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BWV 181 ‘Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister’

Sun 14 Mar, 10.00am

J.S. Bach - BWV 181, Full cantata stream, Online

Available to stream from 10am on Sunday 14 March

For this edition of ‘Cantata of the Week’ we are streaming BWV 181 ‘Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister’ (‘Frivolous flibbertigibbets’). Since Bach did not compose cantatas for the fourth Sunday in Lent, we have chosen to stream this cantata, composed in 1724 for Sexagesima Sunday.

Click here to download the vocal score of the cantata.

Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner - conductor

Angharad Gruffydd Jones soprano
Robin Tyson alto
James Gilchrist tenor
Stephan Loges bass

This live recording is from the MCO’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, recorded at Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, in February 2000. It features on Vol. 20 of our Complete Bach Cantata series, which is available to purchase from the MCO shop by clicking here.

English translation by Richard Stokes from ‘J. S. Bach: The Complete Cantatas’ (1999, Scarecrow Press)

Commentary on BWV 181 by John Eliot Gardiner

Richard Stokes translates Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister as ‘frivolous flibbertigibbets’, those superficial, fickle people who, like the fowls of the air referred to in the parable of the sower, devour the seed that ‘fell by the wayside’, prey to the devil who ‘taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved’. You can but marvel at the way Bach evokes the graphic details of the parable: a fragmented melodic line peppered with trills, the light, staccato articulation in vivace tempo, and an upper instrumentation of flute, oboe and violin, redolent of Rameau on the one hand and on the other of the galant style that became fashionable with Bach’s sons’ generation. All of this suggests the nervous, jerky movements of the avian seed-stealers, vying in their greed for the fallen grain.

This is one of the relatively few cantatas of which the original (and anonymous) libretto has survived, and it is obvious from this, as Malcolm Boyd points out, that it was Bach and not his poet who was responsible for the aria’s unusual, possibly unique, structure: in technical terms what sets out to be an adapted da capo of the first section loses its way after only four bars and is transformed into a modified repeat of the B section. Back comes ‘Belial mit seinen Kindern’ in place of the expected opening words and associated theme. Perhaps Bach couldn’t resist another chance to depict this Miltonic Prince of Darkness, demon of lies and guilt, and to ram home the point that it is Belial, a fallen angel, who effectively torpedoes God’s initiative of making the Word be ‘of service’. It is also his way of underlining that the devouring fowls are now identified with Satan and his cronies. This is a witty, Hitchcockian evocation, irresistible in its imagery and skill in word setting. It could almost serve as a soundtrack to a cartoon film: a gaggle of flighty, giggly teenage girls being bounced out of a nightclub by Belial and his henchmen. Surely even Bach’s easily distracted Sunday congregation, impatient for the sermon to begin, must have sat up when they heard this.

The alto recitative (No.2) points the moral: the seed that falls on stony ground is likened to the hard-hearted unbelievers who die and are dispatched below to await Christ’s last word, the time when the doors will be burst apart and the graves opened. This arioso section bears more than a passing resemblance to the famous trio in Acis and Galatea, ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains’. It ends with a deliciously playful descent by the continuo to describe the ease (‘Look, no hands!’) with which the angel rolled back Christ’s tombstone, and the rhetorical question ‘Would you, O heart, be harder still?’ The obbligato part is missing for the ensuing tenor aria (No.3), and in answer to my request Robert Levin characteristically provided not one but three convincing reconstructions of the solo fiddle part. He found brilliant ways for the violin to complement and contrast with the voice, comparing the thorns that choke a growing plant to the cares and worldly desires that threaten the Christian life. As Bach noted in his copy of Calov’s Bible commentary, ‘For what is this world but a large thicket of thorns that we must tear ourselves through!’

An unremarkable soprano recitative (No.4) turns from the wasted seeds to those that fell on fertile ground, and God’s Word that prepares fruitful soil in the heart of the believer is celebrated in the final movement for all the forces: choir, including a soprano/alto duet in the B section, flute, oboe, strings and, for the first time in the cantata, a trumpet. Despite this festive instrumentation the vocal writing has a madrigalian lightness and delicacy perfectly appropriate to the joyous message of the parable and of the cantata as a whole.