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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd! (The lively hunt is all my hearts desire)

Cantata 208

  • Birthday of Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weissenfels, 1713.
  • Rating: 1+

One of the best loved of Bach's secular cantatas, the Hunt Cantata is a rather unlikely celebration of the hunt and of Duke Christian's greatness by a bunch of Gods and Goddesses. Diana opens the work with a recitative and aria praising the hunt: "Get out of my way feckless nymphs!". Endymion joins in bemoaning Diana's obsession with the hunt: "Have you forgotten our loving vows merely to follow the hunt?". These two sort their problems out in a recitative where Diana points out that they've got to get their stuff together to celebrate Duke Christian's birthday festival. As Anna Russell used to say of Wagner's Ring, "I'm not making any of this up, you know". Pan, the God of flocks and shepherds, then joins in praising Duke Christian, and in his fine aria says that "A prince is the Pan of his land". Liberal democracy this was not. Up until now, the arias have been pleasant without being particularly memorable, but Pan's aria signifies a change of gear. A pair of oboes and an oboe da caccia provide a mesmeric hook to accompany the singer. This movement was later parodied in the sacred cantata BWV 68. Pales, the Goddess of crops and pastures, then steps up with a laudatory recitative that leads into one of the most famous of all Bach's arias, Schafe können sicher weiden, or Sheep may safely graze as English speakers know it. This gorgeous piece is not an agricultural panegyric but rather a celebration of benevolent despotism. Lovely. That's really the end of the story, so there's no more explanatory recitative, but this doesn't stop the assembled company warbling on about the Duke. In case you'd forgotten that this was Bach, there's a choral fugue with instrunental ritornello in which each voice offers the Duke felicitations. Diana and Endymion offer a jolly duet and then Pales returns with a delightful aria that later became the basis of Mein gläubiges Herze in cantata BWV 68. Then an oddity: an instrumental ritornello, separately classified as BWV 1040. Another aria for Pan follows and the final chorus (later parodied in the sacred cantata BWV 149 and in the lost cantata BWV Anh. I 193) brings things to a glorious conclusion.

It has been argued (and counter-argued) that the first movement of the early form of the first Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1046a originally provided an introduction to this cantata. The key is right and such an introduction would have been standard practice, so the argument goes. This means that some performances that you hear of this work may start with a surprise! Indeed, Goodman's recording on Hyperion CDA 66169 puts this on the front and adds the minuet of BWV 1046a at the end as Tafelmusik, arguing that this would have been common practice too.

BWV 208 was later to provide the parody model for another birthday cantata BWV 208a but the music for the latter is lost. It's thought that the cantata was a simple reworking (to a slightly changed text) of BWV 208. For more details, see the critical commentary of NBA I/37.

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.