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Sheep May Safely Graze, BWV 208

December 5, 2021: Paul Jacobs, organ

Bach wrote secular cantatas for aristocratic patrons to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, name days, and accession days, or for academic ceremonies. He wrote one of his most famous, Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd! (What pleases me is above all the lively hunt), BWV 208, on a text by Weimar court poet Salomo Franck for the birthday of Duke Christian Weissenfels in 1713. Known as the Hunt Cantata, it contains “Schafe können sicher weiden,” the well-known aria for Pales, second soprano to Diana, goddess of the hunt. For centuries listeners have been captivated by its texture of rocking parallel thirds for two flutes—the quintessential pastoral instrument—accompanying the tender main melody, which praises Duke Christian for ruling his people as a good shepherd.

Though the lovely aria has been transcribed for myriad instruments, arrangements for organ are particularly felicitous because organs have “flute stops,” that is, settings for pipes that will sounds specifically like flutes. The present organ arrangement is by French organist and composer André Isoir (1935–2016). Isoir studied in Paris at the École Cesar-Franck before he became a student of Roland Falcinelli at the Paris Conservatory, where he received the premier prix in both organ and improvisation in 1960. Winner of numerous international prizes, Isoir served as organist at St. Médard, St. Séverin, and the Abbatial Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris from 1973 onward. He became especially known for his Bach performances.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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