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Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/10 posted by hidden europe on

March 1714 was a good month for Johann Sebastian Bach. On the second of the month, he was promoted to the plum job of Konzertmeister at the Weimar court. This was quite an achievement for a man who was only 28 years old. The terms of the new appointment required that each month Bach should present a new cantata in the Schlosskirche (Palace Church) at Weimar, and the first of those performances was scheduled for 25 March - 300 years ago today.

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Dear fellow travellers

March 1714 was a good month for Johann Sebastian Bach. On the second of the month, he was promoted to the plum job of Konzertmeister at the Weimar court. This was quite an achievement for a man who was only 28 years old. The terms of the new appointment required that each month Bach should present a new cantata in the Schlosskirche (Palace Church) at Weimar, and the first of those performances was scheduled for 25 March - 300 years ago today. In 1714, that was Palm Sunday.

Bach pulled out all the stops to make his debut show in the Palace Church especially memorable. But there were other calls on the composer's time in March 1714. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel was born on the eighth of the month. But one assumes that the parental burden fell principally on Bach's wife Maria, for Johann Sebastian was preoccupied with completing the score of Himmelskönig, sei willkommen. It is a piece written very much for the Palace Church in which the cantata was first performed. It has over the years become one of the most celebrated of all Bach cantatas. Today it stands at what Stravinsky called "the centre of our European repertoire."

Bach knew that, at the Palm Sunday service in the Palace Church on 25 March, the minds of the Weimar Court would be on more than Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. They would be looking for reassurance that they had picked the right man for the job of Konzertmeister. By all accounts, they were not displeased. Bach's ebullient Palm Sunday cantata hit all the right notes.

Three hundred years on, we are today celebrating not Palm Sunday but the Feast of the Annunciation. In the western ecclesiastical tradition, when Palm Sunday falls on 25 March, as it did in 1714, the formal celebration of the Solemnity of the Annunciation gets bumped to the Monday after the Octave of Easter. They handle these things differently in the Orthodox calendar, where the great Holy Days of the Church can be superimposed upon one another. It can, exceptionally, create the liturgical paradox of Good Friday being celebrated on the same day as the Annunciation. There is a certain economy in anticipating Christ's birth and marking his Crucifixion at the same time.

For artists and poets, the curiosity of having great feasts coincide is immensely appealing. John Donne makes much of the abridgement of Christ's story in his poem The Annunciation, in which he reflects on the peculiarity of Good Friday falling on 25 March. Donne reminds us how the Ave of the Archangel Gabriel is conjoined with the Consummatum est of Calvary.

Bach, equally, exploited a nice juxtaposition of dates in his Palm Sunday cantata in 1714. The words, written by Salomon Franck, are well-tuned to the Annunciation, particularly in the chorus that makes up the Second Movement. By the tenth anniversary of the cantata's first performance in Weimar, Bach was working in Leipzig. And on 25 March 1724, he rolled out Himmelskönig, sei willkommen: but this time in honour of the Feast of the Annunciation.

Nowdays, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen still carries dual associations. Bach's cantata accompanies Palm Sunday liturgies, but also those for the Annunciation. And on those rare occasions when the two feasts coincide, it's surely sung with twice as much passion.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

If you get as excited about these things as we do, then make a note of 25 March 2016, for in the Western ecclesiastical calendar that is Good Friday. 

Posted in Seasons
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.