The third Sunday after Easter is traditionally known as “Jubilate Sunday,” because the Introit — from Psalm 66 — begins with the words Jubilate Deo, “Be joyful in God.” Joy also shows up in the Gospel reading for this day from St. John 16, part of the “farewell discourse” of Jesus, his rich and enigmatic description of (among many other things) his coming departure from the disciples. In verse 20, Jesus says to them “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote three cantatas to be sung in services on Jubilate Sunday, and in all three, he combined a recognition of the reality of weeping and sorrow that Jesus described with a hopeful affirmation of ultimate joy. But he makes it clear that the sorrow is not preempted by the certainty of joy. This is evident from the titles of the cantatas (taken from the first lines sung in each work): in English they translate as: “Weeping, wailing, fretting, fearing” (BWV 12), “You will weep and howl, but the world will rejoice” (BWV 103), and “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (BWV 146). Today, I’ll introduce you to the earliest of these three works.
Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12)
In this work, an opening instrumental Sinfonia features a plaintive oboe (supported by strings) in an ornate, meandering melody that anticipates the woeful spirit of the opening chorus.
When the voices enter for the opening chorus, they itemize the woes that are “the tearful bread of Christians who bear the sign of Jesus.” The weeping, wailing, fretting, and fearing from the cantata’s traditional title are followed by Angst und Not, “anxiety, and distress.” (You can read the text for the entire cantata here.) In these opening lines, with their slow, relentless descending patterns, one feels the sheer drudgery of sorrow.
Some listeners new to this cantata may recognize a familiar sound but may not be able to remember where they” heard it before. Years after composing this 1714 cantata, Bach used the same harmonic pattern and very similar vocal lines in the Crucifixus movement of his Mass in B minor, completed in 1749.
The foreboding opening chorus in Cantata #12 is followed by an alto recitative and aria in which we are reminded that “We must enter through much tribulation into God’s kingdom. Cross and crown are joined together, struggle and treasure are united. Christians have at all hours their anguish and their enemy, but Christ’s wounds are their consolation.” That melancholy oboe from the opening Sinfonia accompanies the alto, and we get occasional glimpses of a bright major key (the crown, the treasure). But we have to wait until the next movement for significant comfort.
That movement is a bass aria in which the believer’s identity with Christ’s suffering is gladly — not reluctantly — embraced. “I follow after Christ, I do not want to leave him. In prosperity and adversity in living and dying, I kiss Christ’s shame, I want to embrace his cross. I follow after Christ, I do not want to leave him.” Julian Mincham summarizes the spirit of this aria: “The Christian resolution is now clearly affirmative; the necessity for torment in following Him has been acknowledged and now we need to confirm that despite this, we shall follow and not lose contact with Him.”
The movement that follows is a tenor aria, the intricate vocal line accompanied by continuo and a solo trumpet playing what would have been a very familiar chorale melody, Jesu, meine Freude. Bach’s listeners (and we) are asked here to multi-task, to listen on multiple levels, first, to the confident message of the tenor soloist: “Be faithful, all pain will then be only a little thing. After the rain blessing blossoms, all bad weather passes by. Be faithful, be faithful!” And while receiving that comfort, the text to the familiar hymn on which the trumpet is riffing would be inexorably called to mind. (You can read the text to that hymn in our Hymnal at #453, “Jesus, all my gladness,” or see some additional verses that Bach’s Lutheran congregation would have had in mind here.)
The final chorale in this cantata is another familiar Lutheran hymn, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, “What God does, that is well done.” This text shows up with the same melody in at least seven of Bach’s cantatas; three of them bear the opening line as the title of the work (BWV 98, BWV 99, and BWV 100). In the present cantata, the chorale is accompanied by a bright descant line, played by violin or trumpet or both, which amplifies the spirit of the text.
Below is a recording of the entire cantata sung by Collegium Vocale, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. The soloists are Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Daniel Taylor, alto; Mark Padmore, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) composed a set of variations for solo piano based on the opening chorus of Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen. Here is a recording of Vladimir Horowitz’s performance of this engagement with Bach’s music.