Melissa Jean Chávez, Soprano (Photo: Dan Rader)

Online Conversation Concert: Bach’s Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn

(Prepare the Highway of the Lord)

Introduction

In December 1715 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was serving the court of Weimar as Concertmaster and Court Organist. The position involved not only leading the orchestra in rehearsals and performances from both the 1st violin desk and the keyboard, but composing and performing cantatas for the church services of the palace chapel, the Himmelsburg.

It is this second duty that led to the creation of “Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!” Written for and performed on the 4th Sunday of Advent, 1715, the cantata is notable due to the absence of a chorus. One possible explanation (though this is sheer speculation) is that the small ensemble Bach led was, no doubt, busy preparing for the court’s Christmas celebrations and liturgies, and would have preferred not to have any more musical assignments on its plate than they already had.

Another possible explanation for Bach’s decision to set the text for individual singers may be traced to the libretto. Bach received the text in the form of a new book of cantata librettos by Salomo Franck, an official in the Weimar court and author of several Bach cantata texts. Frank took the Gospel reading of the day’s worship service, John 1:19 – 28 (the witness of John the Baptizer) and created a text filled with scriptural references from both the Old and New Testaments, a libretto of deep personal introspection and confession.

Perhaps this perspective is what inspired Bach to set the texts for soloists, assigning the traditional, German oratorio (biblical music) roles to each voice part. In order of their appearance:

  • The soprano – appears as the announcing angel with a clear reference (through paraphrase) to Isaiah 40:3 – 4 in the opening aria.
  • The tenor – appears in the role of evangelist, references both the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9) and the Resurrection (Isaiah 40:3 and Mark 16:4) with its call to “roll the heavy stones of sin away.”
  • The bass – appears in its traditional role as prophet; takes the Priest’s and Levite’s interrogation of John the Baptizer from the Gospel reading for the day (John 1:19 ff), and makes it into a direct questioning of the individual believer.
  • Finally, the contralto – appears as that individual believer who finds redemption in the sacrament of confession (Psalms 32: 5 and Matthew 15:8) and reminds the community of believers of the gifts given through the sacrament of baptism (Revelation 18:12 ff).

Bach certainly did not invent these roles for these voice types (think of Handel’s Messiah, for example), but he would revisit the notion of these roles in significant and highly developed ways for his Passions and Oratorio settings of the Leipzig years.