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The Feast of Michael the Archangel, celebrated September 29, commemorates the archangel’s victory over the dragon, Satan, as described in Revelation 12:7-12, the reading for that day. St. Michael is therefore seen as a defender of holiness in a martial sense, a defender by the sword from the Evil One. Thus his feast takes on an equally martial character, picked up by Bach in all four of his cantatas for the feast; each of them, for example, is scored for an exceptional three trumpets in addition to other obbligato instruments.
The opening concert of the Bach Akademie featured Bach’s earliest cantata for the feast, first performed in 1724; his second, Es erhub sich ein Streit, BWV19, was composed and performed two years later, after Bach had finished his first two years writing complete cycles of new cantatas for each Sunday and feast day. The libretto is drawn from a poem on the subject by Christian Friedrich Henrici, better known as Picander.
Picander lived and worked in Leipzig as a poet and bureaucrat, having studied law in Wittenberg and Leipzig; he gained prominence writing erotic and satirical poetry, but sought to regain favor with a series of devotional poems published between December 1724 and 1725. The libretto for Es erhub sich ein Streit is based on a poem from this collection; whether Picander, Bach himself, or someone else did the editing is unclear. Still, this marked the early stages of what would become a long and fruitful relationship. Picander wrote poetry for a number of Bach’s vocal works, including the St. Matthew Passion and the lost St. Mark Passion, the latter being set to fit preexisting music. Picander’s first wife even served as a godmother to Bach’s daughter Joanna, reflecting what must have developed into a personal connection as well. Despite what it would become, however, the details of their relationship remains unclear at this early point in Bach’s tenure in Leipzig; moreover, Bach almost certainly had distinct (albeit anonymous) sources for his first two complete cantata cycles that ran from 1723 to 1725.
Es erhub is striking from the downbeat: the singers enter on the first beat of the cantata, forgoing the typical instrumental ritornello and introducing an immediacy and intensity to what is already one of the most virtuosic and elaborate choruses of his entire cantata output. Apart from the Mass in B minor, it is difficult to name another work in which the voices begin with the instruments from the very beginning. This dramatic opening chorus depicts the battle between Michael and the dragon, in an extended da capo form—Michael’s victory receiving a moment of rhythmic stasis and homophonic declamation.
The joyous aria that follows, for soprano and two oboes d’amore, sets a strophic text celebrating the protection of God’s angels (Mahanaim means “two hosts,” and is given as the site at which Jacob saw God’s hosts of angels in the book of Genesis). The recitative/aria pair that follows turns inward to the individual believer. In characteristic Lutheran fashion, God’s mercy is measured by the sinfulness of the individual Christian: “Ein Wurm, ein armer Sünder./Schaut, wie ihn selbst der Herr so lieb gewinnt” (“A worm, a wretched sinner. See how even he is so loved by the Lord”). The aria requests the intimate protection of angels, invoking the Sanctus—the heavenly praises sung by the angels, revealed to Isaiah (6:3) and integrated into the liturgy as early as the second century A.D. Atop the tenor plea, a solo trumpet plays the chorale melody Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr; as Alfred Dürr points out, the third verse would likely have occurred to Bach’s listeners here: “Ah Lord, at the end of my life let your dear angel carry my soul into Abraham’s bosom.” A secco recitative recognizes the “heavenly chariot” of the angels, referring to Elijah’s ascent into heaven that is mentioned explicitly in the plain four-part chorale that follows and ends the cantata—a chorale that is adorned by trumpets and woodwinds in independent descants.
Vocal Fellows join the BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir and NCBO under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett. – Brett Kostrzewski