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On-line Book Review


TITLE Handbook to Bach's Sacred Cantata Texts: An Interlinear Translation with Reference Guide to Biblical Quotations and Allusions by Melvin P. Unger.
PUBL. DETAILS Lanham, Md. & London: Scarecrow Press, Inc. (1996), xvi+ 776p. Hardback. US$95
ISBN 0-8108-2979-7
TO ORDER Scarecrow Press, Inc. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 15200 NBN Way, Bldg. B, Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17214, USA
DESCRIPTION A comprehensive reference book containing both word-for-word English translation of Bach's sacred cantata text and the quotations + allusions from the passages in the bible; comprehensive indices
WORKS COVERED BWV 1-200, 248-9; the works no longer considered as Bach's original (i.e. BWV 15, 53, 141-2, 160 and 189) are not discussed, however.
READERSHIP Serious scholars, students as well as listeners who feel the need of fuller historical and liturgical background of Bach's cantata text; word-for-word translation of cantata text.
Unique and very significant publication for the study of Bach's cantata text.

I for one believe that we cannot appreciate Bach’s sacred cantatas fully without having sound understanding of the context in which they were written. I know some people disagree with this view; they claim they can enjoy them purely ‘musically’ in the same way as they listen to his instrumental music. But I believe the time will come when they want to know more about them, deeper meanings immanent in all his cantatas.

Today we know when Bach wrote and performed his cantatas, thanks particularly to the ground-breaking research of Alfred Dürr and Georg von Dadelsen, who established a firm basis on which we now date them. Many more efforts were also put into further research attempting to re-establish the historical and liturgical contexts in which Bach’s works were composed and performed. Through their work, we also come to learn that Bach’s sacred cantatas had their roles in Lutheran liturgical setting. Each cantata was a “musical sermon”, transmitting theological messages to the listeners during the church service. So cantata in itself was a medium to proclaim the Gospel, and from this approach, one can perhaps imagine how carefully the cantata texts were prepared.

Bach's cantata texts contain numerous allusions to the passages in the bible, which proliferates further meanings in listener’s mind. Unfortunately, they are not always clear to most of us today for various reasons; we do not know, for example, the relative popularity of specific allusions in Bach’s time; not all allusions are identifiable any way.

Hence Unger produced this comprehensive handbook for us; it tells us what quotations and allusions there are in every cantata movement, so that we may be able to judge for ourselves how they can interact with music. He provides no further editorial explanations of connections or relationships, as it seems obvious that there is no way to find a definitive answer, as it must surely have been the case in an eighteenth-century setting; so it is up to the individual to make up his or her mind to contemplate what the text could be alluding.
The data was presented neatly and systematically, using two-column layout throughout: on the left is cantata text (original text in German with its English translation); on the right is the alluded passages taken from the bible. Bold and italics are used to distinguish the types of text, i.e. attribute for chorale text and text from bible respectively, which are separated from the free passages in normal typeface. 
a large reference book measuring c.14x11 inches
In order to follow Unger’s highly compact system, one has to read and understand his three-page “explanatory notes” thoroughly, which is actually quite straightforward. For each cantata movement, the author provides a one-line caption, summarising the literary theme: an innovative idea. There is an alphabetical index at the back, which is also very useful.

His German translation is unique: it is “word for word” translation. Two kinds of brackets, { } and ( ), are used to separate the supplemented text from the verbatim translation, viz. clarifying the meaning and grammatical structure respectively. This enables you to follow Bach's text word by word.

Cantatas are arranged in BWV order, and so it is very easy to find the piece you are after. The volume also includes a set of nine indices as follows:

  1. alphabetical index of movement summaries
  2. alphabetical index of chorale stanzas
  3. index of chorale stanzas appearing more than once
  4. index of scriptural quotations and strict paraphrases
  5. alphabetical index of librettists
  6. index of first performance dates
  7. index of cantatas in chronological order
  8. index of cantatas in liturgical order
  9. alphabetical index of cantatas with chronological order numbers
Although we will never know to what extent we are sharing the same understanding of the messages through Bach’s cantata performance as those audience sat on a pew in Thomaskirche or Nicolaikirche, we now have a very useful guide with which we can start contemplating.
Published online on 29 March 2000

There is another book that deals with the issue of biblical quotation and allusion issued by the same publisher: Ulrich Meyer, Biblical Quotation and Allusion in the Cantata Libretti of Johann Sebastian Bach (1997), which was not received in time for this review. I shall update this review in due course.
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