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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Non sa che sia dolore (He knows not the meaning of sorrow)

Cantata 209

  • Secular cantata for an unknown occasion.
  • Rating: 1+

Very little is known about the Italian cantata Non sa che sia dolore: date, purpose, author of the text and much else remain obscured from us. Some have doubted whether the cantata is by Bach at all and others have speculated, given the quality of some of the music, whether this is a pastiche, knitted together by hand unknown from bits and pieces by various composers. The sources of parts of the text have been identified: the opening line is from Guarini's Il pastor fido and most of the final aria is ripped out of a piece by Metastasio. It has often been remarked that the text is a jumble of Germanicised Italian but a quick reading of a translation suggests strongly that it was composed or compiled for the departure of a dear friend. Bach's pupil Lorenz Mizler has been suggested as a possibility.

Having raised doubts about the authorship of the work, it's important to redress the balance by saying that whoever composed it was highly talented because it really is a very attractive work indeed. The cantata is for solo soprano with orchestral accompaniment that strongly features obbligato flute and the work gives ample opportunity for both the vocal and the instrumental soloist to shine!

The work opens with a very fine and quite lengthy sinfonia that conceivably might be a movement from a lost flute concerto. Indeed the ubiquity of the flute throughout suggests that other movements may have been pressed into use, parodied for this work. The remainder of the cantata is made up of two fine, if a trifle lengthy, arias separated by recitative. The text and music of the first is sad and wistful, that of the second at odds: miserable text with upbeat music, reinforcing the suggestion of parody.

Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.

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