concert, we have three solo players playing the line in unison). This texture is quite rare.  We do see, for instance, duets with all violins playing the same obbligato line in unison (ex. Christe eleison from B-minor Mass), but how about all upper strings AND upper winds in unison? The more common texture would be concertante exchanges between different instruments/parts, but here Bach won't allow it. Those treble instruments play every note in unison in the canonic frames. This cantata is for the 13th Sunday after Trinity, and the church service this cantata was intended for also included the reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:23-37). The previous movement to this duet, a recitative, is about awakening to the conscience of loving one's neighbor as oneself; here the tenor asks that true Christian love may be cultivated daily so that his neighbor’s ("Friend or foe, Christian or heathen") distress would be felt like his own. Then, this duet starts in this texture, forcing all instrumentalists in the ensemble except the violas (needed for other movements) to play selflessly and carefully listening to each other.

Another type of Bach cantata arias we have in the program is the continuo aria. The arias of this type do not have the obbligato parts; the basso continuo supplies both the necessary melody lines and the bass accompaniment. What we get from Bach arias of this type is the simplicity and intricacy of the counterpoint on the sound level, and extremely pure presentation of the message on the introspective level. It is the magic of Bach. We have two pieces of those in the program; BWV 80/4 aria and BWV 116/4 terzetto (concert finale). In both cases the continuo part (cello and organ) introduces the base melodic materials first, but as the singers continue on, the continuo later borrows those new melodies from the vocal parts to juxtapose and connect contrasting words or ideas with the singers. It is like a form of dialectic embodied in music. If you get to follow the text as you listen to the music carefully, you will realize that the instrumental parts are never just accompaniment. They carry their own significance to deliver. When the music does not sound like it is in full accordance with the text, that's why. And as you try to think how the music and the text are put together, you get more awe-stricken. Bach can touch us via both reason and affect, in amazing synergy.

Koji Otsuki serves as PCMS's "Bach Adviser" and as Librarian for Marlboro Music. Founding director of the Tokyo-based Gamut Bach Ensembles, he is also a performer and conductor specializing in historically informed performances of Bach's music. He can be reached at