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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life)

Cantata 147

  • The visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Epistle: Isaah xi. 1-5 (A rod shall come out of Jesse)
  • Gospel: Luke i. 39-56 (Magnificat)
  • Rating: 1+

One of my less wonderful musical experiences in recent years occurred when eating at a local restaurant. As is too usual these days, there was a tape of background music being played. One of the pieces on this tape was some Gregorian Chant played with a disco backbeat. I suppose it takes all sorts to make a world. Looking on the brighter side, I have never yet heard the famous tune (Jesu joy of man's desiring) from this cantata subjected to this treatment. Of course, I have heard it subjected to a fair bit of abuse over the years (including me playing it on the flute at our local church) but somehow, like a lot of Bach's music, it seems strong enough to survive.

The famous tune is not the only good thing in this cantata. The opening chorus is very fine, with a brilliant introduction from the trumpet and bassoon followed by a vocal fugue. After the first recitative, the alto aria is slightly disappointing in that the vocal line doesn't live up to the expectation raised by the beautiful, plaintive oboe d'amore part. A more satisfying soprano aria follows the next recitative. The violin part in this aria may remind you of the d-minor prelude from Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier. The chorale that ends part I of the cantata introduces "the tune" for the first time, with the chorale melody doubled on the trumpet. Part II starts with the simple but heartfelt tenor aria Help Jesu, that I may not deny Thee. Following a further recitative in which the oboe da caccia makes an appearance (making a full house of oboe types in this cantata!), the bass gets the aria with the most oomph in the piece, for the first time with full orchestral accompaniment. The great tune returns with the chorale ,i>Jesus bleibet meine Freude which concludes the cantata.

For similar, much less well known, but thoroughly attractive treatment of a chorale melody, listen to BWV 22.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.