J. S. Bach
Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister
(“Scatterbrained frivolous people,” BWV 181)

The Gospel reading for the Sunday known as Sexagesima is often summarized under the heading “The Parable of the Sower” (St. Luke 8:4–15). But the teaching of Jesus in this parable says very little about the Sower and quite a bit about the conditions in, on, and above the ground where the seeds were sown.

Perhaps we should think of this parable as “The Parable of the Importance of Being Receptive to the Coming of the Sower. When Jesus spoke this story — before the disciples asked for an explanation of its symbolism — he concluded with a statement that could be read either as a description or an exhortation: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” This could be taken to mean that we should strive as much as is in our power to be responsive to the coming of the Word of God.

That seems to be the spin that Johann Sebastian Bach took on this text in one of the cantatas he composed for use in services on Sexagesima. The title of the work — Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (BWV 181) — is taken from the first two words sung in the opening movement, a bass aria that declares: “Scatterbrained frivolous people rob themselves of the Word’s power.” Bach exploits all of the sonic drama implicit in the German words “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister,” a phrase that has also been translated as “frivolous fickle ones,” “careless muddled spirits,” and “frivolous flibbertigibbets.” The musical form Bach uses to convey the character of these scatterbrains borders on the bizarre. As Julian Mincham writes: “One can never quite predict the turns which this spiky, disjointed melody is likely to take. It is a perfect musical representation of the frivolous, fluttering beings of little substance or permanence who, we are told, by their very superficiality deprive themselves of the benefits to be gained from following the proclamations of God. Fluttering upper strings and descending continuo scales predominate about a vocal line which is powerful in its condemnation of such frivolities.”

The text of the soprano recitative in the fourth movement of this short cantata similarly warns: “the precious seed just lies there useless for people who are not rightly minded in good time to prepare their hearts to be good soil.”

The generally sobering character of the first four solo movements — bass, alto, tenor, and soprano soloists all have a shot at warning about being bad soil — stands in contrast to the joyous final movement, a chorus (ornamented by a festive trumpet line) which presents a closing prayer: “Grant, O most high God, to us at all times the heart’s consolation, your holy Word. Through your almighty hand you alone can prepare a good fertile soil in our hearts.”

You can read the complete text to the five movements of this cantata here.

Below is a complete performance of Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir are conducted by Ton Koopman, and the soloists are Lisa Larsson, soprano, Elisabeth von Magnus, alto, Gerd Türk, tenor, and Klaus Mertens, bass.