Sinfonia from Cantata 29
December 5, 2021: Paul Jacobs, organ
As the busiest and most important musician in one of the most active music centers in Germany in the 1730s and ’40s, how did Bach find time to meet all of his obligations? He had arrived in Leipzig in 1723 to take up the position of Kantor of the renowned Thomasschule, which meant that, in addition to overseeing music at the four major churches, he held the post of civic music director. As if that weren’t enough, he took on the music directorship of the University of Leipzig and, from 1729 until the early 1740s (with a short interruption from 1737 to 1739), he directed the Collegium Musicum, which presented weekly public concerts. The duties associated with all of these positions included composing music for all the principal Sunday services, church feasts, and occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and city events; training all the singers at the Thomasschule to staff the four choirs; and training instrumentalists who ranged from students at the Thomasschule and the University to the city’s professional musicians.
Like many an enterprising composer before and after him, Bach borrowed from materials he had composed earlier to meet the constant demand. Just as his cantatas provided a rich source for instrumental works, the cantatas themselves also borrowed from each other and from other genres. In the case of the Sinfonia from Cantata 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir” (We thank you, God, we thank you), Bach needed to compose a celebratory cantata for the inauguration of the Leipzig town council on August 27, 1731. So, he borrowed from the Sinfonia that opens Part 2 of his Cantata 120a, “Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge” (Lord God, ruler of all things), which he had written for a wedding, most likely in 1729. (That cantata survives in incomplete state, but has been reconstructed with help from the sources of its borrowed material.) For that wedding cantata, Bach had taken the unusual step of fashioning the Sinfonia for the massive forces of organ and orchestra out of a movement for unaccompanied violin—the Preludio of his E major Partita, which dates from 1720 when he was in Cöthen. As often with his borrowings, he used a different key, in this case D major, which he maintained for the 1731 cantata.
The Partita movement’s merry perpetual motion made its reuse entirely fitting for these festive occasions and has contributed to the piece’s remarkable popularity. Numerous arrangers have seized on the Preludio/Sinfonia to adapt it for various instruments and instrumental combinations. Organ transcriptions work particularly well, since Bach himself already paved the way. Out of many, Paul Jacobs has chosen that by the great French organist and composer Marcel Dupré, known especially for his virtuoso, symphonic organ music and for his prodigious technique, improvisation skills, and memory—and, as a fitting sidebar to this 335th Bach anniversary celebration, Dupré is credited as the first to perform Bach’s entire organ works in a series of concerts given at the Paris Conservatoire in 1920.
© Jane Vial Jaffe